The artist Chris Hackett (or just Hackett) is an intimidating figure to attempt to interview.
He’s a multi-hyphenate artist whose work encompasses metalsmithing, art, construction, writing, survivalism and reality TV. He is the co-founder of the Madagascar Institute, an art collective in Gowanus, Brooklyn, where he and his collaborators create incredibly dangerous, jet-powered carnival rides, make weapons and give welding lessons, among other things. He is fascinated by the idea of rebuilding the human race post-Apocalypse, and feels that he will be a dominant force when the end times arrive. He’s been lauded for his creative output in various ways: a compelling New York Times profile, a recurring column in Popular Science and several reality TV hosting gigs or appearances. But he’s been damned for his work, too. When a “confetti gun” he made exploded in his face some years ago, his workspace was raided by the Joint Anti-Terrorism Task Force and he subsequently spent a couple of months on Rikers Island.
We visited Hackett at the Madagascar Institute and spoke with him in his somewhat chaotic workspace, where one actively hopes that things won’t explode while one is there. It’s a space filled with wreckage, certainly – twisted metal, soot and heaps of foraged spare parts that he hopes to incorporate into future projects – but it’s also filled with self-built hardware capable of precision cutting, metallurgy, you name it, all in the service of Hackett’s vision of harnessing society’s detritus and turning it into equipment for spectacle and survival. He spoke at length with us, and by the end, his intimidating image was gone. He was friendly, loquacious and brilliant. When we finished, he thoughtfully suggested that we check the recording quality of the interview in case we’d missed anything, and patiently waited while we did so. Our takeaway: Hackett is a true visionary – even if his vision ends with most of us dead.
Stuff that we throw away now was magic only a few years ago.
Tell me about what you’re working on now.
I’m always working on a bunch of things. Right now, the thing that’s occupying all my time is making a heat-treat oven, which doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, except that it’s incredibly high amp and incredibly high voltage. I don’t really know what I’m doing. I know things will arc where they’re not supposed to, insulation will burn out where it’s not supposed to. And it’ll probably explode and hurl me across the room and I’ll probably wake up somewhere really, really weird not remembering most of my life. But if it works I’ll be able to make super-fine, stainless steel knives that don’t rust.
Also, I want to make crossbows. I’m figuring out what temperature I need in order to get steel back to being spring steel. And apparently that’s 700℉ and you have to maintain it there. I don’t have anything that can get to 700℉ consistently, so that’s why I’m trying to build the oven. Also, I’m taking a kiln, which hippies probably used to make really lousy ceramics that nobody wanted, and I’m using it to make weapons. What could be better?
What’s with the preoccupation – if we can call it that – with knives and weapons? Is that sort of a post-Apocalyptic thing?
Well, knives are both a tool and a toy. They’re something that everyone needs and most people have. I don’t go out very much, but I was at a party a couple of months ago. Most of the party was inside but I just found myself sitting outside in the courtyard, and there were, like, six exes of mine all sitting around. That happens. So when there was a lull in the conversation, I just took my knife out and put it on the table. And everyone reached into their boots, into their bags, into their bras, and they took out their knives and all put them down as well.
But, you know, there was a sizable and varied demographic of people. And [making knives for people] is one of those things where I might actually make money out of it occasionally – not very much, and my hourly rate is still going to be pennies an hour. I’m really, really bad at monetizing things.
Do you think that there’s an actual Apocalypse coming?
Yeah. I think there is an Apocalypse in the sense of one long, extended whimper that will never – maybe – really turn into a bang. I kind of wish it would. And I think the Apocalypse is already happening. Right now, in Brooklyn, you can see it all around you. The rich-poor gap is just getting larger and larger and larger. Ridiculous consumption. It used to be that people would have some kind of social conscience forced onto them. Now that’s considered political weakness. It’s like, “if people don’t do well, it’s because they’re lazy,” not because the system is stacked against them. I just figure it always has been, always will be. It’s just now there’s less and less recourse. Primary reason for that – and it’s something that’s going to hasten the Apocalypse – is that all the low-hanging fruit is gone. All the easy stuff – all the easy oil, all the easy natural resources, all the things that we need to keep our lifestyle going – that’s all gone away. You know, we’re out. We’re running out of it.
I think the Apocalypse is already happening. Right now, in Brooklyn, you can see it all around you. The rich-poor gap is just getting larger and larger and larger.
What do you think your role will be post-Apocalypse? Do you think you’ll be in a leadership position, or…?
I will be a god-king. Your grandchildren will worship me. They’ll have to sacrifice the cutest survivors to me. I’ll want to breed back [the human race] so that everyone’s really ugly and has to work really hard.
Wait, wait, say that again?
I will insist on having all the cutest children sacrificed to me. Cause I think we should breed back the species to have everyone ugly. Because ugly people work harder.
That’s what got me where I am today.
So why do you think people are so obsessed with the idea of the Apocalypse?
I think people are obsessed with the Apocalypse for a couple of reasons. Hopefully, the primary one is that it’s a reset, right? I can reboot my life. All the misery, all the bad decisions I made, all the, you know, weakness that I had, all the things that I didn’t do, all the things that I did do, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera – reset. Suddenly, I’ll just be wearing leather pants, I’ll have a crossbow, and everything will be okay.
So, tied into that, there’s a big fantasy aspect for a lot of people, right? They think that when the Apocalypse comes, they will be a god-king and girls won’t laugh at them anymore because they’ll have all the guns. Adding to this, there’s a whole industry now where you can shop your way out of these coming problems. Just buy enough guns, buy enough of this, buy enough of that, and you’ll be all right. You won’t be all right. You’ll be dead or poor and I’ll probably have your stuff.
How do you think you fit into the growing “Maker” movement, which is currently becoming a little bit co-opted by big corporations getting involved?
The Maker movement is a great thing. It’s always been there. You know, if I say the phrase “Silicon Valley” to you and you know what that means, that’s because of the Maker movement. Because nerds who could not get a date are dealing with technology instead. And it’s driven our civilization, for better or worse, for the last 40 years. There have always been people working on their cars, right? Like hot rods and drag racing and all that? That’s a Maker movement as well. I guess what’s happening recently is that the more obscure and the nerdier and weirder people, they’re able to link up with one another. The Maker movement? It’s all great and wonderful. You know, kids are having more and more soldering iron burns on their fingers. More people are doing more stuff and exhibiting curiosity about how the world works and realizing that the world is something you can take apart and you can put back together. That’s great. I think it’s better than most computer hacking and all that, because with computer stuff you’re still staring at a screen. It’s all 2-D. But with Maker stuff, you’re engaging with the world.
Is there a dark side to the Maker movement?
Like with anything, people are like, “This is an interesting thing. How can I monetize it, how can I make my money off of this?” A bunch of things come out of that. First, the idea of selling out – bad – versus cashing in – all right. What that means is that you have your dream, right? You have what you do that you’re excellent at, that you’re wonderful at, the thing that you do. If you take that thing and make some money off it, that’s cool. You’re in a band and you’re playing your music and you’re righteous about it, and suddenly you’re playing stadiums or whatever? Go for it. Whatever it is – your art, your accounting – whatever it is that you do, if you can do what you want to do and not have to dumb it down, not have to rip yourself off and make money off of it – that’s cashing in; go with it. But if you were to take what you are doing…and the people giving you money were to say, “hey, okay, you know the whole angry thing that you do? Could you calm it down a little?” And you’re like, “yeah sure, the money’s worth it,” then you end up ruining your vision and just dumbing yourself down for the money. That’s bad, that’s selling out. I think in the Maker world, a lot of people are cashing in. However, when you see a bunch of people cashing in, there are other people who say, “I want some of this.” They don’t have anything to offer. They go straight to selling out. Often, they’re more successful than the legitimate people.
Hackett has stared in several TV shows, showcasing his survivalist/builder abilities. Below, he explains how to distill NYC river water to make it drinkable, using scrap parts from his Brooklyn neighborhood.
How do you think Brooklyn fits into your vision, specifically? Why did you choose to work and live here?
I chose to move to Brooklyn because I was living in Manhattan and by moving here I could finally get to do what I wanted with all this stuff [gestures towards the Madagascar Institute]. Brooklyn provided a cheap space for that. On this block right now, where a fancy pumping station just went up – I couldn’t afford to move here now. This was all crack whores. But New York is such a big organism that it was always like this. You go a couple of stops further on the train and there were the crack whores and the danger. You could go and do your thing and still survive.
Is there anything you want to add or anything that I haven’t asked you that you want to talk about?
I guess one thing that’s part of my jam is that every sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic. Stuff that we throw away now was magic only a few years ago. Things are getting more expensive and it’s harder to get stuff – I feel that, I’m broke often as well. But if you want to make stuff, just grab an old junk TV set, like an old cathode ray tube TV set, which you can’t even give away now, and in there, inside it is the history of electronics. You can go in and pull the parts out and everything you need is there, and everything is labeled. From that you can do anything dealing with electronics. Same goes for junked cars. Our trash is amazing. Seize it, cause it’s not gonna last.
[The photographer approaches, thanking Hackett for his time and adding, “Anything I can do to help, let me know.” He walks away and Hackett ponders that statement.]
That’s funny, he said he literally wanted to do anything to help. If you want to do something to help, give me all your money.
(Laughs) Well, you could also always, post-Apocalypse, fashion (the photographer) into some sort of … skin?
That’s the thing. All these people, they tell me that once the Apocalypse happens, I’m going to your house, and my response is always, “That’s great – I can use the protein.”