July 4, 2015 marks the 40th anniversary of Media Burn and I have been looking forward to the Bay Area Society for Art & Activism’s commemoration of Ant Farm’s legendary performance piece for well over a year. An iconic Media Burn image (below) was the first to grace the Bay Area Society for Art & Activism’s home page when our organization launched last year. Set against a sparsely developed San Bruno Mountain, the photo shows the futuristic Phantom Dream Car, a dramatically customized 1959 El Dorado Cadillac Biarritz, with its tail fins flying across the Cow Palace parking lot and rocket shaped nose plunging into a burning, Babel-like, tower of forty-two cathode ray tube televisions.
Media Burn succeeds in a fashion similar to all Ant Farm works. They are simultaneously irreverent and critical, drawing upon deep stores of collective symbolism in ways that are highly suggestive but never didactic. For us, a young organization working to define and announce itself, the Media Burn image summarily cited our Bay Area radical roots, our political inclinations, and a way to approach the open horizon of our aspirations–head-on–with horsepower, imagination, and a circus of friends. Empty of discernible people, the “we” interpellated by this image suggests a community in its broadest sense–media consumers, past, present, and future–held in the sway of consumptive technology. Media Burn invites us all into a “kill-your-television-then-what-?” speculative fantasy that remarkably keeps apace rapid evolutions in technology and visual representation. Beyond killing just the television these days, many contemplate the virtual “suicide” of online personas, “unplugging” from the Internet to deliver ourselves from its omnipresent distractions and nutritionless spectacle.
Riding the countercultural movements of 1968 to San Francisco, Ant Farm formed as a collective of radical architects who would expand the practice of their discipline into video, performance, and installation art. An Internet image search of Ant Farm’s work reads like a dream journal of late-twentieth century American desire and anxiety: roadside megaliths of midcentury Cadillacs (Cadillac Ranch, 1974); uncanny angles of President and First Lady Kennedy in a fateful Dallas motorcade rendered alternately in grainy lo-res grays or over-vivid grassy knoll green and drag queen pink (Eternal Frame, 1975); carefully crafted schematic drawings of a preschool colored human-dolphin dwelling (Dolphin Embassy, 1976); an artist-kangaroo on television talk show (Off-Air Australia, 1976); a troop of cool-eyed space cowboys serving up an American flag cake for an off-planet AV club meeting (Space Cowboy Meets Plastic Business Man, 1969); and floating, translucent inflatable spaces that imply Edenic returns, environmental apocalypse, or moon colony softcore cinema (inflatables). Their catalog of visual ephemera goes on and on and grows no less absurd or provacative in its handling of America’s psychic-geography.
Forty years ago, at 2:30 pm on July 4, 1975 in the parking lot of the Cow Palace, Ant Farm invited local news media outlets to witness a staged media event. Their press release announced: “MEDIA BURN is not a sensational daredevil stunt, rather it is a way of alleviating the frustration of watching television in America. MEDIA BURN is NOT open to the public. Members of the print and electronic media must show official MEDIA BURN press pass to gain admittance to the staging area. Early responses indicate that MEDIA BURN will receive wide press coverage as art and cultural happening.”
MEDIA BURN is not a sensational daredevil stunt, rather it is a way of alleviating the frustration of watching television in America. MEDIA BURN is NOT open to the public. Members of the print and electronic media must show official MEDIA BURN press pass to gain admittance to the staging area. Early responses indicate that MEDIA BURN will receive wide press coverage as art and cultural happening.–Ant Farm press release, 1975
Strategically timed for national “Independence” Day and the broadcast network “summer doldrums” when consumers suffered through bland offerings on few channels, the result was a widely covered event, a “so-called happening” taken up and shared by numerous local Bay Area news crews like KPIX and KTVU. Their rebroadcasts and commentary in turn provided supplementary content for an Ant Farm produced video compilation.
“Designed to be quoted and reproduced,” this initial proliferation of photo and video continued through the decades. We find later iterations in music video and album cover art and eventually the ultimate state of simulation here on the Internet. Together these reproductions gave and continue to give Media Burn its intended full expression. Presented for consumption via the media, Media Burn is an artwork not intended as an original singular happening–but as a viral phenomenon that fulfills itself through its infinitely reproducible self-destruction. Forty years later, Media Burn is still “happening.”
Media Burn 40th Anniversary Poster
Given the significance of Media Burn in guiding the spirit of our work, the Bay Area Society for Art & Activism has commissioned a double-sided commemorative poster to honor Media Burn‘s forty years of undiminishable aura. We are incredibly grateful to Ant Farm members, Chip Lord and Curtis Schreier, and San Francisco-based visual artist Sanaz Mazinani for revisiting this iconic work for each side of our poster design. In 40th Year, Lord and Schreier have brought together a quadriptych of full color and black and white photographs depicting the Phantom Dream Car’s moment of impact from a variety of perspectives. Arranged in this fashion, we are reminded that the instant of impact was and never will be a singular. Media Burn is and has always been about the bloom of impact within a collective psyche, the inescapable multiplicity of perspective.
Sanaz Mazinani is a San Francisco-based visual artist widely recognized for her complex kaleidoscopic collages and installations of found digital photography. Mining the ever increasing repositories of the Internet, Mazinani works with images of explosion, protest, imperialism, popular culture, and technologies of war to expose the politics of representation and conflict within digital culture. Given this lexicon, Mazinani is well-suited to reconsider the visual imagery of Media Burn. In Media Burn 2.0 (Homage to Ant Farm), Mazinani has appropriated and reworked the iconic Media Burn photo with content from her own stores of found imagery to illustrate this forty year interim.
Instead of the Cow Palace parking lot framed by San Bruno Mountain, Media Burn is relocated onto a field of hand drawn binary numbers, the real location replaced by a page of virtual space. The weighty, vintage CRT television tower is transformed into a thin embossed tiling of papery smartphones alight in a bright layer of orange flame. The one of a kind Phantom Dream Car has become an unmanned General Atomics MQ-1 Predator drone, rendered in posterized dots, Hellfire missile deployed. The substitution of smartphones for televisions highlights the persistent intrusion of media from our living rooms to our pockets and strategic shifts from broadcasting to narrowcasting, news media to social media. Her leap from Phantom Dream Car to Predator drone positions the automobile (the mid-century Cadillacs in particular) along a continuum of imperialist machines of the American Dream.
While much has changed, the sense of persistent distraction and alienation endures with our consumption. Mazinani has taken the complex choreography of the historic 1975 event and flattened it into paper kindling for our present moment. Re-iterating Media Burn materially and conceptually with this composition, Mazinani invites us to consider not just the current context of our political landscape and media culture but to wonder where and how we might build our own fires.
Get ’em While They’re Hot!
Pick ’em up!
Come see us in person as part of Making A Scene: 50 Years of Alternative Bay Area Spaces and pick your poster up in person.
Thursday, July 9, 2015 from 6-9pm
Free exhibition opening reception at SOMArts Cultural Center, 934 Brannan St. (between 8th & 9th)
Saturday, July 18, 2015, 8:30pm to 10:30pm
SOMArts Cultural Center’s celebrated Night Light: Multimedia Garden Party: 934 Brannan St. (between 8th & 9th),
$12 advance tickets/$15 at the door. Buy now →
About the Artists
Ant Farm (1968-1978), a collective of radical architects who were also video, performance, and installation artists, was founded in San Francisco by Doug Michels and Chip Lord. Joined by Curtis Schreier, Hudson Marquez, and Douglass Hurr they embarked on a series of architectural experiments that eventually led to Cadillac Ranch (1974), Media Burn (1975), and Dolphin Embassy (1976). During pre-production planning for the Media Burn public performance, Ant Farm invited Doug Hall the perform as the “artist-president.” This collaboration then developed The Eternal Frame, an authentic reenactment of the Kennedy Assassination that was video taped on the streets of Dallas and in a TV studio in Amarillo Texas.
Chip Lord trained as an architect (MArch Tulane University, 1968) and was a partner in Ant Farm (1968-1978). With Ant Farm he produced video art classics Media Burn and the Eternal Frame, as well as public sculpture, Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo Texas and the House of the Century. He is a media artist whose documentary and experimental works have been widely shown in museums around the world. Lord is Professor Emeritus in Film & Digital Media at the University of California Santa Cruz and lives in San Francisco.
Sanaz Mazinani is a San Francisco-based visual artist, whose work explores the relationship between perception and representation. Working primarily in photography and large-scale photo-based installations, her practice intersects conceptual and formal boundaries of the photographic image in response to site, sight and insight, especially in relation to digital culture. Her work has been exhibited in the Museum Bärengasse, Zürich, Art & Architecture Library at Stanford University, Asian Art Museum, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, di Rosa, Napa, Arizona State University Museum, University of Toronto Art Center, Gallery 44 Center for Contemporary Photography, Toronto, and Emirates Financial Towers in Dubai. She has received awards and honors from the Canada Council for the Arts, San Francisco Arts Commission, Magic of Persia Contemporary Art Prize, Kala Art Institute, and the D.C. Commission for the Arts and Humanities. Her artwork has been written about in Artforum, artnet News, Canadian Art, Flash Art, Nuva Luz, NOW Magazine, San Francisco Chronicle, SFWeekly, Washington Post, and Vice’s Creator’s Project. Mazinani studied art at the Ontario College of Art & Design University (2003), and received her MFA at Stanford University (2011).
- Lewallen, Constance, and Steve Seid. Ant Farm, 1968-1978. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.
- Lord, Chip. Automerica: A Trip down U.S. Highways from World War II to the Future : A Book. New York: Dutton, 1976.