Ant Farm: 1968-1978
Santa Monica Museum of Art
In 1974, Ant Farma radical and visionary collective founded by architects and filmmakers Doug Michels and Chip Lordwas invited by patron Stanley Marsh to create an installation on his property near Amarillo, TX. Marshs invitation was open-ended: Ant Farm, which at the time included Michels, Lord, Curtis Schreier and Hudson Marquez, could create anything they wished, anywhere on the property. Long fascinated with Cadillacs and inspired by an illustration in The Look of Cars, Ant Farm decided to create a Cadillac graveyard by burying ten cars made between 1949 and 1964 face down in the dirt, their tail finsicons of automotive affluenceelevated high in the air.
Ant Farm eschewed remote locations offered by Marsh (who also commissioned Robert Smithsons Amarillo Ramp in 1973) in favor of a plot of ground visible from Route 66. Until it was moved in 1997, this monument and critique of Americas material culture was clearly visible from the interstate, easily accessible to anyone willing to get out of their car. At its new home just two miles west, Cadillac Ranch continues to act as sentry to the barren plains of outer Amarillo, though todays visitors often tag the piece, leaving their own, temporary mark on the Texas landscape.
Reproduced on countless magazine covers, T-shirts, postcards and immortalized in Bruce Springsteens song of the same name, Cadillac Ranch became a Texas icon. (Even my auto insurance company, which is based in Texas, sent out a report several years ago with the piece on its cover.) As it turns out, however, Cadillac Ranch is but one example of an astonishing body of work (much of it architectural) that was conceived and realized by Ant Farm during its ten year run.
Founded in 1968 by Michels (Yale School of Architecture) and Lord (Tulane University School of Architecture), Ant Farm disbanded in 1978 after a warehouse fire destroyed most of the collectives work. The Ant Farm retrospectivewhich debuted earlier this year at the Berkeley Art Museum and will travel to New Haven after its stay in Santa Monicais thus composed of what amounts to ephemera from the Ant Farm decade: videos, plans, photographs, magazines and the inflatable structure ICE-9 (1971) which accompanied Ant Farms media van on Truckstop Tour, a nomadic event designed to educate people on the potential of inflatable architecture.
Ant Farm, Cadillac Ranch (Chip Lord, Hudson Marquez, Doug Michels), 1974,
Copyright Ant Farm, 1974, 2004
Photograph Bud Lee
Confronted by a serious dearth of objects to include in the retrospective, curators Constance Lewallen and Steve Seid organized a timeline that covers the gallery walls. Punctuated by videos and illustrated by plans, photographs and articles, the timeline is organized both chronologically and by major worksarchitectural, performance and installation included. In general, attachment to the object dies hard, as evidenced by many recent exhibitions based on performance art. In this context, objects become little more than the leftovers of actionfetishized, put on pedestals or hung on pristine gallery walls.
To their credit, the curators resisted the impulse to fetishize objects produced by Ant Farm, which would have been contrary to the spirit in which the collective worked. Instead, theyve given the viewer an extraordinary number of documents and images to fill in the gaps between Ant Farms most seminal works, Cadillac Ranch, Media Burn (1975) and The Eternal Frame (1975). Media Burn (1975) is a video piece depicting a futuristic space Cadillac crashing through a wall of televisions, while The Eternal Frame (1975) is a re-enactment of the assassination of JFKa performance that took place in Dallas in front of a group of decidedly nonplussed Japanese tourists. Vitrines placed terribly large, yet Ant Farm 1968-1978 takes quite a while to view (which I suspect will make many viewers and critics a bit disgruntled).
As evidenced in these photographs and videos, Ant Farm was obviously not adverse to the Woodstock-inspired dream of a community of peaceful, stoned activists frolicking in the nude. Members (which included as many as twenty people depending on the size of the project) were closely aligned with the counterculture movement and motivated by the same antiestablishment ideas that drove many artists working in the late sixties and early seventies away from object-based work to performance and video.
In fact, it was Woodstock that inspired Ant Farms inflatable architecture, designed with the idea that an inflatable city could be easily transported from concert site to concert site. (Ant Farms fifty-by-fifty foot Pillow was used as a medical pavilion at the Rolling Stones free concert at Altamont in 1969.) Despite this philosophical connection to late sixties and early seventies avant garde, Ant Farm was less a performance and video collective than a group of radical architects. Videotaped performances were a means to an enda way to get the message out. Other supplemental teaching tools included Inflatocookbook (1970), which contained instructions on how to build inflatable structures.
By and large, Ant Farms performances reinforced radical visions of architectural space including Truckstop, the four-month performance tour for which ICE-9 and Media Van were created. Permanent, site-specific works formed another, more durable part of their repertoire. An art building at Antioch College in Ohio conceived and constructed by the group is to this day extremely functional. Thanks to the generosity of two other Texan patrons, Marilyn and Alvin Lubetkin, the group designed and built a Ferro-cement version of ICE-9 called House of the Century (1972). Despite its extreme impracticality, House of the Century won several architectural awards and was featured in Playboy magazine before it was destroyed in a flood.
A fascination with cars that characterized Ant Farms work after 1974 grew out of a belief that the automobile had become the second (or sometimes primary) home for Americans who saw their cars as the fourth necessity after food, clothing and shelter. Media Burn and The Eternal Frame both used Cadillacs as central images, as did Citizens Time Capsule (1975). In Australia the group staged a car opera conducted by Chip Lord dressed as a kangaroo. The groups last project, however, records a shift back to their architectural roots. The Dolphin Embassy (1976) was a floating structure reminiscent of Ant Farms early emphasis on inflatable architecture.
Ant Farm, Space Cowboy Meets Plastic Businessman, 1969
Performance at Alley Theater, Houston
On one hand, Ant Farms vision of attainable and very cheap architecturea vision well articulated in this long overdue retrospectiveseems hopelessly dated and utopian, expressing the belief that a brave new world is actually possible. On the other hand, the need for good, affordable architecture is more pressing now than ever. This past March, Mike Davis published Planet of Slums in The New Left Review (March-April 2004), a chilling indictment of the failure of neoliberal capitalism, which Davis suggests is responsible for the growth of sustenance populations in urban Third World citiesa growth unaccompanied by economic prosperity. It is increasingly clear that the division between the wealthy and the extremely poor is more pronounced today than ever, with many of the worlds poor lacking basic shelter. Ant Farms vision of a democratically available and inexpensive architecture, a vision highlighted in this exhibition, is one that should be seriously considered today.