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American Quarterly 57.1 (2005) 223-236
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Junky and Important:
The Collective Model in the Rearview Mirror
Long overdue, this retrospective situates Ant Farm at the top of the lively heap of artist collectives that flourished in the United States in the years from 1968 to 1978. Unstintingly nomadic in pursuit of architectural commissions, media projects, and sheer pleasure, Ant Farm (founded by Chip Lord and Doug Michels, who were soon joined by Curtis Schreier, Doug Hurr, and Hudson Marquez) chose the Bay Area as its base—or heap. San Francisco's rich and quirky history of nurturing artistic and political avant-gardes made that choice obligatory. Ant Farm's vertiginous decade of activity registers as among the more compelling embodiments of the U.S. counterculture's rejection of the Leviathan that Eisenhower identified as the military-industrial complex. While the group's work bizarrely enough escaped engaging the three inescapable issues—the war, racism, and sexism—what they did produce attacked, or attempted through counterexample to negate, the colonization of everyday life by corporate culture in the United States. Ant Doug Michels has said they started out wanting "a cool name. We wanted to be an architecture group that [End Page 223] was more like a rock band . . . We would be doing underground architecture, like underground newspapers and underground movies, and [a friend] said, 'Oh, you mean like an Ant Farm?' And that's all it took. It was very Ant Farm. The founding of the name was indicative of how Ant Farm worked: the right idea comes, everybody acknowledges it is the right idea and instantly adopts it" (41).
In 1968, to jump without a parachute into the horizontal sprawl of what Michels called the underground was infinitely more attractive than stepping up on to the fateful first rung of the rickety old career ladder that the Ants' university training as architects had prepared them to pursue. By 1968 the term underground was sounding romanticized and a little dated—it was already cropping up in the Sunday supplements, attaching bogus cachet to slightly offbeat or racy films. However, the cultural resistance that might once have been content to stay underground had emerged as a conscious counterculture, which was, of course, largely organized into collectives. The desire to reimagine everyday life in every conceivable direction and who knew how many dimensions was being taken up with fervor. Within the dozens of Bay Area collectives, people shared rent, cooked on a rotating basis, organized food co-ops, wore thrift store rags, bought or traded only used books and used records, dialed phony corporate credit card numbers to make long distance calls, sacramentally shared mind-expanding chemicals—a well-articulated panoply of operations that bespoke considerable economic control of proudly marginal lives. These community-wide resistant practices were in turn sustained by a spirit of play, free cultural centers, cheap coffee houses, free clinics, theater troupes, and an alternative press and radio station.
In this context, a rare experimental architectural collective like Ant Farm could thrive, having already shucked off the weight of many of the repressive antidemocratic assumptions that underpinned high modernist architecture. Since the many active elements of the counterculture had already set in motion the process of decolonizing everyday life, the ever playful Ant Farm, named after a child's toy, approached in its early architectural projects...