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imaginista
Interview

Interview with Filmmaker and Photographer Ronald Nameth

On filming Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable and the influence of the New Bauhaus

Ronald Nameth, Still from Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable, 1967.
© Ronald Nameth, All Rights Reserved.

Ronald Nameth has been working with film, electronics, video, and digital media from the 1960s until today. In addition to Warhol, Nameth has collaborated with several key figures in the arts including musical innovators John Cage and Terry Riley, photographers Aaron Siskand and Art Sinsabauagh, as well as many other artists and performers. In this interview with bauhaus imaginista he recalls how the New Bauhaus method of teaching allowed him to explore the nature of various media to better understand the medium itself and its creative potentials.

Before filming Exploding Plastic Inevitable (or EPI), I was living in Chicago, and studying at the Illinois Institute of Technology Institute of Design (formerly the New Bauhaus) from 1962–67 (B.S. in Photography, 1965; M.S. in Cinematography, 1967). The method of teaching used at the Institute of Design (or ID) allowed one to explore various media so as to fully understand the nature of any particular medium and its creative potential. This was in contrast to the established method of teaching, which involved learning a particular tradition or style of art. The Bauhaus method encouraged one to explore creative possibilities within any particular medium, without limitations. It’s very much the difference between teaching and learning. With teaching, someone tells you how to do it; with learning, you discover for yourself the essentials through your own experimentation. Added to this was art history, which provided a perspective on one’s own explorations. This combination of medial exploration and art history proved an excellent way to explore the mediums of photography and film.

The initial exploration of the photographic medium at ID involved working with light, paper and chemicals, without a camera. Light and dark shapes were created solely through the interaction of chemical and light. The next phase was to include objects on the paper and expose these to light. In addition, the various chemicals were used in an experimental manner to create imagery. All this provided a broad understanding of the medium of photography.

One of the most significant ways I learned to explore photography (and one that later had a strong influence in the making of EPI) involved printing multiple negatives superimposed together. This allowed multiple levels of space/time to be experienced simultaneously, an effect that would eventually be used in the editing of Exploding Plastic Inevitable to provide an immersive experience similar to the original EPI multimedia events.

Why did you study at the ID and what did you study there?

I chose the Institute of Design because it had the most advanced courses in the art of photography. (The ID had a degree program in photography and it was one of the ID’s most significant programs from the early 1950s to the 1970s.)

In Chicago, I read Moholy-Nagy’s book Vision in Motion. The experience was like a great door being opened in my mind. This incredible vision and understanding of art and design in society provided me with tremendous insight. I read the book many times in order to absorb it all. It provided a very expansive overview and perspective about vision and prepared me for the learning process at ID. This prospect filled me with tremendous enthusiasm and energy. There was no better place to be!

What was the main focus of the ID at that time?

The main focus was to provide a foundation that was valid for learning all types of art and design. The first year of studies began with the Foundation Course, which provided the basis for learning. It consisted of three principal areas of information and experimentation that were tightly correlated with one another: technology, art and science. This included:

1. The use of tools and machines (technology).

2. The exploration of physical properties of materials and media (science).

3. The study and exploration of shapes, surfaces and textures, volumes, space and motion (art).

In addition, the study of Art History provided a historical understanding of art, society, technology and culture.

The Foundation Course provided an absolutely essential and complete learning experience. To this day I continue to find that experience provided essential knowledge of lasting value in both living and working. As noted above, the initial experience with photography began not with the camera but with the study of light-sensitive materials and the chemicals that affected these materials—the photogram (science) and the experimentation of these materials to create visual imagery (art) and eventually the camera (technology). This process of integration and correlation was a profound learning experience adaptable to all endeavors. The teacher of this course Joe Jachna, then the photography department assistant. As a teacher, his great sensitivity, mild manner and careful encouragement provided a very a rich learning environment. His own artwork in photography was focused on what he called “moments”—moments of awareness that lifted one up out of “the ordinary” to a heightened level of being. He used the act of photographing the physical world to capture these experienced “moments” of transcendence, demonstrating that the “inexpressible” could, if ever so subtly, be visualized, and expressed.

Who were your teachers?

The main teachers at ID were the very best photographers of that time: Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind. They were the department’s primary teachers and were very accessible, gave encouragement, were wise and exceedingly helpful. Harry Callahan (ID faculty member from 1946 to 1961) was an extremely visually oriented person and worked in a very intuitive manner. He was an intuitive, quiet person who would communicate ideas about art with warmth and understanding. These qualities were especially evident in the excellence of his own photographic work.

Aaron Siskind (ID faculty member from 1951 to 1971) was also a very creative, warm and understanding person who possessed the ability to communicate his great understanding of art and to express artistic concepts in a clear manner. Together, they complemented each other, providing a wide perspective of insights. Their pedagogical approach shaped the first professional graduate program in photography to be run in the United States.

Other teachers and photographers who were associated with the photography department at ID around that time included Bob Tanner, Arthur Siegel, Kenneth Josephson and Charles Swedlund. Art Sinsabaugh, an instructor at ID from 1949 to 1959 was an especially considerate person and provided a lot of assistance. They all had been students at ID, and later participated as assistant teachers at various times. Together, they provided a “bank” of knowledge which was perhaps unique in the world at that time. One was fortunate to be there at that time.

How did you experience the school at the time when you were studying?

The teaching of the ID was an enormously positive experience. Instead of learning a particular method, style or “ism” of art, one explored the medium itself in order to discover its properties and the possibilities it offered for creative image-making. This was of essential value. If one studied a particular style or genre, unknowingly one was also “locked” into using the medium in that particular manner. The teaching at the ID freed one from this constraint.

For example, in the visual design department, one explored tools and media: paper, pens, ink, brushes, (technology) before creating designs. The study of cinema, as I’ve mentioned with respect to photography, began with the exploration of the light-film material itself without the technological apparatus (the camera). Drawing and painting directly on the film was also explored as a means to learn about the creation of shapes, surfaces and textures, etc.

Technology, art and science were all explored with an open mind, without any limitations on how they “should” be used. This allowed for an exploration with enormous creative potential—a method of learning that was so open and adaptable that many years later, with the advent of digital technology, I still felt a freedom of thought and was able to adapt easily to this new technology. This foundation of learning through the open exploration of different aspects of technology, art and science proved to be of great value.

How was the Light and Color Workshop organized by György Kepes in the New Bauhaus?

My time at the ID was after the period when Kepes was a teacher there. So, unfortunately, I was not able to have that experience, which I am certain would have been a very meaningful and helpful in the filming of the EPI.

How did your studies at ID influence your filmic work (and what works did you produce there?)

My studies at ID profoundly influenced my later filmic work. The Foundation Course, the knowledge of Aaron Siskind and Harry Callahan, and the community of young photographers associated with the Photography department provided the best possible learning environment. All of these had a great influence on my future work in film.

The first film works I produced at ID were a series of short B&W 8mm studies which explored the artistic properties of film as articulated within the ID Foundation Course (based on the Foundation Course of the Bauhaus), dealing with shapes, surfaces and textures, volumes in space, motion and time. These film works were a thorough exploration into my discovery of film and provided me with a tremendous experience of film as a medium for art-making.

Thereafter, I made a 16mm color film utilizing all the previous experiments combined together in a theme based on the alphabet. This film is now in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. Another 16mm film of 20 minute duration was made of the artist Stephen Auslander (An Unusual Portrait): it received a Certificate of Excellence at the Kent Film Festival in 1965.

The final film I made at ID was a 16mm B&W film titled The Photography of Aaron Siskind. It presented Siskind’s photography in a historical context using voice-over commentary by the photographer to provide insight and understanding into his art. The film is now in the archives of the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona.

Do you know other artists from the ID who were involved with the Factory, New American Cinema, expanded arts or Fluxus?

The other filmmakers involved in the cinema course at ID were quite a creative group of individuals and produced some very interesting work. We were all familiar with the underground film work being made in San Francisco through the Canyon Cinema Film Cooperative and also the underground films made in New York, shown through the Film-Makers’ Cooperative created by Jonas Mekas. In Chicago, the Chicago Film Cooperative showed the work of Midwest artists.

The works of the New American Cinema, the Fluxus Group, Expanded Arts, the Ann Arbor Experimental Film Festival and work of the Once Group were also well known. Weekly screenings of underground and experimental films from around the country were shown at local university film societies. And experimental filmmakers using technology to make films in novel ways were also invited to the ID to present their films and creative ideas. Together, all these energies provided for an enormously creative environment. In addition, during the three-month summer break I traveled to New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco to see the work of other artists, filmmakers, photographers and musicians.

Did you work on light and media environments at the ID?

Jay Doblin, Director of the ID between 1955–1969 and best known for his contribution to systems thinking and design theory, became interested in the use of intensive visual projections as a new method of learning in 1965. The Product Design department (then under the direction of Ray Pearson) built a media projection environment consisting of a small enclosed space equipped with multiple media projectors. In this environment, one was bombarded with imagery from all directions. The idea was to transfer information through visual stimuli, from the senses directly to the emotions—bypassing traditional logical and rational learning through sequential processing. By intensive image projections, the brain would process the visual information intuitively and simultaneously.

While not directly involved in the project, I had the opportunity to experience this media environment on numerous occasions. I found it to be extremely interesting, but since it was such a different way of experiencing images (as a stimuli overload instead of a more contemplative experience), I had to make a conscious effort to accept the bombardment of imagery and sensory overload.

There was a wide interest at this time within the field of design and learning for this type of image environment. The designers Charles and Ray Eames also explored this.1

Which connection in the artistic approach do you see between the ID and the Exploding Plastic Inevitable?

The creative approach, as taught at the ID, directly affected the making the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. In 1965, the standard method of filming was either that of drama or documentary. Neither of these were used in creating the EPI. The goal of the film was to re-create the experience of being in Warhol’s media projection environment. With regards to filming, the focus was on feeling the intense energy in the space rather than making an objective documentation or a literal drama. The focus of filming was on recording the dynamic interactivity of interchange between light, movement and the human form. Contrasts— between light/dark, color/B&W, fast and slow—were the dynamic elements.

Are there artistic techniques that you learned at the ID that were used for Exploding Plastic Inevitable?

The learning process of the Foundation Course allowed one to explore the broad use of technology, art and science. This has served me very well in all my creative endeavors. It provided a method of creative experimentation and exploration, opening up worlds of numerous possibilities. My experience of this learning method was the fundamental ground for filming—and much later, being able to recreate Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable using digital technology. The strategy I used while filming the EPI, addressed in your last question, was based of some of the basic visual elements I first experimented with in my 8mm films.

Ronald Nameth, Sketch Musicircus
© Ronald Nameth, All Rights Reserved.

How did it happen that you filmed the Exploding Plastic Inevitable?

Having extensive prior experience with immersive and multiple-screen projections environments, I realized that it was such a significant event that it should be filmed. I inquired and learned that it had had not been filmed yet by anyone. So, I made plans to do recordings of it when it came to Chicago.

For several years prior to filming Warhol’s EPI I had made experimental films as well as creating several light shows for rock music concerts. In 1965, I had been invited by John Cage to create a large film projection environment for the premiere performance of Musicircus. Cage invited musicians from all traditions, styles and periods of time to perform simultaneously in the same space. He placed them in a huge menagerie with space for 8000 people, with sawdust on the floor. The public was free to wander anywhere, eat popcorn and listen to the different musical performances: Thus, each person could “mix” the music according to where they chose to stand. In comparison to the traditional concert setting, Cage said “Everyone has the best seat in the house.” Audience members could also create music on a percussion sculpture. In total, this provided the experience of freedom to “compose” one’s own experience: instead of being locked into a limited space, one was free to explore the entire space. It was a remarkable experience. Cage, of course, was providing an experience to encourage everyone to use their senses every moment of every day to “compose” their own unique experience. Nine thousand people participated over many hours. It was a very all-inclusive experience for everyone—and a very filmic experience. I recorded the event, and made a short film of the premiere.

What did you bring from your experiences in working with Cage to the Warholian domain of EPI?

To create the multiple film projections for the Musicircus premiere, I utilized my films of time/space in continuous loops which were projected onto back-projection screens as well as huge weather balloons floating above the arena. The films were projected continuously on the multiple screens surrounding the arena. Rhythmic motions in various exterior spaces integrated with the motions of the performers, musicians and people in the center of the space.

The collaboration with John Cage provided a direct working experience of an immersive projection environment. Although the environments created by Cage and Warhol were quite different, they were related in that both were spatial, three-dimensional media projection environments. The unifying factor for both is that the film projection was used not to create an illusion but, rather, become concrete, real “objects” in a live experience.

The year after filming the EPI Cage asked me to create a much more complex media environment, using multiple slide and film projections for the premiere of his microtonal computer-generate work, HPSCHD. It was performed in an open space for 16,000 people. There were three primary components: Sounds were to be microtonal, images were to be images of macro-space, and the people were to be in the space in-between the microtonal sounds and the cosmic imagery, which was obtained from NASA and other sources. In the center of this vast space, 12 semi-transparent screens were placed adjacent to another. This allowed the projected imagery to pass through and illuminate each of the other semi-transparent screens. The experience was of passing through space—it had an etheric quality. The enormous interior space was filled with a deep blue etheral light.

The space for the premiere of HPSCHD was the Assembly Hall at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It was constructed of two concave shapes, wired together in the middle. This construction created a huge inner space completely free of any supporting pillars. It was located on a flat prairie landscape, and could be seen from a great distance at night, with light steaming out of its 48 bay windows in a 360-degree arc. From a distance it looked like a flying saucer. Each of the 48 bay windows was filled with image projections hand-painted by John Cage and myself. Sixty-four individual unique slides were made for each of the 48 projectors. These were created according to chance instructions specified by the I Ching: The Ancient Chinese Book of Changes. These provided an ever-changing panorama of changing cosmic imagery.

Collaborating with John Cage for the premiere of Musicircus, my own work in light and film projections with live music and my collaboration with composer Salvatore Martirano for his L’s GA (Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address)—plus my travels to see light shows at the Avalon and Fillmore in San Francisco—all together, they provided a broad background experience for filming Warhol’s EPI.

Ronald Nameth, Musicircus
© Ronald Nameth, All Rights Reserved.

© Ronald Nameth, All Rights Reserved.

Interior view of Assembly Hall, 1963.
Courtesy of the University of Illinois Archive. Found in RS 39/2/20, Box 59, Folder BUI Assembly Hall, 1965-, Copyright of this image is managed by the University Archives.

Assembly Hall, ca. 1966.
Courtesy of the University of Illinois Archive. Found in RS 39/2/20, Box 59, Folder: Assembly Hall 1965, Copyright of this image is held by the University of Illinois.

Ronald Nameth, HPSCHD
© Ronald Nameth, All Rights Reserved.

What kind of work did you see in San Francisco?

The rock-bands of the time—Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and others—were all performing. However, for me, the live projections shown in conjunction with the music were of most interest. This included film projections, slide projection, and real-time live projections using liquids that moved. Liquid colors were added to other liquids—and by manually moving the liquids in time to the beat it was possible to sync these projections to the music. These concerts were concurrent with the emergence of “expanded cinema”—using multiple screen projections and lighting to create a total immersive environment.

What kind of venue did the EPI take place in and how many people attended the shows?

© Ronald Nameth, All Rights Reserved.

© Ronald Nameth, All Rights Reserved.

Warhol premiered the Exploding Plastic Inevitable with the Velvet Underground and Nico on the lower east side in New York City in late April of 1966. It opened at the Dom and performances during that month were sold out. It attracted all types of people—uptown socialites like Jackie Kennedy, downtown poets like Allen Ginsburg and Barbara Rubin, artists, musicians and Midtown career people. It also attracted a great deal of publicity and was a major news happening at the times, with many news crews on the scene, including Walter Cronkite, then America’s most well-known news anchor. The EPI was a raging success. Warhol’s immersive media projection environment/discotheque created a new art form.

Mark Francis, founding director and first curator of the Warhol Museum said:

“The EPI ... represents Warhol’s epiphanic moment, and remains his greatest work, however difficult it may be for us to sense their flavor today. … No one in avante-garde circles or in popular rock spectacles with light shows had combined so many elements with such a synaesthetic effect before.”

After the success of the EPI in New York, Warhol arranged for the Velvet Underground to cut their first LP album at Scepter Records, which later became the infamous disco Studio 54.

The EPI then went on tour to Los Angeles and San Francisco. It came to Chicago in June of 1966 for a week of shows at Poor Richard’s, a nightclub with space for a couple hundred people. It previously had been a church … not a traditional church, but some kind of a free church. It was a big hall without windows, filled with lights shows and projections, no air conditioning, people dancing and very humid air.

The Experience of Being in the Exploding Plastic Inevitable

Larry McCombs’ exquisite account of his experience in the EPI at Poor Richard’s, Chicago, 24 June 1966:

It’s hot, godawful, sticky, sweaty, miserable hot. The Place is jammed and there’s hardly room to move. The waitress does her best, but it takes a while to get your drink and you’re dying of thirst. There’s all sorts of mirrors and lights overhead, some of them rotating. Lights shining and blinking in a complex pattern, up one wall and along another. Red dots start moving through and around and among them, in a different pattern (or is it the same?)

Suddenly on the side wall there’s a black and white movie, poor quality, like a badly done home movie, of a man eating. He eats slowly, savoring each bite, staring blankly off into space. He goes on eating. Music and noise begins to come from somewhere. Now on the end wall there’s another movie. People moving around–a girl?–several boys–one tall, well-built blonde, lifting weights, posing, dressed in Levis and open black leather jacket with a white T-shirt underneath. He moves with a strange combination of cruelty and sensuous delight. The man on the side wall goes on eating, staring blankly at this scene once in a while.
The lights continue to dance over and through the movies.
The music gets louder; a voice begins to talk but you can’t understand the words; there are shouts and screams occasionally.

There’s a man strapped to a chair, stripped to the waist, being whipped. Are those his screams? No, they aren’t in time. The man goes on eating. The girl smokes. Is she part of the whipping scene, or has she somehow slipped over from the eating movie? The music is very loud now, with a driving rock and roll beat. The muscular blonde is moving slowly about with a whip which he curls about his body. Suddenly, he flings himself into dance, while the whipping goes on behind him. Suddenly that film moves to the top of the screen and below it appears another view of the same scene, earlier or late? The whipping is in the foreground, or is it a dance? Lights, noise, screams, - the man on the side of the wall eats slowly, fondles a cat, stares at the audience.

Various tortures, fights, dances–all mixed together, Inextricable. Lights shining unbearably bright in your eyes. Dancing lights on the wall. Nasty torturous dancing with whips and lighted matches. The man eats, watches, watches you. Louder, faster, noisier.

Suddenly the films end. The noise and music go on. Several people have appeared from somewhere. They stand in front of the screen, tuning instruments. The noise of their tuning, the electric buzzes and hums, begins to blend with the noise and music from the films.

Then they gradually take over. Behind them on the wall are movies of a girl. One, two, several views of her in different movies. Close-up, far away, they begin to zoom in and out in time with the music. Eyes, mouths, noses, she stares, blinks, licks her lips.

On stage now is the cruel blonde man, with his whip, dancing with the tall masculine blonde girl in silver lame costume. The lights have become a dim blue flicker, but a flicker that goes faster and slower and pauses now and then, just as your eyes get used to each kind of flicker. Dancers on the floor, with huge strips of silver material that flash above their heads as they dance. Clean-cut, straight looking kids, working hard at dancing to the noise.

Bright green and red spotlights, the dancers silhouetted on the walls in great grimacing poses. The musicians occasionally revealed, sweating over their instruments, grinding out a noise that has music in it somewhere. They’re watching the movies, watching each other, watching you.

Too much happening–it doesn’t go together. But sometimes it does
–suddenly the beat of the music, the movements of the various films, the pose of the dancers, blend into something meaningful,
but before your mind can grab it, it’s become random and confusing again.
Your head tries to sort something out, make sense of something.

The noise is getting to you.
You want to scream, or throw yourself about with the dancers,
something, anything.

The noise builds to a climax and ends.
The dancers pause. Everyone looks a bit weary.
The musicians diddle around with their instruments and amplifiers.
The lights and films go on.
One of the musicians is a girl. Or is it?

They start again.

There’s an electrified violin making horrible bag pipe sounds against the noisy background.
It’s grating, terrible, and yet your mind latches onto that bit of tune against all the chaos.

It’s almost a relief.

The films are doing strange things. The blonde girl becomes a brunette–girl or boy? Showers of colored lighs suddenly burst upward from the drums with a crash of cymbals and shoot across the ceiling and walls like a fireworks burst.

The dancers on the floor are looking tired and ecstatic and bored, all at once. The music gets noisier, the viola is frantically screaming a tune, higher and higher.

On the screens, some of the views of the girl are replaced by films of the blonde boy and silver lame girl, dancing, fighting, torturing each other with the whip. The real pair are there too, making weird shadows on the wall, the boy dancing, but writhing in torment with his hands over his head.

The music is lost in the chaos of noise.
Are there children chanting or singing?

The amplified viola goes higher and higher, becomes a shriek, a feedback noise, a regular dit-dah-dit of unbearable Morse code
screaming above the other noise. It all builds to a tremendous climax.

Then it goes on and on and on and on.
You wish it would stop.
The musicians build wilder and wilder.
The drummer hits a shuddering beat that you feel through the floor.

It’s all coming to an end.
But it doesn’t.
It goes on.

The lights flash in your eyes.

The noises all blend into one and your mind tries to sort out little bits of rhythm and tune.

The screaming Morse message is still there, but you only hear now when you listen for it.

The dancers on the floor are sweating, looking like they can’t bear any more of it all.
But it goes on and on.

Finally it all comes to a shuddering screaming end, the music and noise die down, the films flicker out.
Only the colored lights still dance across the walls.
The musicians and dancers leave, looking wilted.

You sit there for a while,
finally find your waitress,
finally leave,
it’s hot. What can you say?2

Filming Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable

In 1966, when the EPI was filmed, all the film and sound technology was analogue. Synchronous sound for portable cameras was just becoming available but was as yet too costly to be utilized for filming the EPI. (Editor’s note: the Éclair NPR 16mm portable sync-sound camera came on market in 1960, while its chief competitor, the Arriflex 16BL, appeared in 1965). So, the event was filmed without sync sound, with a hand-held camera, a Bolex 16 mm—the standard compact hand-held camera used at that time by most underground film-makers and many documentarians, which uses small rolls of film around three minutes in length. It was the same type of camera Warhol used for his Screen Tests.

To load the Bolex with film, the camera must be placed into a black bag which has sleeves that allow arms and hands to be inserted into the bag. It’s a portable dark room.

First, the camera is put into the bag. Then, with the hands inserted into the bag, the camera is opened and a roll of film is taken out of a sealed box and threaded into the camera channels. It has to be fitted perfectly, otherwise the camera will not advance properly. Then the camera door is replaced and locked. The camera can then be removed from the bag for another three minutes of filming.

And then, once the three minutes of film has been exposed, the camera is returned to the black bag, the camera door opened, and the exposed roll of film taken out of the camera and placed into a film can which is closed and sealed with tape around the edge of the can to protect against light leakage. Then the camera can be re-loaded with a new roll of unexposed film. The whole procedure must be done completely in the dark; the film loading accomplished solely by feeling with the hands. The whole procedure takes about six minutes: so, for every three minutes of footage recorded, it took twice as long to unload and reload the camera.

These limitations meant sync sound recordings could not be made. This also explains why there is little documentary film of rock groups from the early 1960s. Most recordings were made in TV studios, not at live concerts. In order to get enough footage, it was necessary to film as much as possible. Fortunately, the EPI/Velvet Underground had three performances for two hours each day, starting at 9 pm and ending early the next day. To compensate for all the time limitations in loading/unloading the camera, I filmed all three performances each day so as to record as much as possible. Thus, the actual filming was an intense experience. In addition to the inherent difficulties of the film recording process, I worked entirely alone, recording as much as humanly possible under the circumstances: there was no air conditioning, there were hundreds of people in the audience, and there were no windows. The temperature rose to 109° F. I was dressed in black, so as to be as inconspicuous as possible. I was often in the middle of the action, on the floor, under a table, right up to the stage. I was completely soaked with sweat, and I did not use earplugs because I needed to be aware of everything going on. At the end of each performance, the Velvet Underground would perform a very intense number at high volume, with massive feedback, for 12 to 15 minutes (the film ends with this). In the end, EPI was so popular it was held over for a second week. But by then I had used up my entire stock of film, so no additional filming could be made.

Filming was done in both color and B&W. Color was absolutely necessary in order to capture the explosions of light and color in the EPI, but color film was so less light sensitive than B&W, necessitating some alternative method to expose the film properly without using any kind of artificial light (artificial light would wash out the light projections in the show as well as destroying the performance). It was absolutely necessary to find a way to solve this problem and use the available light for filming the performance. This light problem was actually discovered on the first night of filming. Normally film is recorded at 24 frames per second, but since there was not enough light to record, the solution was to slow down the rate of film exposed per second, from 24 frames per second to eight. This allowed more time for light to enter the camera (two thirds more light), making it possible to film in the dim light conditions. However, since normal film projection for screening is 24 fps, it was necessary to compensate for this. The solution I arrived at was to optically print each frame two more times to create three identical film frames, allowing for a normal film projection speed. Three identical frames in succession do not result in a “normal” continually smooth motion. Instead the motion is smooth and then abrupt after 3 seconds. The result is somewhat similar to the effect of a strobe-light. This filmic motion created a feeling of other-worldliness, shifting our perception out of ordinary time and motion, to create another time and another space. This actually fit well with the experience of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. The lights, films and strobe-light were used specifically by Danny Williams (the filmmaker/film editor who was responsible for the light show) to create a powerful, overwhelming experience of going beyond “normal” reality, to create an “expanded” reality.

© Ronald Nameth, All Rights Reserved.

© Ronald Nameth, All Rights Reserved.

© Ronald Nameth, All Rights Reserved.

© Ronald Nameth, All Rights Reserved.

@ Ronald Nameth, All Rights Reserved.

What did the stroboscopic effects of Exploding Plastic Inevitable do to the audience?

The strobe light has the effect of changing one’s perception of ordinary time and motion. Depending on the rate of the flash-cycle, motion can appear to either speed up or slow down which creates a sense of being beyond normal time. It is an experience of being in another space/time dimension.

The filmed sequences of strobe lights were combined in editing with the footage that had been optically printed. Together, they replicated this powerful feeling of being in different time/space, one so different from our usual experience.

In his book Expanded Cinema, the author Gene Youngblood commented on this:

“EPI was photographed on color and black–and-white stock during one week of performances by Warhol’s troupe. Because the environment was dark and because of the flash-cycle of the strobe lights, Nameth shot at eight frames per second and printed the footage at the regular twenty-four fps. In addition, he developed a mathematical curve for repeated frames and super- impositions, so that the result is an eerie world of semi-slow motion against an aural background of incredible frenzy. Colors were super-imposed over black-and-white negatives and vice-versa. An extra-ordinary off-color grainy effect resulted from pushing the ASA rating of his color stock; thus the images often seem to lose their cohesiveness as though wrenched apart by the sheer force of the environment.”

“Watching the film is like dancing in a strobe room: time stops, motion retards, the body seems separated from the mind. The screen bleeds onto the walls, the seats. Flak bursts of fiery color explode with slow fury. Staccato strobe guns stitch galaxies of silverfish over slow motion, stop-motion close-ups of the dancers’ dazed ecstatic faces.”3

With regards to the strobe effect, the art critic Martin Grennberger once asked me:

“I am interested in the eradication of the distinction between ground and ceiling, which in your work creates an almost amorphous space with the flickering, stroboscopic light. In a way this also points in a direction of the dissolution of the medium (into the total environment). Could you say something more about this? It is connected to you being IN the environment.

Ronald Nameth: Yes, it is very much connected to me being in the environment. It’s both a dissolution of the original experience and an expansion and transformation of it into another. Warhol and the Velvet’s had the goal of creating a dissolution of space/time, and the EPI film also mirrored this dissolution of space/time.“4

The writer and critic Gene Youngblood, observed this and commented in his book Expanded Cinema:

“Nameth (…) managed to transform his film into something far more than a mere record of an event. Like Warhol’s show, Nameth’s EPI is an experience, not an idea. In fact, the ethos of the entire pop life-style seems to be synthesized in Nameth’s dazzling kinesthetic master-piece. Here, form and content are virtually synonymous, and there is no misunderstanding what we see.”5

“It’s as though the film itself has exploded and reassembled in a jumble of shards and prisms. Gerard Malanga and Ingrid Superstar dance frenetically to the music of the Velvet Underground (Heroin, European Son, and a quasi-East Indian composition), while their ghost images writhe in Warhol’s Vinyl projected on a screen behind. There is a spectacular sense of frantic uncontrollable energy, communicated almost entirely by Nameth’s exquisite manipulation of the medium.”6

“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.”7

How were the light experiments of György Kepes connected to the stroboscopic and light experiments by the Velvet Underground?

The stroboscopic light experiments of Kepes at MIT were similar to the stroboscopic experiments in the EPI. This was an intensive period in the exploration of immersive visual/total environments (most of them in connection with rock music). There were many individual and groups involved in creating immersive visual environments in New York City, San Francisco and elsewhere around the country.

How was the collaboration with Warhol?

At the time of the filming in Chicago, Warhol and his troupe were in France to present his new double-screen film Chelsea Girls at the Cannes Film Festival. So my collaboration with the EPI was on a practical level: with Danny Williams, who coordinated all the lights and film projections, and with the audio technician Faison, who ran the audio equipment.

What kind of contact did you have with Velvet Underground during these performances? The fact that you were there down on the floor filming, they were obviously aware of your presence. How would you describe the dynamic during these shows?

Actually, they were not aware of my presence and could not see me as it was so dark. Since the filming was not directed but just “recorded,” there was no need to coordinate the filming with the Velvet Underground. Filming with a small hand-held portable camera, and I wanted to be as close to them as possible. The best place was on the floor under a table near the stage. The Velvets were standing off-stage. Because of the low light, most of the recording was of the performers onstage in the spotlights—Gerard Malanga, Ingrid Superstar and other performers.

The dynamic during the EPI shows can only be described as Extremely INTENSE.

The VU were doing, as I have mentioned, three performances a day. During the day, the VU (together with performers Gerard Malanga and Ingrid Superstar) were busy meeting the press and performing at events.

How did Warhol interact with other artists of Exploding Plastic Inevitable, like Barbara Rubin, Gerald Malanga, the Velvet Underground?

During the premiere of the EPI at the Dom, Warhol was mainly involved in the projection of the films and transparencies. He worked together with several other people and enjoyed experimenting with the superimposition of films and transparencies on each other, creating multiple levels of imagery.

Warhol himself said:

“I’d usually watch from the projection balcony or take my time turn at the projector, slipping different colored gelatin slides over the lenses and turning on my movies like Harlot, The Shoplifter, Couch, Banana, Blow Job, Sleep, Empire, Kiss, Whips, Face, Camp, and Eat into all different colors. Stephen Shore, Little Joey and Danny Williams would take turns operating the spotlights while Gerard [Malanga] and Ronnie [Tavel] and Ingrid [Superstar] and Mary [Woronov] danced sadomasochistic style with whips and flashlights and the Velvets played and the different colored hypnotic 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.”

Copyright Ronald Nameth, All Rights Reserved.

Did you work together with Warhol on other projects?

After Chicago, the EPI continued on the tour for another year in the United States and Canada. As my focus now was on the editing of the extensive film recordings, I secluded myself in an editing room and worked there for the next six months. Thus, my direct involvement with the EPI came to an end.

The Editing of the EPI Film

After previewing all the recorded film, it was clear that a single-screen presentation possessed limitations for presenting the EPI and the original live experience. The environment itself had been one of intense multiplicity—of lights, people, and movement.

Since the EPI film was not intended as a documentary “about” the performance or the music (no voice-over dialogue telling you what you were seeing) but rather as a direct experience, like the original EPI, there were no pre-determined rules on how this should be accomplished. So, the way forward was a complete unknown.

After many frustrating false starts, I began experimenting with ideas from the Bauhaus Foundation Course. Since one image contained only one space/time element, one possible solution was to combine levels of imagery to create multiple space/times, recreating the original immersive environment of multiple projections. The problem in editing was that film viewers of the time only allowed one piece of film to be previewed at a time. I tried to force two and sometimes three pieces of film into the previewer, but it would not function.

The solution I arrived at was to preview one roll at a time, and then another, then a third, fourth and fifth—and then in my mind, superimpose and combine these together. Another method I employed was to physically combine several layers of film together in my hand and turn them to the light, to see them together as miniature images, barely visible. Seeing them in motion was impossible as only one strip of film could be put into the editing viewer.

So began a long process of working through the limitations of the existing technology. Compared to the digital technology of today, looking back it feels as if one was working in the stone-age of film. Everything was so much more primitive and limited. The only solution was to visualize the result in my mind. Eventually, this technique of visualizing in the mind began to work.

Five edited rolls of film were synchronized together, then sent to the film lab and printed as a single roll.

The resulting film thus has up to five levels of imagery. It was only after the processed film came back from development at the lab, that it was possible to see the results. Fortunately, most of it worked according to expectations.

Ronald Nameth, Still from Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable, 1967.
© Ronald Nameth, All Rights Reserved.

After completing the film (which became known as the “long version”) a number of screening situations arose where a request was made for a short version. So, the twelve-minute short version was created. As time has passed and people have become less knowledgeable about the EPI, it became obvious that some contextual information was needed. So, another version was created—first with a prologue and then, later, with an epilogue.

It is interesting that of all the films I have made, the EPI is the only one which continues to metamorphize and change over time. All of my other films were edited and are finished as they are. Not so the EPI. It keeps taking on new forms, growing and expanding into something else. Part of the reason for this is that the technical tools available at the time I originally edited it were so primitive that they did not permit the pre-visualization of the sequences. As digital tools for pre-visualization have become available, this has allowed the film to take on a new form, closer to the original experience of the live EPI. And finally, as new screening situations come about, a transformation is again required to meet these new conditions.

It seems the EPI will never be “completed” but instead continue to evolve into other forms.

Warhol was not involved in the editing process, nor did he preview any of the edits of the EPI. He never told the Velvet Underground what to do while producing their first album, nor how to do it. He just encouraged them to stay true to their own vision and not let other people try to change it. Warhol never imposed any conditions on the making of the EPI film.

Talking a bit about the editing of the sound: as you mentioned earlier, you did not have access to a portable synch sound camera, so you shot without sound.

The editing of the sound was basically matching the rhythm of the music to the rhythm of the imagery. As the film was not intended as a document of the performance but rather a direct intense experience of the EPI, and since the sound did not have to be synchronized, the imagery could be aligned with the rhythm of the music and the theme of the lyrics. The concept of making a music video of each song was still some twenty years in the future.

Thus, the individual songs were not the focus but rather the actual experience of the sound in the environment, as one moved around and in and out of the space.

Could you elaborate on the song structures? They are almost a fragmentation—there’s no whole song. How did you approach that?

The approach was to re-create the feeling of the dissolution of time/space and this very much focused on the fragmentary experience of the live performances. The real challenge was that one frame of film did not contain this experience. The fragmentation of space/ time was achieved through superimposing many frames together to finally achieve this effect.

John Cale of the Velvet Underground was well versed in experimental music. He had previously collaborated with both John Cage and La Monte Young. He experimented with sound in totally new ways. For the EPI, the prelude was to have two LPs playing different music simultaneously. After that, two different reels of the Warhol film Vinyl would be screened, with the sound tracks of both playing simultaneously. Sometimes all four sounds sources were playing simultaneously.

The Velvets wanted to make each performance unique. They never wanted to completely play a song the same way twice. They were always looking for ways to make the music alive and of the moment. As I’ve mentioned previously, at the end of EPI performances, the Velvets would perform a long freeform session with noise and feedback running up to 20 minutes. By the time it was finished, you were finished.

And then, there’s both a long and a short version later.

The long version of the film was the first edit to be completed. It was long simply because it contained the entire range of the recordings.

Later, after many screenings of the long version in standard cinema setting with fixed seats, it became obvious that this version simply did not work in that setting. The short version was created to be screened for standard cinema settings.

How did you decide on which songs to include?

The long version had most of the songs in the Velvet’s set list. The decision as to which songs would be in the short version came down to the fact that “Heroin” and “Venus in Furs” were both absolutely essential songs that had to be included.

Ronald Nameth, Still from Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable, 1967.
© Ronald Nameth, All Rights Reserved.

By using only fragments of the songs you are also alluding to the factual experience of being in the space, which is obviously fragmentary in itself?

Exactly! Both the visual imagery and the songs had to have this fragmentary aspect. This was the main element that created the shift in the perception of another space/time. It was essential.

The transitions on the sound side, when changing into another song, is rough and almost rapturous, and not motivated by logical changes in terms of the imagery? Could you say something about that?

In the chaos of the original environment, there were no logical changes. This is what made experiencing the shift in space/time possible: there was no logic that the mind could cling to. That’s why that linear type of editing was excluded. Things were connected together by simply being together in that space at that time.

A few additional questions: What were your main concerns when going from a single-screen version to working with four screens (in terms of spatial as well as architectonic problems, sound design, etc.?)

The main concern was to re-create as much of the original immersive space/time experience as possible. Obviously, a total re-creation was not feasible, but the goal was to come as close as possible to an experience of the original EPI. The initial design was for a four-screen environment. Later, as various sites required other solutions, many variations were utilized: three-screen, five-screen, seven-screen, a labyrinth, projections on the floor and ceiling and even projections on the exterior of buildings in public places. Multiple speakers allowed sound to be distributed as required.

It would be interesting to hear you compare your film with Warhol’s The Velvet Underground in Boston.8 Warhol, as you noted, shot with a bulky newsreel camera that isn’t easy to move, raise or lower. It is made to record “talking heads.” As such, it focuses on the spatiality of the place as a whole while your piece is obviously more about being in the space.

That is a correct observation, and exactly what Warhol did when he shot the EPI in Boston. He set the camera on a tripod in the back of the space, in one place, and he zoomed from the outside into the scene. It is very much like his other films, because Warhol’s was often called a voyeur and his films are very much like that, too. And with his EPI footage it was exactly the same: he was not involved, standing back, watching, zooming in once in a while, panning once in a while. That’s what he did in all of his films.

My viewpoint was the opposite: to record the full intensity of the EPI experience, it was essential to be in the middle of everything, filming from that center—full of energy and intensity. It was the intensity of the experience that was essential—the incredible intensity. Fragments of imagery, fragments of sound, fragments of impressions. A maelstrom of energy and impressions. And, for me, that is what the film had to express. And that, too, is also why the songs were not edited in in their entirety. They, too, were fragments of the whole

Was the notion of voyeurism something that you at some point even considered?

Not for the EPI. However, I did make a film called Landscape with People in which I used the viewpoint of a witness, outside the field of action. It’s interesting to note that I used the same model newsreel camera that Warhol used. I chose this camera to make this film simply because I needed to have sync sound, and this was the only camera available that we could afford to use (it recorded audio onto a magnetic stripe on the 16mm film). It was a huge camera, had to be on a tripod and was not easy to move around. It’s interesting to note that the choice of camera directly determined the results of the filmed experience. A huge camera with sync sound meant the necessity to record from a distance, looking in, voyeuristically, witnessing. A small camera with no sound meant intimacy, being in the center of things. So, the choice of camera almost automatically determined the results of the filmed experience.

How do you see your film in relation to the cinema of Warhol? I mean, do you even see a dialogue here between your expanded piece documenting the intensity of this particular event and his minimalist approach which is Warhol’s work (his single screen approach, “radical boredom,” shooting an entire roll of film, almost no editing, etc.)?

The core of expanded cinema filmmaking was to expand one’s perspective and experience by placing oneself at the center of the experience. The core of minimalistic filmmaking was to remove one’s self from the core of the experience, and place one’s self outside the field of the action, so as to experience it as a dispassionate witness.

Obviously, they are diametrically opposed ways of experiencing. So, one’s personal preference for how to experience something would be the determining factor in one’s choice. Some people may need to experience the center of the action Others may find it better to experience at the periphery.

Warhol chose to place himself outside the field of action, taking the viewpoint of a witness or voyeur. This often means adopting a wide perspective, removed to a distance. This attitude or viewpoint was Warhol’s obvious preference—both in his life, in his films, and in his paintings—that of being the distanced observer … that of a witness.

For me, to be true to the experience the chaos of the EPI had to be experienced and filmed in the maelstrom at its center.

The Distribution of the EPI film

© Ronald Nameth, All Rights Reserved.

The single-screen 16mm film was made available for screenings from 1966 to around the beginning of 1980s. The first screenings of the film were at underground film screenings and cinematheques. Regular film distributors had no interest in underground films, because most people are not interested in seeing cinema based on art. However, the growth of underground film was made possible by student film societies, interested in seeing such work. A network of underground film screenings came into being at many universities around the United States as a way to see independent films. Students would create film societies and arrange screenings independent of the university. Local cinemas in university towns took notice of this and arranged Saturday midnight underground film screenings to attract student audiences. Later, even art museums began presenting these films. Communication was very much by word-of-mouth, between the various student organizers around the country. My film was distributed by Film-Makers’ Cooperative in New York, by the Chicago Filmmakers Cooperative in Chicago, and by Canyon Cinema Cooperative in San Francisco.

Later, when the VHS videocassette became available, the EPI was distributed in that medium. And when the DVD was introduced, this became the means to present multiple-screen environments in exhibitions automatically over a period of many months.

What is interesting is that the new videocassette media allowed music videos to become the new medium for music. This brought about the emergence of music TV, MTV. It is interesting that the EPI recording with the Velvet Underground was actually one of the first music videos. (The music video as a genre first came into being some 20 years later).

The idea of making a multiple-screen projection environment of the EPI for exhibition had been under consideration for many, many years. It required at least four film projectors with special equipment to be able to automatically run the film as a very large loop. With art museum exhibitions having a duration of two to three months, the film would have to run automatically for the entire period. Such a duration would result in the film’s emulsion being completely worn down by continuous use. This combined with the cost of making four prints and the cost of equipment rental, made the idea almost impossible.

The solution for multiple-screen exhibition presentations became feasible with the advent of the DVD disk and video projector. These allowed for a cost-effective automatic method of exhibiting a multiple-screen projection of EPI.

Now, EPI presentations use digital files for direct projection.9

Thinking about Warhol and the Bauhaus together is really interesting. It seems like he (unconsciously) continued many concepts of the historical Bauhaus:

- The interdisciplinarity of different artistic fields (painting, film, photography, media art, music, light effects)
- multi-screen/multimedia environments
- modes of production such as seriality
- pop-cultural aesthetics, advertising and aesthetics of industrial design
- the role of portraits at the Bauhaus vs. screen test (sexualized bodies, cross dressing, new gender concepts)
- there are also parallels in the self-presentation of the Factory and the Warhol Superstars as artist communities and new subjectivities
- the Bauhaus as (one of) the first pop-culture movements.

Therefor maybe the most interesting question is: did Warhol ever talk about the Bauhaus as a source of inspiration?

Warhol was a very astute observer of society. He was very knowledgeable of all these developments. Before becoming an artist he had been a very successful commercial illustrator. He was an avid observer of society through all the media of his time—TV, radio, cinema, printed magazines and newspapers¾every medium.

As the machine became the prominent method of all forms of production, he was aware of the seriality of these methods of production, which were defining the visual culture of his time. He once said he “wanted to become a machine,” called his studio “the Factory.”

Ronald Nameth, Still from Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable, 1967.
© Ronald Nameth, All Rights Reserved.

Warhol was well-versed in the various art traditions and its most likely he was aware of the Bauhaus tradition, and the attitude of the Bauhaus regarding art, science and technology was definitely relevant to the emergence of Pop Art, based as it was on the machine-made image. Historically, one can see that the Bauhaus initiated this understanding of the interconnection between art, science and technology in the 1920s. Through the teachings of Moholy-Nagy, the New Bauhaus/Institute of Design in Chicago brought this development to a new level, together with the dynamic rise of the United States and its culture after the end of the Second World War. The New Bauhaus/ID seemed to embody the creative energy of this emerging culture.

The 1960s saw a re-emergence of the Bauhaus ideas about the expanded field of art, but, of course, in a different way and in a different culture than that of the original Bauhaus. It emerged as a truly American manifestation—Pop Art. And because of Warhol, it was much more focused on the mirroring of contemporary society and culture.

The boundaries that previously separated the various arts were dissolved and with this came a new collaborative expansion and exploration of contemporary media. Painting, film, photography, music, lighting and new modes of production were all open to new collaborations across the spectrum of art. This freedom allowed elements to be synthesized together in new ways.

And although I know of no direct references that Andy Warhol made about the Bauhaus as a source of inspiration, he did make remarks that are very similar to the spirit of the original Bauhaus. About the times, Warhol said:

“We all knew that something revolutionary was happening.
We just felt it.
Things could not look this strange and new without some barrier being broken.”

“The Pop idea, after all, was that anybody could do anything,
so naturally we were trying to do it all.
Nobody wanted to stay in one category;
we all wanted to branch out into every creative thing that we could.
That’s why, when we met the Velvet Underground at the end of 1965,
we were all for getting into the music scene too.”10

●Footnotes
  • 1 For more information, please see Branden J. Joseph: “My Mind Split Open.” In: Grey Room, No. 8, Summer 2002, pp. 80–107.
  • 2 Larry McCombs: “Chicago Happenings,” Boston Broadside, July 1966.
  • 3 Gene Youngblood: Expanded Cinema, P. Dutton & Co., Inc., New York 1970, pp. 103–105.
  • 4 Martin Grennberger: “On Warhol’s the Exploding Plastic Inevitable: a Talk with Ronald Nameth“, OEI 69–70: On Film, October 2015, pp. 331–41.
  • 5 Ibid., p. 103.
  • 6 Ibid., p. 103.
  • 7 Ibid., p. 105.
  • 8 Andy Warhol: The Velvet Underground in Boston, 1967 can be accessed here: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xt65a5_andy-warhol-the-velvet-underground-in-boston-1967-16mm-film_creation
  • 9 It is distributed worldwide by ArtSite IN: info.artsitein [​at​] gmail.com
  • 10 Quotes by Andy Warhol can be found in: Victor Bockris and Gerard Malanga: Uptight: The Velvet Underground Story, Omnibus Press, London 1983.
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