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Artist's DIY Space Program Seeks Life on Jupiter’s Icy Moon

Bricolage master Tom Sachs and his team operate a handmade aeronautics program to find new lifeforms, and sometimes grow poppies, in outer space

by Shana Nys Dambrot
Oct 17 2016, 4:30pm

Tom Sachs, Mission Control Center (MCC), 2007–16. Space Program: Europa, installation view, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, 2016. Photographs by Joshua White/JWPictures.com. Courtesy Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

Of the four moons orbiting the planet Jupiter, scientists tend to agree that its iciest consort, Europa, is the next most likely source of water, and therefore life, beyond Earth. The general consensus is that a mission to break through its frozen crust and explore its strange aquifer will happen in the next generation or so. Artist Tom Sachs, however, is in no mood to wait that long. He’s going now.

Having previously applied his signature techniques of eccentric, devilishly witty bricolage towards successful excursions to our Moon and to the planet Mars, this fall Sachs and his crew remake San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts into mission control for Space Program: Europa. “An artist’s role is to educate and entertain,” Sachs tells The Creators Project. “At the Space Program, we create understanding from a foundation of science. The other NASA are my subcontractors. They are my research wing.”

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Tom Sachs, Space Program: Europa, installation view, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, 2016. Photographs by Joshua White/JWPictures.com. Courtesy Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco

In his 2012 installation of Space Program: Mission to Mars inside New York City's Park Avenue Armory, Sachs and his team built a sprawling sculptural environment and activated it with durational performances in which eager audiences assembled to witness the first footsteps of womankind on the surface of Mars. There were all manner of life support systems, space suits, landing modules, rockets and engines, task-based rituals, theatrical lighting, analog special effects, and vintage audiovisual interfaces. A towering bank of television monitors getting feeds from cameras placed throughout the installation, sent real-time data back to center stage, where Sachs himself was directing the mission. As a matter of delivery, the entire crew’s straightfaced performances were straight out of B-movie sci-fi. Epic works of quasi-functional bricolage made primarily of cardboard, plywood, cheap steel, Sharpies, stolen Gagosian Gallery letterhead, Atari code, and random shit from the hardware aisle and the office closet... They basically made their own NASA from scratch, and then plugged it in.

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Tom Sachs, Mobile Quarantine Facility 4 GH, 2011. Photo: Genevieve Hanson

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Inside the Land Excursion Module (LEM). Photo: Joshua White

Sachs, with specific regard to the use of cardboard and duct tape and other such “low” materials, is fond of the notion that through a labor intensive studio process, he can “transform a temporary material into an heirloom product.” This has been a hallmark of his practice for more than 20 years, since he first started addressing the spread of luxury consumerism through his now-iconic series of lethal weapons (guns, grenades) and execution machines (electric chairs, guillotines) constructed from high-end packaging (Hermes, Chanel, Tiffany). Back then it was somewhat out of necessity, what Sachs calls an “honest resourcefulness” that characterizes salvaged materials and things that are better than new, because they have a history. To the history of the materials, Sachs adds “the story of how things were made—by humans, not robots."

"I’m an advocate of things that are made," he explains. "I exploit my fingerprints. Fingerprints are the one advantage artists have over industry.” So while the works of those early days were intimate, and smaller in scale than the parallel NASA, Sachs is clear that, “It’s still all the same thing I’ve always done. Working this way fulfills those same needs, takes on the hungry ghost of consumerism,” and speaks to the desire for something beyond—in this case, the essential question of whether we are alone in the universe.

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Astronauts from Space Program: Mars inside the Tea House. Photo: Joshua White

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Tom Sachs, Landing Excursion Module (LEM), 2007–16. Space Program: Europa, installation view, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, 2016. Photographs by Joshua White/JWPictures.com. Courtesy Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

During its encampment at YBCA, large-scale mixed-media assemblage works like the Mobile Quarantine Facility, Mission Control, the Landing Excursion Module (LEM), will join other both kinetic and conceptual pieces in gallery and public spaces across the campus. YBCA hosts a live demo of the Europa mission by Sachs and his crack team of astronauts during the closing weekends; you can get a sense of the “entertain and educate” directive in action at scheduled screenings of A Space Program, the feature-length film by Tom Sachs and Van Neistat documenting Sachs’ 2012 Mars mission in adroit detail. As per film’s didactic structure, and the related video series Ten Bullets culled from the Space Program’s official behavior manual, the team of engineers, experts, and craftspeople in the crew includes specialists in areas as diverse as metal, plywood, epoxy, fiberglass, video cameras, and Tyvek, but as its narrator asserts, “Our program is entirely handmade, so everyone is a bricoleur. Everyone works with their hands, even the boss.”

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Tom Sachs, Space Program: Europa, installation view, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, 2016. Photographs by Joshua White/JWPictures.com. Courtesy Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco

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Tom Sachs, Space Program: Europa, installation view, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, 2016. Photographs by Joshua White/JWPictures.com. Courtesy Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco

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Tom Sachs, Ishidoro, mixed-media assemblage, 2015. Photo: Genevieve Hanson

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Tom Sachs, Daisu, mixed-media assemblage, 2013. Photo: Genevieve Hanson

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Tom Sachs, Space Program: Europa, installation view, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, 2016. Photographs by Joshua White/JWPictures.com. Courtesy Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco

Space Program: Europa is on view at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco through January 15, 2017, with a live mission demo during the closing weekend. Follow Tom Sachs and A Space Program on Instagram for updates.

Related:

How to Fly to Mars on a DIY Spaceship

Tom Sachs Offers his Take on the Japanese Tea Ceremony

Tom Sachs Can Turn a Speaker into Just About Anything