Head to ‘Ant Farm’ for a creepy-crawly good time

Ant Farm is the Bloomsbury Group of the 1970s — which may say more about the ’70s than it does about Ant Farm.

What it says about Ant Farm, an architecture and performance art collective, is that it was a group with infectious camaraderie, whose output may just be a series of universal inside jokes, and that it was terminated by disaster (in Ant Farm’s case, by a studio fire; for the Bloomsberries, by Virginia Woolf’s suicide) rather than by obsolescence.

What it says about the ’70s is that American culture was ripe for the parody.

Ant Farm was the brainchild of the late Doug Michels ARC ’67 — he died six months before this exhibit opened — and Chip Lord, architects by training, who espoused kitsch, satire and an alternative, itinerant way of life. They aspired to “one toke for man, one giant high for mankind” (according to an early scribble) with a mix of blueprints and social commentary.

The output of the Ant Farm collective — the name comes from an offhand remark about the friends’ frenetic productivity — is a series of multimedia performance engineering stunts that amounts to an exercise in cultural meditation of yogic proportions.

The A&A Gallery’s current retrospective, which exhibit coordinator Dean Sakamoto, graphic designer Angie Hurlbut and Chris Dial ARC ’06 reformatted using sand-colored timber and plexiglass to create a literal ant farm, is on its last stop from the Berkeley Art Museum.

TV screens, embedded in the plywood walls or gracing unobtrusive listening booths, play Ant Farm videos, most of which can be described by a basic counter-cultural Mad Lib:

_______ (staple of consumer culture: car, TV, refrigerator) is ________ (violent verb: crashed, dropped, blown up) into _______ (iconically American landscape: ranch, parking lot, mall) to illustrate, by juxtaposition, ________(creative way to say brainwashing and homogenization by corporations and mass media).

So we have videos of the creation of Cadillac Ranch, wherein 10 Cadillacs were half interred in a wheat field, Michels driving yet another Cadillac into an edifice of flaming televisions and a warp speed depiction of Ant Farm pumping up an inflatable building that looks a little like a Dorito 3D.

Ant Farm would have hated that latter comment; a decent chunk of the retrospective deals with the infiltration of branding in American culture, and a time capsule — stored in a refrigerator, the “open door to the American dream” — containing such brands as Brylcreem and Camel, catapulted Ant Farm into the spotlight.

The hardest part about being catapulted to fame, of course, is landing on your feet. In the interest of diversifying their holdings, so to speak, Ant Farm made many different points in many different mediums:

A comic starring Dale Steinberger, Jewish cowgirl; the ultimate bachelor pad, a Playboy-cover-gracing, nasal-cavity shaped “House of the Century”; an Ibsen-lite “Dollhouse of the Future,” complete with live ants; a script for “Brainwave,” about miscommunications between dolphins and men; a sort of primordial Wikipedia that Ant Farm calls the “Osmic Accelerator”; and a photograph labeled “Dream Cloud” featuring artist Ben Holmes gleaming in a feather-like pillow of parachute parts.

The best way to approach Ant Farm’s body of work is as a constellation — there are a bunch of bright ideas, and we’ll just take it on faith that someone, sometime, saw a connection between them.

Random personal mementos give you a flavor of the Ant Farm guys themselves — they come across as fun.

They’re the kids in the entryway next door who make you think their elaborate scheme to smuggle a trampoline onto the roof and film themselves doing it is the coolest thing ever.

“Eternal Flame,” the Ant Farm guys’ spoofy reenactment of the Kennedy assassination that functions as critique of mass-media memory prosthetics, is ultimately just an overanalyzed home movie. Or maybe Eternal Flame is a slightly self-conscious skit out of Saturday Night Live, more than anything.

Maybe that’s the point of a retrospective — maybe Ant Farm’s consciousness-raising art succeeded so well that we have no need of them any more; maybe zines, blogs and, of course, SNL are taking on mass media and corporate culture so well that the exhibit is passe only because we are all by now too cynical to doubt that American icons are the province of marketing majors.

Or maybe not. The exhibit begins with an angry “OBSOLETE” stenciled in red across an invitation to an architecture conference, and the Ant Farm rejoinder to the schedule of events: “Can you face the problems of the black ghetto … with no-host cocktails in the Grand Ballroom?”

In using space-age sensibilities to studiously avoid highbrow stereotypes, Ant Farm at least comes closer to asking the right questions, if not facing the right problems.

But really, can you “face the problems of the black ghetto” with a video proclaiming “ladies and gentlemen, this is NOT art”?

Or does mocking every other societal pigeonhole just leave Ant Farm a few inches of hair and a dashiki from being a caricature of itself?

‘Ant Farm’ shows the bizarre and brilliant workings of a group which buried cars, torched TVs, and reenacted the JFK assassination on video.
Sophie Perl
‘Ant Farm’ shows the bizarre and brilliant workings of a group which buried cars, torched TVs, and reenacted the JFK assassination on video.

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