Looking at Pictures: Chip Lord in Conversation with Theadora Walsh
There are many points of entry to thinking about a lifetime of making work. We could use linear narrative to retrospectively cast a story, but I’ve not experienced time or memory to be well suited for that frame. We could talk about influences and scaffold a sort of art historical hold for the work one has done, decorated with artists and popular culture and the predominant sentiments of the sixties. We could talk about the present, about San Francisco, which has become synonymous with the uranium hue of technological production. But for the architect and artist Chip Lord, who’s radical collective Ant Farm famously smashed a car into a wall full of burning televisions, perhaps it makes most sense to just think about images — the production of images as a form of movement. -TW
Theadora Walsh: So, you came to San Francisco one year before the summer everyone came out?
Chip Lord: ’66
TW: You were early.
CL: It was the summer before the Summer of Love, which I missed. Then I came back in ’68, for the Halprin workshop. That changed my ambition to be an architect into my ambition to being a countercultural architect.
TW: Was there something specific in the Halprin method?
CL: Well, a sense of collaborative practice. The structure came quite literally from the relationship between Lawrence, a landscape architect, and Anna, a dancer. They were truly collaborative, and it wasn’t didactic in any way. It was a series of exercises for young dancers and architects. Which from the point of view of the architects, was a good idea, I’m not sure the dancers felt the same way. Sometimes it was just movement, very basic movement exercises because the architects were so out of touch with their bodies.
TW: Do you think that interest in movement made it hard to want to design just buildings? In Media Burn there is so much about momentum, there are sketches that indicate the movement of the car and make estimations about how much air it will get. You could interpret that as a kind of dance, the car is being pirouetted, smashed down… making a jump. I like the emphasis you put on really wanting the car to go off a ramp, for it to get air. I think of Nijinsky.
CL: I’ve never thought about that as an influence, but it is possible that the experience of studying movement may have stuck with me, in terms of developing a body knowledge. I think originally Media Burn was more Evel Knievel than Anna Halprin.
TW: He was a performer too, I guess. He had a strong awareness of the way his form was being rendered in space.
CL: Yeah, though when he made his jump at the Cow Palace in 1972 he crashed and was injured.
TW: It seems like the architecture projects you’ve made have active, moving, living, components. They are kinetic. It was radical when you first did it, and it’s radical now.
CL: Perhaps we are heading towards the post-building, post-architecture world.
TW: I’ve been thinking about this idea that, because of ecological collapse, a new form of houseless-ness will be experiencing immobility. If you can’t physically move the place where you dwell, you won’t have secure housing.
CL: Or, you’ll have to retrofit where you live so it can provide all your food, stream information, and bring you everything you need in a post-automobile world.
TW: That makes me think of the new Volkswagen electric car, which is meant to be a mobile home where you can work and plug into technology. It is great for a disaster.
CL: One thing that is interesting is that for an electric car you don’t need the grill. The grill, for me, has always been the smiling face of the automobile. But the Tesla designers didn’t bother to make an imitation grill.
TW: That’s true, it isn’t animatronic anymore.
CL: Did you see the Roman Coppola version of Media Burn?
TW: Yeah. I couldn’t believe that!
CL: Well, he actually launched the car into the wall of televisions. He had a bigger budget than we did.
TW: It’s a Supergrass music video from the early 2000s, stylized as an exact reproduction of Media Burn. Everyone is wearing the same costumes, and they even reconstruct the same gestures and ersatz press photo opportunities.
CL: He had the video of our event.
TW: I’ve seen many reproductions of Media Burn. I like the viral nature of the work, if you are producing and designing an image then that will always be in motion and always be mobile.
CL: That’s right.
TW: It’s interesting to think about an image’s entrapment in physical mediums. During the pandemic I thought a lot about artwork being contained in physical spaces — shuttered galleries, closed museums. When I think about the decontextualization of images, I also think about the image without a viewer. The museum’s containment of artworks which accrue capital but cannot be seen feels pertinent. When did you start showing things in museum settings?
CL: Well, there is an irony there. We were based in the counterculture and thus predisposed to be against museums, and against galleries. We wanted to make work outside all the existing systems of authentication. But, when given the opportunity, we participated in the first SFMOMA survey of the decade’s performance video and multi-disciplinary medium. While we were outside an establishment, we were happy to be in that show, Space/Time/Sound—1970s: A Decade in the Bay Area (1979), curated by Suzanne Foley.
TW: Do you think of yourself as an artist or an architect?
CL: That’s such a fundamental question. I think of myself as an artist now, but at the same time I think everything I do is rooted in my training as an architect. I use a structural grid when I make photographic pieces because I care less about the individual image than its juxtaposition in the work with other images.
TW: In an interview with Connie Lewallen, she brought up the work of Nam June Paik in relation to your piece 100 Television Sets, in which a series of televisions of varying ages are arranged chronologically coming out of a swamp, as if caught in evolution. But his work is much more about the physicality of the television, whereas your work is about the image, and the television itself is just a temporary body, serving its purpose as a conduit that is going to get destroyed.
CL: Yes, that’s true with Media Burn, but 100 Television Sets, made earlier, was designed to have three huge brand-new televisions that would be wired and running the three major networks, NBC, ABC, CBS. But our client’s husband, who was paying the bills, didn’t like that idea. It was more about, for me, the idea of plugging in the TVs and just letting them run until they fell apart. The flow of the television programming would lead to collapse.
What we might consider doing is going down to the studio, and I can show you a photo lecture called The Long Goodbye to the Automobile.
TW: Do you perform live while giving the lecture?
CL: I don’t consider it “Performance Art,” but I privilege the images.
[We begin the slideshow and for several minutes look at photographs of cars, Fords and Cadillacs, sometimes commenting on the tailfins of particular models. I look around Chip’s studio, the lowest level of his Noe Valley house. Someone once told me that you should judge an artist on how carefully they’ve built out their storage space. The rafters here are meticulously well-organized, holding decades of work. Chip points out a photograph of a Cadillac similar to the one used in Media Burn, which he knows I’ll recognize. We started talking in February last year, spurred by a comment Chip left on an essay I wrote for Open Space, thinking through Steve Seid’s book on Media Burn. That turned into invitations to collaborate artistically, an exchange of ideas, and even Instagram support for particularly good photos posted to our stories.]
CL: After the Halprin workshop, Doug Michels drove out to California and we founded Ant Farm as an “underground practice,” because in San Francisco there were underground newspapers, underground film, underground radio, and we thought we could be the underground architects. We described that to a friend, a graphic designer, and she said, “Oh like that toy I had as a kid, Ant Farm.” As a metaphor it was perfect, and it was a good name for a band, too. We had no clients, but our first big hit was Cadillac Ranch.
TW: That work has had such a funny afterlife. I’ve seen it on social media, on Tumblr, in photographs from people’s travels, and always without context or attribution. The image lives online. How did you have the idea to make Cadillac Ranch?
CL: Well, we had grown up in the ’50s and we were all car nuts as kids. We found a book, The Look of Cars (1966), and in it was an illustration showing the “rise and fall of the fin.” Curtis [Schreier] made it into rubber stamps, and Hudson [Marquez] made sketches that became our stationary. Through the Mail Art network we met a rich Texan, Stanley Marsh 3, who lived in Amarillo, Texas. He invited a proposal and we sent him an architectural drawing. We understood the ridiculous decorative elements of the fins and their cultural baggage.
[Looking at images of Cadillac Ranch, we agree that the tailfins on the nose-down cars look ridiculous, half submerged in the dirt — ass out and lined up in a long row. The cars are helpless, rendered purely sculptural. Their status as luxury items, substitute masculinity, or any notion of freedom is charmingly decapitated. I like talking to Chip about cars because I’ve never understood them. I only got my first car a few years ago, a very old Honda Civic, and it was stolen so many times that in the end I gave it up. He sees something in their aura, their cultural positioning, their architecture that is so abstract to me. It’s like he’s teaching me a foreign language and I’m trying to make the sounds that don’t exist in English.]
TW: It seems tied to this idea that a car is definitional to your identity, right? It sounds like it addresses this aspirational element to desire, which relates to something illusory. Sorry… I’m not a car person.
CL: When I meet someone I ask, “What do you drive?” It is such a register that defines identity., but that is disappearing with your generation, isn’t it?
TW: We can’t have anything.
TW: I do know a few people who are retrofitting vans to live inside during the pandemic. It seems like part of the reason San Francisco is emptying out. All of the young tech people are trying to have a van life where they put a bed in their car and work their job remotely. In that case a car is less about identity and more about habitat.
CL: We did that with our Media Van in 1971.
TW: But your van was broadcasting media out of it right?
CL: Not actually broadcasting, but giving the sense that it could broadcast. We just had one Porta-Pak camera/recorder and we could play back in the van.
TW: Media Van is a predecessor to the new deluge of young people adapting to a semi-nomadic existence in which remote work is paired with the expense of contemporary life.
[He skips forward to a picture of the Media Van, a kind of collective vehicle built by Ant Farm to operate as a mode of transmitting and create the aesthetic of broadcasting. The vehicle, here, is a kind of public space — an intermedial tool used to receive and send information.]
CL: This is the 2008 Media Van, commissioned by Rudolf Frieling for a show at SFMOMA called The Art of Participation: 1950 to Now. We revisited the original Media Van, trying to imagine what it could be forty years later. The first thing we did was remove any dependence on fossil fuels. The original Media Van was a form of networking with social communities we were in touch with through the Mail Art network. The 2008 version has similar functions: acquiring media, playing it back, and connecting with social networks.
In the center of the vehicle, we had installed a “media Huqquh,” which people could sit around. This was in November of 2008 and the iPhone had come out in May. Our computer guy, Paul Rauschelbach, hacked the iPhone so the “Huqquh” [designed by Bruce Tomb] would grab a file randomly, a picture or a music file, and add it to a growing digital time capsule.
[We look at a photo of a mock computer interface made by Ant Farm. Some museum visitor’s file, a picture of their dog, moves slowly across the screen, technical information about the image’s size and format serving as an impersonal caption.]
CL: Then it spits out a receipt with the date and file name and offers you a 10% discount in the museum store.
TW: Good deal. Whatever happened to the original Media Van?
CL: The original one is lost, but we made some fictions about it on video. We shot a story that it was “discovered” forty years later at a missile silo in the Marin Headlands. In our second video it lives on in an Amazon-style co-location facility near Reno, Nevada, observed by a rotating surveillance camera.
[The slideshow skips forward to photos of two actors in brown suits, leaning against a sterile office environment. It feels conspiratorial.]
CL: Here is Phil Garner, not Pippa yet. Garner wasn’t part of Ant Farm, but rented our studio for a summer. We found a film at the Alameda flea market together that was made by Chevrolet and meant to be circulated to the dealerships to show the sales team how you close a deal. Garner and I made Chevrolet Training Film: The Remake in which Garner plays the salesman and I’m the straight man, the car buyer. That was in 1980; we performed it live several times, including at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
One amazing fact — when we were invited to show it at the Whitney, Garner’s wife at the time, Nancy Reese, said, “You know they mentioned this dealership is on Long Island, let’s call it up and see if the salesman, Bob Warner, is still there.” Well we found him, he was selling Cadillacs in Manhattan. We invited him to a performance, and he had this surreal experience of coming to the Whitney and seeing this recreation of a video that he had acted in, as an actual salesman.
TW: What did he think of it? It must have been strange to see the reproduction and be invited to consider his work for the dealership as a kind of performance.
CL: If you watch the whole training video, it ends with a panel of managers reviewing the salesman’s performance. We love this line from one of the salespeople, who said, “I think Bob is a real artist, he throws some numbers around here, he confuses the buyer just enough, so they don’t notice he is using financing to take them for thirty-five dollars.”
TW: You must have rescued the film from total obscurity. At the Alameda flea market, where there’s nine hundred thousand movies.
CL: Actually 16 mm film, not video, and of course, not asking any permissions.
[Now it is a picture of Ant Farm lighting a fire in a small USC classroom. The underground architects are all mischievous and out of place in the sterile classroom, grinning and holding gas masks. Chip and I both smile once the picture comes into view. It looks like a picture of being young.]
CL: Another Ant Farm performance, in the early ‘70s, was at a conference of experimental art and technology at USC. Joe Hall and I put on gas masks in one of the classrooms and lit highway flairs beside a cake decorated like an old tire. We turned the lights down and began projecting slides, most of which were also of gas stations. The duration of the piece was that whenever the highway flare burned out, that was the end. When it was over the room was completely empty because of the noxious fumes.
TW: Were the slides being projected through smoke? Did that hold an elongated image? I saw this amazing film, Anthony McCall’s Line Describing a Cone, where a minimal white line is projected against a dark surface. The idea is that it should be shown in a room filled with a smoke machine (or in this case, cigarette smoke), which causes a conical ray of light to be formed in the room. It was for an eviction party.
CL: This was more overtly in your face. We weren’t thinking about the beauty of the projection and we never tested it out. There was no rehearsal. In later years, we were more informed and came to understand that we were performance artists.
TW: Media Burn is very theatrical, but by design it could only be done without practicing.
CL: In 1975, in the summer we did a residency at Art Park in upstate New York, near Niagara Falls. It was an era when land art was becoming very popular.
TW: Though you had already done land art with Cadillac Ranch.
CL: None of the works at Artpark were permanent, the artists would come, make their work, and then dismantle it. So, we made a proposal for a work that would disappear by the end of the summer: We suggested burying a car.
TW: It looks like a hearse.
CL: It was a participatory project. We invited people to make donations to a time capsule we stored inside the Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser station wagon, which we used as the car. Doug sat at a card table in the park with empty suitcases and explained the piece. We also had a Kmart experience where we bought consumer products and magazines. Then we put all the suitcases in the car, sealed it with roofing tar and drove it into the side of a hill. It was supposed to be uncovered in the future, the year 2000, but this innovative program at Artpark only lasted three years. In 2008 they discovered some toxic materials in the soil and got worried about digging into the land. So, as far as I know the car is still buried there.
[We click away from the Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser pressed halfway into a green knoll, covered in dirt, to a series of photos of Chip’s cars. He’s had almost thirty and each demarcates a period of his life. He grew up with them. As we go through the images in eerie digital silence we talk about slides, which would have made a sound in time to the changing images.]
TW: So, what’s the current car?
CL: 2018 Honda Fit.
TW: That’s what I should get.
CL: It’s not in my fantasy garage, but it is perfect for the city — it Fits in parking spaces that big cars cannot fit into.
[The PowerPoint slideshow is now made up of analog slides, two on the screen at a time. We move through a dozen or so photographs of people standing beside their cars. It feels more personal than other works.]
CL: Cars and Owners, this was never shown publicly, just in our studio. It was like an obsession. Doug Michels and I would set up two slide projectors, side by side, and share images that we’d taken of people with their cars. We liked the way the images, by chance, relate to each other. Cars and Owners begins with a series of shots of cars that we owned, with me on the left, Doug on the right, through like six or eight pairs. We kept this up until the year Doug died, 2003. Ant Farm only lasted ten years, but this sharing of images went on way longer.
And that’s it. That’s The Long Goodbye to the Automobile.
TW: We reached the end of the long goodbye?