Ant Farm founder and emeritus professor Chip Lord to be honored at UCSC film symposium

Groundbreaking media art collective best known for Cadillac Ranch

Chip Lord
Actor Nicolas Cage with Chip Lord at UC Santa Cruz in 2003. Students were thrilled when Lord arranged for Cage to make a surprise visit to UCSC film classes, along with director Roman Coppola. (Photo by Scott Rappaport)
Cadillac Ranch
Perhaps the best-known public artwork in the country, the Ant Farm’s Cadillac Ranch is seen by an estimated 300,000 people each year. (Photo: Copyright Ant Farm)

Years before he joined the faculty at UCSC, Chip Lord was a member of the Ant Farm, a groundbreaking, experimental art and architecture collective he founded in 1968 with fellow architect Doug Michels.

Dedicated to finding alternatives to mainstream architectural practice, the Ant Farm combined video, performance, and sculpture—achieving widespread notoriety in the mid ’70s for such projects as the Cadillac Ranch public art installation in Texas, and the spectacular performance art event Media Burn.

 “It was a very different time,” said Lord. “I graduated from Tulane School of Architecture in 1968 and there was revolution in the air."

"There was the Vietnam War, student protests, student unrest…we didn’t want to go into the corporate architectural world at all, and that was our motivation for starting the Ant Farm.”

Inspired by such creative thinkers as Buckminster Fuller and Paulo Soleri, the Ant Farm collective spent its early years creating an alternative architecture designed for a nomadic lifestyle.

They built giant inflatable structures—cheap and easy to assemble—in opposition to the mainstream Brutalist architecture of the ’60s that emphasized permanent reinforced concrete.

This led to The Truckstop Network, a freewheeling 1970 tour of colleges and universities in the Ant Farm’s “Media Van,” which was equipped with a video portapack, as well as an Eisenhower-era trailer, complete with an inflatable solar-heated shower unit.

“We brought an interest in high technology to the nomadic counterculture,” Lord observed.

The Ant Farm completed a number of successful architectural commissions in the early ’70s, including the award-winning House of the Century in Angleton, Texas. But the collective also spent time exploring the potential power of video and performance art.

This culminated in Media Burn, a dazzling event (captured on a widely distributed videotape) that featured two collective members dressed like astronauts, who drove a customized 1959 Cadillac El Dorado—outfitted with interior video communication—at full-speed through a pyramid of flaming TVs in the parking lot of San Francisco’s Cow Palace on July 4, 1975.

But perhaps the Ant Farm’s most famous endeavor was Cadillac Ranch, the art installation along Route 66 (now Highway 40) in Amarillo, Texas, that was immortalized in song by Bruce Springsteen.

Commissioned by Stanley Marsh 3, Lord and his Ant Farm partners partially buried 10 Cadillacs nose down in a wheat field--both celebrating the evolution of the Cadillac’s tailfin and at the same time mocking Detroit carmakers’ history of planned obsolescence.

“Cadillac was the ultimate status symbol in America at that time,” Lord noted. It took four weeks to find all the cars—some came from junkyards, a few came from used-car lots. But it took less than five days to bury them.”

Within six to eight months, images of Cadillac Ranch had appeared in People and Esquire magazines. Soon, articles began popping up everywhere and people began to make pilgrimages, often scratching their names in the paint of one of the cars.

Over the past three decades, the image of Cadillac Ranch has been used—with or without permission—by dozens of companies advertising everything from automobiles and insurance to restaurants and computers.

Possibly the best-known public artwork in the country, Cadillac Ranch is seen by an estimated 300,000 people each year as they motor down the Texas highway.

In 2004, Lord produced a DVD of Ant Farm material that was distributed nationally by Facets Multi-Media, and included Springsteen’s celebratory song, “Cadillac Ranch.”

“After Springsteen wrote the song, his record company called and wanted to use a photo of Cadillac Ranch in the liner notes for his album The River,” Lord said. “We ended up giving them a photo for a very modest fee. So I wrote a letter to his manager asking for permission to use the song in the DVD, and they gave it to us.”

When a fire in their San Francisco studio destroyed much of their work, the Ant Farm disbanded in 1978. Lord eventually moved on to become an assistant professor of visual art at UC San Diego. He came to UCSC in 1988 and was chair of the Film and Digital Media Department from 2003-07.

Lord retired in 2010.

“It was a hard transition for me after the Ant Farm ended,” Lord noted. “But I liked being in an environment of creative collaboration, so teaching appealed to me. The Ant Farm was my graduate education—my M.F.A. equivalency was established through life experience,” he added.


Chip Lord will be honored the evening of June 3rd from 5 to 9 p.m. as part of a two day Film Symposium presented by the UC Santa Cruz Arts Division titled “Bridging the Gap.” On Saturday, June 4, panel discussions will explore topics such as “The Business of Film, Media and Social Change,” and “Getting Started in Television.” Film screenings will include innovative works by alums, faculty and guests. For more information and/or to register for this free event, go to Bridging the Gap.