Somewhere in Artpark, the 108-acre state park in Lewiston, New York, is buried an Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser covered in tar and filled with 30 suitcases packed with consumer goods such as cigarettes, condoms, and magazines from Reader’s Digest to Playboy. It’s all likely turned to dust, however: the station wagon received its entombment almost exactly 41 years ago, in a grand ceremony organized by Ant Farm, the media art and architecture collective founded in San Francisco in 1968.
Led by artists Chip Lord and Doug Michels, Ant Farm had an affinity for the large-scale, often enacting dramatic projects you’d be hard-pressed to overlook or ignore. In 1974, “Cadillac Ranch” showcased 10 of the luxury vehicles, all brightly painted, buried nose-down in a Texan wheat field; the aforementioned automobile funeral, dubbed “Citizens’s Time Capsule,” involved a major public campaign that invited anyone to submit an object for longterm burial and fill out a form explaining, in less than 25 words, what the item would represent to Americans if exhumation occurred in the year 2000. While the group enacted a diverse number of happenings until it disbanded in 1978, organizing such time capsules continuously captivated them. A current exhibition at Pioneer Works now revisits these cultural cradles of the past, spotlighting Ant Farm’s unconventional approach to a method of preservation and correspondence so many communities have attempted over time.
Co-curated by Liz Flyntz and Gabriel Florenz, The Present is the Form of All Life offers a brief survey of these time capsules in an elementary format: a timeline from 1968 to the present-day illustrated with photographs, video, and documents (largely facsimiles) that chronicle the humorous happenings Ant Farm hosted. Supplementary material is available on Clocktower’s online audio guide, which is well worth exploring: it features new interviews with Chip Lord and other members of LST, the contemporary group Lord co-founded in 2007 that emerged out of Ant Farm.
The visual records on view alone make clear that time capsule creations for the group served more as occasions to consider the present-day in the present rather than to eventually communicate it to the future. Ant Farm never built a capsule that managed to withstand time — what you would typically consider a successful one. A fire that destroyed the collective’s studio in 1978 swallowed in its flames “Aerosol Arsenal,” created soon after scientists discovered that the canned products harm our ozone layer. In 1975, the group had collected as many examples as possible, cramming roach and ant killers, glass cleaners, fabric softeners, and deodorants into a cylindrical, diner-style cake display — an absurd monument to encase the soon-to-be outlawed; what was, even by then, known to be obsolete.
Perhaps the capsule that best exemplifies Ant Farm’s celebration of the now is the one dedicated in August 1972 at Houston’s Contemporary Arts Museum. A refrigerator — literally a box for preserving, and a prime symbol of consumerist culture — served to house items that characterized the ’70s. Among its contents: packaged foods, weed, video footage of Houston, and a glass vial of rainwater. Ant Farm intended to reopen it 12 years later, but while in storage, it underwent damage from a flood. The Art Guys got their hands on the refrigerator and opened it only in 2000. All inside was reduced to dust aside from a six-pack of Lone Star and the vial of rainwater, but the opening event was a massive party, marked by invitations, press releases, and a lot of beer. An email Michels sent Chip Lord days before the opening expressed anxiety about what to wear and what to do and concluded with an afterthought: “by the way, what is the artpiece called?”
The Present is the Form of All Life revisits in a new and intriguing work the insignificance of a capsule’s physicality that highlights the value in the moments of making one. Pioneer Works have collaborated with LST to create the site-specific piece “Ant Farm Media Van v.08 [Time Capsule]” (2008-2016), which invites visitors to contribute to an ongoing time capsule. It resembles Ant Farm’s Media Van, a black van the collective drove around the country in 1971, creating video works and broadcasting them onsite to audiences. The exhibition has a number of sketches of the van on view, but the main star is the life-sized one, which is parked inside an inflated pod. The structure pays tribute to Ant Farm’s previous projects, from its “Clean Air Pod” (1970) and its “Inflatocookbook” — a DIY guide to building inflatable structures — but its focus is, as you’d come to expect, on the now.
Inside the van is the “Media HUQQAH,” a device into which you may plug your phone that will then randomly capture an image to include in a digital time capsule. A screen shows you (and anyone present) what the image is, but from then on, all donations are anonymous and also forever sealed and irretrievable. They will all exist on a single thumbdrive, exemplifying the mutability of the capsule’s shell: in a way, it’s the pod or the van, but it’s also the HUQQAH, and it will eventually be the thumbdrive.
The capsule isn’t the point, but rather, the social situations it introduces. You’re forced to take off your shoes and enter this sterile, otherworldly space. As you tend to do with a hookah pipe, you sit around the HUQQAH among friends and strangers. On one hand, it’s entertaining to see the files that emerge, but this new capsule also feeds on our present-day fears of lack of privacy and hacking in the digital age. Outside the pod, past submissions from a 2008 exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) are on display as illuminated images, airing in public everything from cover art of Portishead and Yo La Tengo albums to baby photos and selfies perhaps never meant to be shared. Pot and Playboy may disintegrate with time, but digital artifacts, as far as we know now, are forever. I abstained from plugging in my phone.
In 1999, Ant Farm did attempt to prepare “Citizens’s Time Capsule” for its scheduled public reopening, but the Environmental Transport Association had deemed the soil around the station wagon toxic. Theoretically, creating a time capsule should be simple: gather the objects, preserve the archive to withstand weathering, and let it be. But unexpected obstacles may crop up, and shown together, the works of Ant Farm and LST make you consider how we handle digital archives as we move into the future of fast-developing technology. Just two decades ago we were preserving material objects, but many of our precious treasures are now intangible. As much as we seem to have control over our hard drives, we may one day encounter unexpected technologies that remove our control over our own material — that tar intended as an extra layer of protection may somehow backfire on us.
The Present is the Form of All Life continues at Pioneer Works (159 Pioneer St, Red Hook, Brooklyn) through October 23.