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60 Years of Tomorrow at MOMA Today
by Tony Reveaux
Open for your viewing at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) through February 8, The Art of Participation: 1950 to Now presents an exceptional overview of the wide and wild varieties of participatory art practiced during the past six decades. Organized by SFMOMA Curator of Media Arts Rudolf Frieling, it gathers more than 70 works by some 50 individual artists and collectives.
There are many unique static prints, sculptures, constructions, and installations of ironic spoofery and the pointedly pointless. For all of us who design, delve, and deliver in the communications industries, this sprawling, flashy, and noisy show is a veritable theme park of media modes and concepts. There has never been an era when so many means of connecting have been emerging, merging and mixing than right now, so this exhibit presents a timely opportunity to tune in with your eyes, ears, and minds - and get your 360.
On the Road with Ant Farm
A good place to start would be the daily video screening of Ant Farm: Early Underground Adventures with Space, Land, and Time. This documentary by Elizabeth Federici and Laura Harrison presents an excellent introduction and overview of Ant Farm's legendary arts and activities, interspersed with commentary by participants, critics, and observers. In doing so the filmmakers bring alive the explosive art epoch of the 60s and 70s when most of the works in this show were done.
Based in San Francisco, Ant Farm was founded by Chip Lord, Doug Michels and Curtis Schreier. This relentlessly talented and energetic multimedia collective blended numerous forms of media (alternative architecture, performance, and video) for various new purposes - a virtual moving dialog that was constantly questioning, evolving, and producing concepts of innovative social expression. The legend is that the term 'Ant Farm' came about when the crazy group of performance artists were starting out at the Renaissance Faire in Novato, and the corner of the vast parking lot that they staked out as their turf became known as 'the antenna farm' because of the number of antennae they erected - which was quickly shortened by the community into the 'Ant Farm.' Many legends are merely that, and whatever the case, in the intervening years, the Ant Farmers have left their marks with inflatable sculptures, huge structures, video communications, and performance events (like Media Burn, in which a Cadillac smashed through a stack of flaming TV sets).
All across the country, in the 60s and 70s, artists were creating challenging new media experiments, but before the Web and e-mail, it was hard for everyone to show, share, and tell. Ant Farm's answer to all this was a mobile one; the 'nomadic trucketecture' of a customized 1971 Chevy van with skylights and video equipment. In it they traveled to cities and college campuses, staging performances and observing and recording what other artists were doing.
All Aboard the Capsule of Time
For this show, SFMOMA commissioned several Ant Farmers to recreate that pioneering concept with a contemporary twist. The AF team (Lord, Schreier, and Bruce Tomb) constructed Ant Farm Media Van v.08 (Time Capsule), a customized 1972 Chevy C10 van with mixed media, video, and computer systems.
You can enter the vehicle and sit on a bench, which is near a post supporting the 'Hookah' media hub - a miniature monitor and a squid of connecting cables of different formats. Plug in your camera, iPhone or Blackberry to upload images and sound files into their growing digital archive.
A remote control gives you access to a DVD library of Ant Farm videos, including an interactive map where you can choose event locations along their 1971 tour. The segments are shown on displays on both sides of the rear window, allowing visitors outside the van to see the action as well. The audience inside thus treats the outside audience to the Farm's slide show of quirky roadside attractions and lost drive-ins that traced their questing journey.
Hello, can you see me now?
When Alexander Graham Bell's telephone service started up in 1881, the wonder of direct distant communication was morally tempered, in that no one dared to lift the cone to speak unless they were presentably dressed - as if they were answering the door. Today iChat desktop video-conferencing is easy on a Mac, and camera phones are already serving as remote shopping devices and being further kludged for two-way video.
Credited with producing the first 'happening' in 1958, Allan Kaprow produced Hello in 1969 as the first 'telehappening.' Producers at WGBH Boston invited him and five other artists to participate in contributing new concepts of video as part of WGBH's public program The Medium is the Medium. 60s Performance Masters Ant Farmers Chip Lord and Bruce Tomb tripping out in their Ant Farm Media Van v.08 (Time Capsule).
Kaprow's idea was to link four different sites in Boston, where some of the respondents would be known to others. The control room engineers were asked to switch audio and video signals randomly, which they did with gusto, adding floating title insertions of 'Hello' in the circusy decorative fonts of the time.
SFMOMA's one-monitor version of the event is being shown as Hello, excerpt from The Medium is the Medium. With people waving and shouting to each other as if from passing trains, this display fully captures the original experiment's giddy bubbling-over of curiosity, wonder, discovery, recognition, and frustration.
Breaking Waves Coast to Coast
In 1980, Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz raised a large-scale video installation with microphones and speakers at two locations linked by realtime satellite transmission, during three evenings of two-hour sessions. For two hours on each of three evenings, pedestrians at Lincoln Center in New York could connect with passers-by at the Broadway department store window in California's Century City - looking, listening, and speaking directly to each other in real time.
The experimental display is presented here at SFMOMA for the first time with complete original footage - as Hole-in-Space (1980/2008). You enter the center of a dark room where the East and West screens are displayed in communal telepresence, synched up on opposite walls.
In 1980, our nation was not as homogenized as it is now. The New York gents formed a solid wall of full beards and mustaches opposite the sun-bleached and shaven 'California boys.' In a very Knickerbocker gesture of salutation, the Manhattan side brought forth an 8-year old black boy to play classical violin. The Century City side, initially at a loss to reciprocate, was redeemed by a surfer dude who strode forth to drop trou.
The 3rd & 4th dimensions of Second Life
3D is one media trend that sneaks up on us faster and faster. An increasing number of theatricals are dedicated to (and dual-purposed for) 3D - and there are more than two serious systems for home 3DTV warming the launch pads. The worldwide popularization of Second Life and other Web environmental worlds have brought user origination and interaction into an art that is the closest we have yet to accessible virtual reality.
Lynn Hershman Leeson, chair of San Francisco Art Institute's Film Department, has been scaling the ladder of media development for the last several decades: feature and short films, videos, performance, installations, Laserdisc, CD-ROM, and now, the VR of Second Life.
At SFMOMA show, you can mouse yourself through Leeson's Life_ (2006-present), which presents a space with hallways that can bring you to gallery rooms for New Langton Arts (a Quebec museum) and other remote spots - but the most interesting room is the virtualized representation of The Dante Hotel (1973-74). The photos are taken from her public installation originally presented in a real hotel room here in the City.
Leeson's leap of faith here is a portent of what most surely will follow in our lifetimes: from our homes - or our iMobile - we will visit and interact in the entirety of a museum exhibit like this one at the Modern.
Ant Farmer's Almanac
I asked Lord, now chair of Film and Digital Media at UC Santa Cruz, what media things he sees in play today that were suggested by his cohort's Antsy actions in the 70s. "Virtual reality," he answered, "which became games and things like Second Life. We never had the tech abilities, but we wanted to design virtual architecture. We were early users of the Xerox telecopier - a form of sending images instantly which we can now do via e-mail. We also were ready for the picture phone; ie, iChat and Skype today."
Hole-In-Space beaming and bouncing realtime between 80s NY and LA. photo Galloway and Rabinowitz
Lord went on to sum up what might surprise him today. "We made a rubber stamp in 1972, I think: 'The future is Smaller, Lighter, Cheaper, Faster.' Which is to say all of the above sort of grew out of ideas we were thinking about. But it wasn't just us, it was a much larger group of artists and makers who were ready for the future that had been promised us since the 1930s."
Tony Reveaux has been a Bay Area media writer, editor, teacher and consultant since the 70s. Posted on Dec 03, 2008 - 03:45 PM