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January 19, 2004

Film professor’s revolutionary past to be featured in Berkeley Art Museum retrospective and new DVD

By Scott Rappaport

Years before he joined the faculty at UCSC, Chip Lord was a member of the Ant Farm, a groundbreaking, experimental art and architecture collective he founded in 1968 with fellow architect Doug Michels.

Cadillac Ranch photo

Possibly the best-known public artwork in the country, the Ant Farm’s Cadillac Ranch is seen by an estimated 280,000 people each year. Photo: Copyright Ant Farm
Photo of Bruce Springsteen
Bruce Springsteen is shown here in a rare photo racing through the Ant Farm’s Cadillac Ranch, the subject of his popular 1980 song. Photo courtesy of Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive

Dedicated to finding alternatives to mainstream architectural practice, the Ant Farm combined video, performance, and sculpture—achieving widespread notoriety in the mid ’70s for such projects as the Cadillac Ranch public art installation in Texas, and the spectacular performance art event Media Burn.

The first major exhibition to explore the history of this influential, renegade collective will be presented at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive from January 21 through April 26. Ant Farm 1968-1978 will feature more than 200 objects, including photographs, drawings, collages, videotapes, documentary materials, and a re-creation of an inflatable structure built by the visionary art group.

“It was a very different time,” Lord recalled. “I graduated from Tulane School of Architecture in 1968 and there was revolution in the air. There was the Vietnam War, student protests, student unrest…we didn’t want to go into the corporate architectural world at all, and that was our motivation for starting the Ant Farm.”

Inspired by such creative thinkers as Buckminster Fuller and Paulo Soleri, the Ant Farm collective spent its early years creating an alternative architecture designed for a nomadic lifestyle. They build giant inflatable structures—cheap and easy to assemble—in opposition to the mainstream Brutalist architecture of the ’60s that emphasized permanent reinforced concrete. This led to The Truckstop Network, a freewheeling 1970 tour of colleges and universities in the Ant Farm’s “Media Van,” which was equipped with a video portapack, as well as an Eisenhower-era trailer, complete with an inflatable solar-heated shower unit. “We brought an interest in high technology to the nomadic counterculture,” Lord observed.

Photo of Chip Lord
UCSC Film and Digital Media Department chair Chip Lord cofounded the Ant Farm after graduating from the Tulane School of Architecture in 1968. Photo: Scott Rappaport

The Ant Farm completed a number of successful architectural commissions in the early ’70s, including the award-winning House of the Century in Angleton, Texas. But the collective also spent time exploring the potential power of video and performance art. This culminated in Media Burn, a dazzling event (captured on a widely distributed videotape) that featured two collective members dressed like astronauts, who drove a customized 1959 Cadillac El Dorado—outfitted with interior video communication—at full-speed through a pyramid of flaming TVs in the parking lot of San Francisco’s Cow Palace on July 4, 1975.

But perhaps the Ant Farm’s most famous endeavor was Cadillac Ranch, the art installation along Route 66 (now Highway 40) in Amarillo, Texas, that was immortalized in song by Bruce Springsteen. Commissioned by Stanley Marsh 3, Lord and his Ant Farm partners, Michels and Hudson Marquez, partially buried 10 Cadillacs nose down in a wheat field--both celebrating the evolution of the Cadillac’s tailfin and at the same time mocking Detroit carmakers’ history of planned obsolescence.

“Cadillac was the ultimate status symbol in America at that time,” Lord noted. It took four weeks to find all the cars—some came from junkyards, a few came from used-car lots. But it took less than five days to bury them.”

Within six to eight months, images of Cadillac Ranch had appeared in People and Esquire magazines. Soon, articles began popping up everywhere and people began to make pilgrimages, often scratching their names in the paint of one of the cars. Over the past two decades, the image of Cadillac Ranch has been used—with or without permission—by dozens of companies advertising everything from automobiles and insurance to restaurants and computers. Possibly the best-known public artwork in the country, Cadillac Ranch is seen by an estimated 280,000 people each year as they motor down the Texas highway.

Lord has been working for the past two years on a compilation DVD of Ant Farm material to be distributed nationally. Partially funded by UCSC research funds, the DVD is scheduled to be released on February 1 and will be distributed by Facets Multi-Media. Lord noted that it would include Springsteen’s celebratory song, “Cadillac Ranch.”

“After Springsteen wrote the song, his record company called and wanted to use a photo of Cadillac Ranch in the liner notes for his album The River,” Lord said. “We ended up giving them a photo for a very modest fee. So I recently wrote a letter to his manager asking for permission to use the song in the DVD, and they gave it to us.”

When a fire in their San Francisco studio destroyed much of their work, the Ant Farm disbanded in 1978. Lord eventually moved on to become an assistant professor of visual art at UC San Diego. He came to UCSC in 1988 and is now chair of the Film and Digital Media Department.

“It was a hard transition for me after the Ant Farm ended,” Lord noted. “But I liked being in an environment of creative collaboration, so teaching appealed to me. The Ant Farm was my graduate education—my M.F.A. equivalency was established through life experience,” he added.

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