The Exploding Plastic Inevitable is Andy Warhol’s multi-screen multimedia environment and the most advanced of his multi-screen works. Warhol, although primarily known as a painter, was also a sculptor, a graphic artist, a filmmaker, a music producer, an author, and a publisher. The scope of his creative activity was extraordinary – and it touched upon the entire range of the era’s popular culture.
Warhol’s understanding and use of media was far more advanced than that of any artist of his time. He also showed a very astute understanding of the emerging postmodern culture at a very early stage in its development. He manifested this most clearly in the creation of his multi-screen multi-media environment, The Exploding Plastic Inevitable.
In April, 1966, Warhol rented a Polish community club on St. Mark’s Place in the East Village, known as the Dom… to present mixed-media happenings called The Exploding Plastic Inevitable. These events represent Warhol’s epiphanic moment, and remain his greatest work, however difficult it may be for us to sense their flavor today… No one in avant-garde circles or in popular rock spectacles with light shows had combined so many elements with such synesthetic effects before. (Mark Francis, Founding Director and Chief Curator, The Warhol Museum)
The Exploding Plastic Inevitable, generated during the 1960’s, has often been cited as the pioneering multimedia experience. Audiences were bombarded with floor to ceiling projections of Warhol’s films such as Vinyl. At center stage, the Velvet underground were transported with Warhol-directed lighting effects. Images filled the show that were [as] disturbing and abrasive as Lou Reed’s songs. Collaboration between artists and musicians had never before, or since, proved so influential, despite its short life span. (Kate Butlers, critic)
It was in April 1966 that the first manifestation of The Exploding Plastic Inevitable took place at the ‘Dom’ in New York City. It attracted many people and a great deal of publicity and media. The filmmaker Barbara Rubin and poet Allen Ginsberg were among the personalities participating. Well-known news anchorman Walter Cronkite came by to see what was happening, as did Jackie Kennedy and much of New York’s society. It became a major cultural happening as news crews reported on the scene.
This is how Warhol described the scene at the time:
I’d usually watch from the balcony or take my turn at the projectors, slipping different colored gelatin slides over the lenses and turning movies like Harlot, The Shoplifter, Couch, Banana, Blow Job, Sleep, Empire, Kiss, Whips, Face, Camp, Eat, into all different colors. Stephen Shore and Little Joey and… Danny Williams would take turns operating the spotlights while Gerard (Malanga) and Ronnie (Tavel) and Ingrid (Superstar) and Mary Might (Woronov) danced sadomasochistic style with the whips and flashlights and the Velvets played and the different colored hypnotic dot patterns swirled and bounced off the walls and the strobes flashed and you could close your eyes and hear cymbals and boots stomping and whips cracking and tambourines sounding like chains rattling.
After the success of the EPI in New York, Warhol arranged for the music group, Velvet Underground and Nico, to cut their first album. Warhol approached Norman Dolph, who worked at Columbia Records. It was agreed that Dolph would arrange studio time and tape with the understanding that Dolph would give the tapes to Warhol in exchange for a Warhol painting. The recordings were made at Sceptor Records Studio in what later was to become Studio 54 in New York. Warhol said of this time: ‘We all knew something revolutionary was happening. We just felt it. Things could not look this strange and new without some barrier being broken’.
The Exploding Plastic Inevitable then went on tour across the USA to the West Coast, with performances in Los Angeles and San Francisco. The tour returned to Chicago in June 1966 and it was there that photographer and filmmaker Ronald Nameth made extensive film recordings of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable every night during a one week period. These are now the most comprehensive colour recordings of Warhol’s EPI. Nameth photographed in both colour and black–and-white film during the week of performances by Warhol’s troupe, twice each evening.
In his book Expanded Cinema Gene Youngblood has described Nameth’s imagery as follows:
The most striking aspect of Nameth’s work is his use of the freeze-frame to generate a sense of timelessness. Stop-motion is literally the death of the image: we are instantly cut off from the illusion of cinematic life – the immediacy of motion – and the image suddenly is relegated to the motionless past, leaving in its place a pervading aura of melancholy. Chris Marker’s La Jetée, Peter Goldman’s Echoes of Silence, and Trauffaut’s 400 Blows are memorable for the kind of stop-frame work that Nameth raises to quintessential beauty. The final shots of Gerard Malanga tossing his head in slow motion and freezing in several positions create a ghostlike atmosphere, a timeless and ethereal mood that lingers and haunts long after the images fade. Nameth does to cinema what the Beatles do with music: his film is dense, compact, yet somehow fluid and light. It is extremely heavy, extremely fast, yet airy and poetic, a mosaic, a tapestry, a mandala that sucks you into its whirling maelstrom. (1970: 105)
It is this film material that has been utilized to create the comprehensive multiple screen environments for exhibitions and the graphic prints of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. The resulting film is composed of multiple levels of superimposed imagery, at times five layers deep. The film works extensively with the experience of time through its changing rhythms of motion. This film material is now the only extensive recorded document of the EPI.
The Exploding Plastic Inevitable remains as the strongest and most developed example of intermedia art. Although (other) productions… have since achieved greater technical dexterity on a visual plane, no one has yet managed to communicate a guiding spirit through the complex form as well as Warhol and the Underground. (Branden W. Joseph, art historian, Columbia University)
The best film … is the one Ronald Nameth made from Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable when that inter-media show was playing Poor Richard’s in Chicago. I say ‘from’ rather than ‘of’ advisedly, since Nameth’s … exists independently as a work of art in the way that most screen adaptations, regardless of their origins, do not. As a jangle and concord of sound and image, a poetic expression of all the arts of white magick, of the cinema of imagery built around the strobe-light rather than the arc, it is something wonderful and exciting. (Richard Whitehall, ‘Nameth/Warhol Replace Arc with Strobe’, LA Free Press)
Youngblood, G. (1970) Expanded Cinema. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.: New York.