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Ant-icipation

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

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!"

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."

Marilyn thought they should wait until 2020 to open the capsule, but the Ants picked 1984 because it sounded significant -- those Orwellian overtones! -- and also because they didn't think they'd live to see 2020. Or even 2000.

They stocked the fridge with things they believed captured the essence of 1972: marijuana; magazines; plastic Easter eggs; a six-pack of Pearl beer; boxes of Carnation Instant Breakfast and Cascade dishwasher soap; bottles of Coke, Diet Pepsi and 7Up; Coffee-mate; and Pepto-Bismol. A decade before, Andy Warhol had shocked the world by painting soup cans and Brillo boxes, flattening the distinction between brand-name groceries and the formerly elevated realm of art. The dreck that filled Ant Farm's time capsule could be read as a challenge to Warhol: Does this crud constitute the culture of our time? Is this how we want to be remembered?

Marilyn contributed some items, including her own, a pink-and-white designer dress and coat. She also had a Baylor scientist analyze and seal a vial of rainwater, with the intent of comparing it to the rain of faraway 1984.

The Ants also included "real-time" films of Houstonians living their 1972 lives. The hours upon hours of unedited Super-8 footage showed parking lots and Laundromats, supermarkets and freeways. As a final touch, the Ants -- dressed in white lab coats -- scurried about the museum's opening festivities, filming the dignitaries and socialites. With great solemnity, those films were interred in the fridge. And then it was locked and bolted.

Channel 11 dispatched a camera crew. The refrigerator, and its pop-culture flotsam-and-jetsam contents, appeared on the evening news. "For the next 12 years," intoned reporter Bruce Halford, "if all goes according to plan, the items will rest comfortably, if somewhat crowded, waiting for time to change us on the outside. Then, sometime in 1984, the refrigerator will be reopened, and lots of thoughtful persons will stand around and try to give some meaning to it all."


Of course, the future didn't work out the way the Ants expected. For starters, the capsule wasn't suspended from the CAM's ceiling, as they'd hoped, but relegated to the museum's basement. And there it sat.

In June '76, sudden storm sent floodwaters pouring into the CAM's basement; in 25 minutes, the storage area was under water. Some of the waterlogged art was sent to upscale grocery stores, to be stored in their freezers; some went to NASA, to be vacuum-dried.

Marilyn offered to take Ant Farm's time capsule. "Nobody seemed to care about it," she explains. "And nobody wanted it back." She stored the fridge in her backyard, next to her pool house. She enjoyed watching the capsule rust -- commentary, she thought, about the nature of time.

Ant Farm broke up in '78, after its San Francisco warehouse burned. (Curtis barely escaped.) The Ants considered the time capsule lost.

In the meantime, Marilyn hired Jack Massing, of the Art Guys, to spiff up her backyard for her daughter's wedding. Jack happily accepted the unsightly time capsule on "permanent loan" and lugged it to his studio. When he moved to the Art Guys' warehouse, the fridge came too. For years it sat outside, next to their grill.

In 1999 Houston Press art critic Shaila Dewan was interviewing Doug, who'd returned yet again to Houston, to teach yet again at UH. "I have a surprise," she announced, and drove him to the Art Guys' warehouse. In a photo taken that day, Doug stands next to the time capsule, one hand atop the crumbling fridge. He looks like an explorer about to plant a flag over some freshly discovered continent. He had found his past.


With seven minutes to go, we had plenty of time to examine the capsule. On the stage, it perched atop a specially made stand; the Art Guys built it after part of the fridge's bottom rusted out and the capsule toppled over. Worried the door might fall off after the lock and bolts were removed, they also added hefty new hinges. They swore that they hadn't peeked inside.

At last, the main event began. Ed Wilson, a blowtorch-wielding friend of the Art Guys', took the stage, as did StarrKennedy, Michael Galbreth's tall blond girlfriend. Starr's hair was piled sky-high, and she wore freaky green-and-purple makeup; she accessorized her long black gown with yellow rubber gloves. As Ed applied the blue flame to the top bolt, Starr motioned toward the rusted fridge. Vanna White, gone underground.  

It took forever to remove that bolt, the first of 14. When it finally glowed red, Ed attacked the second. Chip Lord filmed the action.Starr stroked the rusty fridge lovingly: Vanna worried that her viewers might channel-surf away.

Michael, wearing welding goggles and holding a fire extinguisher, announced that the silent auction, for the time capsule and its contents, would close when the welder attacked the last bolt. This news at least gave the audience something to discuss. Someone said the high bid was $850; someone else said $1,000.

Sparks flew off the stage. To protect his suit, Doug moved behind the cameramen. He autographed a book about Ant Farm.

The welder moved to the third bolt.

Bored, some of the crowd drifted back to the patio, back to the beer. Chip filmed the live video feed of the welder. He filmed the documentary's crew as they filmed the welder. He filmed me, taking notes.

Doug looked relaxed and happy, the way he looked when he'd rediscovered the time capsule. "This will be the part I remember," he said. "The anticipation. The part where nothing's really happening."


Finally -- finally! at ten-fifty -- the last bolt came off. The door swung open to reveal

Dust.

The magazines and cardboard boxes had disintegrated. The film had melted onto its reel. On the fridge's surviving shelf sat a six-pack of Pearl; below it rested a dirty Coke bottle. Aerosol cans lay on their sides, their spray tops intact, their bottoms open and jagged-edged. Marilyn's pink-and-white designer dress was reduced to a heap of yellowish rags. The plastic Easter eggs, though, remained unnaturally shiny.

Michael told me that the time capsule and its contents had sold for $650; the silent auction's winner was a NASA scientist and art collector. Michael didn't know what the buyer would do with it. Put it in a Plexiglas box, perhaps? In the living room? Or better, the kitchen? Michael thought the buyer had gotten a bargain, that he'd scored a piece of art history. Doug crowed, for the umpteenth time that night, that the winner was responsible for hauling the mess away.


A few days after the party, the NASA scientist called the Art Guys. He couldn't take the capsule home, he said. His wife wouldn't let him.

The Art Guys called the next-highest bidder. She didn't want it, either.

By the middle of the week, though, they'd found a willing home: Marilyn Oshman, formerly Marilyn Lubetkin, but always an Ant Farm patron. Doug thinks she'll keep the capsule by her pool house.


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