Video art on fire
AIC Acquires art from 70s Ant Farm Collective
by Ian Morrison
(Visual and Critical Studies),
with Mark Pascale
(Adjunct Professor and Associate Curator
of Prints and Drawings, AIC)
Ant Farm was an interdisciplinary artist collective comprised of Doug Michels, Chip Lord, Curtis Schreier, Hudson Marquez and others, who worked together through the years 1968 to 1978. The name of the group derives from a conversation the artists had with a friend wherein they explained that they wanted to be an architecture group that was more like an underground rock band. The friend responded, “Oh, you mean like an Ant Farm?”
Trained as architects, the collective was influenced by the ideas of Buckminster Fuller, and, in 1969, they infamously kidnapped him from a lecture he was giving at Rice University in order to stage their own event. Early on, Ant Farm also drew ideas from Anna and Lawrence Halprin’s workshop for dancers and architects; the Halprins challenged their ideas about the organization of space, and helped them to conceptualize performance-based works like Media Burn (1975).
During the years 1968 through 1980, which encompasses what is historically understood as the first decade of video art, scores of groups formed around the use of the readily available PortaPak. The PortaPak was the name assigned to the first affordable mobile video production unit, introduced by Sony in 1967. The ability to shoot high quality video for a low cost enabled artists and independent producers to envision an alternative media, which would document the countercultural moment and strive for profound social change.
As more video work was produced in this affordable way, a growing number of groups and individuals competed for access to cable and public television. Printed on the inside cover of the first issue of Radical Software (Spring 1970)—arguably the only publication devoted to issues surrounding video art—was this statement from its editors: “Power is no longer measured in land, labor or capital, but by access to information and the means to disseminate it.”
Under this mantra, groups like Raindance, videofreex and TVTV made some of the first independent documentaries that were ever shown on television. As the decade progressed and the television industry took shape, competition for airtime with the mainstream media would make it increasingly more difficult to find airtime, and, subsequently, influence in American homes. Media Burn was one of the first videos to express the frustrations of the start and end of this utopian moment in video art.
Part social critique, part humorous happening, Media Burn was first conceived of as a performance in which a customized 1959 Cadillac, which Ant Farm redesigned into the “Phantom Dream Car,” was driven through a pyramid of flaming televisions sets. Turned down by a range of venues including the Walker Arts Center, and a furniture showroom in Houston, Media Burn took place in the parking lot of San Francisco’s exhibition hall, the Cow Palace on July 4, 1975.
Spectators arrived to find a full team of security guards, a souvenir T-shirt shop, and prerecorded ads played over a P.A. system. The event started when a man, introduced as John F. Kennedy and accompanied by four secret service men arrived in a black Lincoln convertible and proceeded to give his Independence Day address. In a Kennedy-like style the “Artist President” stated, “Mass-media monopolies control people by their control of information . . . Who can deny that we are a nation addicted to television and the constant flow of media? Now I ask you, my fellow Americans, haven’t you ever wanted to put your foot through your television screen?”
Cheers rose from the audience, and as the “Phantom Dream Car” drove by the crowd, the countdown began. When the pyramid of televisions was set aflame, various cameramen positioned themselves for the perfect picture. At fifty-five miles per hour the custom-made car crashed into the wall of televisions, making the crowd go wild.
Predicta, the storyboard print for Media Burn — which the AIC Prints and Drawings department recently acquired — does not in fact trace the final work you can see on videotape (which is distributed by the Video Data Bank). Instead, the print outlines a much longer video that was never made. Therefore, its presence as a unique object serves to enhance our understanding of the videotape, and the performance of the work. In the print, the proposed sequence includes a narrative element of a young girl and her dad sitting down to watch TV, as well as shots of the “Phantom Dream Car” driving through a modern city.
Moreover, the print links Ant Farm’s critique of modern architecture with the concept of the video; it outlines the two main reoccurring motifs in the collective’s work: the television set and the car, which they saw as the quintessential elements of modern architecture. One of the cells shows the flaming TV sets smack in the middle of a suburban neighborhood. The family narrative further links the video to architectural elements.
As a print, the storyboard is distinctive in style. Printed in Diazo, a technique similar to a blueprint, it is conceptually succinct with the group’s architectural background. The layout of the print, which is full of appropriated imagery and wry comedy, echoes the aesthetics of both film storyboards and comics, reflecting especially the latter’s montage style. These aspects make the print unique to other known materials involved in Media Burn, because they offer a clear connection between the piece’s performance and architectural elements.
Ant Farm used the storyboard not only as a way to put their ideas to paper, but also as a communication tool to sell their concept. In the early 1970s Ant Farm sent their posters to Chicago-based producer Tom Weinberg, a co-founder of the Gorilla Television group TVTV, to communicate the production of the video. Weinberg, who first thought of calling the project Media Burn, currently runs an archive of non-fiction videos in Chicago. The archive contains over 3000 hours of material reflecting historical, political and social realities, as seen by independent producers from 1972 to 2002. The archive is an exceptional resource for anyone interested in independent video and the history of public television, particularly in relation to Chicago.
Predicta illustrates an interdisciplinary working method coupled with a countercultural ambition that is not unfamiliar to young artists today. The utopian frustrations still plague groups like the Critical Art Ensemble or The Yes Men, who wish to disseminate socially critical art on a grand scale. Others, like Chris Sperandio’s Art Star, embrace the mass media, spectacle and all. While on one hand it is good to see any representation of the contemporary art world in mainstream culture, it is not so farfetched to believe that the members of Ant Farm would not hesitate to put their foot though today’s household television screen.