A Journey into Outer Space with Artist Tom Sachs

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Courtesy of Nike

The artist has collaborated with Nike to create Space Camp – an immersive installation on New York's Governor's Island that will leave its visitors transformed

There aren’t many multi-national sportswear corporations who would team up with an artist like Tom Sachs, the space-obsessed American sculptor best known for his DIY approach to immersive installations, to create an interactive Space Camp on Governor’s Island. But then, the ongoing relationship Sachs shares with Nike is an especially rarefied one, honed over many years of shared projects and through a mutual fascination with innovation and transparency.

Their newest collaborative endeavour, the aforementioned Space Camp, emerged out of many years of meetings between Sachs and Nike CEO Mark Parker. “It took a lot of conversation to find a simple thing – whatever we do must be 50% Sachs and 50% Nike,” the artist tells AnOther. “It must be something that neither one of us could do without the other, and I think we have achieved that.”

Launched in celebration of the NikeCraft Mars Yard 2.0 shoe, an updated and improved version of a pair of trainers created through a collaboration between the artist and Nike five years ago, the camp is a kind of public-facing version of a bootcamp Sachs already holds three times weekly in his own studio. With a routine designed by fitness guru Pat Manocchia of La Palestra, which comprises core-strengthening exercises teamed with mental skills, the entire concept is intended as a means of doing small things to think about bigger ones.

Sachs’ fascination with space is rooted both in the architecture around astronautics – the costumes, equipment, uniforms, etc. (“as a sculptor I’m probably more into that side of things,” he says) – but also bigger, more difficult questions. “The course doesn’t exist without asking these big spiritual questions like ‘Are we alone?’ ‘Where do we come from?’ ‘What we are doing here?’” he continues. “But as human beings, we specialise, and I am a specialist in the world of sculpture. LeBron is the specialist in the world of basketball, and I’m like the Michael Jordan of putting up a bathroom shelf. I can slay it in the studio. I’m pretty bad at basketball, but you should see me with a screw gun.”

It’s not all DIY, however – though screw guns do have their part to play at Space Camp. There’s an examination of larger cultural shifts at play here too. “I think it’s an important metaphor for what we are doing on Earth,” he says. “Since Columbus left Europe to colonise the New World we’ve created a bunch of problems. We started to change the aboriginal culture of what is now North and South America. We brought goods back from the New World to Europe and created economic unrest, and domination, and different alliances and different balances of power through that. These are the issues we deal with when we explore other planets – and we deal with them over and over with again, both when we are going to other worlds, like Mars, or when we are starting to build things in other cultures. Like when we make sneakers in Asia.”

And this, funnily enough, is where things get interesting. Through Sachs’ microcosmic study of globalisation, consumerism and discovery, Nike becomes complicit in a powerful experiment in making things better – more transparent, more fair, more empowering. “In way, as I am not a Nike employee, I can use the power of Nike to tell the stories of individuals. I am critical of consumer culture, but I am also an active participant in it.” By reappropriating Nike’s equipment, materials and design prowess for small-runs of human-made goods – all the products made by Nike with Sachs have a defiantly human finish to them, hence the focus on DIY – Sachs seeks to challenge mechanisation, bringing the focus back to the individual.

“Nike is an interesting place because all the materials and designs stem from innovation in the service of athletic dominance,” he says. “The Nike products are made for the specifications of championship athletes worldwide. That is actually printed on all of our shoes – it’s the slogan from the 70s and I think it’s worth repeating.” Similarly, Nike’s determination to push boundaries in terms of the innovative technology used in its sportswear are echoed in Sachs’ Mars Yard shoe; its every detail is rooted in integrity with regards to the mission at hand. That is to say, space travel, and personal excellence. But there’s a symmetry with military missions, too. “The eyelets are extra large, so that you can use cord as shoelaces, and the outsoles are taken from the SFB, that [senior director of athlete innovation] Tobie Hatfield designed for the US military. The soles of the Mars Yard shoes are designed for working on the synthetic surface of the Mars at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, which is basically a desert. They were developed in Afghanistan. What we are doing is connecting different parts of important issues – whether that is an unwinnable war with these greedy, violent, misogynistic zealots and extremists, or the war on the unknown.”

Along with these physical and mental tasks, visitors to Space Camp will be invited to watch The Hero’s Journey, a 40-minute feature film directed by Van Neistat which explores the necessity of failure to personal transformation. “It is the story of a girl who works in an office and who hates her life,” Sachs explains. “She goes through a load of trials where she struggles with learning how to be a good worker and how to master and overcome all her difficulties, and she eventually achieves a sense of mastery and comes back at the end as a teacher… From The Iliad to Clueless to Star Wars, every story is the story of the hero who struggles, fails and then succeeds. I hope you can see it too, because it’s a beautiful thing. It is a heartbreaking story of what it takes to become a champion.” And this, ultimately, is the crux of Sachs’ practice – looking at the political through a personal lens.

NYC Space Camp runs until June 18, 2017, on Governor’s Island.