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.