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‘Targets of Opportunity’, or How to Work to Code | Tom Sachs’ SPACE PROGRAM: MARS | ArtReview

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SPACE PROGRAM (2007-2012), which the artist Tom Sachs and his studio first introduced at the Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles, serves as a kind of magnum opus of the DIY and tinker-type workshopping of iconic examples of architecture, design and engineering that Sachs has made his own since the early 1990s. In that 2007 iteration, Sachs ‘sent’ astronauts—both women—to the moon via an armory of mock-NASA equipment, such as landers and life support systems and other bits of apparatus more or less connected to the project of exploring Earth’s only natural satellite—an example of ‘more’ would be the life-sized recreation of NASA’s Apollo 11 Lunar Module (2007); an example of ‘less’ would be the NASA Champagne Fridge (2007) and the store of Jack Daniels and Marlboroughs that were on hand as the astronauts’ dietary staples. This May and June, in conjunction with Creative Time and The Park Avenue Armory, Sachs and his team are doing it again, only this time the astronauts are heading to Mars.

Tom Sachs, SPACE PROGRAM: MARS, Park Avenue Armory, 2012

Anyone who visited Sachs’s studio prior to the Mars mission this spring took their turn at the ID Station (2010), which produced for them and for the studio a photo ID, replete with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) logo. Other than one’s name, the ID required giving two other pieces of information, which consisted of answers to two questions: “Have you seen 10 Bullets”? And “Have you seen COLOR”?

10 Bullets (2010) and Color (2011) are the first two films of a trilogy (the tentative title of the third is Materials and Methods) that Sachs has produced in conjunction with assistants John Ferguson and Van Neistat. At bottom, they are instructional films for people who work, or want to work, in Sachs’s studio. The lesson of 10 Bullets is how to ‘work to Code’.  Indeed, the ten bullets, as in bullet points (illustrated in the film as hand-drawn rounds of ammunition) comprise ‘the Code’ itself, which instructs one to do such things as ‘keep a list’ (bullet seven); to use the phrase ‘I understand’ (bullet five) when confirming instructions; to ‘sacrifice to Leatherface’ (bullet nine), i.e. to pay a fine into a lock box adorned by a figurine of the villain of the cult horror flick A Texas Chainsaw Massacre when failing to adhere to the studio’s safety or security procedures—that is, when failing to ‘work to Code’; to always ‘work to Code’ (bullet one) because ‘creativity is the enemy’ (Sachs’s own credo); and to ‘always be Knolling’ (bullet eight).  If you don’t know what Knolling is, watch the film.

Color follows 10 Bullets’ lead. Its purpose is to indoctrinate viewers into the studio’s highly standardized color palette, which is based upon the the many found objects and images and repurposed materials that have made their way into the studio’s work over the years.  So, for example, the studio’s white is drawn from, among other things, copy paper white, foamcore white, and Tyvek-suit white, which, in terms of paint, translates to Benjamin Moore Decorator’s White or Krylon Glossy White; the studio’s yellow is McDonald’s Golden Arches yellow (Golden Acrylics C.P. Cadmium Yellow Medium #1130-6 Series 7) or Kodak film packaging yellow (Golden Acrylics Diarylide Yellow 1147-6 Series 6); blue is Gulf Porsche blue, Tiffany blue, or New York Police Department barricade blue (according to the studio, the NASA logo’s PMS 286 blue is ‘dopey’, so the studio instead uses Benjamin Moore Impervex Latex High Gloss Metal and Wood Enamel Classic Navy 309 35); and purple…well purple is ‘forbidden, purple is punishable by death, there is never an excuse for the colour purple’.

The tone, as one might guess, is mock-serious, though with an emphasis on the second half of that hyphenation. The authority of the studio, of the ‘Code’ and its colour palette, are at every point affirmed without equivocation. The sense one gets is that there is an ‘inside’ to the studio, a Code that is not easily cracked from the outside. More than merely a workplace, it’s a commitment, both to a way of working and to an aesthetic, to a way of working as an aesthetic. In the face of all the attention that gets paid to ‘post-studio’ art practices, Ten Bullets and Color unabashedly attest to the power and importance of the studio itself, but the studio understood as the embodiment of a rigorous system and social rationale, one in which the words ‘creativity is the enemy’ can be willingly embraced because everyone (who knows how to work to Code) understands that individual creativity, in the form of the impromptu choice, the undisciplined decision, is indeed the enemy of collective creation.

It is with this perspective in mind that we might see how Sachs’s SPACE PROGRAM, in both its Lunar and Martian iterations, can be understood as both self-reflexive and allegorical of the studio as well.  It is self-reflexive insofar as what the SPACE PROGRAM reproduces, in its simulations of all of those highly choreographed yet quotidian routines that receive such fanfare when they are broadcast live (on TV) and later dramatized (in books and movies)—from donning space suits and eating dinner to collecting rock and soil samples (which consisted, in LA, of drilling into and digging up Gagosian’s highly polished concrete floor)—is the seamless functioning of the studio, the assigning, monitoring, and carrying out of operations on a check list (bullet seven!) by people—and this is important—not just with training and expertise to perform those operations but who are also individually committed to, and so hold themselves responsible for, seeing them through. The many ‘stations’ of the Mars mission, from the RBR: Red Beans and Rice Station (2011) to the HNDS: Hot Nuts Delivery System (2011), to the Biology Lab (2011; which is growing poppies for a Martian heroin harvest), to the Bike Station (2011-2012) and Repair Station (2006-2010) are just so many reflections of the ‘sacred space’ (bullet two!) of the studio—the ‘shop, office, welding booth, bunker, and kitchen’—so soberly detailed in 10 Bullets.

The SPACE PROGRAM is allegorical because if it represents anything at all, it is this idea of commitment to a goal, this fidelity to a shared aim, to a target as distinct from a telos. Let me explain: Early in his book Targets of Opportunity (2005), Samuel Weber builds on a ‘terminological distinction’, first addressed by the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, between two senses of ‘end’: telos and skopos.  Where telos is understood as the ‘fulfilment of an action or process’, skopos is the ‘target that one has in one’s sights and at which one takes aim; it is the goal presently and clearly offered to an intention…Skopos is the draw of the bow, telos, life and death.’  The metaphorical reach of skopos is important here, connecting as it does the implicit violence of targeting with the technological projection of our conscious attention (‘intentionality’, in the language of the philosophical phenomenology in which Nancy was schooled).  ‘Skopos is already, tendentially, the tele-scope’, Weber writes, ‘since “the one who aims” is also “the one who surveys.” To survey, in this sense, is to command at a distance.’

However else we want to characterize research missions that land men on the moon and rovers on Mars, we must recognize that even our limited ‘surveys’ of these other worlds are bound up with a ballistic sort of ‘scopic’ knowledge that traces its genealogy according to Nancy’s metaphorical ‘draw of the bow’.  What else is Curiosity, the Mars rover that is currently hurtling through space towards its target at 12,000 miles per hour, than the tip of the arrow?  Why else would the engineers on the Entry, Decent, and Landing (EDL) team at JPL, for which Sachs designed the mission patch and served as the unofficial artist in residence, refer to these three final phases of Curiosity’s flight as ‘Six Minutes of Terror’? (Those six minutes will unfold in real time this coming August when Curiosity hits the Martian atmosphere.)  Or for that matter, what possible reason would the astronauts on the SPACE PROGRAM lunar mission in 2007 have for securing their landing site with DIY shotguns (Lem: ATF: MSA: Shotgun , 12 gauge, Breech-loading, handmade, 2007)? And why would the astronauts on the Mars mission need a mortar (Mortar, 2011)?

Because everywhere in Sachs’s work, targets abound. Despite betraying some boyhood fascinations with militarized gear, and beyond all of its tongue-in-cheek fetishising of the arch seriousness of the military-industrial-academic-research complex, Sachs’s SPACE PROGRAM is just this targeting writ large—not quite as large as NASA or JPL and the ‘general intellect’ of which they are the cutting edge, but large enough to stand for it, to represent it, allegorically as it were.

The one bit of ‘equipment’ that stands out in this respect, both because of what it stands for and how out of place it is within the panoply of stations destined for Mars, is the Tea House (2011-12), a full-scale building (Sachs’s first ever since abandoning architecture to become an artist) designed to accommodate traditional Japanese tea ceremonies. The form of that ceremony (exactingly detailed, as with all of the SPACE PROGRAM’s procedures, in a set of accompanying instructions) distils the PROGRAM’s and the studio’s targeting ethos. For as ritualized as the choreography of the tea ceremony may be, it is a dance that depends entirely upon subtle yet instrumental moments of feedback between host and guest(s). Every action—the quarter-clockwise turn of the tea bowl, the laying down of the tea scoop (bullet eight: always be Knolling!)—is also a cue for some subsequent action, such that all the players in the ceremony are highly attuned to and tracking—targeting—one another. They are bound together in a collective project, and the ceremony, the ritual, the Code does the binding. It is in this sense that the tea ceremony—like the SPACE PROGRAM; like the studio—is not teleological. The point is not to fulfil it, to get to its end. It is scopic. The point is to see, to survey, to attend, to target—to always, always, work to Code.


This piece is from the summer 2012 issue of ArtReview.