Media Burn by Ant Farm (1975).

Media Burn by Ant Farm (1975).


Rediscovering Ant Farm

When a sculpture takes on the character of a national monument, it is easy for the name of the artist who made it to get lost. Making a documentary of recognizable landmarks of the flatter parts of the United States? Don’t forget that row of old Cadillacs half buried face down in Texas. That was made by a group called Ant Farm. They started out in the late 1960s with a notion of “doing architecture the way a band does music.” More recently another Ant Farm image has become shorthand for large-scale performances. The image of a modified car driving through a wall of burning TVs is called Media Burn.

There is a good documentary of Media Burn (1975) on YouTube. In it a member of Ant Farm quips that when you see artists on the news, it’s either because of the amount of money involved or “what are those crazy artists up to?

They picked July 4th because it was a slow news day, and issued press passes. The event was held in the parking lot of the Cow Palace in San Francisco, which they were able to rent for a nominal sum because the venue itself was dark that day. They studied patterns of a July 4th event, and from a platform covered in bunting The Art President (a spot on Kennedy impersonation) offered a rousing speech. A modified 1959 Cadillac was driven through a wall of burning TVs, and the drivers were treated like returning astronauts. The press showed up in droves with their Ant Farm issued press passes and tried to puzzle out on the evening news what they had just witnessed.

In the 2010 documentary about them (Underground Adventures) The Yes Men and The Art Guys appear as talking heads. They are happy to acknowledge Ant Farm’s influence on their own work. Ant Farm’s performance that might most appeal to fans of either of these groups was called “The Eternal Frame.” On the actual site of the Kennedy assassination one morning in 1975, they re-enacted the Zapruder film. Instead of being arrested as they feared, the Dallas police escorted their car, and tourist bystanders (filmed by another art group) expressed the notion that they were seeing a city-sponsored tourist re-enactment. Every tourist, camera out, was ready to catch a Kennedy moment.

Ant Farm’s first architectural works were inflatable pavilions made because they predicted that the future would be nomadic. They toured the United States in a media van of their own devising that could be the missing link between The Merry Pranksters and Culture Jamming as we know it today. In 1972 they had beginner’s luck with art patrons and got hired to build a folly house. It is still standing and has the melancholy charm of elderly retro-future amusement attractions. In 1974 they were offered a sculpture commission that resulted in the Cadillac Ranch. They disbanded in 1978 after a fire destroyed their studio. They are starting to get the recognition they deserve so watch for the name in museum calendars.