There were a million different ways one could have fun at this year’s SXSW Film Festival, but Tom Sachs, who was in Austin with one of the festival’s most fun films “A Space Program,” probably found the most unique.
“I went to Armadillo Clay and bought 50 pounds of porcelain,” said Sachs. “I’ve been in my hotel room making pinch pots for therapy because it’s very stressful talking to people all the time [here].”
Other than the overwhelming crowds, Sachs needn’t have been stressed out, though the whole festival experience was new to the multi-disciplinary artist. Known for his slyly subversive sculptures that inject a wicked wit and even a little whimsy into highly sophisticated reworkings of cultural totems, particularly ones that occupy a revered spot in engineering history, Sachs has literally carved out his own place in that timeline. From the very start of his career when he fashioned pistols out of Hermès and Tiffany packaging to his ongoing construction of boomboxes that fuse duct tape, foamcore, wires and any other materials he can get his hands on, Sachs’ work speaks to humanity’s place in the march of technology and imagine consumerism as a battlefield.
In one of his most ambitious efforts, Sachs took that battle beyond this planet with “A Space Program: Mars,” an exhibit that employed the 55,000 square foot Wade Thompson Drill Hall in New York to serve as both the mission control center and the red planet itself to simulate a mission to Mars. The artist filled the room with cannily-crafted spacecrafts as well as the wonder of NASA’s missions during the height of the space age in the 1960s, though hardly one the organization would officially sanction with Sachs’ crew mischievously introducing opium poppies and, naturally, funky boomboxes, to the uncivilized terrain.
Thankfully, while the installation only existed for a glorious four-week run in 2012, Sachs and his longtime collaborator Van Neistat had the forethought to capture it on film, distilling the wild 11-hour production that would see the crew lift off and return back home into a joyful movie “A Space Program” that runs just over an hour. A bit like “2001: A Space Odyssey” as if performed by the Max Fischer Players, the film envisions Sachs’ team of fellow bricoleurs – carpenters, iron workers, currency counterfeiters, among them – as the crew whose goal of sending the first women to Mars and answer the question famously posed by David Bowie once and for all. Like so much of Sachs’ work, it’s awesome in the purest sense of the word, both due to the sculptor’s precision and his playfulness.
During a respite from the film’s screenings in Austin, where a comprehensive retrospective of his Boomboxes is still currently on display at the Jones Center for Contemporary Art, Sachs spoke about translating the exhibit into movie form, the extensive research that went into simulating as real a space mission as possible and the importance of keeping the human touch evident throughout.
How did this movie come about?
I’m a sculptor. That’s my main thing. People say that that’s false modesty, that I’m really an artist, because that [sounds as if it’s] some higher level, but I’m happiest when I’m making things with my hands and the movie is about the sculptures. In particular, it’s about the aspects of the sculptures that exist in time and their ritual uses. When you drink out of a cup, it’s just a way of conveying water into your mouth, but if you put it on a pedestal or in a museum, you start to look at it as an art object or an artifact of history. The movie is really there to represent those aspects that exist in time and how all the sculptures in the movie are part of the ritual of our Space Program.
Van and I made “Ten Bullets,” a 20-minute industrial movie about the studio and how to behave [inside], made in the manner of the Eames Studio. It’s like there are 10 bullets – 10 rules about what our studio operates on. “Space Program” is an extension of that. In fact, some of the scenes are taken directly from “Ten Bullets.”
You actually include an Eames film in “Space Station.” Was that a form of homage?
People ask, “Who are the artists that influence you?” I always say it’s James Brown, “The Godfather of Soul,” and the Eames Studio because we all worship plywood. But there’s a longer explanation. A lot of the sculptures that I made over my lifetime have been things that I haven’t been able to afford in a store, so I made my own. When I was a kid, I couldn’t have the big boombox, so I got a Walkman and some speakers from the car and wired it all together and made my own boombox. I’ve done that with Piet Mondrian paintings, making my own out of duct tape. I’ve even made models of architecture that I couldn’t own – Le Corbusier’s most famous building [for instance] – just so that I could possess it in some way, because there are many ways of owning things.
I also learned that when you have a pair of $500 Gucci sunglasses and you leave them at a restaurant, you turn your car around and you’ll get them, but if they’re a $5 fake Gucci sunglasses, you might just keep going to your next destination because life is short and you’ve got to be somewhere. But they’re both Gucci sunglasses. One is unauthorized and cheap and the other is the best quality. Some say they’re made in the same factory – I don’t know – but they both have different advantages.
So when we have the Eames movie in there, I’m thinking, “Okay, I couldn’t get Charles and Ray Eames to make my movie about my art because they’re dead, but I’m going to make my own bootleg, Eames-style movies.”
We used the introduction of feedback because we’re really trying to study the dynamic of conflict between people. I was thinking to myself I want to make an Eames-style movie about that issue, the negative feedback and overcompensatory action versus dampening actions and compromise, and when I started doing research, I found that, the Eames had already done it better. So, we called and got permission and we made a digital print off of 35mm original. It was a buried movie and now we get to share that with the world. I thought it would be impossible but it was easy. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.
Similarly, we really wanted James Brown for the celebration sequence at the end and I thought, “Well, we’ll never be able to afford that,” so I started going through Charles Bradley’s catalog, but I couldn’t figure out the right song that sounded like James Brown. Anyway, in the end, I was like, “Fuck it. Let’s just ask.” It’s a gamble because even if it’s too much, you still have to pay the ask fee to your lawyer. But we got it at a rate that we could afford and it’s in there. I feel like the luckiest guy alive that I could.
One of the interesting ideas in the film that extends from the way you craft the world of “Space Station” all the way to the story you tell inside of it is how there’s always bursts of humanity everywhere you look. You have the capability to make things perfect – there’s space-grade technology in here or the astronauts try their best to adhere to a very detailed and rigid process, but you make sure that in the case of the props, there’s always a handmade quality somewhere or that the astronauts’ emotion will occasionally win out over what they’re supposed to be doing. Why was that important?
We tried to make the movie the same way we make the sculptures. The whole movie was shot with a Canon T2i. $500, including the lens, at RadioShack. The only real indulgence we had is that we had to buy a second one at the end for the shot of the camera.
That’s fantastic. You bought a camera for the specific purpose of filming another camera?
That was our one fake moment. Someone actually asked me, “That’s so crazy. Surely, someone that you knew had a nicer 7D or some [other] camera,” and I said, “Yeah. Olivia on my team has her $5,000 version,” but it had to be the same. You’ll see also, if you watch [the film] again, there’s a couple of mixing pixels in the same place the whole time. Our colorist said, “I can get rid of those. No problem,” and and Van insisted that they stay. We’d have a little disagreement about that, but I think he was right he wanted those to stay, so that you could see that it was made on [digital].
It’s been hard to keep it looking authentic and real as the way we made it because we tend to polish away some of the marks. That was always a little bit of a balancing act in making this. We wanted to tell the story right and you want to keep the illusion and make you feel like you’re in it, but then want to remind you that you’re watching a movie the whole time. They’re contradictory ideas.
I’ve read you worked with Nike on the exhibit, which seems like it makes for endless possibilities, but does having access to those kind of resources actually limit your creativity?
The big answer is no, it doesn’t. But I’m very prejudiced against computer-aided design software for students because believe it teaches bad habits. It doesn’t allow you to make mistakes and you need to make mistakes to really understand how materials work. The [computer-aided-design] program won’t let you design built walls that do impossible Escher-esque things and when you really draw things, you start to understand them. Also, that’s the same problem with digital printing sometimes. Although these are great tools and we need to use them, they need to be tempered with a real-life experience of building your own things. I’m better drawing with a pencil than with a computer, but there are things that computers can do that I can never do.
I don’t typically collaborate. Nike has been the only corporate collaboration I’ve ever done. I believe that it’s easier to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission any day, but at the same time, it took us five years to negotiate a agreement because I believe in a collaboration, it has to be 50/50, equal parts Sachs and equal parts Nike. But also you have to be able to get something out of the project that you couldn’t have gotten by yourself. I think they got a transparency in their project and I got to make things out of these incredible materials.
This film really is a celebration of the materials that you used, just in how you give explanations for each one, whether it’s the plywood or the steel, and how it works and what its function is. How much of that was out of a need to inform versus a love of the materials?
If you were to ask what style of filmmaking this is, I would call it industrial or propaganda. When you go back and watch “Ten Bullets” or “COLOR,” these are movies that I showed to my studio staff [to teach] and put them on YouTube, and they’ve gone a little viral. But it’s also a way of making [the process] very, very clear because in order for a sculpture to be successful, in my view, it has to tell conflicting stories. There has to be many ways of looking at it — it has to be a mirror and a hammer. It’s got to reflect, but it’s also got to provoke you to think about it.
Was there just some gadget in the film that you really enjoyed making?
Making the [Lunar Exclusion Module (LEM)] was so gratifying because I looked through the internet and there were half a dozen [people] who made their own backyard LEM, but mine’s the only one that stands on its own four legs. Theirs all have columns in the middle. It was really expensive and complicated to achieve, but that was fun. Screwing a surveillance camera to a cinder block is always a pleasure or making the cinder block from scratch, because that’s the symbol of our Space Program. It’s even on our T-shirts.
As an American Neocolonialist, you go to a foreign land where they have brown skin and round buildings. You show up with your Bible and shotgun, you knock down the round buildings, and you set up a cinder block factory and start making square, occidental buildings, so when we build our space station, we’ll build it out of cinder blocks. We even made one that we drilled holes in — lightning holes — so they would be lighter for carrying it into space. The structure path of those holes was determined by Tommaso Rivellini, a real rocket engineer at JPL. It was good to work with him and then also make it myself with my hands, because that’s my love. That’s where I reach a meditative state.
From a design standpoint, was there anything that was particularly difficult to recreate for the space station?
I did a residency at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, so a lot of the technical stuff I got to work on with the guys there. For example, Dr. Kevin Hand, who’s looking through the microscope [in the film] is an astrobiologist who helped me understand what life is from a scientific standpoint. The planet protection protocol 1-2-AC is a real thing that they do and the part where they find life on Mars, I did all this work to understand it, so there was some credibility to the the method that we used, protocols that mirror how scientists have been working for the past few hundred years, evolving from Isaac Newton to Carl Sagan to JPL.
Strangely, I thought I would get all this engineering information, but really, what I got was all the spiritual stuff, because these scientists are these deeply spiritual individuals. They’re answering the same questions that religion answers — are we alone? Where do we come from? They are very into the big questions and the difference between a rocket scientist and a rocket engineer is that scientists use these machines to answer the questions and the engineers are into the nuts and bolts of how to get it done, and they work together. I’m a little in between because there’s a real blue collar side to making sculpture. You get to weld and do carpentry or handle clay or whatever it is, but then if it’s going to have any resonance, you’ve got to be interested at least in the big questions. That’s why when you find artists who are involved in religious dogma in the modern age, their art is never good. Back in the time of Michelangelo is different, but even then, I think he sucked up to the church just to get the bills paid.
Did you actually build the space station with filming in mind?
Not at all, and I never do because my day job is a sculptor. Filmmaking is two things [for me] – it’s a hobby, but it’s also my way of bringing the work to the world. More people will see these movies than will ever see my sculptures. Maybe eventually they’ll go see the sculptures.
Does the intent behind the art come alive to you in a different way when you see it in a film?
Yeah, in a way, but it may be potentially a pitfall too because my fear is that I might explain too much. I was determined to make a real movie with a beginning, middle, and end, not some dumb art project. I really wanted to tell a story that made sense and was compelling. But my biggest fear is that it tells too much of the story, because ultimately, art has to be a little bit open so you can write your own story onto it. When people talk about my work being provocative, it’s insulting when they say that I’m a provocateur because it means that it’s not really serious. It’s just trying to provoke for provocation’s sake. But if you look at the root of that word, it’s actually very valuable because it then helps you to think about something in your life and bring discussion to mind. That’s the best thing an art object can do. The best movies do that. The best sculptures can do that, too.
When dealing with the idea of space, was it interesting to create different experiences – one for your exhibition and another for the screen that would take advantage of the inherent natures of those mediums?
We can do all this in the same detail work, but in realizing details to an extreme degree, the experience for us becomes authentic. Even though things are made out of cardboard and duct tape, when you’re watching the movie or when we were demonstrating it live for an audience in the 11 hours, it was real. There are moments where it’s ridiculous — when we’re harvesting opium [in the film], we used sop instead of real opium latex because it’s a felony. But we did grow the opium poppies from real bagels and you can get high off a bagel eventually. It’s a cool idea — inseminating the surface [of a planet] with a bagel, but it took many months and a ton of work.
Any idea taken far enough with enough seriousness and research and dedication can be great. That is all in the execution. I asked Buzz Aldrin once on how he dealt with condensation in the space helmets. Without even answering me, he said, “Your space helmets aren’t real. Just cut a hole in the back, Tom.” I said, “No way, Buzz. I’m installing a fan.” So we installed the cooling fan and there was a special one just for the condensation because your breath heats it up [creating] condensation, and we had to get rid of that. That’s another great detail that we had to do.
It sounds like your interest in space predated this the making of this film. How far does it go back?
I was born in 1966, so things like Skylab, the Concorde and the Space Shuttle were part of everyday life. We thought it was going to keep going. We didn’t know that these things were going to become obsolete and we were going to look back upon this age as some kind of a Neo-Victorian era with these fantastic flying machines that went away. I don’t think that my experience was special. A lot of us love this stuff. As a maker of things, [I consider] the Space Program stuff some of the best things we have.
The [Lunar Exclusion Module] is the symbol of going to Mars and killing God. One [historical] arc worth considering is we go to the moon or Mars on African blood. After World War II, we got better [because of] German scientists and the Russians. The way we beat the Nazis was by building airplanes faster than they could blow them out of the sky, and just by being more industrious or industrial than them. We built that machine up on the incredible, industrial corridor of the Northeast that was used to change the tide of the Civil War. Before that, we built all of that up on money that the Americas made by growing cotton faster than you can grow it in England and gaining economic advantage over Europe. That’s all through African slave labor. So [for me] there’s a connection between the two most important things that the 20th century have given us — going to the moon with NASA and Louis Armstrong and all the great music of the African diaspora. Without him, you don’t have James Brown or Fiona Apple.
I had assumed when the astronauts bring out the funky boombox to plant on Mars’ surface that that was a nod to your prior work, but you’re saying space exploration and music are actually connected for you?
Absolutely. It’s looser than that. It’s not that calculated, but without a doubt, when you land on another planet, you try and make sure your spaceship’s clean so that you don’t infect it and you can learn more about it. We thought if you’re going to go to Mars and try and do science, [the boombox] was the scientific package. Heisenberg says you can’t even measure the temperature of something properly because you change its temperature when you insert the thermometer, because the thermometer has a temperature, so you change it. So I thought, instead of getting the information, let’s bring the information, or in particular, [with] the boombox, just bring the noise. That’s why when [the astronauts] set that up, it’s a scientific package that takes information, but it also makes this huge sonic mess.
It’s also why we have the tea ceremony [in the film] because that’s the other great thing that the planet Earth has. If I could bring art to another planet, I wouldn’t bring a Barnett Newman painting. I would bring a tea ceremony because it’s so complex and encompasses all the stuff about religion that I like, as well as all the philosophy and hospitality and generosity and appreciation for Earth.
You’re making this at a time when space exploration, at least in terms of NASA, seems to be at a wane. Was that at all an influence on this?
Yeah, I can see things falling apart every four years. It’s just a worse and worse situation. As I’ve gone firmly into middle age, there’s a certain melancholy that I’m experiencing at this point where boomboxes used to surround the streets of noise. Now, everyone’s got headphones. There was a Utopian fantasy that we would be going to other planets and really keep the pace of the Kennedy Space Program up, and that’s lost.
If you’re a student of industrial design, you’ll know that the best things were made before 1974 in any genre, like art supplies, bicycles, cars, whatever. It was a generational loss of the people who built stuff for World War II when it really mattered to outproduce Nazi Germany, but also there were the new technologies that came in that made a lot of handmade stuff obsolete. We don’t need great machinists because we’ve got [computer-aided design] and multiple-axis cutting machines. I can’t go into all the reasons why things have changed, but it’s definitely a loss for our time. Of course, I think of myself and the community that I’m in are people that are keeping the mantra alive. I love what computers can do, but you can’t fix your own car anymore. There’s something infantilizing about that and disempowering.
It seems like you’re fighting the good fight against it.
Yeah. I feel like if [my work is] a propaganda for anything outside of my studio, it is for the values of transparency and how things really work of continuing to make stuff. Things like zine culture is coming back, and people are artisanally pressing records and [there’s] Slow Food, so there’s a fight against a lot of that. I consider myself part of that fight.