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Captain curator and Tom Sachs.

Recently I was at a meeting in New York with the artist Tom Sachs, a patron and another curator, exploring the possibility of doing a project in Toronto. As that meeting broke up, the patron asked Tom about "the course." I was talking to the other curator so did not hear the details, but then Tom turned to me and asked if I wanted to try it. He looked at my clothes and hesitated, but then thought, why not? We left and started walking down Lafayette Street. The experience of the course left a strong impression on me, so I wrote about it. Instead of the standard studio visit, where the curator views works produced by an artist and discusses plans for a project, conducts an interview, etc., my visit with Tom consisted of me encountering something of which I had no prior knowledge.

When I recounted this story to a friend of mine, she asked me: Is that art? To be sure, Sach's obstacle course is everything that art seeks to be in very direct terms: perception-altering experience that leaves a lasting impact on the viewer/participant. What I particularly liked about the visit were the traces left on my body days after completing the course: the sore muscles, the odd slowly healing scrape, the fading imagery of vertical buildings conjuring "delirious New York"--from O'Keeffe's skyscrapers, to Smithson's Park Avenue ziggurats, to Matthew Barney scaling the heights of the Guggenheim.

I fit the white painters' coveralls over my clothes. I'm wearing business attire, and so on our way down to the studio we stepped into a neighborhood hardware store to buy two Tyvec over-suits. It was a warm day for mid-November, the sun unseasonably bright. As we come down Centre Street, Tom interrupts our talk and says, "What's that tool doing out here?" He has noticed how a blond girl is standing on a chair holding a glue gun to the top of a huge wooden crate outside of his building. Why not work on the street, I think to myself, especially on a day like today? We step through the open double doors. About four people are there and quick introductions are made. The floor is covered in plastic and a large wooden painting is being lowered and wrapped. We walk around this operation and into the back part of the studio, into the office, where on the computer his assistant has cued up the Neistat Brothers' Obstacle Course (a short video with course designed by Tom Sachs and Casey Neistat, 2006).

Tom quickly strips off his shirt and zips on the Tyvec. I'm slower, watching the video preview of the course I'm about to complete, trying not to tear the Tyvec as I pull it over my pants, slouching to fit into it. Tom takes a knife and cuts a slit in the suit over where my pant pocket is, and hands me a Red Bull energy drink. He suggests I put it in my pocket, while he grabs a slingshot and some pellets. A girl comes over and starts talking. She is going computer shopping with a colleague. She is a photographer, and Tom asks her to take a picture of us. She obliges. They converse, but he breaks it off, gives her a hug, and mentions my time constraint. We step back onto the street in front of his studio. Tom looks at his watch. "We are not going to rush, but I'll time us, anyway," he says. He starts the stopwatch and we are off.

We race down some steep steps to the basement. He reaches for a hidden key, unlocks a door, replaces the key on the ledge, and in we go. Down a hall, sharp turn to the right, down a ramp, running. "Duck your head low not to hit it on the ceiling." Past a huge silver boiler, around a corner, we come to a large blue steel door. A metal pin is removed and the door heaved aside. Through this portal and now we are outside, in a cramped bricked-in space between buildings. We climb the rungs of an old metal ladder, stepping around the protrusion of an air-conditioning unit at the top. We pace across the roof of this building, balancing on a ledge that runs its length.

This is the space between spaces. The old buildings of lower Manhattan rise around us, six and eight stories in height, the never-seen backs crammed together, rear windows facing onto each other. The only view is up. Perched at the edge of this roof, Tom measures the distance, takes two large strides and then jumps from the ledge across and down onto a sloping green corrugated metal roof. The force of the descent is hard and he slips on its sheer surface, skidding down. White beads from his slingshot spray across the tin, making a shattering sound as he regains a foothold along the bottom rail.

I assess the jump and go for it, leaping over an abyss. I misjudge the slipperiness of this corrugated surface and lose my footing. I land hard on my hip and slide, but also manage to get a foothold against the metal railing that acts as a gutter. This thin rim has held us both, preventing us from dropping down a twenty-foot brick crevice. We both walk along this edge, which is pebbly and soft, and then climb carefully down onto a brick wall, passing the slingshot between us. Tom walks along this wall. He turns, gives me some instructions, and then drops down into a pit. I toss the slingshot down to him and follow.

A huge sheet of blue plastic hangs down from the building above. Tom steps toward it, drawing it aside to reveal a kind of outdoor room formed by the back of a building, enclosed by the blue tarp. The floor is wet and covered in layers of pigeon shit. In this blue-tinted hidden space we drink our Red Bulls, resting. Tom walks to the far end and with a piece of tape that he had affixed to his suit in the office, sticks his emptied can to the brick wall. It stays there for a second, but falls. He does it again, steadying the can on an electrical line and then steps back. I draw the tarp aside and he takes aim with the slingshot. "Shit," he mutters, "I usually make it on the first shot." He loads another marble in the sling and hits the can dead on. It falls to the ground, dented. He walks toward it, takes out a black Sharpie and inscribes the can. He tosses the can on the ground and then offers me the slingshot. My can is propped up in the corner. I launch a shot. It is on-target but low. I try again and miss. After the third attempt, I ask if I can just sign the can. He categorically tells me: no hit, no signature. I load up once more and nail it to our mutual surprise. Stepping over the gooey surface, I take the can and inscribe it "Captain Curator," an impromptu alter ego.

Never having fired a slingshot before, I'm interested in its range. I ask if he has another marble and he says there should be some lying around, on the ground. We look underfoot and I find a tarnished white one. I aim up and out of this chasm, at the blue sky. A pigeon is visible six stories up on the pediment of a building. I launch the marble and it zings within a foot of the oblivious pigeon off into the blueness. Tom looks at me quizzically.

He steps back several feet, assesses the ten-foot-high brick wall in front of us, and takes a run at it. Stepping off a sidewall he grabs for the top ledge and misses, sliding down the bricks into some water. He takes a second run and makes it, hoisting himself up and onto the ledge. I toss the slingshot up to him and follow. We dash along the brick ledge, and I am laughing to myself as I picture the people inside the building looking out the window and seeing two men sprinting past in white Tyvec suits.

We come to a cramped crevice with a steep ladder. Tom descends, taking care as he goes to tell me not to grab onto a metal window grille because it's not stable. He descends about fifteen feet and at the bottom of this pit, which is almost too small for him to turn around in, he searches for an ice pick on the ground. Finding it, he carves his initials and the date onto a brick. He surfaces, coming off the ladder, while I swing around, clutching the window grille, which comes loose in my hands. I throw it to the bottom of this pit where it lands with a satisfying thump. I climb down and carve my information.

There is a hard transition up onto one of the buildings as we heave our way up a sheer brick wall. (The next day I will feel this effort in my arm and back muscles.) We are on a pebbly roof and sprint to the end, then climb back around the jutting air conditioning unit, stepping down the metal rungs of the first ladder. The blue door is open and we step inside, heaving it shut once more. We race through the basement of the building, zigzagging quickly. We climb the stairs up onto the street and into the blazing sunshine. He stops his watch and we look at it. 17 minutes, 56 seconds have passed.

Back in the studio I go to the bathroom to wash my hands, twice with soap. I leave the water running, and Tom does the same. By the time he washes his hands the water has fully turned hot. He scrubs and winces at the pain of the scalding hot water but seems to prefer that to turning on the cold tap. I mention that when I slipped on the green roof I hurt my ankle, pulling up a sock to reveal a five-inch-long bloody scrape mark. "Sorry man," he says, wetting some toilet paper with alcohol and then pressing it firmly against the wound. "This will sting." He rubs at it and says I should get a tetanus shot.

DAVID MOOS is Curator of Contemporary Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto. His studio visit with Tom Sachs occurred on November 17, 2006.
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Title Annotation:First Degree
Author:Moos, David
Publication:ArtUS
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Mar 1, 2007
Words:1761
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