Americans invented the drive-in movie theater. At one point in the mid 1950s, there were 4000 drive-ins across the country. Most were run by independent owners and small chains, and movies were only part of the show. Gas was cheap, and car culture dominated urban planning and social interactions.
By the time we got to the drive-in — when we were kids in the late 1970s and early 1980s — the whole industry was in bad shape. Drive-ins had been choked out by major studios, preached against by local ministers, and gobbled up by developers. And yet when we watched a second-run Star Wars on the big screen from the bench seat of our grandparent’s Buick, there was some sort of magic, an experience both indoors and out, familiar and strange, personal and grand.
Now there are only 368 drive-ins in the United States. Those that remain represent a working reconciliation of public and private space. They suggest a place for both, out on the edge of town, when the sun goes down and the fireflies come out. It’s a part of what we have attempted to recreate at Empire Drive-In. But we didn’t build our installation out of nostalgia, or in some attempt to relive our childhoods. We built it as a monument to a failed system, to unchecked consumerism, to the death of the car.
Empire Drive-In is a full-scale theater made out of wrecked cars and a 40-foot screen constructed of salvaged wood. Audiences climb in and out of cars rescued from the junkyard to watch films projected on the big screen. Low-power radio transmits stereo audio directly to each car. The project debuted at the 01SJ Biennial in San Jose, California in 2010. We built another version for the Abandon Normal Devices Festival in Manchester, UK, in 2012.