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