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tom sachs space program: why DIY astronauts are reaching for the stars

 

on the final weekend of the ‘space program: europa’ exhibition at the yerba buena center for the arts, artist tom sachs led a group of DIY astronauts to the the surface of europa (one of jupiter’s frozen moons) for the second time since the exhibit’s opening on the 18th of september 2016. kind of. of course, the crew never left the surface of the earth and most of the equipment was made from plaster and plywood — but the ‘landing’ still beat out NASA’s attempt by roughly a dozen years if not more: and it’s not the first time the sachs team has been to outer space. the artist’s original space program in 2007 saw him help humans revisit the moon, and in 2012 he set his sights on mars.

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the items themselves fall somewhere under the banner of sculpture, bricolage and simple DIY resourcefulness
(above) image courtesy of the yerba buena center for the arts via instagram
(main) image courtesy of yerba buena center for the arts

 

 

for ‘space program: europa’ (a partial response to NASA announcing its intention to launch a mission there sometime around the year 2020) sachs built a full-on interplanetary launch station. a mobile quarantine facility, space suits, landing excursion module and even a hand painted american flag were all among the equipment created by sachs for the project. the items themselves fall somewhere under the banners of sculpture, bricolage and simple DIY resourcefulness, and lend a kind of wes anderson-like playfulness to what was otherwise treated as a deadly earnest task.

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upon ‘landing’, the ‘astronauts’ carry out various scientific experiments
image courtesy of tom sachs via instagram

 

 

‘I’ve been building sculptures for the past thirty years, and although there is an almost intellectual jihad against functionalism in art — the idea of ‘what is it, it’s a chair? oh, I can sit on it, easy. what is it, it’s a sculpture? I don’t know what that means’ — it’s a little more threatening conceptually,’ says sachs in an interview with wired. ‘but I’ve always been interested in utility because it has meaning in our lives that we can understand, and teasing the edges of that has been interesting.’

 

 

originally streamed online, the above video captures the first three hours of the event 

 

the performance (sachs refers to it as a demonstration) fills the lower galleries of the YBCA with expansive, practical sculptures, all defined by the project’s distinctive ‘roll-up-your-sleeves’ aesthetic. the constructs represent an exciting merger of pop culture and high art, and despite the obvious theatrical nature of the event (stage hands can now and then be seen darting around the set) the atmosphere in the room is nothing short of momentous.  

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despite the obvious theatrical nature of the performance the atmosphere in the room is nothing short of momentous
image courtesy of yerba buena center for the arts via twitter

 

 

like a moon landing for the modern age, sachs and his team stream the performance on social media — complete with white knuckle countdowns and last minute safety checks — so that would-be cosmonauts across the globe can check in now and then during the demonstration’s staggering six hour run time, cheering on the cast and crew. stage lights become far off suns, and floorboards make for moonrocks in a world that is at once both the same as own and something different entirely. upon ‘landing’, the ‘astronauts’ carry out various scientific experiments: they drill into the surface of the planet, retrieve sachs-made artefacts and even find time for a goodbye tea ceremony. 

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image courtesy of yerba buena center for the arts via twitter

 

 

‘europa is the icy moon of jupiter’, explains the artist. ‘it’s got six times the amount of water that earth does. the other NASA is sending probes to land there in a dozen years but we can’t wait for those guys. we’re going and we’re going now.’ it’s this brute determination that makes the various space program missions so endearing, an unwillingness to wait for something to happen that you can achieve yourself.

 

in a world where full-scale interplanetary travel is close to becoming a reality (or a necessity) sachs satisfies our myriad questions by making up the answers and, strangely, that doesn’t make them any less valid. like children caught in an elaborate game, sachs’ pageants hold a rare sincerity, unoccupied with petty concerns like logistical realities or financial deterrents, and at their conclusion we receive almost as much catharsis as if the landing had actually happened.

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the equipment was made from plaster and plywood, but the ‘landing’ still beat out NASA’s attempt by a dozen years
(above) image courtesy of yerba buena center for the arts via instagram

 

 

as the likelihood of colonising a second planet increases, our collective anxiety about the prospect becomes more evident from its portrayal in the media. gravity, interstellar, the martian, passengers, prometheus — even the star wars and star trek reboots — the spike in space movies shows that worlds beyond our own are very much part of the zeitgeist of today, and artists are feeling it too. the past few years have seen a litany of space themed exhibitions, installations and explorations.

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the performance fills the lower galleries of the YBCA with expansive, practical sculptures
image courtesy of adam savage via twitter

 

 

in february of 2016, artist MPA held a similarly space-themed exhibition at the contemporary arts museum of houston. entitled ‘THE INTERVIEW: red, red future’, the interactive installation featured, among other pieces, a crimson lawn chair and adjacent blood red phone. lying on the chair and staring at an enormous red print of the planet mars, participants (or ‘visitors’ as the artist dubbed them) were given the chance to converse with MPA about their concerns, hopes and ambitions for the future colonization of mars and related space travel topics. the conversations were treated as astronaut debriefings, and took the same rough form as the method used for interviewing civilian applicants to space exploration programs. 

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‘I’ve always been interested in utility because it has meaning in our lives that we can understand’
image courtesy of tom sachs via instagram

 

 

what MPA discovered was that humans have a lot of fear about space, but not in the way you might think. ‘what I feel overwhelmingly, though, is the repeated sentiment that humans are—both by nature and through context—destructive’, says the artist in an interview with BOMB magazine, ‘that war is a part of what humans do, and that in imagining the future, these conversationalists seem to see humans in this version of earth as dying, and with humans continuing to extinguish themselves. it’s heavy’. 

 

 

 

 

from MPA’s experience, our fear of space lies not in what we might meet there, but what events on earth would have prompted us to go there in the first place. perhaps the power of projects such as ‘space program: europa’ and ‘THE INTERVIEW: red, red future’ lie in their facilitating a conversation about space that goes further than lightsabers and death stars. by building our own NASA — albeit one of made from 3/4 inch plywood — it gives us the agency to explore space on our own terms, determining what such a journey would mean to us, or if we’d want to make it at all. 

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from MPA’s experience, our fear of space lies not in what we might meet there, but what may have prompted us to go
image courtesy of yerba buena center for the arts

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pictured above is sachs’ journey to mars. catch designboom’s coverage of it here
image courtesy of NASA.gov

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installation view of THE INTERVIEW: red, red future
image by max fields, courtesy of the artist and contemporary arts museum houston

 

 

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