PIONEER OF SUSTAINABILITY
PIONEER OF SUSTAINABILITY
Tom Sachs is widely known for his do-it-yourself version of Pop appropriation, having built representations of everything from a functioning McDonald’s restaurant to a full-scale Apollo lunar module that was the centerpiece of his Space Program project. However, unlike most Pop-in uenced artists, who are primarily interested in the super cial character of things, Sachs is equally as concerned -if not more- with their functional and utilitarian nature and their socio-economic meaning.
Consistent themes in Sachs’s work include an awareness of the forces of branding, fashion, and celebrity; the value of (and general lack of) quality and craftsmanship in the universe of manufactured goods and the wasteful (and soulless) ethic of planned obsolescence in industrialized society. All of these subjects are addressed wih a rigorous do-it-yourself attitude that combines freedom and control in equal measure.
I worked through your Prada book – It’s such a massive amount of work that you have created in such a short time. Do you think so, too?
Yeah, we’ve been doing a lot of work. I always think that is an important element of craft, and it is not my intention to make a lot of things, its just that there’s no other expression and it’s never enough time to do it right, yet there’s always time to do it again, which is a very cynical statement, and what it’s really saying is: better to do things right at the first time – someone must’ve said that. Now, I don’t agree with that, I think it’s better to do it fast and then to repair it (afterwards). I think it’s better to do it again because what you get is the evidence of having done something twice. In my work that takes the form of additional screws, scars and glue drips, and I make a big effort to show all the details.
I see. Everything’s always documented in your work, so you can really get a glimpse of every detail that’s needed. That’s what I think makes it very craftmanship-like. I must say I admire such focus on the details. So, would you call yourself a perfectionist?
I think I’m guilty of your accusation.
In your works, you have all these scars and details; would you call that your stylistic device?
I would say that scars are the evidence of my perfectionism, because I don’t try to hide these mistakes, I try to glorify them.
Coming back to your body of work, I was wondering about how you started. You went to study architecture in London in the first place?
Well, around the time when I was in London, or maybe one year before I was in England, I started to get serious about building things. I was studying architecture but I was always making sculptures or making things... For several years afterwards I didn’t have a studio, it was just my notebook and me, my drawings, detailed drawings of things I always wanted to make. So even though I didn’t have any tools, I was always just making things out of whatever was around. If I wasn’t at school, I was at the sculpture studio. When I was in England, I spent most of my time at the shop, the workshop in the basement of the institute, making sculpture and furniture. When I was at the architecture school I didn’t think I was very good at making sculpture, so I decided that I would start to work for the public, to become an architect and make the world a more beautiful place, but it was so difficult for me to fit in and learn in a school environment about architecture, so I decided to say: ‘Fuck it, you can’t fix this world; I’m just gonna enjoy my short life, and I’m gonna make sculpture because that’s what I’d love to do!’. That’s when I dropped out of architecture school....
At what point did you decide to develop a team around you?
When I moved to NY, which was in 1990, I rented a studio that I’m still in. It was so expensive that I couldn’t really afford it so I was always doing welding jobs to pay the rent. I was just doing it for the money because no one would pay me to make art at that point. I would do illegal welding jobs, would repair elevators... I was hired to weld fire escapes on top of buildings, to illegally do a repair job: After all, I was much cheaper than any proper service. I wasn’t worried about lawsuits or killing anybody; and thank god no one got hurt. In the meantime I was always hiring people to help me with these jobs, because sometimes they were very complex and I simply couldn’t do them myself. So I put together a construction team, and if there was an extra hour at the end of the day, say, when we finished the job early, and there was leftover material from the job, I would use these materials and labor to work on my sculpture ideas. Still no one was buying my artwork but I had this resource: this powerful construction team. This team helped me to build my ideas. Slowly I developed a collection of sculptures that were good enough to show, so eventually I started doing exhibitions.
Where did you recruit your team at the first place?
I think the very first people were friends that I went to school with, other artists or people that I met doing art jobs, who were like-minded, who I could talk to; or even construction workers, dish washers, all kinds of people I met in different places. It all happened very organically, in an unpretentious way and it took years. In the beginning I was doing 90% construction and 10% sculpture, then it slowly turned the other way. Even today, I would say it’s now about 99% sculpture, and 1%: I still have to do welding repairs for people in my life. If my landlord has some emergency, I’m still there for him, to repair the elevator, as I did yesterday.
By calling yourself the second best Jewish carpenter, which I read on a previous interview, I guess that’s, in a way, the motto of your life as well.
That’s true. It’s an ongoing skill, there’s always things for me to learn. I’m always learning new techniques. I think part of being a good craftman is this willingness to learn something new in technology to hold down your skills. The only thing I’m embarrassed about is my computer skills: they are extremely bad.
Are you generally pro-technology or against it?
Well, you have to simultaneously be both, and of course it becomes an ethical issue. I’m pro-technology when it’s for good, and I’m anti when it’s for evil purposes. Really, to me one of the main issues that I’m always struggling with is in-built obsolescence. When Microsoft makes software that you have to buy again the next year – and I am totally against this. We’re talking specifically about computers because that is the technology of our time. Hardware’s gotten to be pretty simple, it’s mostly software that defines our time. And I feel something like that is written about the destruction of the tower of Babel, biblical written. We’re living in an age where technologies are fighting each other; it’s amazing how the technologies are fighting each other. We’ve got Apples or PCs and nothing’s compatible. It’s a conflict of biblical proportions.
Do you see human kind would get a lack of knowledge about technology they’re using? Is that why you’re referring to the tower of Babel?
No. You know the story of the man trying to build the tower to reach heaven, and god smashes the tower down and says: ‘That’s only for me! I will not only smash your beautiful tower, but I will also make it that everyone speaks different languages, so that you can never cooperate with that degree of efficiency ever again.’ This feels is like a form of greed to me and it’s not about capitalism at all, it’s all about corporate greed. We’re not cooperating, we have many systems that are not cooperative. I’m not just talking about trying to get your contacts from your Apple to your Blackberry or from your iPhones to your PCs; I’m talking about bigger conflicts where you got different groups of people claiming to know god’s or whatever truth in an absolute way. ‘If you have a dictatorship and you treat women badly then we’ll bomb you!’, and another group of people saying ‘If you don’t believe in Allah’s way by our very specific way of interpreting the Koran, we’re gonna blow up the World Trade Center! The symbols of your greedy society.’ You have these irreconcilable differences and I’m not saying one is right and one is wrong, but they’re irreconcilable and that’s why we had war. That’s a bigger problem than getting your addresses onto your iPhone, but it is basically the same kind of conflict, and it’s about unwillingness to cooperate.
You seem to be very keen on making a statement about consumerism, which is also obvious in your art. You say ‘fashion packaging is a way to report on our culture,’ but isn’t building guns also a way to report on our culture?
What I’m trying to do is to combine different things. One plus one equals a million, is my formula. You take a fashion brand and a symbol of mass destruction or capital punishment; put them together, and they don’t belong together there’s no logical way to put them together, then maybe what you get is a third entity which has more meaning. I like fashion when it makes you look good, but I hate it when it makes you feel insecure for not having it, and I think that’s the main difference between fashion and advertising, it’s not just the tentacles of advertisement but it’s a difference, because there’s nothing wrong with being stylish and elegant, I mean there’s much more important things than being in fashion but in any case there’s a fine line between what those words mean. But advertising is the commercialization of the art of fashion. When commerce is a priority, ethics are subjected. Say, you’re a fashion designer: part of your job is selling your clothes, because you need money to survive so you can keep doing what you do, but as soon as you start using advertising, immediately your priority as an advertiser who works for a fashion company is to sell as many clothes as possible because you have to make money and make people to buy your products. Fear, jealousy and greed are fantastic motivators, for that reason many advertising companies have values to put fear and envy above style, fashion, innovation or creativity. Fashion itself is not wrong, but when it becomes the servant of money through advertising, that advertising is its advocate, that’s when you start to get that loss of identity and humanity.
So art shouldn’t advertise?
I think that’s the main thing. People talk about the joining of art and fashion, to me it’s always the same. Advertising is different. Here’s why: in the 1950s, advertising was called the devil’s art. I have a very good friend, who is a big advertiser, but he’s a creative. If he had a different sort of circumstances in his life, I think he would have been an artist because he has the sensibility of an artist, he’s very creative, innovative, he loves art and we’re good friends. I always tease him and say ‘How’s the devil’s art doing?,’ and of course he gets very defensive and says ‘You’re as much of a whore as I am, Tom.’ He teases me right back, so I can say that. Sure we all do things we all have to do for money. No one is excluded. How much work do you have to do to get advertising to keep your magazine going?
I know what you are talking about.
It’s a pain in the ass, I know it.
Back to consumerism, you said it replaces religions and spirituality. If I said that I don’t mind that religion is being replaced by consumerism, would you agree to that?
I don’t mind that, because religion is so corrupt to begin with, but spirituality, the loss of spirituality is a real loss. I don’t mind that organized religion is replaced by consumerism because if the spirituality is no longer part of religion, who cares what you call it? The only thing I find challenging about this is: it feels like a one way trip, so it seems harder to get back in to spirituality through consumerism. Religion traditionally had a connection with the community and had great strategy towards bringing spirituality into people’s lives. I think it’s a very dangerous place, and I think that in some ways art has that transformative power. To me, music has been the most spiritual man-made experience that I have come across. A lot of my spiritual experiences – the ones that were not natural, like surfing, being in the wilderness, experiencing the glorious feel of nature – were triggered by art, specifically through music.
Let’s stick to technology: You said the technology we are using today is the result of money spent on military budgets. You have been working on projects, like the recreation of the NASA Lunar Project, that are also related to the military complex and dominance in space. There is the NRO who runs all those spy satellites, and there is the NASA who works for the sake of science, but they are equally fed by the US government. Regarding to the Lunar project you once claimed that ‘going to the moon was an art project of the 60’s’. So if I said: The military is an art project, like stealth technology or electronic warfare for example, how would you react?
I could not disagree with you, because something like stealth technology and its lack of technical success and its great expense turned it into a kind of folly and art is folly, it’s not directly functional, and it has a spiritual and psychological component. Now the military, they always talk about this concept of winning hearts and minds and to emotionally defeat your enemy is much more valuable than to physically defeat them, because if you emotionally defeat them, then you consume them, they become part of you, they make your force bigger that is always the highest goal in any military application to create the smallest amount of damage because you have to consider the peace time that follows. So when you do something like stealth technology that doesn’t really work, but it makes people scared, or wins them over in the same way as the space program. We proved our military dominance by making missile delivery systems that were the same as space ship delivery systems. I think you can easily say that, so stealth technology is also like art. There’s also the thing that stealth technology is like art when it breaks all the laws of economics, art does not exist in any economic model because it’s too expensive as its as own economic model just like military spending is. And it breaks the laws of nature because it’s physically invisible; it surely has some magical moments when you see such a thing flying by.
Especially when you don’t have a clue what is going on behind that wall of secrecy, but let’s stick to the subject of dominance: are you obsessed with guns?
I am not. I’m interested or have been interested in guns in the past, because of their technology: they have always represented the height our ability to make technology. I’m interested in guns in the same way as I am interested in Samurai swords. They’re symbols of how far we can go, they are planned without obsolescence. They are, in a sense, the opposite of Microsoft products. In military technology nothing can be left to chance. And this is true today as it was a thousand years ago: the finest thing for the finest soldiers was to defend our lives. The philosophy of that even though it’s in service of a terrible destructive aim – killing lives –, is pure with 100% integrity, it’s the purity of a soldier or the samurais. If you look at something that’s made for the military, for our soldiers in Iraq, these are high quality things, they’re not crap. Consumer grade products are at the opposite end of the spectrum. I think it’s a shame because they’re obviously build to fail so that you can buy them again and keep the consumer cycle going.
So your art is the statement against that cycle? Are you an advocate for a paradigm shift over this replacement culture driven by consume?
Absolutely. If there’s anything or one thing I could change, it would be that. People talk about, well, this is a buzz word now: ‘sustainability.’ I don’t know if you’ve heard that word, it just got huge, it’s sort of a green word. Sustainability: it means a bunch of different things but technically it means something is repairable or fixable that you don’t have to replace. People also use it to mean: the product is to be developed in a close proximity to where it’s consumed, in another words ‘locally grown vegetables’ are considered sustainable because you don’t have the petrol cost to transport them. Which is great and it is sensible, it’s sensitive, smart and intelligent, but my frustration is that people are buying hybrid cars at great expense, but they are simply not taking care of their existing fuel-efficient cars. In the United States, if we just pumped the air pressure of the tires up we would have huge fuel savings.
In Germany we recently had something called ‘the wrecking bonus’ - you give your old car away and receive 2500 Euros, which you have to invest for the new car. That’s how they want to fuel the economy.
We have the same thing here, we call it ‘Clunker program’. It’s fucking bullshit. What’s worse instead of taking care of the old things and making our old things better, it’s even a technological issue. People feel better if they buy a Prius rather than having the small Honda that is very efficient which is good enough but it’s old, so it’s not worth keeping that alive. A 25-year-old Honda that is well maintained is still almost as efficient, and you do not have to build a whole other car, and let’s not even talk about emissions for building a car and disposing the old one. Where does all this stuff go?
One thing just to go back to the paradigm shift in consumerism you asked about, and I’ve said this before in print, so forgive me if I’m repeating myself but I really think it’s worth mentioning in an analysis of consumerism and manmade tools: As we get further from our bed, the requirement of any given product’s durability increases; so, in other words if you have tool or machine near your bed, it doesn’t have to work very well because the consequences are very limited. Worst thing is that you don’t wake up in the morning because your alarm clock breaks. But if you are in the kitchen, and if a knife handle breaks, you can cut yourself, and if you are in a garage and the tool breaks then you can hurt yourself very badly. If you are at work, in the center of town, which is further from home, let’s say in a commercial center, something breaks there, you can also get hurt or it could lead to a loss of money which could create other problems in your life. If you are at the edge of town where the factory is, in an industrial area, and something goes wrong, not only could you be hurt, the co-workers could be hurt, and there could be a larger loss of money for larger group of people. Obviously as you get further away from your bed, the quality of the machine and tools, or object must be more and more heavy-duty or adequate because the consequences of failure are higher. As you go even further, away from the center of your bed and away from the center of town, you have the ocean, and on the ocean, if you have something that fails you, you could die at sea. The only thing that requires an even higher quality standard than marine equipment is aero space equipment: airplanes, rocket ships, which go obviously the farthest away, in space nothing can be left at chance, everything has to be double safe because if the slightest thing goes wrong, everyone dies.
Is that some kind of path or chronology you follow in your own body of work? Going on the road with the Nutsy’s project, going to sea with the Island project and then leave of to space with the Lunar Project?
Well it’s interesting. When I was a student I remember I glued a level meter onto one of my sculptures, and a friend of mine asked: ‘Why do you glue that level on there?’ It was an abstract sculpture and it wasn’t clear which way was up and so I replied: ‘This is the way of letting you know how to install this,’ then he went: ’What? You got these things going out? I mean, do you have show somewhere outside this art school where you are supervising?’ He was kind of making fun of me I guess, but anyway, my response to him was: ‘Yes, I’m planning on this going out.’ I didn’t have any show but the level was a reflection of my ambition and my desire for my work to take me to other places, the desire for my artwork to transform my life and bring me around the world and that’s something I have done now. At that time it was just a dream, but it was just a physical gesture that I was making in a way of realizing my own ambition.
You can only see it when you look at the past or were you aware of it at the time?
No, I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but very clearly now, when he said: ‘Are these sculptures going out?’ is a reflection of his lack of belief in his own work as a student, and my belief in mine, he’s not an artist now and I am. He’s very successful in what he does, we’re still friends and we have a lot of respect for each other, but he didn’t believe in his art, he believed in other things he was doing. I just think this is an allegorical story, it tells the story of our differences we had and it is also the reflection of how art can transform your life, and if you believe in something enough, it can become a reality. Not always but sometimes.
So you’ve kept your idealism the entire time?
I would like to think about myself being idealistic instead of being cynical, if you spoke to some of my people in my team, they would say: ‘That evil tyrant Tom still has ideals? Ha ha ha!’ but I think I do; and further to that effect I’d say that there’s a tradition of ‘sympathetic magic’ where you build a model of your enemies amour and you burn it down or you build a voodoo doll and push pins in it to hurt your enemy or you build a model of your child’s broken arm and you pray to it, so that your child’s arm heals quicker: that’s called an ex-voto, a votive offering to a saint or divinity. There’s a great tradition in the organized religions that helps people to become mentally stronger or realizing health through positive thinking, that’s why we call it ‘sympathetic magic’. There’s a great story about this cargo-cultists in New Guinea who made models of airplanes in great expectation. You know the story where missionaries would drop food from the airplanes, they even made models of refrigerators because the missionaries had refrigerators, then they would open them and they would expect whole fresh food would come out – delicious, western processed food – and then they would even build airplane’s runways so that the airplanes could land. They’d build docks with their understanding so that western boats could dock. So what happened was that anthropologists would come, they’d come to see these runways or docks, they’d come by plane and by boat to see these thing that people have created, and they created for art, a ritual art of expectation. So there’s a tradition and omnipresence to this. If you ask me about my space program and the Island, how it relates, well, simply building those things with those systems and the elaborate nature of the books that we provided is what matters. With those manuals and things I am creating an opportunity to make it work within. Because when something breaks in our space program, it’s not like we HAVE TO fix it, it’s that we GET TO fix it: fixing is our reward, because we get to do something and being given the opportunity to do something. It’s an opportunity to grow and learn.
You create your own environment and you are able to have to fix your environment...as a reward?
Yes, but it’s more than that, I LOVE fixing my things, when something breaks: if it breaks from use, or from some kind of accident, I’m very happy to be able to fix it. I don’t like fixing something when it broke because it was built carelessly. Like, I want to fix something broken because something fantastic happened, like, ‘we had a great accident,’ you know what I mean? Reward for good work is more work, we see an opportunity when something breaks to fix it and make it better.
But not all of your objects are made to be used – do you see a distinctive line there?
To me it’s all the same, they’re really derived from the making process. If you look at Unité or a gun, the thing that makes them the same is the way they look and that is the result of their manufacture. At Unité you see many, many glue drips, and the look of it is derived from how it’s made. That it is a team of people and we want to show our work, we don’t want to hide it, that’s why you see pencil marks and glue drips, we leave every trace of our labor. With a gun it is different: the gun has to work. So I make the gun and test fire it and after that I weld it shut, so no one gets hurt in the gallery or studio and I don’t go to jail. But I make everything on it work because this functionality generates authentic details. If I were going to weld it shut from the beginning, the details would not have been the same. I personally would not have the discipline to fake it, but I do have the discipline to test fire it and then to weld it shut. Some of those things are simply that it gets dirty from test firing, it smells, you might have dropped it, it didn’t work the first time, you had to rasp something down, you slipped with the screw driver and made a mark on it, all these things are real and that makes the character of things.
Well, I have an extra question then: some of your artwork has those bullet holes in it; is that the result of your own test firing?
Yes, those are all the results of test firing. We used telephone books, just like in the 1950s, where the FBI used telephone books to test out bullets.
By the way, have you ever read ‘The Whole Earth Catalog’?
Yes, it’s a great book, because it is a book that defines the struggle. This is a book before the revolution was lost.
Thanks a lot for the interview, maybe you can take a shot at our cover.
interview: Thomas Marecki