UbuWeb Film

Ant Farm

The Eternal Frame (1976)
Media Burn (1968-1978)
Cadillac Ranch (1968-1978)
Dirty Dishes, Part 1 (1968-1978)
Dirty Dishes, Part 2, Off Air Australia, Part 1 (1968-1978)

When, in 1961, Newton Minow, the chairman of the FCC, declared television to be a "vast wasteland," one might have imagined an arid tract of skittering tumbleweed, buildings in ruin, and perhaps a once gallant bronze statue lying face down in the dust-the end of civilization as we know it tersely summarized by the green glow of excited phosphors. Had this metaphor held true, though, television would have long ago lost its sway over the populace. A more apt metaphor might be that television is a "vast cornucopia," containing suburbs lush unto distraction, social travails transmuted into pleasant genres, and countless items for consumer redemption: the days of our lives with just the right measure of commercial interruption.

Of course, something else lurked just beneath the luxuriant surface of the televised image, concealed within the magnetic pulses, faint within the fields and frames. You could call it, as video engineers would, the control track. Intractable and stodgy, television arose as a system of social discipline, not so much by determining behavior as by discouraging it through its uncanny promotion of passivity. Unresponsive, monolithic, unidirectional: was this an appliance or a parent?

Keen to maintain its primacy as both mesmer and mall, the institution of TV held little discussion with its audience outside the mute numerics of viewership. But where was the popular recourse? TV's obtuse resistance to sharing ideas, much less power, was aided by an absolute technological advantage: the tools of transmission were cumbersome, finicky, regulated, and costly beyond consideration. Make some of your own? Ha! All this was to change with the introduction of the Sony Portapak, a twenty-five-pound studio-in-a-box. Now access and portability were available at a reasonable buy-in, about $1,500. What wasn't included in the package were the rigid, shopworn conventions that typified television. Rather, the Portapak represented a kind of zero-degree technology, a starting point for new models, new vocabularies, new interventions.

As with the introduction of any new technology, the clamor of a promised utopia could be detected in the background noise: "From the wasteland, let a thousand electronic flowers bloom." And bloom they would, in myriad hybridized forms, seeded then cultivated by visionary artists and activists who incorporated the newly liberated electronic image into conceptual environments, guerrilla news, artful ethnographies, time-based easels, interdisciplinary collaborations, and sundry other experiments. If anything linked the dispersed proponents of new television (not the kind that presumes broadcast, but one disseminated hand-to-hand, eye-to-eye, and sometimes through wires), it was an uncontrolled appetite for contestation. New models for use weren't invented so much as debunked and discarded; models, after all, carried the stench of future convention.

No wonder, then, that Ant Farm, a trio of rad architects (Chip Lord, Doug Michels, and Curtis Schreier, later to be joined by Hudson Marquez), would find themselves veering toward video. Researching innovative ways to structure space had led this iconoclastic design collective to the nomadic and disposable solution of the inflatable. Video itself was something of an inflatable: weightless yet embodying volumes, virtual, and fluidic. An open-ended architecture, video extended into the environment as both physical object and flimsy image, all-seeing yet siteless.

Video's potential to realize new environmental relations received its trial run in the summer of 1969. At an event in Houston organized by the Contemporary Arts Museum, Ant Farm assembled Electronic Oasis, a multimedia spectacle with draped parachutes, a small inflatable, assorted props, projected slides, and TV monitors in a closed-circuit array. Cameras in the space captured both the audience and the performers-Ant Farm accomplices in jumpsuits, miner's lamps, and goggles. Though no epochal performance itself, the displaced video images suited the "environmental fantasies" of the moment.

Soon the experimentation would move outdoors, when Ant Farm constructed the ambitious, ragtag installation 100 Television Sets (1972), a landscape piece that accompanied the House of the Century, near Houston. Situated beside a small lake, the House of the Century (1971-73), a ferro-cement domicile with futuro-phallic features, stood out from the site, auguring some playful tomorrowland. One hundred unplugged TV sets distributed about a meadow, some situated in the shallows of the shoreline, held forth for the past, a shoddy technology already collecting weeds. Trading scruffy swamp grass for lush tropical flora, Ant Farm beat out Nam June Paik's TV Garden (1974) by a growing season or two. Ant Farm's Houston video experiments had come about through borrowed equipment, but back on the West Coast, circumstances changed. Having received a small windfall, Ant Farm associate Joe Hall purchased the first of several Sony Portapaks.

This was the summer of 1970, when Ant Farm turned on, tuned in, and got dropouts. It was also the summer when Ant Farm's primary fixations--cars, media, and architecture--found themselves neatly encapsulated in a single concept, the Truckstop Network. Occasional practitioners of nomadics, Ant Farm procured a Chevy van, added skylights, antennae, a techno-lounge, and "Media Van" signage, then hit the road. In tow was a tiny trailer, sporting a kitchen, a shower, both with solar-heated water, and the Ice-9 inflatable. This was the self-sufficient mobile happening and image-capture machine. Following a southern route, first in 1970, then again in the spring of 1971, Ant Farm lectured at colleges, staged impromptu events, and documented roadside culture. The videotapes from these tricked-out treks, given titles like Wild Seed (1971) and The Advance of Spring (1971), are a sort of free-range ethnography, with dancing chickens, an okra farmer, a groundbreaking in Scottsdale, aspiring pop singer Johnny Romeo belting out a ballad in the Yale School of Architecture, and more. These were processual tapes, more mangy memento than polished for posterity. Most surprising was the twenty-four-minute epic The World's Longest Bridge (1970), a single take of the crossing of the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway in Louisiana. Here, the durational hook captures the lulling monotony of the drive with rigorous simplicity.

Over the next few years, Ant Farm continued their antic explorations, making videotapes that were rollicking, informal, and scruffy. Every style of delivery was plundered--the talk show, the industrial, the diary, the travelogue, the magazine. Dirty Dishes (1970) brought us Ant Farm direct from their studio, drug-inflected, performing scenes from character Bill Ding's wedding, a topless talk show, and a syrupy portrait of another Ant Farm regular, Honey Bear. Apollo (1972) features Chip Lord, Doug Michels, and others cruising in a 1950 Hudson Hornet, intercut with footage from the Apollo 17 mission and a NASA logo juxtaposed with an Uncle Buddie bumper sticker. (A few years down the road, in 1975, the asphalt astronauts would ride again in Media Burn.) "The Amos Milburn Show" (1973) casts Hudson Marquez as a public-access talk-show host and Lord as Chic de Sheik, whose clip show embeds Ant Farm projects in a mind-boggling montage of artificial hearts, concept cars, and brain surgery. Freedomland (1973), a slick promotional film about Ant Farm's "leisure-time zone of the future," has a well-groomed Michels pitching the cost-effectiveness of their domed mall to potential developers. The How-to Inflatables Illustrated (1971) focuses on Curtis Schreier as he makes a tabletop inflatable, using household materials and an iron. Trypdique (1971) is an early video letter between Ant Farm and TVTV (Top Value Television), in which Michels, sitting amid 100 Television Sets, suggests collaborations, and Megan Williams of TVTV returns the favor with a quick sample of psychedelia.

Beneath the wry throwaways, cultural barbs, and stoner pranks, Ant Farm was getting its chops down, learning the way of the media. The insights gained here-about the powerful mechanisms by which the image could lull, distract, compel, replace, and deceive-would gather full force in later works, most notably Media Burn (1975) and The Eternal Frame (1975). Before embarking on that masterful duo of works, however, Ant Farm had the small matter of Cadillac Ranch (1974) to dispose of. There's probably no better-remembered public artwork than those ten Caddies with their butts overheating in the prairie sun. A paean to the triumphant tailfin, a camp commemorative to fifties optimism, a jab at the promise of mobility with its down-in-the-dirt terminus-whatever meaning may well from its wheel wells, Cadillac Ranch, situated just a few hundred yards from Route 66, could probably do just fine without the companion videotape. The tape, however, more properly monikered as The Cadillac Ranch Show, serves as a kind of spin control, or, better yet, as a fishtail on a different shoulder. Rather than interpret the sculpture, Ant Farm offers up a raucous cast of characters, with a sterling performance by Stanley Marsh 3, the fat-cat patron of the arts, playing Leo Wyoming. In one wildly referential scene, a cowboy-costumed Marsh slaps leather, then shoots the words "Ant Farm" in the door of a Caddie while singing "the Cadillac Ranch will take you away, take you away," the tune ripped from the Beatles' "Magical Mystery Tour." This isn't just equine culture battling it out with General Motors; the "mystery tour" is leading us elsewhere. Luckily, as several excerpted GM promotional films tell us, all Cadillacs come with safety glass.

Earlier in the tape, a text crawl announces (with a tip of the ten-gallon to Tom Robbins) that Cadillac Ranch is "a roadside attraction . . . but not just another roadside attraction." This is a fact confirmed during an interview conducted by Willie Walker in which Lord, disguised as Uncle Buddie, discloses plans for a curio shop with postcards. When the myth of the horse, and, by extension, the car, whinnies in exhaustion, it is traditionally put out to pasture, or, in some cases, a Texas prairie. But in this canny act of postmodern redemption, the myth lives on, saddled by commodiŪcation, rendered (not at the glue factory) as postcard, T-shirt, and baseball cap. Visitors entering the curio shop would encounter the ofŪcial infomercial, Cadillac Ranch Show, with its opening jingle "Buy, buy, buy for baby" sung over a scene of swarming ants.

Buried inside "The Amos Milburn Show" (1973) is an obscure bit of reportage, displayed as a discrete text roll, about a man in Redding, California, who fired several well-placed shots from his deer rifle into his TV set. Upstate news sources quoted this anonymous hunter as saying, "Haven't you ever wanted to shoot your TV set?" Two years later, this act of off-season frustration would be revivified as Media Burn-only now the projectile would be the Phantom Dream Car and the hunter, well, a couple of Media Matadors. On July 4, 1975, in the vast asphalt field surrounding San Francisco's Cow Palace, Ant Farm jump-started Media Burn with a momentous performance in which a customized 1959 Cadillac El Dorado Biarritz was driven through a wall of burning TV sets. Though this high-octane performance would appear to be Media Burn, it was, in actuality, not. The performance attained its raison d'?tre not in the fiery collision, but in its transformation to an image: it was in that singular moment when the Vidicon tubes blinked that Media Burn occurred-or, perhaps more correctly, when "Media Burn" arrived at Media Burn. In this sense, the performance was a formality, necessitated by a press release announcing a "media event" to be staged on Independence Day. It was an event that then set in motion a chain of mediated opportunities, culminating in a self-referential tape that would, in turn, be lost to its own image. The undeniably resonant image of the Phantom Dream Car suspended in an avalanche of flaming TV sets-an image reproduced in art magazines, wildly popular postcards, and even a well-traveled music video-would foil its own critique. Or was it supposed to? Media Burn is, in fact, a prismatic critique, unfolding layers of dissimulation. From the first inciteful press release promising a "media event" to its re-creation in the videotape, the work foregrounds its own construction in a clutter of agitated images.

On the day of the performance, in the encircling parking lot, "photo ops"-in the sense of operatives with cameras-abounded; while news crews covered the "media event," which included several hundred spectators, Ant Farm's collaborators, such as Optic Nerve, covered the news crews. Additional footage taken from news broadcasts was also incorporated into the videotape, lending such choice quotes as "What does it all mean? Well, presumably the message is for the media. Get it?" In the videotape, we hear the arrival of the Artist-President being announced in the midst of preparations for the Phantom Dream Car's run. A sly John F. Kennedy impersonation performed by Doug Hall of T. R. Uthco, the Artist-President disembarks from a Lincoln limo and ascends to the podium, accompanied by Secret Service Agents. With high seriousness, he delivers a speech asking, "What has gone wrong with America?" The culprits, he answers, are the three Ms: "Militarism, Monopoly, and Mass Media." A quick segue to the mission at hand, the journey "into the unknown," has "J.F.K." lauding the coming bravery of Ant Farm's land-based astronauts, "pioneers as surely as were Lewis and Clark when they explored uncharted territory." Then in a final moment, he leaves behind the rant and rhetoric, arriving at the crux: "The world may never understand what was done here today, but the image created here shall never be forgotten." Who better to regard the unknowable incident? Who better to acknowledge the memorialized icon? Here, an arc is drawn from tarmac lot to grassy knoll, shared birthplace of the distressed image.

The Artist-President departs, his work neatly done. The two Media Matadors now stand beside the Phantom Dream Car as "The Star-Spangled Banner" is heard. This stirring moment is accompanied by footage of the flag waving over navy warships, a filched sign-off from a TV station-and a "sign-off" is what this is intended to be. The Phantom Dream Car combined crash-test iconography and space-age optimism. Employing a camera concealed in the car's custom tailfin, the asphalt astronauts (or "artist-dummies," Michels and Schreier) navigated the vehicle via video images, having no visual access to their destination except on a monitor in the dashboard. The materiality of the burning target was reduced to the scale of a ten-inch screen. The drivers drove television to television, a collision of kind. When the crash finally occurs in the videotape, multiple camera sources scrutinize the impact, varying angle and speed, slowing the "phantom dream" to a standstill while the cascading sets, suspended in air, anticipate their assumption as a singular image. Speeding across the parking lot, the custom Caddie had been heading toward a critical intersection. When it arrived, it became something else: a self-propelled image, traveling beyond the itinerary of Media Burn.

Less than a month after the Media Burn event, Ant Farm and cohorts T. R. Uthco headed to Dallas with the Lincoln limo in tow, ready to take on the most famous image of the twentieth century, the death of John F. Kennedy. What could be considered our nation's first official snuff film, the Zapruder footage, in a mere handful of frames, encapsulated the loss of the real. Of course, this loss was itself real-a visualized tragedy, demanding that you avert your gaze from both the death and the unknowability of the death. America's fixation with the Zapruder footage has driven us in two directions, a bipolarity of purpose. The inspection takes us close, frame by frame, looking for the Delta T of connection and conspiracy, and still closer into the particulates, the mysteries of emulsion. Yet in another direction of inquiry, the Zapruder images depart their celluloid refuge, entering the spectatorial sublime, untethered, impalpable, the stuff of myth. Which way lies the truth? Ant Farm and T. R. Uthco were on the road to find out-but they weren't after the truth, per se. Even back in 1975, the truth was tainted goods. This was more about an aggressive confrontation with a seminal image, at best, some foolhardy closure and a quick retreat. The Eternal Frame bristles with nervous energy. After all, this troupe of artists has come to Dallas to restage the Zapruder footage at that most sacred of sites, Dealey Plaza. It could be misconstrued as stupendous bad taste, a possibility acknowledged by Hall, in Texas to reprise his grand Artist-President. It could roil the wrong emotions, rile the wrong folks. Michels, who will look pretty in pink as a drag Jackie, confesses, "It's too high profile. And it's a scary event."

The rehearsals are many: out on the streets in civvies, in a studio in full dress. With Lord directing, the artists-Doug Hall as J.F.K., Michels as Jackie, Stanley Marsh 3 as Governor Connelly, Jody Procter as the Secret Service Agent-fine-tune their impersonations, the clack of gunshots triggering their mimicry. In a brilliant passage, the Lincoln limo with all aboard is shown in black and white before a nondescript studio wall; a blue-screened color backdrop is keyed, then the color is bled to black and white. A cut to the same image on a TV set brings us to a hotel room, where the artists watch themselves in high humor. The journey from real-time restaging to television's 525 lines of etherized perfection is now complete. Much like the Media Matadors of Media Burn, who risked grievous harm, the Artist-President of The Eternal Frame makes the supreme sacrifice, his "image-death on the streets of Dallas, Texas, August 10, 1975." This statement is made a month after his reported death, confirming the continued circulation of the fatal image. In his short speech, the Artist-President declares that he, like his elected predecessors, "can [n]ever again be anything more than an image" and that the "content of the image I present is no different than the image itself." A brief cut, not to his teleprompter, but to his makeup session, interrupts the Artist-President's studied oration-appearance vying with, well, appearance.

Out on the street, slowly circling Dealey Plaza, the reenactment continues. Mistaking it for a tourist spectacle, bystanders gasp in dizzy epiphany as the quintessential American trauma plays out before them. "Oh look, he's reenacting it. Oh nooo!" says a gently weeping spectator. "A beautiful enactment. It was too beautiful," says another, wishing she had her camera. Running by the grassy knoll to get a closer look, a Japanese tourist yells, "They kill Mr. President!" "Image-death" on the streets of Dallas, with shows at 1:00, 1:30, 2:00, and so on. Then, to the strains of "Glory, Glory, Hallelujah," a hail of reenactments is slowed, tinted, degraded, reduced to stilled image. The eternal frame in eternal return, replaying the core disturbance, but reaching beyond it to gauge that "no image could ever be in the past, nor could ever be in the future, anything but dead."

Like much of Ant Farm's media work, The Eternal Frame addresses a genre-in this case, the "making-of" video, complete with behind-the-scenes exclusives, outtakes, candid commentary from the creatives, and the fans' reactions. But it is also an "unmaking-of" video, giving us the inside dope on the perplexity of the image. "Is it art?" the Artist-President is asked. And after a moment's hesitation, he responds, "It's not not-art."

Turning their rear-view mirror toward the future, Ant Farm discovered that the image is always farther away than it appears, elusive, unrestrained, fleeting. With virtuosic handling, they sped down a road of their own making. Attached to the trunk of their dusty Dream Car, a prescient bumper sticker announced in bold type: the images created here shall never be forgotten.


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