Life and Death with Tom Sachs

Life and Death with Tom Sachs

A discussion with sculpturist, artist, filmmaker, commentator and designer Tom Sachs from his studio in New York City.

This interview, conducted on the 3rd of March, 2017, originally appeared in the Semi Permanent 2017 volume 'Designing for Change'. 

Hi Tom! Are you in New York?

Yeah, I am.

What is the mood in the city right now?

I don’t know if it's specific to New York, I think I saw a meme that summed it up that said “Worst Episode of Black Mirror Yet”. I think the important thing to remember is the difference we have between this maniac (Trump) and Adolf Hitler is that the American people have incredible agency and have a history of affecting change, and although the country is clearly divided, there are enough of us who are willing to fight.  If, and only if, we fight can we affect that change. 

A lot of your work is a comment on the times, do you see the national mood beginning to affect your work?

I’ve been really careful with my Instagram to try and make it a channel for me and the studio. You can’t avoid talking about politics, but I have to remember that art in the service of politics is propaganda, even if it’s for the good. I think it’s important that what I do in my sculpture is to have enough of a sense of openness that it can be interpreted in a bunch of different ways, so it can help provoke you to make your own assumptions. This particular administration is so crazy that I don’t care to argue about the differences, because they’re so out of touch that it’s hard to even converse with them.  

I had an argument with someone on my team who was afraid to put plastic in the oven because he didn’t want the fumes in the one we use for food. He said 'I refuse' so I responded, 'well if you refuse, you probably can’t work here anymore'. I don’t know if plastic is ok – to put polycarbonate in the oven to soften it before forming it. And he might have been right, but the right answer is 'can you give me a few minutes to look it up and see what temperature it is, and what is safe, and what is toxic, and take a few minutes to learn about it'. And that’s the answer I’m looking for on my team.  When you act out of fear in the studio you miss, for example, an opportunity to use the oven to bend plastic, which is what we do here. And you have to educate yourself and take the time to understand the situation.

That’s the issue – whether in design or in politics, is choosing certainty over truth. It’s important to sit with uncertainty because only by accepting that you don’t know is how you can ask the questions that you need to ask so you can learn more about the universe.

Has your motivation changed over time the more you learn?

Like everybody else, I get out of bed for sex and survival. Of course, survival is sublimated by the concept of money, but ultimately it’s just sex and death that keeps me motivated.

It’s all a continuum, it’s important to connect the last piece with the present piece and the future piece – only then can the workflow have an authentic generative power. I don’t love vacations because I always want to keep the flow going. I mean, I love fucking off and going surfing in the middle of the week; I love sleeping late and watching TV; I do a lot of fun stuff. But one of the formulas of success I’ve benefitted from is just keeping the flow going and never letting up.

When you’re creating art, is it for you or your community?

The priority is always the culture of the studio, and the things that I make are for me and my community. Today, that includes you. If people get it outside of the community – people I’ll never get a chance to talk to but I can communicate to through my work – that’s fantastic. The generator is the community: it’s me, it’s you, it’s us and our people, and that’s how you make things that are real.

Only by accepting that you don’t know is how you ask the questions you need to learn more about the universe.

Tom Sachs

I had this revelation when I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and I saw all these things made by people who were like me: they made art for rich, dead, white guys, for Popes, or maybe even Pharaohs. There was an obvious disconnect between the maker and the consumer. I went to the art department and I saw that all the things there were made by people in their own communities. Some of those pieces often had a more utilitarian function or ritual application, but there was a distinct connection between the pieces and their community. Those objects also weren’t assigned authors names – they were just assigned names from the communities from which they were derived, so there’s a very kind of different structure – the strategy there of something that is more community driven has an authenticity that’s inarguable.

How do you get to know your community?

There is an opportunity there to relish, and that’s why I spend so much time making movies (like Ten Bullets). We’re living in a special time, where the world’s most powerful advertising medium is 100% free and costs the same for me to advertise as it does for Apple, and we both have the same opportunities. I use these opportunities to make these movies – they’re a little outside of my sculptures but they’re still built and not shot – they’re made the way a sculpture is made: transparent, with flaws and evidence of their own construction.

Art is often an elitist product. Most art exists as an indicator of wealth or intellectual superiority, and that’s an elitist quality that is a little off-putting, so we spend a lot of time making products that don’t exist in that way – that don’t cost any money or we create things that are cheap – so we can work a little bit outside of that system that is so alienating. For example, I can’t afford to buy my art, or art that costs as much as mine does, so I try and make products that I would buy.

There was a real estate developer who once said ‘I would never build a house or apartment so small that I wouldn’t live in it myself’. I don’t know if that’s bullshit, but I like the sentiment.

I think that anyone working in their garage inventing something on their own, and following their own heart, will have the advantage in the future. And I mean that for the arts, but also for lawyers, and the cops, and everyone else.

Tom Sachs

What is the relationship between gallery curator and artist?

I have great relations with all my gallerists, and I’ve been working with some of the same people for over twenty years, and continue to, all over the world. I’m very proud that with my volatile, psychotic personality I’ve been able to keep those relationships intact. Galleries are important because they help get the work out there, but I don’t know a good gallerist who doesn’t differ to the artist in terms of decisions like what’s going to show and how it should look. The idea is that the artist is the expert for how things should work.

Do you fear or embrace change?

The biggest thing that’s changed with the art world is that it’s gotten bigger. I’ve been making more movies using social media – Instagram really works for me. Beyond that, I don’t really see my life being a lot different. The priority is still the work, regardless of how little or how much money there is, regardless of the shows, just showing up and making stuff is the goal. That’s what it’s about, and that doesn’t change.

Everything else like lust and ambition and hard work and greed and power – it’s all in the mind of the individual. But with science, we can control how our bodies are built and how they fall apart.

Tom Sachs

What are some things the artistic community should be paying attention to in 5-10 years?

Probably the biggest one is the machine. It’s not going away. And everyone – you, me, ExxonMobile, Donald Trump – we all have a TV channel made up of all of our social media and our website and whatever else. It’s not totally defined, but it’s clear we’re making our own identities as being able to craft them in a way that only the most sophisticated people of the previous generation were able to do. We all present ourselves in the way we want people to see us, but now that there is a distance through the machine, those presentations can be very different. Artists are always at the front of this, and I’m actually kind of surprised there aren’t better artist websites. What would Andy Warhol do? You could bet he’d have a great website, and he’d be involved in everything, and doing it like crazy because it’s cheap and it’s powerful and it’s a great mode of expression.

In terms of business, the advantage the artist has over industry is that the artist is one person and can do things by hand, and the advantage the art business has is that things that are made by hand often want to be sold by hand – people want to touch it or stand and hear the story behind it. That’s why it’s a complicated thing and that’s why it often involves interpreters. A lot of artists don’t talk as much as I do. So people like art dealers and curators and critics are important in helping people come to terms with things.

Art is a scary, elitist thing – it really sucks and I think it’s valid to have a whole industry of people to help sort that out.

What is the final frontier?

Have you ever read Kurzweil?

No?

Ray Kurzweil is the guy known to have popularised, or possibly even invented the term ‘the singularity’ which is where computers become self-aware (like in The Terminator). Some people think we’re already there, some think it’s far off, some think it’s soon. Some people think we will achieve immortality through the computer, I think that’s already there – what immortality means then becomes the question. Already, 30% of my brain is on the computer at any given time. I don’t have to think as hard as I used to, so that situation is only going to get more developed. I can’t use my computer for anything other than shopping and pornography, which is fine because I love those two things – I just haven’t figured out a way to make money off of it.

I feel like what will happen is a computer creates a piece of art that affects the user unconditionally...

That could happen, I’m old fashioned and I think the human touch has magic powers. It’s not saying a human couldn’t engineer some software that could sing as imperfectly as Billie Holliday, Louis Armstrong, Bob Dylan or Tom Waits. Computers have done things we never thought they could do, so there is no reason to think that it couldn’t fool the eye or the ear to do something magic. Who am I to say?

What would Andy Warhol do? You could bet with certainty he’d have a great website, and he’d be involved in everything, and doing it like crazy because it’s cheap and it’s powerful and it’s a great mode of expression.

Tom Sachs

 

What is God? I don't know, let’s find out, but in the meantime let’s learn about this world that I live in. 

Tom Sachs

Trends come and go. What stays the same?

Hard work, lust, and authenticity is becoming increasingly understood as something to achieve. People have always wanted authenticity, but now that we can have everything instantly, the notion of what authenticity means is becoming more questionable as sub-cultures get assimilated into the mainstream. I think that anyone working in their garage inventing something on their own, and following their own heart, will have the advantage in the future. And I mean that for the arts, but also for lawyers, and the cops, and everyone else. Artists don’t have a corner for creativity...everyone can do it.

But how do you deal with failure?

Failure is really important – if you don’t fail, you don’t learn. People often look at failure as something to avoid, but in competition you’ve gotta fail. If you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough. I’m not talking about catastrophic failure where everyone dies all the time – that’s not sustainable. But you’ve gotta take calculated risks, and do a lot of work behind that and practice and prepare so when you take that risk, you’ve made a good investment. It's not about leaping where you can't see, it’s about leaping farther than you thought you could.

The only thing that holds you back is fear. Fear must be embraced, you must be afraid and do it anyway.

What is the best tool someone could give you to create with?

Stem Cell Research, if we could get that ironed out while I could use it...

I will expire through something that in 30 years after my death will be fixable. I don’t see anything more pressing than that. To me, it’s crazy that we’re not working with it, because that’s how we will cure cancer and that’s how we will solve all kinds of problems. In the 20th century we solved the periodic table of elements, we’ve broken down the atom and we know that if you add an electron you get a different element; we’ve broken down the genetic code, we’re beginning to understand it and we’re not doing much with it yet. But we’re beginning to, and that’s by far the main thing. There’s no other thing than that. Everything else like lust and ambition and hard work and greed and power, it’s all in the mind of the individual. But with science we can control how our bodies are built and how they fall apart.

And the people blocking it are the people who are too afraid to understand the consequences of it. That’s fear blocking us – saying it’s not God’s will – well, what is God? I don't know, let’s find out, but in the meantime let’s learn about this world that I live in. 

What is the cure for a broken heart?

Hard work. That doesn’t change. 

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