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27. Ant Farm's Media Burn (1975)
This is the sort of media critique that, in 2010, seems really quaint. Preceding Media Burn's end credits is an all-caps screen of grimmish statistics: "99.9% OF ALL HOMES IN USA WITH ELECTRICITY HAVE TV SETS," "COLOR SETS ARE WATCHED 49 HRS/WK," etc. But this was an era with, what, five widely-available channels? And even those behemoths weren't particularly advanced, because they didn't have to be, at precision-engineering the kind of maximally lizard brain-engaging shadow plays they (and countless others) do today.
Even the focus on television itself comes off as remarkably un-prescient. Despite not having flipped on a TV set since 2006, I'd still wager confidently that I consume more media on a daily basis than the average American. While I can think back to a comparatively TV-saturated childhood -- I dare not tally the hours spent on Ned & Stacey reruns alone -- it now feels distant to me on several levels. Alien, almost. While those memories make me consider seriously arguments indicting the medium's uniquely "dumbening" power, how relevant is it in a world where I can simply, with nary an emotional of physical effort, turn to any of dozens of others?
But let's say, for the sake of proper interpretation, that, from the vantage point of July 4, 1975, the intersection of U.S. television programming and the population's viewing habits -- at least to one San Francisco artists' collective's collective mind -- constituted a Very Bad Thing Indeed. Decline of the Republic and whatnot, presumably. As a strike back, this collective stacked a pile of old TV sets into a wall, built a reinforced monstrosity of a '59 Cadillac convertible, staged the pomp and circumstance of a combined NASA launch and State of the Union address, drove the Cadillac into the wall, curried maximum mainstream media attention and reaction -- then packaged the whole thing as its own television program.
As socio-cultural protests go, this beats a solemn trudge through the streets. It's certainly more fun than the bland, frowny, dowdy-mother-driven and dowdy-mother-wooing campaigns -- "Kill Your TV" and such -- into which this current flowed by the 1990s. It's hard not to be captivated by the piece's sheer ridiculousness, especially when a gang of somewhat ragtag "Secret Service" agents ferry in Ant Farm leader Doug Hall, layered in Kennedyesque hair and makeup, to deliver an extended address about the televisual state of the country and the vital importance of fringe groups' cartoonish statements against it. Dare to suppress a chuckle at astronaut-y trappings of the Phantom Dream Car's pilots as well; their post-mission waving from the back of the Artist-Presidential convertible will draw one no matter what.
Having by this point grown accustomed to the fluttery, unedited Portapak production values of 60s and 70s video artists, I'm favorably impressed by Media Burn's polish. Polish is probably the wrong word, but what else to call the elaborate physical setup, the interweaving of attendee interviews and "real" news media material, the legitimately good-sounding audio and the coverage of the PDC-TV wall impact from a bunch of different angles and even in slow motion? I'm not sure if Ant Farm's goal was to match and thus subvert the quality of mainstream television, but it doesn't match it and I'm none too interested in subversion. I would argue, though, that the off-kilteriness of the collective's coverage of its own events is more enjoyable than traditional television aesthetics. I'd say television has something to learn from it, but hey, I'm watching it on the internet. I watch almost everything with televisual origins on the internet. Maybe the internet has something to learn from it.
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