Interview with Chip Lord
Chip Lord

Chip Lord was a founding member of the legendary San Francisco-based alternative media collective Ant Farm. An artist whose installations and video works have been exhibited internationally, Lord is Professor and Chair of the Film and Digital Media Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz. This interview was conducted by EAI Distribution Coordinator Rebecca Cleman via email.

Introductory Note: The San Francisco-based collective Ant Farm was founded in 1968 by Chip Lord and Doug Michels as an alternative architecture, graphic arts, and environmental design practice. The group was a self-described "art agency that promotes ideas that have no commercial potential, but which we think are important vehicles of cultural introspection." Known for their countercultural performances, media events and site structures, Ant Farm began working with video in the early 1970s, using the medium as a sort of "video sketchbook" for collaborative interaction and documentation. In 1975 Ant Farm staged the subversive media events Media Burn, in which a Cadillac was driven through a wall of burning television sets, and The Eternal Frame (with T.R. Uthco), a re-enactment of the Kennedy assassination in Dallas. Their well-known site-specific installation Cadillac Ranch, which features 10 Cadillacs buried, fins up, off Route 66 in Amarillo, Texas, remains an indelible icon of American popular culture. Ant Farm disbanded in 1978 when a fire destroyed their San Francisco studio. In 2005, a major retrospective of Ant Farm's multi-media works was organized by the Berkeley Art Museum and traveled to the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, the Contemporary Art Center, Cincinnati, and other venues.

Rebecca Cleman: You worked initially as part of an art collective, Ant Farm, and now you work independently as an artist. Could you speak about this transition and what that has meant for you artistically?

Chip Lord: The post-Ant Farm period was a difficult transition for me because of the loss of the support structure that the group provided, both creatively and financially, but this eventually led me to teaching. I thought that maybe teaching would be a similar collaborative process, and in some ways it is. Since I'm still doing it 25 years later, I have to say that university affiliation has worked for me.

RC: Media based art work has gained a larger presence in the art world in recent years, but the commercial art market seems to represent the antithesis of the kinds of alternative media projects that Ant Farm produced in the 1970s. Your own work is very conscious of, and uses as its subject, a critique of media culture, with an eye to the larger history of media. What is your sense of the ways media has been developing, both in the culture generally and within an art context?

CL: Back in 1974, John Baldessari wrote a short essay for the Open Circuits Conference that compared video to a pencil-˝just another tool in the artist's toolbox.ţ Now 30 years later we can see that this is true, and a new generation of artists have literally grown up with access to video equal to their access to pencils. But these kids still need training in art-making and a system to help them develop their conceptual and intellectual skills, because the commercial media stream is such a powerful model. It is also pretty clear that the term ˝video artţ is obsolete, but that first decade of video art is still a very useful moment to study because the way artists approached the use of media is so radically different from the commercial structures of television and film.

RC: Can you talk about your relationship to works such as The Eternal Frame, which was recently used as a case study for the Bay Area Video Coalition's (BAVC) interactive DVD on video preservation, ˝PLAYBACK: Preserving Analog Videoţ?

CL: Doug Hall and I worked with BAVC on the restoration of The Eternal Frame. Actually, BAVC first came to me with Media Burn in mind, but because we had all the original videotapes for The Eternal Frame it was a better project to take on as a case study. This was a great opportunity because BAVC funded all of the technical work and there were certain scenes that required frame-by-frame correction. Heather Weaver, the senior editor at BAVC, did a terrific job of this. Doug and I furnished ˝artists commentaryţ for the DVD, and one of the special features is that you can compare the pre-restoration version with the restored version.

RC: In 2005, the Berkeley Museum organized the major retrospective exhibition ˝Ant Farm 1968-1978,ţ which traveled to the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia and other venues. Can you talk about your experience with the installation of the video elements in this show?

CL: One thing that was very important to me in mounting the ˝Ant Farm 1968-1978ţ exhibition was to get the videos up on the wall so they would be integrated into the timeline of posters, drawings, sketches, and other ephemeral materials that made up the show. Curators Steve Seid and Connie Lewallen supported this idea, so we mounted six small flat screens and showed selected video clips on them. These clips could then lead viewers to the full video program for sit-down viewing, which was in an adjacent gallery. Or inspire the museumgoer to buy the Ant Farm Video DVD and watch the program at home. Despite this, there were problems at each venue with the video program viewing environment, mainly in regard to controlling light and sound, but also the comfort level for sitting and watching and hearing the work as it was intended to be seen and heard. To create a ˝screening roomţ in a museum is really a challenge, because the flow of the audience and the architecture of gallery space are usually antithetical to specifications for ideal viewing.

RC: Could you describe how recent installations of your video works address these exhibition issues?

CL: I've made a number of video works that were designed for museum or gallery installation but also seem to play well before seated audiences. Mapping a City of Fragments uses a repetitive structure of short sequences and is designed to reward the viewer who stays to watch what at first appear to be repetitions, but on closer inspection turn out to be accumulating information. Movie Map was shown at the Rena Bransten Gallery in San Francisco in 2003. For the gallery installation it included a series of photographic diptychs of movie theaters, shown in the same gallery with the video on a flat screen. The video version intercuts footage from ˝Vertigoţ and ˝Bullittţ to construct a fictional geography of San Francisco and the sense that the two automotive pursuits are happening at the same time. I'm interested in how different forms of representational media work function, especially still photographs made on film negatives and video, and I intentionally contrast them in my projects. New technologies and specifications of resolution make this a continually shifting terrain, and will, I'm sure, lock this work into a specific moment in time.

RC: You have also taught for many years. How has your experience of teaching moving image art changed in recent years, and how is it impacted by the increased use of digital technologies? Are there developments or new works that have interested you particularly?

CL: I'm teaching an experimental workshop class this quarter and a student brought in a video piece that he had shot on his still digital camera while riding a skateboard. The low resolution, low frame-rate image was quite beautiful, and reminded me of a Michael Snow film in which he shot the road texture speeding by. In this case, the small camera allowed the student to make something that had a unique look and feel. I have another student who has shot video footage using his cell phone. In this class I use the first decade of video art as a model to talk about shifting the process of HOW work is conceived and made, and I'm excited to see that these undergraduate students are finding ways to apply these ideas using new technologies.

RC: How would you distinguish the current media culture from that of, say, the '60s or '70s, or even the '80s?

CL: I'm going to duck this question.

RC: By the way, I saw that you produced a short for a re-release of The Residents's ˝Commercialţ album in 2004.

CL: I took it as a commission and just had fun shooting and editing a one-minute ˝movie.ţ John Sanborn also contributed to this DVD project. It was interesting to try and fit into the Residents's worldview and produce something that would work with their song. I'll send you a copy.