Ant Farm was established within the counter-cultural milieu of 1968 San Francisco by two architects, Chip Lord and Doug Michels, later joined by Curtis Schreier. Their work dealt with the intersection of architecture, design and media art, critiquing the North American culture of mass media and consumerism. The group was a self-described "art agency that promotes ideas that have no commercial potential, but which we think are important vehicles of cultural introspection."
Ant Farm produced works in a number of formats, including agitprop events, manifestos, videos, performances and installations. Their early work was a reaction to the heaviness and fixity of the Brutalist movement in contrast to which they proposed an inflatable architecture that was cheap, easy to transport and quick to assemble. This type of architecture fitted well with their rhetoric of nomadic, communal lifestyles in opposition to what they saw as the rampant consumerism of 1970s USA. The inflatables questioned the standard tenets of building: these were structures with no fixed form and could not be described in the usual architectural representations of plan and section. They instead promoted a type of architecture that moved away from a reliance on expert knowledge. Ant Farm produced a manual for making your own pneumatic structures, the Inflatocookbook. The inflatables thus constituted a type of participatory architecture that allowed the users to take control of their environment. Events were also organised inside the inflatables, which were set up at festivals, university campuses or conferences to host lectures, workshops, seminars, or simply as a place to hang out.
Other projects include the 'House of the Century' whose form was reminiscent of the inflatables but made from cement. They also produced a number of utopian projects such as Convention City and Freedom Land. Finally, perhaps their most famous work 'Cadillac Ranch', consists of ten Cadillacs in a row half-buried in the ground with their tail-fins in the air. It is both a tribute to the American car culture as well as a critique of it.
Ant Farm were heavily influenced by the likes of Buckminster Fuller and Archigram and whilst creating an architecture that was utopian, their projects were also always ironic and tongue-in-cheek. Their work revealed the relationships between environmental degradation and mass industry, questioned the role of mass media and consumerism and demonstrated the use of advanced technologies with playful projects like the Dolphin Embassy. They left behind a body of research that was developed outside the privileged institutional context of universities and is still relevant today in debates around sustainable architecture, building technologies as well as public art and architecture.
"We wanted to be an architecture group that was more like a rock band. We were telling Sharon [a friend] that we would be doing underground architecture, like underground newspapers and underground movies, and she said, 'Oh, you mean like an Ant Farm?' and that's all it took. It was very Ant Farm. The founding of the name was indicative of how Ant Farm worked: the right idea comes, everybody acknowledges it is the right idea and instantly adopts it." — Doug Michels
Media Burn On July 4, 1975, Ant Farm performed their "ultimate media event." This event involved crashing a modified 1959 Cadillac Series 62 Convertible—it sported Eldorado side trim, hence it is routinely mistaken for an Eldorado Biarritz—known as their "Phantom Dream Car," through a pyramid of televisions in the parking lot of the Cow Palace in Daly City, bordering San Francisco.
The event, “Media Burn,” took over 6 months to plan because the duo wanted it to be "more than a spectacle." Michels and Lord were interested in having the event sponsored, and first sent the proposal, titled Easy Money, to the Walker Art Center; however, the art center did not want to sponsor the event, nor did any one else that they asked. Michels and Lord began selling merchandise to support the event, in order to "use capitalism to smash capitalism," as described by Michels. Tom Weinberg, a friend from Chicago and a co-founder of TVTV, puts up seed money to start the process.
Preparations include a press kit sent out to local TV and print outlets, the design and production of a souvenir booklet as well as t-shirts, and pre-production with an all volunteer group of six video crews. Produced by Lord, Michels, Schreier, Uncle Buddy, and Tom Weinberg, Media Burn takes place before 400 spectators and a substantial press corps. This marks Doug Hall’s first appearance as the "Artist-President."
Prior to the main event of crashing the car through the stacked televisions, Doug Hall, dressed as President John F. Kennedy, gave a speech in which he presented the "Phantom Dream Car." Lord and Michels designed the Phantom Dream Car to appear futuristic, and have an "Apollo element;" meaning, they could only enter the vehicle's cockpit by crawling in, and their communication would be controlled by radio. Additionally, Lord and Michels would be dressed as astronauts while driving.
Doug Hall's speech addressed what Media Burn believed to be issues with mass media: "What has gone wrong with America is not a random visitation of fate. It is the result of forces that have assumed control of the American system...These forces are: militarism, monopoly, and the mass media...Mass media monopolies control people by their control of information... And who can deny that we are a nation addicted to television and the constant flow of media? And not a few of us are frustrated by this addiction. Now I ask you, my fellow Americans: Haven't you ever wanted to put your foot through your television screen?'"
Media Burn offers critique of the prevalence of television in American culture and "the passivity of TV viewing" through the collision of two symbols of Americana: the Cadillac and the television. Similar critiques of television's growing cultural influence were popular among other early video artists. As a group, Ant Farm was concerned with "reality," and how it is defined by the media because of the trust that the public instills in television. Media Burn directly addresses mass media's control by limiting their presence in the piece. In the video, no real reporters were not shown conducting interviews in order to create a freer exchange of information, which was commonly employed by Guerrilla Television artists at the time. Doug Michels, himself, said that by "using TV to destroy TV," they were working within the theme of Guerrilla Television: to "destroy the monopoly of centralized television." Many reporters in their news coverage of the event said that they "don't get it" and even that they "don't ... wanna get it."
"Ant Farm was deeply committed to a revolution......with a laugh track.” - Michael Sorkin, Architectural Record, Sept. 2003
Truckstop Network Ant Farm’s proposal for a media distribution structure called a “Truckstop Network” allows us to see how fertile the ground was for alternate network structures. In 1970, a modified Chevrolet van with a clear plastic bubble and a distinctive antenna hit the road. Serving as Ant Farm’s temporary home for a year, it contained a TV window, a videotape setup, silver roof-mounted speaker domes, and a dashboard-mounted camera, all hardware “reminiscent of a B-52.” It was quickly named the Media Van, and became an integral part of what they eventually dubbed a “Truckstop Network.” Ant Farm bought several of the new Portapaks and went on tour, stopping at several colleges, shooting video of “dancing chickens, an okra farmer, a ground-breaking in Scottsdale, aspiring pop singer Johnny Romeo belting out a ballad in the Yale School of Architecture…” If the television network refused to broadcast these video images, the Media Van would bring it directly to the audience’s door.
This van drove off during a moment of transition for highway culture. Through the 1960s, Jonathan Crary argues, the automobile and the television worked hand-in-hand in popular culture to conceal the growing complexity of capitalist representation. A highway route had an effect much like television, acting as a sort of TV channel that seemed to enable a driver/viewer’s autonomy by giving him or her the power to choose—even as it cloaked the mechanism of capital behind it. In the 1970s, Crary continues, television “began to be grafted onto other networks… the screens of home computer and word processor,” and the computer’s window replacing the car’s window as the predominant space of the virtual. Though the ideal of car culture had begun to sour—a matter brought to a head by the 1973 oil crisis—it was precisely the highway’s identification with Cold War surplus, rusted roadside attractions, and its lack of newness that made it fertile ground for artistic reappropriation.
Truckstop Network was more than a road trip tour, it was also a statement about mobility itself. Standing at the hinge between auto window and computer window, it proposed a countrywide network of truckstops for “media nomads.” Placed just off the highway, each truckstop would offer an array of services for those living on the road: housing, electricity, and water; truck repair and a communal kitchen; but also communications services—computers and video equipment—seen, “like food and gas, as nutrients necessary for survival.”
The computer aspect was essential to this plan: not only would it link all the truckstops, or “nodes,” in Ant Farm’s parlance, into a nationwide “communication network,” but it would also direct the visitor to the services available at other truckstops—a wood-working shop, or astrology lessons, for example. Truckers could be sent to other nodes via several highway directions; a placemat passed out to audiences on the Ant Farm tour maps several of these cross-country routes. On the flip side of the placemat, a star identifies potential Cold War surplus sites that could be reused as nodes, an act of reappropriating what Mark Wasiuta describes as the nation’s “expanding computerized military network and its underground command centers.” A sketch for one of these sites, identified as a former desert missile silo near Wendato (likely Wendover, Utah), contains plans to transform layers of the silo into various layers for maintaining software (film/video) and hardware (auto/bus), all wired via a solar dish to its nervous system/core.
For Ant Farm, the interconnections turned each node into a “physically fragmented city” of media. Distributed across the country in places where “land is cheap and codes are lax in between the cities,” the Truckstop nodes would be connected by the simplest yet most robust piece of Cold War infrastructure, the interstate highway. And by placing the nodes at the side of the highway, it was possible to build an existence where the journey was the destination, and where the motion of the network was the point of the network. Cars traveling between the nodes thus became packets; remaining in constant motion, each packet would not stop at one node for long before traveling to another node. In other words, packet-switching. Without a centralized node (although at one point Ant Farm envisioned a central computer to direct traffic), the network would constantly move information from point to point while avoiding the concentration of information in any one place. Moreover, the nodes were cheap, inflatable, and flexible. In effect, Ant Farm had envisioned an anarchic, distributed network for mobile living.