By Jeff Balke
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Seated in a Montrose living room, Doug Michels is witnessing one of those bizarre moments when the past intrudes on the present, appearing suddenly, in Technicolor, like a pomaded lindy-hopper skidding down a '90s dance floor. Dropped into up-to-the-minute surroundings, the past can seem keenly relevant, fresh, even prescient. And that's how it appears in the music video for "We Still Need More" by Supergrass, a Top 10 British pop band.
In the video, three scruffy, jumpsuit-wearing hipsters don crash helmets and climb into a modified Pontiac sports car. There is a flash of black-and-white, mission-control-style footage of the autonauts, then a wide shot of the action as they prepare to drive the car off a ramp, $agrave; la Evel Knievel, aiming for a giant pyramid of television sets. In midair, the car makes contact and the TVs explode in a shower of big-budget pyrotechnics.
Directed by Roman Coppola (son of Francis Ford), the video is a remake of a 25-year-old art prank by the collective known as Ant Farm, of which Doug Michels was a founding member. On July 4, 1975, Ant Farm invited television news crews to an event in the parking lot of the Cow Palace in San Francisco. A jumpsuited, helmeted Michels and his co-pilot squeezed into the cockpit of the "Phantom Dream Car," a white Cadillac customized to look like an airship, and drove through a pyramid of burning TV sets. They called it, pointedly, Media Burn.
There are some differences between the two videos. Supergrass didn't set its TVs ablaze. And thanks to postproduction computer manipulation, the Brits were able to put images on the TV screens as if they were on -- an effect Ant Farm was unable to achieve.
More telling, the '90s version of the video is more attitude than critique, perhaps because distrust of the media, thanks to groups like Ant Farm, is now taken for granted. It's telling that the only major detail missing from the remake is a John F. Kennedy impersonator, who kicked off the 1975 Media Burn with a speech about how politicians were nothing more than images. "Now, I ask you, my fellow Americans, haven't you ever wanted to put your foot through your television set?" the bogus president asked the gathered reporters. Describing the Ant Farmers as brave pioneers who acted out of patriotism, he concluded that "The world may never understand what was done here today, but the image created here shall never be forgotten."
That remark proved oracular. The Media Burn documentary is now required viewing in art school video classes, but more significant, the Dream Car smashed through the wall of TVs and into popular culture. The photo was picked up by the Associated Press and reproduced all over the world. For a time it was, according to former Ant Farmers, the top-selling art postcard in the United States. In Hearts of Darkness, the movie about the making of Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola can be seen wearing his Media Burn T-shirt while jawing with Dennis Hopper. A German band, Punch TV, recently used Media Burn on the cover of its new CD. And then there's the matter of the Supergrass video.
One might suppose that Michels would be annoyed, even angry, to see himself so brazenly ripped off. He has been known to be litigious about such matters. In fact, Ant Farm has won several settlements against companies such as Volvo, General Electric, Hard Rock Cafe and Absolut Vodka for "borrowing" images of the collective's Cadillac Ranch monument, a row of Caddies buried ass-up in the prairie outside Amarillo.
But the video pleases Michels. He even defends the band's use of a Pontiac instead of a Cadillac. "How can you get mad when they do it better?" he asks. "They modernized it."
Michels, who moved to Houston in April to teach at the University of Houston Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture, has modernized himself as well. He doesn't have a cell phone yet, but gone are the hippie hair and beard of the Ant Farm days. Gone, too, is the ironic edge, replaced by a genuine eagerness to improve the lot of humankind -- to lift what Michels calls "the cap on intelligence and imagination." To hear him talk, Michels is a visionary. A futurist. An idea man.
Ask him the time, and his stock response is: "I don't believe in time, I believe in the future." Leave him a message; he'll return your call "in the future." Yet for all his forward-gazing, Michels has a special nostalgia for Houston, where his influence dates back to a time when the Astrodome was still the Eighth Wonder of the World, when Kwik Kopy shops were the latest convenience and when having long hair was reason to be hassled by the police.
As a visiting professor at UH in the late '60s, Michels test-drove the radical educational philosophy of the student movement, conducting guerrilla theater experiments and a sleepover in the Astrodome. In the early '70s Ant Farm scandalized local architects by building a futuristic house sculpted out of chicken wire for Marilyn Oshman Lubetkin (the patron saint of the folk-art Orange Show and chairman of Oshman's athletic stores). The mid-'70s brought the unexpectedly popular Cadillac Ranch, and in the late '70s Michels designed the Teleport, a sleek media room that predated telecommuting by about a decade.