Ant Farm, House of the Century, 1971–73, Angleton, TX. Photo: Richard Jost, Chip Lord, and Doug Michels.

Ant Farm, House of the Century, 1971–73, Angleton, TX. Photo: Richard Jost, Chip Lord, and Doug Michels.

Ant Farm

The picture that emerges from the Berkeley Art Museum’s fascinating retrospective of Ant Farm, the experimental architecture collective founded by Chip Lord and Doug Michels in 1968, is one of relentless flatness. Co-organized by Constance Lewallen, senior curator of exhibitions, and Steve Seid, video curator at the Pacific Film Archive, the show overwhelms as an endless horizon of two-dimensional stuff: All matter of ephemera, expansive wall texts, and publicity material test the audience’s readerly skills as much as their visual inclinations. This quite literally superficial gestalt may at first seem at odds with the group’s underground ambitions. Ant Farm, after all, appropriated for its collective identity the subterranean metaphor of an insect colony tunneling beneath the earth; and in the group’s repeated exchanges with the counterculture’s techno-literati—among them Buckminster Fuller and Stewart Brand, the poet bard of Whole Earth Catalog fame—they might appear your prototypical hippie venture, hostile to the advances of Spectacle and insistently digging beneath the surface of things.

A quick glance at some of the group’s documentation seems to bear this reading out: No doubt the keep-on-truckin’ ethos of the 1960s and early ’70s found shaggy, psychedelic expression in Ant Farm’s designs for living, varied performances, and witty media critiques. However, one of the show’s many strengths is that it reveals that Ant Farm’s works cannot be reduced to shopworn clichés about the era’s wholly subversive (read: underground) strategies but provides a far more complex image of such practices—practices that both lambaste and gently affirm American popular culture. By appealing to the collective’s larger historical project, the exhibition demonstrates how the architectural and, by extension, spatial concerns of the emerging information age were reimagined as utopian planes of communication.

At first take—an erroneous take, it needs be said—the exhibition’s design seems somewhat artless, as if organizing the show amounted to little more than emptying out the contents of a file cabinet. Clusters of vitrines are filled to bursting with letters, drawings, photographs, posters, books, stickers, and offset lithographs, while flat-panel screens showcase performance events and architectural sites. A continuous time line, designed by the group, wraps around the main gallery and provides a useful chronological overview for the diversity of their investigations. It’s telling that the time line registers sustained forays into the world of graphic design, since both Lord and Michels played significant roles in the evolution of supergraphics, the monumentalizing of graphic design to architectural scale so popular in the 1960 and ’70s. Indeed, save for the Phantom Dream Car from their famous video Media Burn, 1975, which is stationed in the museum lobby, and an inflatable architectural model at the front of the gallery, the show itself resembles an exploded supergraphic.

You could claim that the absence of more object-based material is the result of the fire that gutted Ant Farm’s San Francisco warehouse in 1978, destroying much of their work and ultimately leading to the group’s disbanding. In actuality, though, the appearance of flatness dramatizes a long-standing inquiry into the spaces of communication and the historical urgency surrounding notions of collective identity in the new-media age. Think of Ant Farm’s architectural and media efforts as an attempt to network communities inflected by the ascendance of television, video, and computers in the 1960s. These projects entail not only a profoundly disparate use of media (which suggests the cultural ferment around the linking of communications technologies at the time) but also the distribution of such information in both printed matter and time-based documentation, as well as performances that self-consciously internalize media strategies. Ant Farm’s practice cannot be described as merely pluralistic or profligate for this reason. On the contrary, its visual range demonstrates the systematic nature of their explorations across the media spectrum.

The exhibition makes these concerns explicit in at least two ways, identifiable by the twinned terms of the “pneumatic” and the “nomadic.” The presence of inflatables in the show (or more accurately, the documentation of such structures) positions the group as one of a number of collectives in the 1960s courting the potential of pneumatic architecture (their Italian parallels would include Archigram and Superstudio, whom Ant Farm claimed as decisive influences). Early works such as 50 x 50' Pillow, 1969, created as a production studio for a supplement to the Whole Earth Catalog, saw the group staging temporary installations across California. An enlarged version of Pillow met its end at the notorious, ill-fated rock concert at Altamont, where it served as the concert’s medical center, or what Chip Lord called the “bad-trips pavilion.” Photographs of these and related works typically picture massive translucent structures, shaped like their namesake pillows, set in remote sun-baked landscapes. The presence of bare-chested or naked longhairs cavorting in their interiors and across their surfaces infuse these images with the apposite period flavor.

The inflatables neatly illustrate the attractions of a new architecture fashioned from vinyl or polyethylene: The ambition behind these shape-shifting structures was to produce cheap, instant cities used for social gatherings and alternative living arrangements. This taps into Ant Farm’s DIY mission, which took inspiration from Brand’s book, once described by Todd Gitlin as a “Sears catalog for the New Age.” Pneumatic architecture was not only a function of technological experimentation but was meant to offer sites for communal enjoyment, participation, and education. The retrospective thoroughly documents how these inflatables formed the basis for various “workshops” across northern California, and the group’s Inflatocookbook, 1970, featured in an adjunct gallery, details how anyone could get in on the action. Ant Farm’s signature space-age escape pad, known as House of the Century, 1971–73, implied the “freezing” of the inflatable form in ferroconcrete, as suggested by the house’s rotund dimensions and bubblelike windows.

Yet it is perhaps the deflated character of these pneumatic experiments that best explains Ant Farm’s larger motivations and in the process justifies the overriding appearance of the show. A signal virtue of the inflatable, after all, is its capacity to store and travel flat: Its portability depends on its collapsibility. The transparency of the inflatable, moreover, signals openness and the revelation of information. (The inflatable, we could say, is the proverbial glass house of the new age: nothing to hide.) Taken together, the flat and the transparent stress the communicative potential of an architecture that reaches laterally across time and space, and its ambitions for enlarging its audience along the way. It’s a model of architecture that corresponds to the social organization of the group, which besides core members Lord, Michels, and Curtis Schreier saw a commune-style revolving-door membership as its activities moved between San Francisco and Houston. (In this regard, it’s critical to note Ant Farm’s collaborations with some of the most important players in the burgeoning field of video—TVTV, Videofreex, Michael Shamberg’s Raindance Corporation, and T.R. Uthco.) This notion of architecture as a space of mediation is explicit in Ant Farm’s ideas for the “electrovideo landscape” of Freedomland, 1973, and it found its most visionary expression in the proposal for Dolphin Embassy, 1974–78. Drawings for both projects underscore the group’s futuristic—indeed, utopian—ambitions. Shaped like a kidney bean and housed under a plastic roof, the “leisure time zone” Freedomland was imagined as a three-acre complex of restaurants, shops, and a TV studio: the world enclosed in a bubble. An even loopier conceit, the Dolphin Embassy was established as a nonprofit research foundation in the form of a mobile laboratory. A water-craft christened the Oceania was raised on triple hulls with room in the base for human/animal communion.

If Ant Farm’s architectural projects are marked by an engagement with the pneumatic, their iconography is equally informed by the group’s interest in the nomadic as represented by the automobile. Ant Farm evinced a deep, perhaps surprising faith in the car as a model for the mobility of information. Far from subscribing to environmental doctrine against the evils of American automobile culture, their romance with cars was steeped in hitchhiking lore and narratives about individual freedom tied to the customization of the lowrider and the flower-power VW van. As the Berkeley show amply demonstrates, Ant Farm’s various proposals for “truckitecture” and other car-inspired phenomena suggest a newly emergent citizenship bound by flexible networks of communication. The techno-saturated Media Van, 1971, for instance, was a ’71 Chevy outfitted with surveillance equipment and “hardware reminiscent of a B-52,” whereas plans for Truckstop Network, 1970, imagined a “service matrix” for free-floating nomadic citizens liberated from conventional spatial arrangements.

It’s little wonder, then, that Ant Farm’s most famous videos, Media Burn and The Eternal Frame, 1975, feature cars so prominently. Indeed, the bright yellow Phantom Dream Car—part NASA prototype, part souped-up ’50s roadster—quite literally collapses a car with media. An iconic work of video art from the 1970s, Media Burn shows the futuristic car crashing into a monolithic wall of television sets, setting off a dazzling explosion worthy of the period’s action flicks. In The Eternal Frame, a Zapruder-like reenactment of JFK’s assassination, a Lincoln Continental limo plays as much of a starring role as the artists outfitted in presidential (and First Lady) drag. The Eternal Frame is generally upheld as a critique of the media, a simulacrum in advance of Baudrillard. But given its historic and conceptual proximity to Media Burn (the performance was staged in Dallas only a month after the earlier video was shot in San Francisco), it’s not too far off the mark to suggest that a doubled-edged commentary of car culture is also on offer, both in the collective desire for such machinery as represented in the media and its peculiar associations of violence as implied in the Zapruder fim. For Ant Farm, the car is itself a metaphor for communication on the move; and in this analogy lies the car’s promise—and its threat.

Undoubtedly the single work of art thought to best emblematize Ant Farm is the site-specific Cadillac Ranch, 1974. Described as a modern-day Stonehenge dedicated to the cult of the automobile, it features ten partially buried Cadillacs, tail fins upended, along Route 66 in Amarillo, Texas. Maybe we think we know the piece a little too well. Mention of Cadillac Ranch typically inspires bad Bruce Springsteen imitations or, far worse, flashbacks of car commercials, which have mainstreamed the work’s playful stab on planned obsolescence for the blandishments of roadside Americana. In the context of the Ant Farm retrospective, however, the work begins to read a little differently, confirming the continued relevance of the group’s futuristic prognostications. If Cadillac Ranch stands as an ersatz memorial to the Big Three era—both a tribute and a critique—perhaps it also anticipated the post-Fordist age, in which new communications technologies little need the wheels of industry to make them run.

“Ant Farm” is on view at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive through April 25; travels to the Santa Monica Museum of Art, July 2–Aug. 14; ICA, Philadelphia, Sept. 10–Dec. 12; Blaffer Art Gallery, Houston, Jan. 15–Mar. 13, 2005; ZKM, Karlsruhe, Germany, Apr. 30–July 24, 2005; Yale University School of Architecture Gallery, New Haven, CT, Aug. 29–Nov. 4, 2005.

Pamela M. Lee is associate professor of art history at Stanford University.