A Space Program
Human beings are fascinated by outer space and for almost as long as there have been films, there have been films about the final frontier. From Melies’ “A Trip to the Moon” (1902) to Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and many, many more, film makers have long been drawn to the mystery and romance of mankind’s journey to the stars. The intersection of science and art surrounds us, it can be found in nature in the form of the golden ratio and even in the fluid dynamics of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” We turn our inquiring eyes to the night sky, looking for answers to intertwined questions of science and philosophy.
In cinema, often times that outward gaze represents the journey within and so it is with artist and film maker Tom Sachs. Sachs is a contemporary artist based in New York whose techniques include elements of installation art, performance art, and bricolage. Bricolage is the creation of artwork from everyday objects and materials on hand; it is the transformation of “junk” into art. In May 2012, Sachs debuted an exhibit titled “Space Program 2.0: Mars” at the Park Avenue Armory. The exhibit is a hand-crafted recreation of a manned space mission, complete with space suits, launch platform, landing module, and Mars Roving Vehicle (in other words, a homemade “moon buggy”).
The exhibit was more than an installation piece showcasing the artifacts of a bricolage space mission however. It was meant to be a full immersion experience as audiences were brought into a 55,000 square foot environment that included recreations of both Mission Control and the Martian surface. Two female astronaut/performers and dozens of flight controllers and “grummans” – stage hands, essentially – perform the tasks and procedures of the mission in real time. Sachs’ performers painstakingly reproduce modern day rituals ranging from assembling technological gear to performing scientific experiments to conducting a Japanese tea ceremony.
Sachs and director Van Neistat document this exhibit in their film “A Space Program.” I hesitate to call this film a documentary, as it is rather a strange but effective mix of mockumentary, performance art, and humorous vignettes. The film opens by introducing the viewers to the crew of the mission and explaining their duties and functions by means of a sober voice over reminiscent of an industrial training film. The concepts of bricolage and the materials and tools used in the exhibit are explained with great solemnity that belies the subversiveness of the whole piece.
The narrative follows the two astronauts, Mary Eannarino and Sam Ratanarat, as they don extremely realistic space suits made out of material from FedEx shipping envelopes. As they shrug on handmade cooling and “life support” systems that weigh more than half their body weight, we are methodically shown how they function and how the water filtering through their suits must be changed every 30 minutes lest the performers suffer from heat strokes. Carrying all this gear, the astronauts then climb onto a malfunctioning scissor lift to be transported to the launch platform nearly 20 feet above.
From there we are taken through the launch by means of some impressive special effects sequences. Sachs and his team achieve some very effective visuals using only “old school” special effects such as scale models, trick photography, mechanical riggings, and pyrotechnics. Sachs and Neistat are able to quite convincingly simulate the launch of a bricolage Apollo rocket in real time using only household materials, propane, and deft camera work.
The quality of these sequences only helps drive home the eclectic design of the space module itself, from the tiny kitchen (stocked with vodka) to a demonstration of how the space toilet works (simulated). As part of the mission, one of the astronauts must successfully “land” the module by means of winning a game of “Lunar Lander” on an old Atari 2600. You may have realized by now that there is a certain impishness to Sachs’ art to go along with the impressive sculptural elements and attention to scientific detail. It is this juxtaposition of handiwork both meticulous and grungy that underpins the whole piece.
Once on the hardwood surface of “Mars” the film takes on more overtly philosophical and ideological themes. The astronauts’ first tasks on Mars include constructing their roving vehicle (in full spacesuit gear, in real time) and then patrolling with shotguns in hand. As we learn as the film progresses their mission has two goals. One, to determine if there is evidence of life on Mars. To discover this, the astronaut-performers must hack through the hardwood surface using the types of saws and drills you might find in your dad’s garage.
The second, more cynical, goal is the “terraforming” of opium plants on Mars. To achieve this, the performers must harvest actual opium from a plant growing in a homemade terrarium. This element is unsurprising when you consider that much of Sachs’ artwork involves themes of corporate cannibalism and materialism, so it is natural that he would address how these influences would manifest themselves in an untapped frontier like Mars.
As they pursue these goals, tension mounts between the astronauts as they struggle with the tools, the environment, and with each other. Without revealing too much, the film goes on to examine these how these various goals and agendas for the mission – the interpersonal, the philosophical, the scientific, and the corporate – interact and what that might mean for mankind as a whole.
“A Space Program” shines most during those filmic sequences which combine the visual with philosophical narration. These segments are done with style and polish that the more documentary aspects are unable to balance properly with their realism. Clearly the intent is to juxtapose but too often the live action scenes are unable to capture the immersion that is a key component of the exhibit. I found myself wishing the film makers would have pulled the curtain back a little more and given those scenes more of a “concert film” feel. Just as filming a play doesn’t really do the experience proper justice, I felt more teased than transported by what I saw of Sachs’ bricolage wonders. There is just too much amazing detail and subtle cleverness in his work for it to fully transfer via a live recording of its performance. A true documentary works best when it makes the viewer connect with the human subjects; “A Space Program” is focused on a larger, more abstract focus and suffers slightly for it. I felt that if more focus was given to the participants (both performers and audience) that perhaps more of a connection would be created.
Overall, despite that detail, “A Space Program” is both fascinating and disorienting in the way good art often is. Filled with sublime absurdity and unvarnished humanity, it is an art film that takes the heart and the mind to the stars in a rocket made of detritus and imagination.
2015 Indy Film Fest Screenings:
Sunday, July 19 at 7:30pm in the Toby Theater (IMA)
Friday, July 24 at 5:00pm in the Toby Theater (IMA)