Art

Be Kind, Rewind: Alt-Media Pioneers Crack Open Their Time Capsules

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A group of designers experimenting with new environmental forms. A lot of the tape they make has to do with the design forms they develop. Have done a lot of truckin’ around the country in their media bus providing assistance in areas of electronic and plastic media and self-generating learning environments. Send us a tape and we’ll send one back…no shit!

This is how the San Francisco–based art and architecture group Ant Farm described itself in the Spring 1972 issue of the legendary video magazine Radical Software. Among listings for other alternative video practitioners in North America at the time — a who’s-who of now-renowned media collectives, such as Videofreex, Raindance, and Optic Nerve, all linked by a techno-utopian fervor and the radical impulses of Sixties counterculture — Ant Farm distinguished itself with a fairly concise statement of purpose: to create sites, vehicles, and environments via which to share media.

Founded as an “underground architecture” practice in 1968, Ant Farm explored the design of modern life itself. Drawing inspiration from Stewart Brand’s counterculture Whole Earth Catalog and experimental architecture from Europe, the group began to design and manufacture inflatable structures — makeshift and multi-use bubble buildings — and eventually published its own how-to handbook, 1971’s Inflatocookbook. Always inflected with their distinctive political sensibility, a taste for nomadism, and a goofy sense of humor, their practice evolved into a kind of multimedia guerrilla performance art, especially when affordable video technology allowed them to begin documenting their work as they toured the country in jury-rigged “media vans.”

Four-plus decades on, the group has branched into a new endeavor, LST (which joins original Farmers Chip Lord and Curtis Schreier with the architect Bruce Tomb), that extends many of the original group’s central concerns into the 21st century. One of these — a decades-long fascination with the time capsule — is the focus of “The Present Is the Form of All Life,” a new exhibition of Ant Farm’s and LST’s projects at Red Hook’s Pioneer Works.

Curated by Gabriel Florenz and Liz Flyntz and designed by LST, the show is a Janus-like gaze along past, present, and future vectors. In the time capsule, Ant Farm and its successors have found a form through which to pursue a set of ideas important both to their own practice and to the utopian milieu from which they emerged: collective historiography, the imagination of possible futures, and interactivity between the artist/architect, the audience, and their environment. Then as now, the time capsule serves as a unique site through which to assess the lasting impact of the present (social, political, environmental) and to look at what’s ahead.

It’s appropriate, then, that the exhibition features a mix of old and new, lending the show a pleasantly disorienting sense of anachronism: Former projects are re-imagined and recent ones revisited. The show offers much of its historical context via a detailed timeline, documenting Ant Farm’s and LST’s multiple time-capsule projects over the years — many of these lost, failed, or unrealized. Videos, photographs, and sketches depict a series of projects that blend space-age retro-futurist design, practical know-how, and cutting-edge tech. Many of LST’s recent large diagrams, for example, sketch out hilariously implausible new versions of Ant Farm’s Seventies media vans in a style that’s something like an architectural rendering, an instruction manual, and a psychedelic comic book, all at once.

The show’s centerpiece, LST’s Ant Farm Media Van v.08 [Time Capsule] (2008–16), is a wheel-less, spray-tarred van that looks rather like a UFO floating in the midst of a large inflatable cocoon in Pioneer Works’ cavernous warehouse space. It’s a reimagining of Ant Farm’s famed 1975 Citizens Time Capsule, in which the group buried a 1968 Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser station wagon in a park in upstate New York. (The site has since been officially declared toxic, which the group learned in 2000 when it wanted to dig the car up.) LST’s new work reboots the project for the digital age. Its central mechanism is a device called the HUQQUH (yes, that’s pronounced “hookah”), a tentacled hard drive that hooks up to visitors’ electronic devices and randomly rips media files from them — jpegs, MP3s, whatever you’ve got. Only in this case, the time capsule isn’t a physical object entombed underground, but a hard-disk compilation that will be repackaged in a forthcoming publication. In the digital age, after all, nothing ever really goes away.

This massive and indiscriminate data-suck, itself a restaging of a similar project at SF MoMA in 2008 (also anthologized here), naturally raises questions about differences between the time capsules of then and now, and those made with material and digital objects. If, for Ant Farm, the time capsule serves as a primitive form of interactive media — what happens when the mobile media units in our pockets become their own kind of time capsules? As with all such vessels, the answer to that question is really up to the future.

‘The Present Is the Form of All Life: The Time Capsules of Ant Farm and LST’

Pioneer Works

159 Pioneer Street, Brooklyn

718-596-3001, pioneerworks.org

Through October 23