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Tom Sachs

Interview by
Alessio Ascari

Some say each company or corporation should have a “resident artist,” to challenge their vision and disrupt their way of making. Tom Sachs’ long-standing synergy with Nike, under the moniker of NIKECraft, is the closest thing to that. Placing more emphasis on the creative process than the finished product, and relying on relentless trial and error rather than a deadline-driven timetable, the collaboration just released a newest output—a retro-futuristic winter shoe, introduced by a dystopian short film.

ALESSIO ASCARI   Paradox Bullets, your new film made in collaboration with Nike, premiered at Tate Modern in London last week during Frieze Art Fair. The film stars you alongside Ed Ruscha, is narrated by Werner Herzog, and directed by Van Neistat—such a dream team! I just watched it and I was struck by this phrase at the end of the film: “We are mystics, not rationalists,” suggesting a parallel between arts and sports. I would love for you to expand on this duality, and how it informs your practice.

TOM SACHS   “Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists” was originally said by Sol LeWitt. It comes from his Sentences on Conceptual Art (1969). In my studio, there are several commandments that we live by. Sentences on Conceptual Art is one of them. It’s important that in school we learn 1+1=2. But in the studio, we learn 1+1=1 million. Some people call that “intuition,” and it can be cultivated. From my experience in athletics and certainly in art, you have to do all this training so you’re prepared to make an irrational decision that doesn’t make sense, and that’s how you win. That’s how you invent the new thing. The entire reason I make art is to make something that hasn’t been made before. So I never make the same piece twice. I’m only interested in that area of investigation that doesn’t exist. Ernest Shackleton is the athlete that we always refer to in the studio: he was the guy who explored the South Pole, fucked it up royally, but no one died. And through his failures are the greatest successes. So it doesn’t really matter if he didn’t get there. All those clichés – it’s the journey that counts, the marathon, not the finish line… the reason why those are clichés is because they’re universal. And in the same way with art, it’s not always about the finished object. The most important thing to me is the moment when you strike line on paper, when you make the decision.

AA The moment of inspiration?

TS  Well, no. I think that’s a different idea. I meant the very blue collar aspect of running, of drawing, of working, of cutting, of using your body to affect materials, or to move through space. You’re doing all that hard work so when you have a spark of this intuition, this unknown thing, your body and mind are trained and poised to take action and to direct it usefully—to get that extra bit of energy out of your body to get through the line faster, or to combine those two things that don’t make sense into a sculpture.

AA  That’s interesting because in your work, you often go back to the studio as a theme of its own, a state of mind, the site where this “intuition” happens. Of course, the studio is sort of a mythological place in contemporary art, in art history. Just think about Andy Warhol’s Factory, Bruce Nauman’s Mapping the Studio, all the way to Sterling Ruby’s megastudio which also serves as a commentary on artistic labor, artists owning their production value. In your previous films, most prominently in Ten Bullets, you enumerate all these “rules” that your studio staff is to abide by—a manual of thoroughness, punctuality, persistence, organization. How do these rules exist in the context of your collaboration with Nike?

TS  I just found out last night that Sandy Bodecker passed. You know, he was the godfather of Nike’s relationship with many artists, at least from my perspective. The guy who, together with Mark Parker, started to really connect artists with the brand. I’ve known these guys since 2004, but it wasn’t until 2009 when we finally figured out the terms of our relationship. We almost had a prenuptial arrangement. And the terms were that we wouldn’t do anything that we couldn’t do without each other. That we, as a studio, were not to be on a timetable, like other collaborations and launches; that we wouldn’t let the project out until it’s perfect. And so with these ground rules, the collaboration has been really gratifying to me: it expands my mind. I’m challenged by having to comply with Nike legal, health and safety constraints. And they get disrupted by my relentless pickiness, an obsession with detail far superior than the company can normally withhold.

AA  Can you tell us more about the outcomes of this collaboration? In a way, it’s an ongoing project where you’re constantly riffing on the same ideas, improving and adjusting and re-adjusting.

TS  My first collaboration with Nike was the Mars Yard shoe in 2012. Because we weren’t entirely happy with how durable it proved to be, in 2017 we launched an improved version. And now, together with the film at Tate Modern, we launched the Mars Yard Overshoe, which is the winter version. It’s imagined for Hoth, you know the ice planet from The Empire Strikes Back? Or if we stayed on Earth, it would be made very specifically for March in New York City, because that’s the harshest month of the year. Feels like maybe it’s spring but in reality, it’s as cold as February, and it’s wet and snowy and slippery and it sucks. It’s basically an inclement weather shoe, but you could run full speed, it performs like a low-top.

In 50,000 years, you’ll still be able to see my fingerprints in that bowl, while the best made thing ever, like this iPhone here, will be gone, physically degraded. It's the best made thing ever, but it's not an heirloom.

AA  The way you speak about the technical qualities of the shoe, it really highlights how keen you are on the idea of craft, and how central it is in your practice. After all, NIKECraft is the title for your overall collaboration with Nike. To me, it feels like a contrasting notion in the frame of our contemporary life, which is mostly defined by digital behaviors and virtuality. Instead, your practice is all about affirming an idea of craft that is more physical, practical, hands-on, DYI. So I would like to know, what is your relationship to technology? Do you see craft as a form of resistance?

TS  The great thing about this age is that an individual can have as much power as a giant corporation, be bigger than the biggest TV channel just through their own creativity, by making a video and putting it up on YouTube. With our films, which we produce in house and are relatively inexpensive, we can still capture a huge audience versus, say, a Super Bowl NFL ad that costs millions and millions. The advantage that the person has, is the ability to stand out as an individual and make work that shows the evidence of their existence.
Similarly, when you make something by hand, you can never achieve the same precision that you can or you must at an industrial scale. For example, I do ceramics as a hobby; but I use porcelain and I never employ the wheel, because it’s too digital. I pinch pot, because I want to see the dents. So in 50,000 years, you’ll still be able to see my fingerprints in that bowl, while the best made thing ever, like this iPhone here, will be gone, physically degraded. It’s the best made thing ever, but it’s not an heirloom. I’m entrusted in challenging Nike to make heirloom things. Durability and resilience is our number one value. So I’m always, always encouraging people to buy durable things that last and use the fuck out of them! That way, you don’t have to worry about recycle—which costs a ton in electricity, by the way.

AA  With that in mind how, if at all, is technology and the digital involved in your daily studio practice?

TS  I mean, I think the computer’s great for shopping and porn, more than anything. [Laughs] Well, the movies we make are entirely digital. So, that counts. But even within that, we try to do it in an analogue way. We’re always struggling with all the software changes, which sometimes feel really conspiratorial. Or the idea of the closed system, which is very Apple. And that applies to music as well—the hostility of the removal of the aux cord, or iTunes no longer being supported for DJs… That’s really frustrating, because it forces you to narrow your vision.

AA  This frustration is also present in Paradox Bullets, where you see Ed Ruscha messing up with wires, going from adapter to adapter, and never finding the right plug…

TS Yeah, that’s me. I’m playing a different character in the movie, while Ed is me.

AA  Even with all that frustration with technology though, your work has a retrofuturistic vibe. It’s very much informed by sci-fi aesthetics—just think of projects like Space Program and Space Camp. It almost feels like you’re building a survival kit for a dystopian future. So, how do you envision the future? Can artists predict it?

TS  Sure. Artists, any of us can see the future. You see the future through your dreams.

AA  Are you optimistic about it?

TS  It doesn’t look good. We’re destroying the surface of this planet by not managing resources properly, and bureaucracies always take forever to catch up to litigate and control that. It happened with seatbelts: they had known for twenty years that it was saving lives, but the automotive industry lobbied against it because it was expensive, and enough people had to die before they made it law. It’s the same thing now with the environment. The problem is that with ten, twenty more years of pumping this much carbon into the atmosphere, it’s going to be too late. So, it becomes an issue of education. It’s up to our choices. We could make it better. And some of us are trying to.

AA  That brings me to ask, who are you looking up to among fellow artists, among intellectuals? In Ten Bullets, an important phase of the studio intern’s training is a list of must-read books and must-see films—classics from The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill to Stanley Kubrick’s Shining. Who are the creators who inspire you today?

TS  Well, there’s so many. So many great artists, like Frank Ocean for one. But there’s really one guy who’s doing more than anybody else, and that’s Elon Musk. He’s working to protect the environment in the most public way, with electric cars and solar panels and good batteries, while also working to explore other planets, because that’s the most optimistic thing to do. That, I think, is kind of the ultimate athletic endeavor—to explore the final frontier. It’s the most sophisticated thing we, as humans, can do.

Tom Sachs (American, b. 1966) is an artist who lives and works in New York.
Alessio Ascari is KALEIDOSCOPE’s Publisher and Creative Director.

All images courtesy of the artist.

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