June 16, 2012: Visiting the Park Avenue Armory, I discover that Tom Sachs’s installation “Space Program: Mars” is up for just one more day. During the past month, Sachs has given three space flight demonstrations, held public breakfasts with Mars scientists, screened films and displayed a fleet of spaceships, rovers, models, and space travel ephemera. This particular day, visitors are not allowed to meander through the exhibition, as they are on most days, but are corralled into a seated area to watch the daylong event, Flight Plan Mars: Demonstration #4 Endurance. According to the pamphlet we are handed—the “libretto”—the demo will include some 37 discrete episodes—including “the sun,” “insemination” and “tea ceremony”—and will last for 12 hours, until about midnight.
When I enter at 1 pm, an hour after the official beginning, men in white shirts, ties, khaki pants and Nike shoes (custom-made for the event) gaze up at a projection. This scene is Mission Control. Distorted, amplified voices bounce around the armory, their timbres familiar to anyone who has ever heard the legendary “one small step” transmission from the 1969 moon landing. Key NASA-sounding argot is tossed around—”over,” “roger,””visual confirmation,” “quarantine.” It’s initially bewildering to me when people burst into applause, as if some obvious achievement has been won, until I see the flashing applause sign.
As the performance continues, it doesn’t feel tight and technical like a real instructional demonstration, but loose and experimental, like art. Likewise, it’s apparent that none of the equipment here would be suitable for actual space exploration. Given Sachs’s signature attention to detail, it’s likely that the sculptures have some basis in real objects, but no one here, except maybe the children running around, consider this event to be a reflection of real space procedure. A pile of stuffed socks sits on a platform. People write on clipboards. A man in suspenders cooks rice. Idiosyncratic touches like these color the environment.
Handwriting, too, plays a large part in this exhibition. Sachs has conceived all the signage in the Armory- labels inside every installation, titles in the films, even notes in the bathrooms – all in his own handwriting: an iconic, playful print. Where a Museum of Space Travel might use Helvetica to connote authenticity, Sachs and his hand remind you that “Col. Tom Sachs” is the author and creator of everything you see. His nostalgic and fetishistic obsession with NASA is really the subject of this exhibition, and most adults likely have similar recollections of TV images and book illustrations buried somewhere in their memory. A younger generation, raised without space culture, may find the installation to be pure novelty.
The demonstration pauses and the stage empties. I flip through the libretto. Was that the “trans-Mars injection”? Hard to say. I read in the libretto a list of acronyms: “BAC: Biggie Audio Cassette,” “DVPF: Darth Vader Piss Fridge” and “HNDS: Hot Nuts Delivery System.” Hip-hop plays from Mission Control’s enormous speakers. The khaki-wearing staff members talk on walkie-talkies, buzz around on bicycles and skateboards, and push wheelbarrows. I ask one of them what’s going on. She tells me she doesn’t know, but she does convey that a mini-fridge nearby is filled with “real vodka” and that, on days without demonstrations, the audience was able to board the main spaceship after passing a series of indoctrination tests. She also tells me that an actual communications officer from the Apollo 11 mission is present in the audience;e informed her that the one thing that didn’t break down on the Apollo 11 mission was the communications system.
During the pause, I visit the “Tom Sachs store” in the lobby and watch one of the films Sachs has made for the show. It’s a faux ’60s documentary, and in it, a cheeky voiceover narrates the story of a group of trainees learning about Mars. The film has the whiff of Wes Anderson, as if the hand of a curious man-child were behind every spot of its decor. Also like Anderson, the deadpan is always in force, allowing the audience to maintain a sense of curiosity: what elements are truly authentic and what elements are pure fancy? As the question lingers, it becomes clear that curiosity, not authenticity, is the point after all.
From the next room, I hear the countdown begin. 10, 9, 8 . . . As I climb back onto the bleachers, a deep, almost deafening roar fills the hall as the spaceship launches on-screen. I plug my ears. Smoke erupts from somewhere. The applause sign flashes and we all comply. Pink Floyd “Us and Them” plays, followed by Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.” The event—a marathon, they’re calling it—is expected to last for 10 more hours. The audience is directed to the other side of the hall. I ask the same staffer what’s happening. “Just take the tunnel,” she says. “It’s the way to Mars.”