“Well, presumably the message is for the media. Get it?” —KTVU-2 News
There is a conceptual performance by Ant Farm—that trio of rad architects from the 1970s best known for inflatables, Cadillac Ranch, and restaging the Kennedy assassination—involving a customized 1959 Cadillac El Dorado that crashes headlong into a fiery wall of television sets. Dubbed Media Burn, the enactment took place on July 4, 1975 and was first communicated broadly through a single image of the explosive collision as the hefty Caddy scattered the blazing TVs. Captured by Diane Andrews Hall, that singular photographic image represented the distillation of a multifaceted staging that had been in a state of constant revision and clarification as Ant Farm pursued its final design.
For Ant Farm, Media Burn was the fulfillment of “a lifelong dream of driving a car into a wall of television sets.” And as with any dream, its shape and meaning was up for debate. But was this iconic image of two very American symbols—the automobile and the television set—the destination or the departure of a complex composition? When finally set loose in the vast circulatory spectacle that is Western culture, Media Burn’s incendiary image became an archetypical meme, unburdened by consequential meaning, and destined to be misunderstood.
When finally set loose in the vast circulatory spectacle that is Western culture, Media Burn’s incendiary image became an archetypical meme, unburdened by consequential meaning, and destined to be misunderstood.
Ant Farm member Doug Michels, impatient and bored—as he and Chip Lord, Ant Farmer #2, spent restless days near Mojo Lake, Texas, overseeing the construction of the House of the Century, a ferroconcrete bit of sci-fi futurism—penned the first drawing of that dream and named it Media Vision. Dated January 1973, Michels’ first conception didn’t designate the automobile other than describing it as a slightly altered “late model sedan,” but it did establish several essential details: the blacked-out, armored windshield would have a port for a small video camera feeding its pictures to a small monitor on the dashboard and the so-called “firewall”—the wall of fiery TV sets—would have fully functional TVs showing the image of the sedan rushing towards it. This was to be an inbred event in which the car’s pilot would steer the vehicle strictly through a televisual reference image of the road ahead while the target televisions radiate an image of their impending destruction. This was self-referential image-death.
This first Ant Farm drawing was strictly on spec. There was no selected site, nor likely host, no restrictions, no caveats. Media Vision was pure conceptualization, free from any checks on practicality or ambition, but these restrictions would soon arise.
The next year, on philanthropist and prankster Stanley Marsh 3’s property near Amarillo, Ant Farm would construct their signature sculpture, Cadillac Ranch—ten Caddies, tail up on a dusty Texas plain. Cadillac Ranch set the Texas prairie afire on June 21, 1974. Two weeks later, a letter arrived from the Houston Chamber of Commerce inviting Ant Farm to participate in the Main Street ’74 Art Fair, but specifically in a special section called “Autorama.” Reps of the Art Fair described the “Autorama” as “an effort to capture some of the aesthetic, as well as social impact of the automobile on our lives, forming a moving sculpture.” To Ant Farm, this sounded like an opportunity to fulfill the Media Vision dream—the proverbial hurtling metal object plowing into a televisual bonfire.
Though the compensation was meager, a $100 honorarium plus approved expenses, Ant Farm immediately consented to participate in the “Autorama” with one caveat: “due to the nature of the artistic conception, the event will be executed once only.” A budget/contract was submitted and by July 26, 1974, a significantly modified version of Media Vision surfaced as proof of concept, now dubbed Coming and Going: Transformational Access. The “late model sedan” was replaced by an early sixties Thunderbird, the driver saw the road directly through small ports in the armored windshield, and the pyramid of TV sets was non-functional. Ant Farm had also selected a site, the intersection beside the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston where they had exhibited several times.
But Houston had a problem: the assigned Chamber of Commerce liaison was completely put off by the proposal and wanted it gone (as he would soon be). Additionally, it was unlikely that Autorama would cough up enough funding so outside sources were being sought with no success. Then on September 1st, yet another redesign arrived. Ironically named Easy Money, the new, expanded concept relied on the same customized T-Bird, now dubbed “The Sphinx,” which seemed fitting as its function was to collide with a “pyramid of burning televisions” at 75 mph. But the performance had also gone from artistic spectacle to daredevil stunt à la Evel Knievel with the addition of a jump over the downtown Southwest Freeway, a distance of 120 feet. This expanded, death-defying feat would be sure to alienate the folks at the Houston Chamber of Commerce.
There was a catch that the art fair was never privy to. In a letter dated September 3 to Tom “Score” Weinberg, soon-to-be-producer of Media Burn, Doug Michels reveals the true intent:
Easy Money is conceived of as a very entertaining and funnier than shit tv show about daredevils (myth) and art (real) and the gentle and manipulatable line between hoax and truth. Media storyline is that a greasy new york promoter has put up big BIG millions for daredevil white trash to jump…the southwest freeway…The reality of the tv show and the reality of the actual event would slip and slide in and out of “what’s really going on?” Fake press releases, play hype media, build the ramp, test runs for the media (news), and generally cause lots of trouble (psychic dada) along the way… the confusion surrounding the event would be the essence…
Though the Media Burn concept that soon followed, the one staged in San Francisco, attacked television from the outside, Easy Money seemed more intent on, perhaps, cross-dressing as TV, a form of reality TV decades ahead of its time. It would be Daniel Boorstin’s ’60s “pseudo-event” played to its logical conclusion in which an unsettling anxiety, a “psychic dada,” was the intended result. And because it was a hoax that would never be realized, the artists were freed to promote a spectacular performance that would be both audacious and lethal. It’s unlikely that Ant Farm would have survived the 75 mph leap through the air in a relatively fragile Ford T-Bird. But whether it was a daredevil stunt or an outright hoax, Easy Money was a bust.
With an “Autorama” concept no longer endorsed by the Houston Art Fair, Ant Farm shifted their focus to their home turf of San Francisco, and perhaps one more willing to take the impending wreckage seriously. And take it they did—by late fall, Ant Farm was promoting a performance, now called Media Burn, to be held on December 25th at the Cow Palace, an exposition hall, in South San Francisco. Christmas turned to February 14th with the addition of a small media gallery, the Schroeder Gallery, offering a preview of the not-yet-built Phantom Dream Car. Luckily for Ant Farm, who was lagging behind on the devilish details, the Schroeder folded within weeks. Finally, the auspicious date of July 4th, 1975 was set, contextualizing the conceptual performance as a patriotic celebration, more akin to a heroic send-off than an alienating stunt.
With a 1959 Cadillac El Dorado being radically customized in their Embarcadero studio, Ant Farm set about shaping the Independence Day event. Curtis Schreier’s Media Burn logo of a TV tube roaring down the road was finalized and disseminated. A souvenir stand was conceived with decals, T-Shirts, and a 12-page souvenir brochure, including “Television Addiction Statistics,” a Feedback Card, and the Artist-President’s speech. A special Press Pass was designed, invitations for 400 guests posted, press releases with Media Burn rubber stamps distributed. An extended crew of official videographers and photographers would document the event with special attention paid to the mainstream media also documenting the event. A bandstand with patriotic bunting and a reverberating sound system was erected. A recording of the “Star Spangled Banner” was procured, along with the forty-five television sets needed for the final conflagration. And, beside the vehicular iconicide, was the apex performance of Doug Hall as the Artist-President, replete with Kennedy accent, and a Secret Service contingent.
The Artist-President’s commencement speech, penned by Ant Farm, Doug Hall, and generous lifts from an essay by George McGovern, declared “What has gone wrong with America is not a random visitation of fate.” It is “Militarism, Monopoly, and the Mass Media” that has brought us to this troubled state. But we have before us “two media matadors, brave young men from Ant Farm” who will venture forth to break free of the bondage of the television screen. Then the Artist-President offers us the clincher: “The world may never understand what was done here today, but the image created here…shall never be forgotten.”
Media Burn was a lifelong dream fulfilled but a dream revised, renamed, rethought, until, in its final transformation, a single image would emerge. A single image, containing all its previous forms, follies, and filtrations—a compression of intent and meaning, set loose in the mediasphere to never be forgotten.
Steve Seid has recently published Media Burn: Ant Farm and the Making of an Image on Inventory Press.