The mission to Mars, done DIY

Radical artist Tom Sachs on his South By South West smash – a NASA-backed homemade space program, documented with a $500 dollar camera

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A Space Program Tom Sachs
Still from “A Space Program”Courtesy of Tom Sachs

New York artist Tom Sachs stole the show at SXSW last week, with his ingenious film about a space program – made entirely from scratch. A Space Program, made by him and long-time collaborator Van Neistat, was given a special entry into the Best Film Picks after critics couldn't decide where to classify such an extraordinary film.

This, as it happens, is not an unusual response to Sachs’s work. His genre-defying sculptures are in a class of their own – his Boombox works are currently also on show at The Contemporary in Austin – and his films are closer to pieces of art than traditional docs. A Space Program is a natural progression for him and Van Neistat, whose backlog of films range from Kate Moss working at a makeshift McDonalds, to the cult movies Ten Bullets and Colour, which have become the standard manual for brands like Nike and NASA to show their own ‘studios’ of workers. 

For his latest movie, the culmination of years spent building mission controls, landing crafts and spacesuits from household objects for blue-chip art galleries, Sachs is visiting the Red Planet. In the feature-length film, Sachs directs a radically DIY fictional space-documentary about a trip to Mars – think Michel Gondry directing Carl Sagan's Cosmos with John Carpenter writing the script. 

We caught up with Tom to discuss how he builds his films like his sculptures, why the boombox and the ritual of a cuppa are as inseparable from our human history as man’s first journey to the moon, and the importance as an artist of making “just the right wrong decisions”.

What would you say inspired you to create your own space mission? What was behind that?

Tom Sachs: I’ve always made different kinds of things based on things that I’ve wanted. When I was a kid my dad wanted this expensive camera – and I made one for him out of clay. Later when I moved to New York as an adult I wanted a gun, and I was working at Barney’s, so I made one with Tiffany’s packaging. These are ways to fulfil my desires through my art. I come from a consumerist culture, and I consume and use high quality status goods – not because of the status but because I just want the best. I haven’t always had the resources to obtain them so I’ve made my own, and I’ve realised on the way that there are benefits in that you own them, they don't own you. So after going through a “Chanel Guillotine”, or a “Prada Deathcamp”, or a “Hermes McDonalds Meal”, through these different brands and their status and what they bring to my life I start to try and understand – what are the most prestigious symbols? Science and religion have been on a parallel course to answer the same question; where do we come from and are we alone, but I think as a devout skeptic my religion is science. So what is the great symbol of science – of course it’s the NASA logo, and there’s nothing more powerful than the NASA logo. The Space Program in short is my way of realising the ultimate status, which is the understanding of faith using science as a tool. 

“We go to Mars not because we are looking for a new planet to fuck up, but so that we can better understand our resources here on earth” – Tom Sachs

What intrigues you as an artist particularly about the process of a mission into space, about that man-made process?

Tom Sachs: There are two kinds of people in this world; those who choose certainty over truth, and those who choose truth over certainty. They are not afraid to say I don’t know the answer, because by not knowing then we can ask more questions and start to apply scientific methods, and learn to be uncomfortable with uncertainty, because it’s really the great question of our lives. We don’t know when we die, but there’s no escaping it. But I think there’s a lot of advertising culture that supports the idea of immortality, that supports the idea that you will not age, but it also keeps us out of touch with ourselves, with our relationships to our bodies, and of course out of touch with our planet and it’s limited resources. So we go to Mars not because we’ve consumed all the resources of ours and are looking for a new planet to fuck up, but so that we can better understand our resources here on Earth and understand our limited time as individuals, or as a species.

Could you explain a little bit about you and Van Neistat’s work together as artists – what were you coming to this piece with the experience of?

Tom Sachs: Van and I have been making movies together since 9/11. If you go to my website or tenbullets.com you’ll see all the movies we made function in the same way as in  A Space Program, in that they are the aspects of a sculpture that exists in time. And its in Nutsy’s McDonalds, that’s a great movie, it’s Kate working at our McDonalds, and that was like 2003 or something. And then in 2010, Van made Ten Bullets, which is the studio manual, we call them industrial films. I’m gonna brag for a split second but these movies, they show them at Nike and NASA, they've become a little bit of a cult movie in Northern America. We’ve been making movies for 15 years, and this was just a natural flow, and it was natural flow out of A Love Letter To Plywood. And also you should know that Van’s worked on my team and we’ve made sculptures together. He’s a great builder, and the movie is built the sculptures are built. The entire film was made on a $500 camera, from RadioShack. The movie is built exactly like the sculptures.

This was a complex project – what would you say was the inspiration to keep it going, to see it through until the end? What kept you all together as a unit?

Tom Sachs: Fear of death.

Right – could you explain that a little bit?

Tom Sachs: Okay, well I’m the leader, so I’m afraid of death, I just wanna get these ideas down on paper and in three dimensions before my life expires. So I lead with that fear of our time running out on this planet, I just wanna get the idea down. I’ve been so inspired by art in my life, and the artists who’ve inspired me have all worked incredibly hard and have loved working hard. So you cant take the studio away from me – even if I lose everything I still have a sketchbook and a ballpoint pen that I can steal from the ATM machine. The ideas are in the ether.

“You can't take the studio away from me – even if I lose everything I still have a sketchbook and a ballpoint pen that I can steal from the ATM machine” – Tom Sachs

Do you think filming in your own studio and exposing the creative process during the film draws an audience in to a private space? Was this intentional?

Tom Sachs: I think it's an important message about transparency, I think the advantage the artist has over industry is her fingerprint. I could never make something as perfect as an iPhone, with no evidence that a human being was ever there, but Apple could never make something as fucked up and flawed as one of my sculptures that shows the glue drips, and screws, and stains, and reality of the way the things made. And I think that’s an important thing now more than ever. 

You’ve been to The Moon and to Mars – whats next for the Space Program?

Tom Sachs: The icy moon of Jupiter known as Europa contains more water than Earth. Where there is water there is life. If I don't find life on another planet in the next 30 years I'm going back to organised religion. 

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