Andy Warhol’s multi-media live performance experiment, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable (EPI) debuted in 1966 in New York. We caught up with the co-editors of Warhol in Ten Takes, Glyn Davis and Gary Needham, to talk about the EPI and its legacy
Hi Gary. You and I are giving a talk on Andy Warhol and the EPI at Tate Liverpool soon. I thought we could use this conversation to introduce the EPI, and to give people some idea of the main topics and themes we’ll be covering in our talk. A first key question to pose is: what was the EPI, and where did it come from in terms of Warhol’s output?
Hi Glyn. EPI stands for Exploding Plastic Inevitable. The EPI was a series of events that Warhol staged in 1966 and 1967, first in New York and then on tour across the United States. EPI brought together a sensory collision of live music from the Velvet Underground and Nico, multiple film and slide projectors, strobe lighting effects, and provocative dances by [Warhol Superstars] Gerard Malanga and Mary Woronov or Ingrid Superstar. It was what we would now think of as a multi-media experience. In 1966 Warhol was managing the Velvet Underground and actively filmmaking. It would appear that EPI was in-part conceived to bring those two areas together, as one of the alternative names for the EPI was ‘Disco-Flicka-Theque’. Certainly, some inspiration for the EPI must have come from the New York ‘Happenings’ of a few years earlier, Warhol’s first encounter with the Velvet Underground in Greenwich Village’s Café Bizarre, and the social and creative space of Warhol’s studio The Factory that staged more intimate concerts and performances as part of its scene. I was wondering whether you thought Warhol’s role as ‘band manager/event organiser’ was conceived by him as an artistic practice or experiment?
‘Band manager’ and ‘event organiser’ are both usually faceless roles, behind the scenes, that involve coordination and collaboration. Warhol regularly collaborated with others throughout his career, even if that collaboration was fraught or problematic. With his films, for instance, he worked on a number of projects with the scriptwriters Ronald Tavel and Chuck Wein. The EPI invites us to think through how these concert events could be ‘Warholian’ – can we identify his mark on them? The American poet and cultural critic Wayne Koestenbaum has argued that, even when Warhol was collaborating with others, the artist’s name would dominate the end product: as he puts it, ‘To work for Warhol was to lose one’s name.’ Were audiences coming to the EPI because of Warhol’s name, or to see a concert by the Velvet Underground?
A good way of thinking about the EPI is as a collaborative project. These events were very much in the spirit of 1960s art practice, especially in terms of the intermingling of different artistic forms and communities in New York. Warhol was very good at working between those different communities, which of course often resulted in conflicts and tensions. It would seem that the EPI was less fraught than some of Warhol’s other collaborations, maybe because it was more public, more about the audience. Interestingly, over the course of 1966 and 1967 there were differing emphases on the various components of EPI, with some flyers and posters highlighting the music side, others the films, while some play up the presence of the ‘superstars’ following the commercial success of Chelsea Girls 1966. It did seem to be quite an organic event. What was consistent though was Warhol’s name as a selling point, probably due to his notoriety. I’m not sure the audience attending the EPI was the same crowd as those visiting his 1966 Leo Castelli exhibition of the Cow wallpaper and Silver Clouds. By 1966 the ‘fine art Andy’ and the ‘EPI/filmmaker/band manager’ seem like distinct personae. But isn’t that what also makes him fascinating – that is, that there are many Warhols?
Certainly, the gentle playfulness of the Cow wallpaper and the Silver Clouds contrasts with the aggressive, almost assaultive experience of the EPI. When the reviewer Larry McCombs attended the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, he wrote that ‘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!’ Clearly, he found it somewhat overwhelming! Warhol’s Vinyl 1965 – his ‘adaptation’ of A Clockwork Orange 1962 (Anthony Burgess) – was one of the films screened at the EPI. The content of that film, along with the transgressive aspects of the Velvet Underground’s lyrics and act, contributed significantly to the critical characterization of the EPI as ‘debauched’ and ‘perverted’. But do you think that people at the EPI were paying close attention to the content of the films that were screened as part of the barrage of materials?
Given that some of the films shown at the EPI were broken up into their constituent reels, that strobes and slides would interrupt the film projector beam, and that the band and dancers would cavort in front of the screens, it’s doubtful. But then, we need to discuss the EPI as a form of ‘expanded cinema’ – which Sheldon Renan defined as ‘cinema expanded to the point at which the effect of film may be produced without the use of film at all’. We can go into that in much more depth and detail at our talk!
See you on the 6th of December!
Join Glyn and Gary for an illustrated talk on Warhol and the Exploding Plastic Inevitable on Saturday 6 December 2014, 14.00 – 15.00 £8, £6 concessions. Includes exhibition entry. Booking essential
Transmitting Andy Warhol is on display at Tate Liverpool until 8 February 2015