“I’ve always wanted to make something as good as an iPhone, and I never could, but Apple could never make anything as shitty as one of my sculptures or movies. And that’s a huge advantage.”
My intention at Tom Sachs’s Lower Manhattan art compound was to interview the artist and his longtime collaborator, the filmmaker Van Neistat. I wanted to talk about their new film, A Space Program, which chronicles the Sachs studio crew’s profoundly ambitious voyage to Mars as it was executed in a massive installation staged at the Park Avenue Armory back in 2012. That they actually complete this mission, albeit with plywood spaceships and hot glue, is a real tribute to their bulldog ingenuity.
NASA… Part of the original Eisenhower idea, in 1958, was that government research projects related to aeronautics or outer space need not necessarily focus on war and weaponization. The agency could, instead, set seemingly loftier, fantastic engineering goals, like the moon mission. The Sachs-brand NASA, with that same rigor, expands such a mission with excursions into zero-gravity opium cultivation and Japanese tea ceremony. Indeed, the Sachs studio could itself be described as a tea ceremony, or ritual, that—thanks to American innovation—has wonderfully lost its mind. (By all means, see Tom Sachs: Tea Ceremony at the Noguchi Museum; it runs through July 24, 2016.)
The Sachs studio’s creed, “Creativity is the Enemy,” is another way of saying, “Stay on Task.” It was my intention to speak with Neistat and Sachs about this new film. Which is another way of saying, “Epic Fail.”
Chris Chang So, the idea here is to turn the tables and have you, Tom, interview Van, the director of this film. I thought a great way to start would be Ten Bullets—one of my favorite films of all time.
Tom Sachs (laughter) We have people who interview us who’ve never even seen it, so we’re just honored you’ve seen it at all.
CC Well, not only have I seen it, I’ve made people watch it—forced them. Is it or is it not an actual training video?
TS It is, absolutely.
CC What I’m interested in is the connection between the two of you with that film. And I’d like you, Tom, to ask Van, who was your former studio assistant, about the importance of it’s concept.
TS Okay, got it. So, Van (laughter), could you tell me why Ten Bullets is important to you—not as the man who made it—but as someone who experiences it as something that’s in the world?
Van Neistat It was just this year, my 40th year of life, when I realized that in my education—and I mean capital-E Education—the only things I’ve ever really needed were the fundamentals. What I love about Ten Bullets is that it’s the fundamentals of how to have a job. “Sacrifice to Leatherface” just means being on top of things and not being a flake.
CC Can you explain this sacrifice?
VN “Sacrifice to Leatherface” is our penalty system. If you leave a glue gun plugged in overnight, it’s like twenty dollars. If you leave the door open—well, you’ll probably get fired—but it’s listed as fifty dollars. The little mistakes matter.
CC And it comes out of the paycheck?
TS No, you gotta pay on the spot… in cash. We always have a party with that money.
VN It’s all in service to Tom’s idea—or our idea, by proxy—of excellence. That’s what I love about Ten Bullets. “Be on time.” Being on time is a whole lifestyle.
TS The ideas of the studio were not invented by me. They existed before and will exist after. This is just one practice in a whole lineage of people—people making things in all different genres. I think about Stanley Kubrick’s super-small studio, where he made all those incredibly big movies, with only ten people on set.
CC How many people are in your studio?
TS We’re twelve.
CC And how many have been through the Ten Bullets process? By which I really mean, how many people have failed?
TS It’s like what they say at my co-op board meetings: “You’re either gonna sell your place or you’re gonna die here.” (laughter) But here, people either quit because they don’t like it, or we fire them because they do something terrible—like steal. They put something on eBay. That’s instant termination, because we’re generous. Everyone gets sculptures throughout the year. We make things, all kinds of things, and none are allowed to be sold, because eBay—it’s just negativity. Someone’s choosing money? They like money more than one of the things that we made, that we bled for, that we love doing? …Or people get pushed down the iceberg when it’s not working out. So generally people either quit, give up, or didn’t believe. …Or they graduate. And these graduates are the best. Van’s a graduate of this studio, and he’s back for post-doctorate work now.
VN I’m a PhD.
CC I have very fond memories of working in artists’ studios myself. I have great nightmare studio stories.
TS Oh? Tell us one.
CC I can think of three examples with three different artists in which I was paid to destroy artwork.
TS Their own or someone else’s?
CC Their own. In one case, it was to increase the price of an edition.
TS Can you say the name of this artist? Do you feel comfortable with that?
CC I’ll tell you… (whisper)
TS Oh my god, I love (whisper). Did you work in France?
CC No, it was actually on Canal Street… But Tom, before you were an “official” artist, you were an apprentice in a studio, doing your time, correct?
VN I had no idea I was an artist until I started working here.
TS Okay Van, what was the most fucked up thing you ever had to do in my studio?
VN I think the time when you had a gigantic apartment on Lafayette Street. Your downstairs neighbor was Eminem. You had a washer and dryer there. All I had to do was take the laundry out and put it in the dryer. It was your underwear, Tom. That was probably the most humiliating thing, but I didn’t give a shit.. I was being paid.
TS What about your first day of work though? When I said, “Your only job is to not drop this pipe on my head.”
VN I just, like, dropped it right on you. (laughter)
TS I was welding on the floor, and at the time I didn’t have any studio assistants.
VN It was a six-foot 3/4-inch solid-steel piece of rebar.
TS Kind of heavy—the type of thing you don’t want to fall on your head.
CC What was it for?
VN It was for the Altitude Generator, which was part of Nutsy’s. It’s like a helix that a radio-controlled car could drive around to get up to the top of a hill—like part of the track.
TS Van wasn’t paying attention because he hadn’t found his calling yet. He hadn’t found his ability to focus, which is something I’m very proud of in the studio. People have stopped taking Adderall because they’ve found that, through repetitious work, they can now focus. They don’t need it anymore. But before Van found that, he dropped a pipe right on my head.
VN “This is your only job!” (laughter)
CC Were you making films at that point, Van?
VN I was. You know, the iMac DV came out in 2000. And what my calling was hadn’t been invented yet. Internet video wasn’t a genre. Then, being a filmmaker was like wanting to be an astronaut or an NFL player. It was worthless to have that ambition because it was impossible. So I thought: Well, I can be a writer. Because—you know: pencil.
CC But while you were dropping a pipe on Tom’s head, were you thinking about filmmaking?
VN Probably. But Tom’s place was just this studio full of… wonder. I’d never been in a fucking professional art studio in my life, and I didn’t realize that someone I had access to could make a living making art in New York City. It just wasn’t in the cards.
(A long digression, here removed, evokes the name of Romanian sculptor Constantin Brâncuși)
TS Yeah Brâncuși… He’s one of our ghost drivers.
CC What’s a ghost driver?
TS There are souls of the studio, ghosts that drive it—Benjamin Franklin, Constantin Brâncuși, James Brown, Bob Marley, Le Corbusier. They are kind of our patron saints. Fela Kuti, the Beach Boys—people on whom so much of what we do rests.
CC I hate to say the word, but when you say ghost driver, it reminds me of the term hauntology.
TS I don’t know what that means.
CC Well, it means that there are ghosts in your present, that weren’t actually in your past, and they’re sort of guiding a future that will never happen.
TS I’ll look it up.
CC Brâncuși is a great example of a hauntological personage. He’s a spectre, a demon.
TS But I don’t see him as a demon.
VN Not a negative one—a daemon. D-A-E-M-O-N.
TS Ghost drivers are sort of like WWJD. What Would Jesus Do? You know, like a huge bumper sticker: What Would James Brown Do? (laughter) And when you drive through Marfa, there are bumper stickers that say, WWDJD? What Would Donald Judd Do? I think about that all the time when I’m trying to solve a problem. What would Charles and Ray Eames do right now to solve this problem?
CC I’m still thinking about this worst studio experience.
VN Oh! Once we got in this bar brawl—I have mixed feelings about it. It was very careless. This was in 2002 at the Cherry Tavern.
TS Shit, someone who was there is gonna read this, Van. It was on Avenue A and 5th Street or something.
VN It was after our Christmas party. We got wasted.
TS First we went to Tia Flats and got thrown out for lighting firecrackers in the restaurant. Firecrackers are loud… loud as gunshots.
VN But the thing is we all had matching t-shirts and rings with our monograms on them.
TS And we’d just had a bunch of successes. We had a show at the Guggenheim. We had all just come back from Berlin. We were riding high.
VN And Tom had this new pickup truck, not new, but like an ’88.
TS It was the exact same pickup truck that James Brown had when they shot his tires out. I went and found that exact make and model and year, and bought it.
VN And color! (laughter) So, we’re at the Cherry Tavern lighting off bottle rockets, which fly through the air and explode inside the bar. And we’re all wearing matching outfits. Everyone there hates us, and they throw us out, physically, slamming the door shut. But Tom’s foot is stuck in that door. And I’m trying to break the glass of that door. Then, suddenly, it just opens—it was a melee. We all jumped into the back of Tom’s pickup. I ended up getting 14 stitches in the back of my head, 6 in my eye, covered in blood, but drunk and so amped up and having so much fun.
TS You probably still have the scar.
VN But there’s more. I had a fat lip and wiped it with a rag. We’d just finished that space shuttle and crawler made out of foam core—and they were fucking unbelievably detailed. Wasted, I put that wet, bloody rag on top of the Crawler.
TS And this is like the most elaborate detailed model of the space shuttle system ever built—and it’s made out of paper.
VN My blood soaked into the thing.
TS It’s still got the stain.
VN I went and saw it in Berlin—what was that museum?
TS It’s in the Hamburger Bahnhof—with this big blood stain.
VN That reminds me of a guy I consult with—an intellectual property lawyer. He texted me a picture from the Bahamas of the Hello Kitty sculpture that Casey and I made. We finished it on September 10, 2001, remember Tom? In the pouring rain. The next day they flew the jets into the building. Remember that shit?
(Another digression, here removed, brings us back to NASA)
TS Well, we did our initial space program in 2007, where we landed on the moon, and then around 2009, we were looking to do a second mission. We got a knock on the studio door, and it was NASA. They said George Bush had decided that—I’m sorry—Obama had decided that he’s going to discontinue Bush’s lunar program. And we want to encourage you guys to go to Mars. And we will help you re-fit your lunar space program to work on Mars.
CC As artists?
CC We, as in the government, are reaching out to you?
TS Yeah, because we, the government, like what you, the Tom Sachs studio, are doing, and you’re helping communicate the narrative of our space program—and your space program is real.
CC NASA told you this?
TS Well, in all fairness, it was the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is the super-stoner elite of the space program. You know, they’re like Carl Sagan. (laughter) He was a major marijuana advocate, and the best science communicator that any of us have lived through, right? So they’re all disciples—like What Would Carl Sagan Do?—and you go to their offices at CalTech, or whatever, and they have like atomizers in their offices.
TS Vaporizers! And so they said, “We will help you go to Mars because it’s a more important story to tell. If you just go back to the moon, it’s going to be a nostalgic trip, and as an artist you might want to consider the influence of what you’re doing.” And they were totally right. It would have been just a dumb nostalgia thing otherwise. Artists have a responsibility to educate and entertain.
VN It’s called “State of the Art.”
TS Yeah, and that’s what Stanley [Kubrick] was really into—like, he knew all these people at NASA when he was doing 2001: A Space Odyssey.
CC As if he actually filmed the lunar footage? The hoax?
TS Well, that thing bugs me. I like to pretend it’s one of the few things that actually angers me…
VN Stanley wouldn't have done that.
CC Of course not.
TS But people actually think he did, people that have spent six minutes on the Internet, and don’t even try to make an educated decision.
CC But Tom Sachs’s studio is fulfilling a function?
CC You’re fulfilling the impossible dream, that which the American space program has never fulfilled. You have become the bearer of the torch. (laughter)
TS Without sounding like a megalomaniac, I think there are a lot of people out there, like Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk, and Paul Allen… and myself, and Richard Branson—and we will all have space programs. And most of us are not going to succeed in getting to other planets. Our vision will be compromised in one way or another. It’s like the story of the martial artist who spends his entire life practicing one punch, over and over again, and he’s such a master that he can defeat anyone. Then he’s attacked in a dark alley in the middle of the night by four gangsters, and he’s like, “Okay, here goes.” But then he’s like, “Wait a second,” and just turns and runs. Then later, on his deathbed, he thinks back to that moment, and says, “I’ve been a student my entire life.” That’s what it was about. It wasn’t about beating those guys’ asses, it was about studying, and that’s what we get to do. We get to educate and entertain ourselves, and tell the story all along the way. And there’s total transparency.
The thing that pisses me off about the Kubrick moon landing hoax is that I believe in transparency. We always paint the plywood first, because it shows the process. I’ve always wanted to make something as good as an iPhone, and I never could, but Apple could never make anything as shitty as one of our sculptures or movies. And that’s a huge advantage that the artist has—and in a way, it’s the only real advantage that the artist has telling his or her individual story.
CC Can I just bring it full circle for a second?
VN & TS (simultaneously) Of course.
VN But wait: Ten Bullets is required viewing in doctor Kevin Hahn’s lab at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and he’s in our movie. He’s an astrobiologist, so his profession, as one of the smartest guys in the world, is to find life on other planets. He’s the guy who says, “If I don’t find life, extraterrestrial life, within the next 30 years, I’ll have to return to organized religion.” If you work for him, at NASA, you have to watch Ten Bullets.
CC Uh oh, I’m getting the “times up” signal from your publicist.
TS I promise you—this is going to be the most fun interview we’re going to have all day! (laughter)
CC I need to mention one of my favorite Tom Sachs objects—a classic. It’s a cinder block made out of plywood. I’m wondering about other real-world objects you esteem in the same way.
VN The question is what? The material?
CC For instance, a fondness for paper clips.
TS Henry Petroski, have you read him? He wrote a book called The Paper Clip—its like 300 pages. [Note: It‘s likely Sachs is here referring to Petrocki‘s The Evolution of Useful Things.]
TS The pencil, the fork. There are a couple of possibilities…
CC The act of filmmaking seems so counter to Tom Sachs, as filmmaking is completely technological—not that you’re not—and chemical—not that you’re not—and based on working machines—not that yours don't.
TS You’re so polite. Filmmaking is a craft of illusion.
CC But you can’t make, for example, a working Tom Sachs projector.
TS Let me ask a question. Van, what are the things in your life—like, I know you are a material boy and that you love your tools, and that's you've said, “This is my camera, there are many like it—”
VN “—But this one is mine.” The rifleman’s creed. My camera and I are the defenders of my country. And then, in the end, “Till there are no enemies, but man and beast!” (laughter)
TS I thought it was, “Till there are no enemies, but peace!”
VN Kubrick edited out a few lines of his version, but his and the original, they both end in “beasts.” …I guess I don’t really understand the question.
TS Van once wrote a manifesto about making a movie, and he made a bunch of rules—like rule number one is to finish the movie. That’s the number rule one of filmmaking. It’s the hardest thing to do.
VN It doesn’t have to be good, the sound doesn’t have to work.
Rule number two: Find the right pencil. You have to always also have a pencil on you—or within arm’s reach. That’s one of my things, I keep them in my pocket right here. The pencil is like the DNA of the entire project. I think filmmaking is different because it’s so fucking sophisticated. Every single piece is essential. You can’t take things away and have it work. I have thousands of these…
(pulls out a well-worn, folded piece of paper that is filled with Post-it notes)
TS How does this page work, Van? What is this? What are these holes? What are these folds? Explain.
VN Here’s my days of the week, and what I have to do, and that was yesterday, and I did all those things yesterday. Today, I didn’t do any of these things, because all my computers shit the bed today, so everything went out the window, although 4 PM, “Interview”—I can cross that one out.
CC Why don’t you have a smartphone?
VN My smartphone is broken right now, look.
CC That‘s your smart phone? (laughter)
TS There are other reasons why this paper thing is better. It’s waterproof. I can take it—jump in the river with it. There’re no batteries.
VN The input requires zero electricity, and no charger.
TS There’s zero latency.
VN It’s an automatic backup of itself.
TS And what is this? This is your shopping list, things you have to buy. And what is this? What is this quadrant here?
VN This is for unknowns—like if you told me the name of an artist, and I have to write it down. Sometimes this is ontology.
CC We didn’t talk about the new film very much…
TS We didn’t talk about the film, or the Tea Ceremony, or the Boombox Retrospective—maybe we’re not supposed to.
CC Ultimate man-made object?
VN Just put pencil for me.
TS Yeah, but a Pentel P209. That’s Van’s pencil.
Me? I have so many objects that I obsess over. I did a book called LOGJAM, where I took all my favorite things, like my Mom’s Fiskers large-handled scissors, or the Stanley 25-foot tape measure—the tape measure by which all other tape measures are measured. But this (pulls out iPhone) is the greatest work of art of all time.
CC I’m not asking for the greatest work of art of all time. I’m asking for a simple engineering feat.
VN The incline plane or whatever?
TS The ramp?
VN The little wedge? The ball bearing!
TS I love ball bearings, yes! Duct tape? But that’s a material; it’s not an object.
VN There’s a very thin line though! A very thin line.
TS Three-quarter-inch AC plywood, again a material, but a sheet of it is an object. I once obsessed for three years about vehicles that could carry this very object, and I finally found the perfect car: the Honda Civic wagon, which is the only station wagon that you can put a sheet of plywood in. I haven’t checked with Tesla yet… They're so fucking cool. Tony Stark-style, with your sheet of plywood sticking out of your Lamborghini. That’s how to live.
CC We have totally run out of my allotted time.
TS We are so not done!
CC Favorite man-made object?
TS You want it to be like one thing, that’s made out of one material?
VN But not a machine?
TS A cinder block, but not a cinder block!
CC A cinder block of plywood—it’s still my favorite.
TS Me too. And you can ask Ed Ruscha. It’s his favorite thing too. He’s obsessed.
CC Where is it?
TS In the Noguchi Museum. Next question.
CC Ten Bullets versus A Space Program?
TS In terms of craftsmanship, Ten Bullets is a better movie. There’s no doubt about it.
CC A Space Program doesn‘t really deal with the aftermath of the performance, and the subsequent audience participation. The public training.
TS Right. The movie is about the way the sculptures exist in time.
CC The visitors were tortured by your people.
TS It was so hard—that torture took so much out of us. A lot of people were really frustrated and angry.
But when you go to the Met, everything there is made by some guy like me, for some dead-rich-white guy, except for the things in the African wing, which were made by people like me, not that I’m African, and for other people like me. Things were made and used by the same people, in a ritual or an activity.
CC As if pounding nails into your wooden-effigy body?
TS Yes. As a way of trying to communicate with some spirit, as a way of having energy, or a power doll, or a power symbol. These objects that we make here in the studio are there to support the ritual activities that we’re doing. And when you walk through the exhibition, it’s as if you’re seeing a vestige of all that, but the movie is trying to tell that story, to show you the ritual of the culture of the studio.
It’s a struggle. You’re not supposed to make a movie about the installation. You’re supposed to be working in it—it’s very insular. It’s really for us. I think that maybe one of the weaknesses of the movie, or this genre of filmmaking, is that it’s not there. It’s a representation of it. Great filmmaking transcends that. I think Ten Bullets does that because of the form and the length. One of the fundamentals of filmmaking is: write the story, but write the ending before you start shooting. Is that one of your bullets, Van?
VN The first is you need to know is the ending. There’s more—but that’s the first.
CC And on that note—
TS To be continued!
A Space Program opened theatrically in New York at the Metrograph Theater on March 18, 2016.
Chris Chang is BOMB’s online film and performing arts editor.