By Ingrid Halland
But where danger is, grows the saving power also.1
In the evening of 17 June 1970, the neo-avant-garde architecture group Ant Farm arrived at the week-long International Design Conference in Aspen in their Media Van and erected a transparent inflatable plastic object, Spare Tire Inflatable, which the conference participants could enter and move through. The theme of the conference, ‘Environment and Design’, had brought together American designers, architects, corporate representatives, business leaders, and a French delegation of designers and sociologists for discussions about the new powerful watchword “the environment.” Ant Farm’s soft plastic room functioned as the conference recreation area – or playground – as the delegates moved and played inside the bubble in between keynote presentations, roundtable discussions, and paper sessions. The inflatable room was an object of soft plastic with no other tangible supporting structure. As air filled up the flatpacked room, it transformed the object and it became very close to nothing. Spare Tire Inflatable was an unstable object, a structureless structure almost entirely of air – more interested in becoming than in being.
The inflatable structure explicated an expansion of the understanding of what an object could be, both regarding its formal qualities and the epistemological categories objects usually are ascribed to. First, in both these terms the inflatable room challenged stability. It evoked an unstable temporality, as the room would never stay the same. Ant Farm’s room was always moving, always becoming. As air was blown into the structure and gave it form, the room also became physically and conceptually governed by the environment. Second, Inflatable materialised a presence of intangibility. The material which gave the room its form (air) was the same, inside and outside the object, and the continuum was separated by a layer of soft plastic. The softness of the material and its transparency epitomised that the boundary between the object and the environment softened. The inflatable structure embodies virtues of freedom and flexibility; it was a room not confined to a private, interior space; rather, a movable, transparent form that resisted rigidity, confronted conformity, and rejected history. Third, Inflatable was governed by the notion of play. With its soft structure that never really stabilised, the room opened up a play of endless possibilities.
Ant Farm’s experimental assembly of inflatable plastic objects and performance art partakes in a broader critical and aesthetic practice in counterculture post-war art and architecture discourse.2 Such inflatable art objects exemplify and participates in a major issue and theme in both art and theory in the early 1970s, namely the relationship between inside/outside, interior/exterior, or, object/context. Aesthetic explorations of this relationship converged on a common critical position, in so far that this practice was deeply immersed in conceptual terms such as connectedness, networks, interactions, semiology, co-operation, feedback loops, and infrastructures. Operational terms such as these were assumed to induce a new conceptual model of the world governed by notions of liberty, free from rigid structures of stable hierarchies.
Ant Farm’s Inflatable played with the limits of what an object could be; it blurred the boundaries between the atmosphere and the object’s internal atmosphere, thus Inflatable, in a sense, became pure context.