Can a Pair of Sneakers Be Conceptual Art?

The artist Tom Sachs invited 149 strangers to “wear test” his latest collaboration with Nike. Instead of physical challenges, they grappled with a series of discussions on art and process.

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Photos courtesy of Nike. Collage by Maridelis Morales Rosado for W Magazine.

When I received an email about becoming a “wear tester” for the artist Tom Sachs’s latest sneaker collaboration with Nike, a montage of physical challenges flashed through my brain: grueling runs through rough terrain, endless stairs in inclement weather, maybe even some rock climbing. But after the first Zoom meeting with Sachs and the other 149 wear testers, I quickly realized I had, in fact, been invited to take part in a monthslong conceptual art project.

Sachs, whose interest in outer space is reflected in much of his NASA-inspired work, made his first Mars Yard sneakers in 2012, using the same Vectran fabric from the Mars Exploration Rover airbags. The shoes, trimmed in red and sandy-beige suede, have a slightly unfinished quality about them—they look like something a cartoon astronaut might wear, perhaps as sketched out by Wes Anderson. Since that first launch, a second iteration, the 2.0, was released in limited quantities. Because they’re so rare, both versions have become a rare grail item, particularly for art-adjacent sneakerheads: A pair of Mars Yard 2.0s is currently listed on the resale sneaker website Flight Club for $5,888, while StockX notes that the last available pair of 1.0s sold for $13,004 last month.

To announce the testing phase of the 2.5s, which are not yet for sale, Sachs released a characteristically cheeky promotional video for the project on Instagram in December, which showed him wearing the shoes on a treadmill as a studio assistant threw nails, hammers, and various detritus at his feet. The clip served as an invitation to apply for wear testing—followers could submit a 1-minute video of their own to be considered. In the end, Sachs received more than 2,000 applications from around the world; the final 149 came all over the U.S., as well as Malaysia, China, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia, Denmark, and Ecuador.

Via a series of cryptic dispatches from the Sachs studio team, the selected participants were given various challenges to complete each week, and invited to join in on a weekly Zoom briefing to discuss the challenges, the shoes, and their lives. In the meantime, they were instructed to wear the shoes to do whatever they normally would in a day. I mostly wore mine on short runs or to putter around the kitchen; others told stories of wearing theirs to make art, drive race cars and trucks, carry mail, or to get through 12-hour nursing shifts. One 10-year-old skateboarder in Hawaii took “wear testing” very literally, scratching up the shoes while doing hours of tricks.

Photos courtesy of NikeCraft.

Sachs likened the structure of these calls to a seminar: “I talk for 40 minutes and then I disconnect, mute myself, turn off my screen, and just listen. That’s when the conversation starts, like when the teacher leaves the room.” In addition to the weekly meetings, wear testers were given notebooks to record their observations; there was a required reading list, which ranged from Anatomy of Strength Training: The 5 Essential Exercises by Pat Manocchia to Cosmos by Carl Sagan to Susan Sontag’s On Photography and Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception.

Sachs saw the challenges, which ranged from “Start a photography collection” to “Make a planet” to “Walk somewhere you’d normally drive” as exercises in storytelling. “It’s really not about testing out sneakers. I mean, it’s absolutely about testing out sneakers, but we are applying science and gathering empirical data with controls,” Sachs said. “Our wear testing challenges are about cultivating intuition.”

Speaking over Zoom as the first phase of wear testing was completed, Sachs reflected on the project’s scope. “I’m proud of all the participants who put in so much work,” he said. “I feel like we achieved something much greater than we initially set out to do.”

Photos courtesy of NikeCraft.

To shape the “semester,” as Sachs referred to it, he looked to conceptual artists who made work that depended on sets of instructions or rules, like Yoko Ono, Sol LeWitt, and Tehching Hsieh. “Within the confines of those rules, there’s great expression. Everything that happens to you in that year happens within the boundaries of that art,” Sachs said. “With the wear testing challenges, I was trying to give some framework, where the artists or participants could engage with and find their own expression within the rules. And by having these rules, we put up a boundary against the terror of the existential abyss.”

The hopes of any would-be resellers participating in the program were quashed not only by a lengthy contract from the Nike legal team, but also by one of the central tenets of the project and Sachs’s studio’s ethos: the repair and reuse of existing materials, and appreciating the beauty and character that comes with age. After phase one, all of the wear testers’ sneakers were returned to headquarters and sanitized, repaired, and re-laced by the Nikecraft team before being sent to the next round of participants, who would go through the whole process all over again. “It’s very important that we do not associate beauty only with youth but with experience,” Sachs said.

As of now, there is no news on whether these shoes will ever go to market, or if they’ll simply exist in this closed loop, being worn by different groups of people for a couple of months until they fall apart completely or get patched into an unrecognizable state. Perhaps the used shoes, once they go back to Sachs’s studio for good, will be considered less of a functional accessory and more a relic of the process. I asked Sachs how the shoes fit into the rest of his studio practice, and whether he considered them a work of art, or simply a part of the collaborative artwork that is the wear-testing program. “I don’t draw a distinction, so yes, they are art,” he said. “This whole process is an art piece, but it doesn’t mean it’s also not a serious production of industrial design objects. It can be both at the same time.”

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