Ant Farm 1968 - 1978, at the Berkeley Art Museum through April 25, documents the lively collective whose work is sublimely relevant more than three decades later. The curator’s essay that follows, by Constance Lewallen, was adapted for publication from the exhibition catalog, which is published by the University of California Press. During the run of the exhibition, Stretcher will present a new excerpt from the catalog every three weeks.

— The Editors

Ant Farm — a collective of radical architects who were also video, performance, and installation artists but, above all, visionaries and cultural commentators — offers an intriguing look into the conceptual activity of the late sixties and seventies, a time that has proved to be seminal for succeeding generations of adventuresome artists.

Ant Farm was founded as an architecture and design group in 1968 by recent architecture graduates Doug Michels (Yale School of Architecture) and Chip Lord (School of Architecture, Tulane University). In the idealistic spirit of the times, they were determined to work outside traditional architecture. They were joined by Curtis Schreier (Rhode Island School of Design), Hudson Marquez (Newcomb Art Department, Tulane University), Douglas Hurr (Architecture School, North Carolina State University), and others who came and went. Eventually, the group, whose base shifted between San Francisco and Houston, solidified into the three principals: Michels, Lord, and Schreier. The collective, who saw themselves as part of the cultural underground, was compared by a friend to a toy Ant Farm (ubiquitous in the sixties), where frenetic activity takes place below the surface and collectivity is a way of life. The name stuck.

Ant Farm worked against a backdrop of tremendous cultural ferment, especially in San Francisco, where the free speech movement, centered just east of the city at the University of California at Berkeley, was followed by passionate antiwar demonstrations. Thousands of young people had flocked to the area, lured by the 1967 Summer of Love. Ant Farm partook of the youth culture’s embrace of communal living, sexual liberation, mind-altering drugs, and utopian ideals, from the mundane do-it-yourself ethos of the Whole Earth Catalog to the grandiose belief that they could change the world.

The Bay Area was also a center for new art forms such as performance and video, to which Ant Farm gravitated along with their forays into radical architecture. Lord had firsthand experience of Anna and Lawrence Halprin’s workshop for dancers and architects, “Experiments in Environments,” where free expression, collaboration, audience participation, and ritual were emphasized. Anna Halprin’s influence extended not only to modern dance (through students such as Meredith Monk and Yvonne Rainer), but also to the visual arts, and her work exemplifies the spirit of artistic innovation that characterized the region as a whole. Ant Farm shared with other young avant-garde artists a commitment to working outside the system (which in any case provided little or no support for nontraditional art) in order to go their own experimental way.

In the early years of their collaboration, Ant Farm set out to create an alternative architecture suited to a nomadic lifestyle. Inspired by such visionaries as Buckminster Fuller and Paolo Solari, as well as the utopian European architecture group Archigram, they concentrated on developing giant inflatable structures, easy and cheap to build and transport and symbolic of their opposition to mainstream Brutalist architecture of the sixties. In 1970, in their Media Van, a modified Chevrolet van, they set out on the Truckstop Network, a rollicking tour of colleges and universities, unrolling and inflating their ICE-9 inflatable and demonstrating the Eisenhower-era trailer, which contained a kitchen and an inflatable shower unit with solar-heated hot water. These interactive events (one of which took place in Sproul Plaza at the University of California, Berkeley) were closer to happenings than to typical architectural demonstrations.

Ant Farm completed several successful architectural commissions, including the Newman Media Studio and the Poole House Remodel in San Francisco (1971 and 1974, respectively), the Antioch Art Building in Yellow Springs, Ohio (1971), and the award-winning House of the Century in Angleton, Texas (1971-73). They proposed prescient projects such as Freedomland, a shopping mall designed for teenagers (1973); Convention City, a state-of-the-art facility for political conventions (1972); and Dolphin Embassy, a sea station where man and dolphin could communicate (1974-78). Through architectural projects, Ant Farm was able “to be both part of the subculture and part of the mainstream,” as cultural historian Rebecca Solnit has observed. Michael Sorkin, in his essay for this catalog, “Sex, Drugs, Rock and Roll, Cars, Dolphins, and Architecture,” describes Ant Farm’s architectural contribution in a cultural context that includes the French Surrealists and American car culture.

Ant Farm’s architectural happenings were documented on video with a Sony Portapak video camera acquired soon after it was commercially available. The group’s wide-ranging and imaginative interests could not be satisfied within a single discipline, and from the beginning they explored the expressive potential of video and performance. Media Burn, a spectacular performance and later a widely distributed videotape, was a literal collision of two American icons: the car and the television set. On July 4, 1975, in the parking lot of San Francisco’s Cow Palace, Schreier and Michels, outfitted like astronauts, crawled into the Phantom Dream Car — a customized 1959 Cadillac El Dorado Biarritz complete with interior video communication — and drove it full speed through a pyramid of flaming TVs. The event was widely covered on TV news, exemplifying Ant Farm’s remarkable ability to exploit the very medium it opposed.

In the late sixties and seventies, experiments in collective living and working reflected the counterculture ethos of pooling talent and resources. Ant Farm members teamed up with members of the video collective Raindance to form TVTV (Top Value Television) in order to provide alternative video coverage of the 1972 Republican and Democratic conventions. They also worked with T. R. Uthco-San Francisco artists Doug Hall, Diane Andrews Hall, and Jody Procter- to create The Eternal Frame). This 1975 videotaped reenactment of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, with Doug Hall as the Artist-President, Michels as Jackie, and Procter as the Secret Service Agent, is considered a masterpiece of early video. It is a quintessential comment on the replacement of real experience and memory with a mass-media version — in the case of the Kennedy assassination, one etched into the collective consciousness from countless viewings of the Zapruder film. Television saturation of tragic events is now commonplace, a most dramatic and widespread example being the televised World Trade Center attack. But not only was Kennedy the first president who owed his election victory to television; his death was the first televised American tragedy.

It is the rare artwork that achieves the status of an icon, but Ant Farm’s 1974 Cadillac Ranch, along Route 66 (now Interstate 40) in Amarillo, Texas, is one such example. Commissioned by Stanley Marsh, Ant Farm members Lord, Marquez, and Michels partially buried ten Cadillacs nose down in a wheat field on Marsh’s ranch. Arguably the best-known public artwork in America, it is seen by an estimated 280,000 people each year as they cruise down the highway (not a few of whom make the two-hundred-yard trek to see it up close and perhaps scratch their names into one of the cars). The work is both a celebration of the evolution of the tailfin, which adorned Cadillacs from 1948 to 1964, and a critique of Detroit’s practice of planned obsolescence. “Its Stonehenge quality precisely suggests the work of a cult willing to go to absurd lengths in worship of an object of totally strange character,” as Sorkin observes. Cadillac Ranch has been celebrated in song by Bruce Springsteen and appropriated with or without permission by dozens of companies advertising cars (Volvo, Chrysler, Lincoln), insurance (GE), computers (Compaq, Tandon), or hip eating establishments (Hard Rock Cafe, Denver’s Cadillac Ranch).

As American as apple pie, but at the same time highly critical of the establishment, “Ant Farm presented a wonderful alternative model where you can love cars and critique them, where the assassination of JFK can be deconstructed, celebrated, and shuddered at, where private passions and public issues can hit a kind of merge lane,” Solnit has said. Ant Farm disbanded officially in 1978 after a fire in their San Francisco studio destroyed much of their work. Fortunately, most of their photographic documentation and videotapes survived, and this, along with Ant Farm materials lent by friends, supporters, and collectors, has enabled the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive to mount Ant Farm 1968-1978 and, working with the artists, to prepare this catalog.

What are they doing now? Doug Michels was head of creativity at his studio in Houston, specializing in architecture and ideas. Chip Lord is an artist working in video and photography and is a professor and chair of the Film and Digital Media Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Hudson Marquez is a painter and sculptor in Los Angeles. He is represented by La Luz de Jesus Gallery. Curtis Schreier describes himself as a psylocybal pterodactor available for worldwide consultation.

The catalog for Ant Farm 1968-1978 is supported by a grant from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts.

The catalog and exhibition have also been made possible by The Judith Rothschild Foundation, in recognition of Doug Michels; the National Endowment for the Arts; Rena Bransten; Marilyn Oshman; the Consortium for the Arts at UC Berkeley; the Windfall Foundation; and Joan Roebuck. Special thanks to Robert and Caroline Michels.

Ant Farm 1968-1978 is organized by the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive and is cosponsored by the College of Environmental Design and Department of Architecture.


— Constance M. Lewallen is senior curator at the Berkeley Art Museum.