Among the most radical countercultural collectives of the 1970s was the California-based design group called Ant Farm. Founded in 1968 by architects Chip Lord and Doug Michels, and later joined by joined by architect Curtis Schreier, Ant Farm invented innovative inflatable structures and biomorphic houses and participated in psychedelic theater events and happenings. They published a dynamically designed architectural manifesto and construction handbook called the Inflatocookbook. The book advocated blow-up architecture and supergraphics as a way to challenge the starchy conventions of the International Style in modern architecture and particularly the Brutalist movement of the 1960s and 1970s. In a similarly playful and critical spirit, Ant Farm embraced the new medium of video to critique the constricted world view then offered by broadcast television.

 The two videos presented here—Media Burn and The Eternal Frame, both from 1975—are classics of early video, both in terms of their crude technology and their subtle political perspectives. They might be termed “mockumentaries,” since each uses documentary-style staging and behind-the-scenes footage for satiric effect. These works explore the distorting nature of media representation where reality and fiction blend. In both tapes the lead character is the “artist-president,” a JFK impersonator (Doug Hall of another art collective, T.R. Uthco) whose speeches decry “militarism, monopoly and mass media.” Of the media, he says, “Who can deny that we are a nation addicted to media? And frustrated by our addiction…. I say it is time to loosen the grip of mass media on the free flow of information and images!”

 Media Burn was staged at the Cow Palace in San Francisco on July 4, 1975, and was promoted as a spectacle and as a media event. After much hoopla and speechmaking, the performance itself consists of Michels and Schreier—dressed as a cross between Evel Knievel and NASA astronauts—driving a customized Cadillac El Dorado (the “Phantom Dream Car”) through a pyramid of burning televisions. The spectacular pseudo-event was widely covered by the mainstream news, and those reports are incorporated into the final tape. 

The Eternal Frame, conceived by Ant Farm in collaboration with the collective T.R. Uthco, is a documentary account of their notorious 1975 reenactment of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination on the site of the original event. Coming just twelve years after the assassination, when the trauma was still palpable and surrounded by new conspiracy theories, the video repeatedly restages the ghastly scene with campy irreverence. As the horrified and amused reactions of Dallas tourists demonstrate, the filmed reenactments question the nature of collective memory and constructions of truth in the media.

These videos exemplify a new form of social activism that emerged from the cultural and political foment of the 1970s: guerilla television. Steeped in the media criticism of Marshal McLuhan, the do-it-yourself ethos of the Whole Earth Catalog, and the sudden affordability of half-inch reel-to-reel video decks and portable video cameras, many groups (including the Videofreex, the Peoples Video Theater, the Raindance Corporation, and Global Village) began producing radical alternatives to commercial television. Projects by these media collectives ranged from documentaries and agitprop to novel street theater and performance art. Guerrilla video never fully achieved its utopian goals of returning broadcast power to the people or fostering the free flow of information and images, but the same iconoclastic spirit of skeptical political expression thrives today in new media, independent video, cable television, weblogs, and net art.

— Edward W. Earle
Curator of Digital Media

 

Media Burn, postcard
Media Burn, Program Cover, 1975
The Eternal Frame, production still
Photograph by Diane Hall
The Eternal Frame, production stil
Doug Hall of T.R. Uthco, in makeup for his role as the Artist-President.
Photograph by Diane Hall
Poster from screening of The Eternal Frame, 1975.
 
Artifacts on view courtesy of Chip Lord. Ant Farm video tapes are distributed by Electronic Arts Intermix, New York.