Out of this World

Remembering Doug Michels, art and architecture’s populist visionary.

Doug Michels died in June—just as Ant Farm, the art/architecture collective he founded, was about to be rediscovered. He and his former partners had spent the past year working on a museum exhibition of the group’s output from 1968 to 1978 (opening at the Berkeley Art Museum in January).

The sixties seemed Michels’s perfect time—even into the seventies. He had sex in public under an American flag during an ad hoc performance and dressed in drag to play Jackie Kennedy for the Eternal Frame, a video reenactment of the Zapruder film of JFK’s assassination. Michels formed Ant Farm with Chip Lord a year after his 1967 graduation from the Yale School of Architecture. The name suggested the goal—building underground collectively—as well as the rock band or commune that the group’s conflicts and changes resembled.

Ant Farm’s products were ideas, and its medium was performance. Its members worked with inflatable architecture as early as 1969 and experimented with video communication between their San Francisco and Houston offices. They carried out a smart, visionary media critique that was populist and humorist—as much Mark Twain as Marshall McLuhan. The Citizens’ Time Capsule let individuals choose the objects worthy of transmission to the future—25 years before the millennium. The results were encapsulated in a 1967 Oldsmobile Vistacruiser station wagon buried near Buffalo. Today we can see that Ant Farm was years ahead of its time. The group’s 1979 Teleportation Unit looks like a contemporary home office, but its technologies—fax, personal computer, Internet, and so on—were novel or unheard of then.

Michels and Ant Farm are best known for the Cadillac Ranch, in Amarillo, Texas, a collection of ten vintage Cadillacs planted nose down alongside Route 66—one of the few genuine American monuments to join the landscape in the last quarter century. He was bemused when two years ago the motel chain Hampton Inn hailed the sculpture as a venerable landmark and painted over its well-graffitied surfaces as part of a marketing campaign to celebrate the American road. “Personally I’m not sure about the whole ‘restoration’ thing,” Michels e-mailed me at the time. “The power of the Cadillac Ranch as a cultural icon is restored daily with a bold mixture of spray-can graffiti and genuine Route 66 ‘folk art’ painted by millions of visitors….Cadillac Ranch is always right now!”

Michels liked big ideas, and startling ones: for example, that human beings needed an “embassy” to open relations with another species, the dolphin, and that the two might explore space together—in Bluestar, a 250-foot spherical space station he described as “dedicated to the investigation of thought liberated from Earth’s gravitational ties…harboring the broadest possible range of inquiry, from the artistic to the psychological to the cybernetic.” Even in landlocked Amarillo, Michels’s affection for whales and dolphins came out. He later said one of the inspirations for the Cadillac Ranch had been a vision of cars leaping from the land like dolphins from the sea.

Michels died from a fall while climbing to a whale-viewing point at Eden Bay, Australia, a few weeks before his sixtieth birthday. In one of his last letters from Australia he wrote to a friend about the whales and sharks he had seen and closed with a line that summed up his whole outlook: “Have a happy future, Doug.”

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