Early on in Rob Walker’s upcoming book, Buying In: the Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are, he discusses the “new consumer’s” slightly irrational obsession with authenticity. He writes:
While evoked constantly, the word is seldom defined. But one can presume that the authentic symbol is grounded in some kind of empirical, provable reality—that if you burrow down behind it, you will find exactly the things that the symbol purports to represent.
I was reading an advance copy of Rob’s book on the train up to Columbia on Monday night, so it was still resonating in my head as took my seat for Ant Farm: Radical Hardware, a panel discussion featuring Ant Farm members, Chip Lord and Curtis Schreier, and moderated by professors Felicity Scott and Mark Wasiuta. Ant Farm’s the kind of countercultural, prankster, media-savvy, architecturally off-the-wall group for whom I always have a soft spot. The sixties/seventies work is great, but also kind of awful: equal parts spectacle, pop, psychedelia, hi-tech, and Krazy Kat. A postcard of their piece, Media Burn (1975), where they drove a tricked-out Cadillac into a wall of burning TVs used to hang above my desk. If anyone was looking to latch onto something authentic, this was it.
Ant Farm’s been on the university circuit before, but what were these former radicals doing this time around in an academic institution, aside from helping Scott promote her new book on their work? Were they not there as authentic symbols of a history rapidly being embraced by architecture historians, even as they were brushed off when contemporary? Introducing the panel, Dean Mark Wigley, who likes to stir the pot a bit, remarked that Ant Farm’s appearance and exhibition at the Buell Center was not nostalgic, but all about the future.
And yes, in some ways it is. Scott and Wasiuta awkwardly attempted to mine the seventies oil crisis, environmental architecture, and communal living scene for its present day resonances, but seemed more comfortable in the past, focusing on the pre-Media Burn work. By contrast, Lord and Schreier, as working artists/architects fully versed in television and web 2.0, and with new installations in the works, made fluid leaps into today. Their easy demeanor was real, yet somehow dismissible (or dismissed) within the lecture auditorium context.
Lord summed it up best in a quip: “How to make subversion suitable for the institution? Add time.”