Meet the Nieratkos - Space Is Whatever
I’m a sucker for costumes. I must have six bins full of them that I’ve collected over the years on November 1st, when they get marked down 80 percent. (The Klu Klux Klan outfit from the Big Brother White Issue is hard to explain to people. I’ve been meaning to tie-dye that thing for years but have never gotten around to it. Note to self: do that already.) Just today I dressed as Batman and my son was a skeleton for our daily dog walk. We like wearing costumes on every day except Halloween around here, and so I was unbelievably excited when artist Sara Phillips emailed me her Astronaut Suicide photos. The images are quite stunning, but all I wanted to know was where the hell did she get the costume and how do I get one? Sadly, I’ll never be able to afford one. I don’t think they go on sale like the rest of my purchases.
VICE: What is W+K 12 and how did it come about?
Sara: W+K 12 is an experiment designed as a school and housed within Wieden + Kennedy in Portland. It's also whatever the current 12 want to make it. And there are also 13 people in the group. It's called 12 not because we can't count, which is true, but because it's all about the other 12 members of the group.
We all come from different backgrounds. I was a pro-snowboarder turned apparel designer turned art director, and we come together to think and collaborate in new ways in an advertising environment. We range in age from 22 to 36, from recently graduated students to art school janitors. We work on real clients, mostly non-profits, and present, sell, and manage projects through completion. The course lasts one year.
We have three directors: Jim Riswold (remember his Hilarious Hitlers?) as our creative director, alongside Byron Oshiro and Andrew Dickson. Applying and being accepted into 12 was one of the smarter decisions I've made, and this is without a doubt one of the most transformative and incredible experiences I've been a part of.
How did the concept come about?
The Astronaut Suicides wasn't a W+K 12 project, but a personal one that came out of having a spacesuit on hand after the completion of a commercial W+K 12 project. Call it making use of resources.
I came up with the concept and acted as the art director for the shoot, Neil Dacosta came on board as the photographer and brought more scenarios, and Saskia Thomson finished up with retouching. Brian Thomson was the poor bastard who stood in the suit for hours on end.
The suit came from Global Effects, which is a prop house in LA that supplies a lot of the suits for the big budget Hollywood productions. They have every suit you can imagine on hand, and some you can’t. They were hands down fantastic to work with.
How is it that you’re a snowboarder AND you had a clever idea? I’ve never heard of that happening before.
I guess when I quit snowboarding I freed my brain to have better ideas. It’s the second smart decision I ever made.
Did you want to be an astronaut when you grew up? Or did you want to have sex with an astronaut when you grew up?
I wanted to be an astronaut. I don’t think having sex with one is really going to get me too far. I always liked the idea of exploration. I was always the kid who would climb and fall out of trees. I cycled from Portland to Seattle two years ago; I’ve always been excited about exploring stuff, even as a child. Does your kid want to be an astronaut when he grows up?
No. I think he wants to be a Puerto Rican.
That’s more of a challenge than being an astronaut.
Yeah, it’s going to be an uphill battle for him. Did you take the astronaut suit on any adventures?
As soon as people saw that thing they wanted to be in it. People wanted to sleep in it. You feel pretty badass when you’re in it. Someone borrowed it and took it on a mini adventure. We looked after it closely, though. That thing was expensive to rent and it had a high insurance rate, so we were trying to be respectful. I wanted to take it to a strip club but I didn’t get that far. The idea of an astronaut sitting down with a shot of Jack and a cigarette would be so entertaining to me.
What was the insurance on the suit?
Had we damaged it, it would have been a $30,000 error.
So if I want to buy one that’s what I’m looking at? Thirty grand?
I think so, yeah. And that was the B-grade one made out of nylon. All the fixtures and fittings were plastic and it had a faux-metal finish. But they have an A-grade one, and the insured value for it is 75 grand. It costs double to rent and it comes with a set tech and is gold plated with Kevlar.
What has the reaction to the photos been like?
The reactions so far have been positive. The site has had a huge response and a lot of the comments have furthered the debate about future space exploration. A lot of people have read more deeply into it and applied the end of the space era into current social and economic situations. A few people have been offended by using suicide as the mechanism for conversation, but I think if you get hung up (sorry) on that element then you're missing the point—it's about acknowledging the end of an era and celebrating the times that got us there.
I've always loved JFK's speech at Rice University. It’s inspirational beyond the context of the speech, and I wanted to recognize the power of that sentiment. It also seems like it's kind of a dead end (fuck, now I'm sorry for a second time) for a child to tell their parents that they want to be an astronaut, and that seems like a loss in the potential of imagination.
"We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too." John F Kennedy, September 12 1962
JFK's full speech is here.
What are you working on next?
We’re about to graduate; we have five weeks left in the 12 program. I want to be an art director. I’m not sure where that will be. I’d love to stay in Portland.
Well, don’t waste your time applying to VICE. They don’t pay.
Duly noted. I’ll scratch that off the list.