Ant Farm and T.R. Uthco are among the most radical and inventive counter-cultural working groups of the late 1960s and 1970s. In 1975, they collaboratively shot The Eternal Frame and Media Burn, two of their best known videos, which will be on display at the Aksioma | Project Space in Ljubljana in 2013.
The presentation of two ground-breaking, historically recognised pieces of early video art does not come by chance. As curator Edward W. Earle has suggested, The Eternal Frame and Media Burn exemplify “a new form of social activism that emerged from the cultural and political ferment of the 1970s: guerrilla television”. Using affordable video decks and portable video cameras, groups such as Videofreex, the Peoples Video Theater, the Raindance Corporation, Global Village and Ant Farm began producing radical alternatives to commercial television, working on alternative documentation of historical events, agitprop, street theatre and performance art. According to Earle, “Guerrilla video never fully achieved its utopian goals of returning broadcast power to the people or fostering free flow of information and images”, and in the field of contemporary art their activity had been, for a long time, overshadowed by the success of other, commercially more viable practices, from the formalist research of Paik and the Vasulkas to the “narcissistic video” of Vito Acconci and similar artists; only in the last two decades, along with the emergence of independent media, media hacktivism and net art, has this work started having an impact on younger generations, and its importance is yet to be fully recognised.
Both The Eternal Frame and Media Burn are “mockumentaries” that use documentary-style staging and behind-the-scenes footage for satiric effect. They explore the distorting nature of media representation in which reality and fiction blend. In both tapes the lead character is the “artist-president” John Kennedy, impersonated by Doug Hall, founder of T.R. Uthco. Media Burn was staged at the Cow Palace in San Francisco on July 4, 1975, and promoted as the “ultimate media event”. The spectacular pseudo-event, widely covered by mainstream news, ironically staged an explosive collision of two of America’s most potent cultural symbols: the automobile and television. The performance consisted of two members of Ant Farm driving a customised Cadillac El Dorado (the “Phantom Dream Car”) through a pyramid of burning televisions. The footage was shot from a closed-circuit video camera mounted inside a customised tail-fin, framed and juxtaposed with local television news coverage and short clips in which Doug Hall, introduced as John F. Kennedy, delivered a speech about the impact of mass media monopolies on American life: “Who can deny that we are a nation addicted to television and the constant flow of media? Have you never wanted to put your foot through your television?”
Using the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, The Eternal Frame is an examination of the role that the media plays in the creation of historical myths. The work begins with an excerpt from the only filmed record of Kennedy’s assassination, shot by Abraham Zapruder, a bystander on the parade route. Using those few frames of film as their starting point, T.R. Uthco and Ant Farm have constructed a multi-levelled event, which is simultaneously a live performance spectacle, a taped re-enactment of the assassination, a mock documentary, and – perhaps most insidiously – a simulation of the Zapruder film itself. The grotesque juxtaposition of circus and tragedy calls into question our media experience and collective memory of the actual event. Hall, in his role as the artist-president, addresses his audience with the ironic observation that “I am, in reality, only another image on your screen”.