I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Working to Code or Coding to Work: Tom Sachs Employee Studio Manual

by Kristen Bialik
Nov. 14, 2015

“10 Bulletsi,” or “Working to Code,” is a movie studio manual created for the employees of New York artist Tom Sachs. Arguably the most compelling record of workplace rules and regulations, “10 Bullets” lays out the fundamental expectations and environmental nuances for working at the Tom Sachs studio. The collective set of these rules, principles, and standards is called the “code.” And everyone who works for Sachs, including Sachs himself, must work to it, under it, and within it. Interestingly for an art studio, rule number one is “Work to code, or, ‘creativity is the enemy.’”

“Creativity is the enemy” seems a counterintuitive, almost blasphemous thing to say. A kind of middle finger to the muses and eternal damning to imagination. Many of the images within the movie seem almost antithetical to our image of creative environments: soldiers marching, airforce bombers, religious space, and so on. The movie manual demands a regimented way of working, stating openly to employees, “Work to code means adhering to the system of production already in place. Arbitrary decision-making and personal inventiveness are discouraged… Inventions and developments must happen within the existing vocabulary. Stick to what has been defined for you to do.”

These militant demands seem to go against many people’s ideas of creativity as a God-given talent and of inspiration as a something that springs from the head of Zeus or the end of a joint. But all of Tom Sachs 10 bullets for excellent work at the studio echo what many other artists, writers, and musicians, have been saying over and over again – that creativity is hard, deliberate work. Art takes practice, and like anything, excellence in art requires a set of practices that will make persistence and determination both a conscious effort and second nature.

The advice in “10 Bullets” ranges from the mundane “get a receipt” to the more unusual “sacrifice to Leatherface.” But even the most ordinary workplace rules are delivered with a compelling mix playful visuals and dash of humor. To demonstrate the importance of a clear, defined vocabulary for giving feedback, a superior says, “Don’t make a bomb out of my Apollo 11 rocket.” “I understand,” a worker earnestly replies. “Your only job is not to drop this pipe on my head, that’s your only job.” “I understand,” another worker states determinedly.

The movie does an excellent job of explaining what’s important at the studio and defining how to act out those bullets to the Sachs standard. Nothing is beneath demonstration. Everything from keeping a list to thoroughness is depicted. Punctuality is redefined from showing up at punch-in time to an overall on-the-clock mentality. “These athletes have spent the last three years training 25 hours a week to be on time,” the narrator says, while sweaty men run across the screen, “Be on time.”

Like all the bullet points, beneath the clever twists on old rules is a constant reminder that great work comes from personal discipline. Punctuality isn’t a moment, it’s a mentality. Thoroughness isn’t a checklist, it’s a practice. This kind of advice isn’t unusual among artistic greats, or greats in general really. Many of the “Working to Code” bullets align very closely to the work rules of other artist forces. They denounce, again and again, the idea of a passive creativity.

Henry Miller’s eleven writing commandmentsii include the following self-imposed rules: “work on one thing at a time until finished,” “work according to Program and not according to mood,” and “when you can’t create you can work.” All of these foreshadow the very basis (and bullet number 1) of Sachs’ “Working to Code.”

Sachs’ 2nd bullet is “sacred space.” What follows is a fun, but otherwise ordinary checklist of basic common space hygiene and workplace security. Keep tables wiped off. Don’t let others into the sacred space unless they have an appointment (this applies to landlords, the police, and the Hamburgler). But the bullet also demands a respect for the work within a space and the space that fosters that work, a call to respect that echoes Zadie Smith’s number 8 rule to writingiii: “protect the time and space in which you write.”

Part of an on-the-clock mentality for Sachs is preparing for yourself mentally and physically so that you’ll be able to be on time in body and mind. Get an adequate amount of sleep, he urges his employees. Maintain a healthy diet. Hydrate well. There’s video footage of a studio assistant finishing an Ironman race with the narration that “In the interest of balance, the studio maintains a work hard, play hard policy.” It seems like more life advice than work advice, until you listen one of Margaret Atwood’s rules for writingiv: “Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.”

In his book on the cognition behind creativity, Imagination: How Creativity Worksv , Jonah Lehrer states, “Creativity shouldn’t be seen as something otherworldly. It shouldn’t be thought of as a process reserved for artists and inventors and other ‘creative types.’ The human mind, after all, has the creative impulse built into its operating system, hard-wired into its most essential programming code.” Like the Tom Sachs studio code, the brain has its own system in place and fantastic inventiveness will happen so long as we can work within the mind’s code and strictures, which leads us to bullet number 10: Persistence.

The final scene of “10 Bullets” is a bird’s eye view of an open journal, taped to bike handlebars that shake back and forth as the narrator pedals forward. In the journal is a hand-written quote from Ray Kroc, the man who built McDonald’s into the leviathan of carbs and capital it is today. It (and the narrator reads) “Press on. Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing in the world is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.” John Cleesevi puts it this way, “Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating.”

The visual works well in this last scene. All you can see are the words, but the shifting handlebars along the outer edges of the screen remind of the physical work that’s being done behind the camera. It’s a picture of persistence, of willful labor, of true creativity in training, and in a very Tom Sachs way, a picture of how to take something else in the world and make it your own. The camera turns around and fixes itself on the biking narrator who pants, “Just imagine it’s Lance Armstrong and not me riding… and imagine we’re in Texas or France.” It’s a joke, a way to poke fun that the scene would be somehow more inspiring if Lance Armstrong were behind the handlebars. But it’s in this moment of persistence, when the feet are churning the gears of the bike and the wheels of the mind are turning, that the narrator can finally begin to say, “just imagine.”

ii Henry Miller On Writing , New Directions, June 1964. Henry Miller created his eleven commandments of writing while he was working on his first novel, Tropic of Cancer.

iiiZadie Smith’s Rules for Writers,” The Guardian, 22 February 2010 .

ivMargaret Atwood’s Rules for Writers,” The Guardian, 22 February 2010.

v Imagination: How Creativity Works, Canongate Books, 1 April 2012.

vi John Cleese lecture on creativity, Video Arts, 1991. Found at Brainpickings.org, 14 April 2012.

Kristen Bialik is a writer, teacher and graduate student of Journalism and Mass Communication. In her spare time, she's a baker of pies and maker of stories.