Ant Farm explores the fine art of... waiting

A Barbie hung like a loincloth over Curtis Schreier's genitals, and the rest of his naked, round, middle-aged body was painted, ceremonially, with ants. Atop his head a pair of cardboard antennae rose a couple of feet into the air. Arguably, he was the most sensibly dressed man at the party.

Curtis held court next to the giant box fan in the Art Guys' unair-conditioned warehouse-cum-studio; the other two guests of honor, Doug Michels and Chip Lord, sweated in their suits. The rest of us, dressed in the usual art-party version of evening clothes (T-shirts and jeans, thrift-store finds and strappy dresses), grumbled about the heat and gravitated to the warehouse's back patio, toward the breeze and the kegs. We drank and we talked and we looked at our watches. Somebody said the proceedings would begin at eight, but nothing happened then. Somebody else said eight-thirty, but again, nothing happened.

At nine, Michael Galbreth, the tall half of the Art Guys, appeared with a megaphone. "Ladies and gentlemen," he said, his voice tinny and amplified, "the time capsule will be opened in 15 minutes! Fifteen minutes!"

Time is not on their side: Ed Wilson and Starr Kennedy with the fussy Ant Farm fridge.
Deron Neblett
Time is not on their side: Ed Wilson and Starr Kennedy with the fussy Ant Farm fridge.

The party herd flowed inside and crowded around a stage in the warehouse's big front room. One wall offered framed articles about Ant Farm, the Art Guys' spiritual forebears, a goofy but secretly serious art collective from the '70s. A video loop of Ant Farm's greatest hits was projected against the back wall. The video had been edited by filmmaker Laura Harrison, who, with Beth Federeci, is shooting a documentary about Ant Farm; their camera crews swarmed the party.

Doug watched his video image flicker against the back wall. The year was 1974, and Ant Farm was erecting Cadillac Ranch, the famous row of Caddies planted hood-down in the Amarillo dirt.

And there was Doug again, this time dressed as Jackie Kennedy, and crawling across the trunk of a convertible limousine as it drove through Dealey Plaza. That performance was The Eternal Frame; for it, Ant Farm re-enacted the Kennedy assassination, as enthusiastic tourists gathered to watch. "Not my proudest moment," Doug said. He didn't look at all embarrassed.

The loop showed another '75 performance, Media Burn, for which Doug drove an Ant-modified Cadillac through a pyramid of flaming TV sets. The car's cockpit was opaque, so Curtis rode shotgun, navigating via a TV camera in the tail fin. Back then, Curtis was a behind-the-scenes, riding-shotgun kind of guy, happy to let showboats like Doug and Chip hog the performances. Curtis's evolution seems to have run backward: reserved in the '70s, naked 30 years later. Doug thinks he's "blossomed."

But unlike Doug, the crowd was restive, and in no mood to watch burning TV sets. We were standing in an infernally hot warehouse. Flames were the last thing we wanted to see.

Michael and his megaphone took the stage: "Ladies and gentlemen, the time capsule will be opened in seven minutes! Seven minutes! If you have to pee, you better go now."

Seven minutes: somewhere between an eternity and no time at all. The sweaty crowd packed close around the stage, and the video loop gave way to a live feed: Ant Farm's time capsule from 1972. The past and the future, all tangled together, would arrive in seven minutes.

For the purposes of this story, the past started in the summer of '68, when culture was heading underground. It was the heyday of underground newspapers, underground comics and underground radio. There was the Weather Underground, and even the Velvet Underground. Freshly minted architects Doug Michels and Chip Lord banded together to commit "underground architecture."

"Like an ant farm?" asked a friend.

That winter, Ant Farm -- meaning Doug and Chip -- left San Francisco to teach at the University of Houston. They were hippie-ish guys, naturally aligned with tuned-in, turned-on San Francisco; in conservative Houston, they found it easy to play the "cultural devil's advocate."

Still, the Ants returned to San Francisco, their natural habitat, and took over a warehouse on a pier. The colony waxed and waned, sometimes containing as many as 15 young longhairs. They lived off food stamps.

Houston called them back in '71. Marilyn Oshman Lubetkin, then the Contemporary Arts Museum's board president, gave the group its biggest commission yet: to build The House of the Century, one part lake house, one part lunatic/visionary sculpture, handmade from chicken wire and concrete. It looked like a spaceship crashed on the edge of a swamp.

While The House of the Century was rising from the shore of Lake Mo-Jo, the CAM awarded Ant Farm another commission: a time capsule to commemorate the opening of the museum's new building. For the capsule itself, Chip, Doug and Curtis chose a refrigerator. They would cryogenically preserve the early '70s.

Near the top of the fridge's door, the Ants etched "TIME CAPSULE" in big impressive letters. Below that came dull but official-looking explanatory text ("articles and images selected by/Ant Farm/sponsored by/The Contemporary Arts Association/on the occasion of the opening of its Museum. Houston, Texas/from March 1972 to April 1984"). Underneath all that seriousness, a punch line sneaked out in a lowercase whisper: "time is money."

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