A Space Pro­gram

A SPACE PRO­GRAM, doc­u­men­tary/ad­ven­ture, not rated, The Screen, 3 chiles

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - — Michael Abatemarco

Tom Sachs’ ex­hi­bi­tion Space Pro­gram 2.0: Mars, which opened at New York’s Park Av­enue Ar­mory in 2012, is a bril­liant con­ceit. It’s also the sub­ject of a new film by Van Nei­s­tat that of­fers a mul­ti­lay­ered glimpse into the stu­dio prac­tice and mo­ti­va­tions of Sachs. Sachs is a con­tem­po­rary New York-based artist, a bricoleur who en­vi­sioned an en­tire space pro­gram while driven by a do-it-your­self ethos. The ex­hibit is an ad­ven­ture to the red planet for two fe­male as­tro­nauts, led by Sachs as mis­sion com­man­der, search­ing for signs of life in the uni­verse. Us­ing only avail­able ma­te­ri­als read­ily on hand, Sachs and his team (or crew, as the case may be) of car­pen­ters, space trip­pers, and knowl­edge seek­ers cre­ate a be­liev­able, alien at­mos­phere and world. The dra­matic ven­ture to Mars is as com­pelling as some of the best hard­core science fic­tion, never mind that mis­sion con­trol is con­fined to a trailer and that the space pro­gram ex­ists only as a lim­ited num­ber of sets on a sound stage — ex­cept for where it lives in the imag­i­na­tion. In that lat­ter re­gard, this doc­u­men­tary is re­ally no dif­fer­ent from 2001: A Space Odyssey, or any one of a num­ber of science-fic­tion films from cinema his­tory; Mars, in Sachs’ in­stal­la­tion, is an il­lu­sion that de­mands sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief. There are mo­ments in A Space Pro­gram where the par­tic­i­pants’ in­volve­ment blurs the line be­tween re­al­ity and make-be­lieve. The film con­trasts Sachs’ brico­lage tech­niques with their re­sult­ing ef­fects: an im­mer­sive aes­thetic ex­pe­ri­ence.

Sim­ple props like a desk globe used as a stand-in for Earth seen from or­bit, a ply­wood space cap­sule, and space suits made from com­mon house­hold goods are ef­fec­tive in con­vey­ing an idea of an ex­cit­ing space mis­sion. A Space Pro­gram and the ex­hibit on which it’s based ac­com­plish this with winks and nudges, and a wit that brings an el­e­ment of hu­mor to the pro­ceed­ings, such as the plan to re­coup the cost of the space pro­gram by us­ing Mars as a fa­cil­ity for heroin pro­duc­tion. It also in­spires child­like won­der at the artistry of the pro­gram’s over­all de­sign. But the film never com­pletely erases the lines be­tween real and fake. Mo­ments such as an ac­tual in­fomer­cial ex­plain­ing feed­back, cre­ated by Charles and Ray Eames for IBM, are used as a wry but oblique com­men­tary on the dif­fi­cul­ties of hu­man com­mu­ni­ca­tion — but this seg­ment takes up too much screen time. Such scenes re­mind us that we are look­ing at a con­cep­tual art ex­hi­bi­tion and not a real space mis­sion (lest we get ahead of our­selves). More­over, shots of the live au­di­ence watch­ing the mis­sion be per­formed — the easy walk from mis­sion con­trol to the sur­face of Mars, the out­dated 1980s-era tech­nol­ogy, and space­craft con­trols made from video game joy­sticks — help es­tab­lish a meta-nar­ra­tive. In an era where Hol­ly­wood stu­dios with stag­ger­ing bud­gets em­ploy hun­dreds of tech peo­ple to make the spe­cial ef­fects in science fic­tion seem as real as pos­si­ble, it’s help­ful to re­mem­ber that if you’ve got some two-by-fours, some duct tape, bub­ble wrap, and maybe a lit­tle tin­foil, you can be just as ef­fec­tive. That kind of in­no­va­tion is in the na­ture of art.

Suit­ing up: Mary Ean­nar­ino

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