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How to Fly to Mars on a DIY Spaceship

Tom Sachs and Van Neistat's first feature film, A Space Program, is screening in New York City this week. It will teach you how to poop in space.
Lt. Samantha Ratanarat harvests opium latex at the Bio Lab on Mars. Photo: Josh White. Images courtesy the artist

A mission to send the first women to Mars using parts you can find at Home Depot doesn’t sound, at first, like a recipe for success. But DIY evangelist and bricolage artist Tom Sachs, together with a dedicated group of studio members and longtime collaborator Van Neistat, did just that in a demonstration (“It’s not a performance,” Sachs asserts) called Space Program 2.0: MARS at the Park Avenue Armory in 2012. The demonstration-not-performance resurfaces this week in the form of a film called A Space Program, screened to the public for the first time at New York City’s newest art cinema, The Metrograph.


If you’ve seen any of Sachs’ collaborative films with Neistat, such as 10 Bullets or How to Sweep, A Space Program will feel immediately familiar to you, like visiting an old friend. Sachs has made a name for himself bringing the sweded aesthetic and whole-hearted pop culture references into pristine art galleries, but he and Neistat have also spent the last ten years creating a genre of instructional videos about his creative process, the biggest and boldest of which is A Space Program.

The action centers on the Park Avenue Armory space, where the rituals of preparing for space travel are replicated in plywood, welded steel, papier mache, miniatures, and theatrical illusions. Neistat’s camera flits between this scene and the moments at Sachs' studio that make it possible. These moments are narrated by Sachs or an assistant in perfect deadpan, with the cadence one might expect from an instructional video about how to count gears in a clock factory.

In fact, Sachs and Neistat call their style "Industrial Film," because of its similarity to the informational videos from which they borrow their format. “Companies have these movies that they’ve made for their employees to encourage them, and show them that they’re doing something significant. Significant enough to make a film about it,” Neistat explains to The Creators Project.

He and Sachs hijack the appeal of instructional videos and turn them into an aspect of the artwork. “All of the films represent the aspects of the sculptures that exist in time,” Sachs tells us. “The sculpture is a static object, but if it has a sense of utility it can be used for something. A hammer is just a sculpture until you’re swinging it.”


Space Program 2.0: MARS is similarly just a theatrical production—albeit an intricate and meaningful one—until Neistat’s film contextualizes the onstage action with the thought processes that make it possible. Rather than allowing audiences to draw their own conclusions about the work, this forces the perspective of the viewer towards the artists themselves. This, in Sachs’ words, makes A Space Program propaganda. “Propaganda is nothing more than art in service of politics, and we do have a political agenda,” he says. “It’s about transparency and the handmade.”

There are many moments within A Space Program that feel distant from any propaganda you’re used to. One scene finds the main protagonists descend into an argument that is only resolved after an explanation of oscillating feedback. Another sees an elaborate demonstration of how astronauts poop in space, using a modified caulking gun, fake poop, and garden shears.

Lt. Samantha Ratanarat loads soil samples onto the LEM after completing an extra-vehicular mission. Photo: Josh White

“When you have the trust of the audience that everything is fact, the subtext of what you’re saying can be very subversive. And being able to fix and manipulate your stuff is kind of subversive,” says Neistat. Sachs adds, “It’s subversive in that it’s not part of the dominant cultural gestalt. But there’s really nothing subversive at all, except that it subverts dependence on others.”

A Space Program is thus the story of a group of shop workers building everything they need to stage a Mars landing that is emotionally believable—if not aesthetically convincing—with their own hands. It’s theatrical in that you must suspend your disbelief belief to enjoy the narrative, and the mutual trust required for that suspension of disbelief is fun. One of the film’s most intense moments involves one of the characters landing her spaceship using an Atari flight simulator. I know that e-sports are mainstream now, but I’ve never felt that kind of tension while watching someone play a video game, ever.


A Space Program will be showing at Metrograph this Friday, March 18, through Thursday, March 24. If you’re not already buying your tickets after learning about the ideas behind the film, perhaps the best propaganda for you is Sachs’ own instructions about how to watch it:

Lt. Samantha Ratanarat and Cdr. Mary Eannarino perform the first tea ceremony on the surface of Mars. Photo: Phoebe D’Heurle.

1. This movie proves that you don't need an education to understand—or to make—art.

2. This movie is about a space program made from scratch by hand.

3. This movie is NOT A DOCUMENTARY. It’s an INDUSTRIAL film like the safety videos they make you watch in high school shop class so you don’t cut your fingers off. Some say it’s a comedy.

4. This movie is NOT A PERFORMANCE by actors. We say “demonstration,” not “performance.” It is a demonstration of simple yet sophisticated devices operated by carefully-trained studio team fabricators to send 2 astronauts to Mars.

5. After a meticulous vetting process, each space program team member underwent a grueling 18-month indoctrination.

6. This movie stars the sexually attractive studio team fabricators who built the space program.

7. The studio team is an elite group of do-it-yourselfers—black belt fine artists who practice bricolage. Bricolage: creation or repair using available limited resources.

8. We go to Mars not to exploit the resources of a new planet but to better understand our resources here on Earth.

9. Our space program sculptures are functional objects. We made this movie to show the aspects of the sculptures that have moving parts and how the sculptures function in our own homemade rituals celebrating science, faith, hard work and freedom.


10. This movie is a love letter to the analog era.

11. This movie demonstrates how astronauts go poop in space.

12. If you believe in God, you need to watch this movie.

Remnants of 'A Space Program' inside Tom Sachs Studio. Photo by the author

Buy tickets for A Space Program at the Metrograph here. Learn more about Tom Sachs Studio and Van Neistat on their websites. Artifacts from A Space Program will be on display at the Noguchi Museum as part of their upcoming exhibtion, Tom Sachs: Tea Ceremony, opening March 23, 2016.


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