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  • Stroboscopic:Warhol and the Exploding Plastic Inevitable
  • Homay King (bio)

Pops and Flashes

At least a half dozen distinct sources of illumination are discernible in Andy Warhol’s The Velvet Underground in Boston (1967), a film that documents a relatively late incarnation of Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable (EPI) (figure 1), a multimedia extravaganza and landmark of the expanded cinema movement featuring live music by the Velvet Underground and an elaborate projected-light show. Shot at a performance at the Boston Tea Party in May 1967, with synch sound, the thirtythree-minute color film combines long shots of the Velvet Underground performing on a stage with close-ups of accent lights, an overhead projector strewn with transparent gels, and dancing figures. A disco ball, reminiscent of the mirrored half-sphere that reliably appears in Warhol’s Factory films, receives frequent close-ups. As the lights play across its mosaic of mirror tiles, it reflects glints of light that float around the room. They form a constellation with a host of other small light fixtures, including one mounted on a wall that displays three rows of small, round, colored orbs that suggest fairy lights.

A spotlight provides another source of illumination. At times, it functions like a searchlight, actively scanning for figures in the black sea of the crowd (figure 2). Its shape creates a circular frame around the figures it selects, sometimes narrowing slightly into a keyhole, making temporary, quasi-static portraits out of the figures. During the Velvet Underground’s performance of “Venus in Furs” (recorded version released in 1967), John Cale plays the electric viola, and the spotlight remains with him for a while. At other times, its movements grow wayward: it swings back and forth, bobbing around and tracing lines across the room, its diameter narrowing and widening more rapidly in an attention-grabbing effect akin the one that Warhol achieved with the zoom lens in films of this era.1 [End Page 457]

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Figure 1.

Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable Show, featuring the new sound of the Velvet Underground, with Nico Pop Girl of ‘66, Poor Richard’s Chicago, June 12 thru June 26.

© 2013 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

[End Page 458]

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Figure 2.

Spotlighting, captured in Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable (dir. Ronald Nameth, 1966).

Courtesy of Ronald Nameth Films.

With these two contrasting styles of implementation, the spotlight seems to function as an intermediary between painting and cinema, emphasizing fixed poses at one turn, and mobile gestures at the next.

Soon, we see Andy seated at an overhead projector, manipulating transparencies, the source of the colors that saturate the club. These projected color gels flatten the depth of field, giving the film and live movement more of the look of Warhol’s paintings. As David Joselit notes, one of the key effects of the EPI light show was to render figure and ground indistinguishable from each other; indeed, the color washes level the separations of field between performers and audience, stage, and floor.2 At times, the film has a monochrome look, as though the scene had been printed, not filmed, producing an effect reminiscent of Warhol’s silk-screened works. Black-and-white films projected silently toward the stage provide another flattening layer; at the shows, these were often exhibited in doubleor triple-screen projection. The musicians’ and dancers’ bodies serve as intermittent screens for these images, which sometimes feature doubles of them.

Writing about an EPI event that took place at the Dom in Manhattan’s East Village in April 1966, John Wilcock describes the palimpsest effect of [End Page 459] the projected lights and sounds, all of which combine to create something like a panoramic multipanel, multichannel work. While one projector on the floor played Warhol’s Couch (1964), he writes,

two other projectors stationed in the balcony were flipped on, beaming two different movies onto the narrow strips of wall beside the stage. A colored spotlight onstage focused onto the mirrored ball that revolved in the ceiling sending pinpoints of light on...


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