The Art of Science
The Pasadena Arts Council’s AxS Festival explores the intriguing nexus where the arts and sciences intersect.
By Noela Hueso 10/01/2011
Craig Arnold wasn’t a volcano expert yet, despite the impression given by his blog, “Volcano Pilgrim: Five Months in Japan as a
Wandering Poet” (volcanopilgrim.wordpress.com). The award- winning poetry professor at the University of Wisconsin had chronicled his experiences in 2009 as he followed in the footsteps of 17th-century haiku poet Bosho while researching a book about active volcanoes around the world. But Arnold wasn’t a risk-taker, either, so when he went missing in April of that year while hiking the rim of Kuchinoerabu-Jima, a 2,129-foot volcano on one of Japan’s Rykukyu Islands, people became alarmed. News of his disappearance and rescue efforts went viral on the Internet as family, friends and the literary community posted on Facebook and the Poetry Foundation websites, among others. Media outlets such as The New York Times, The New Yorker and ABC News picked up the story.
The account of the poet, whose body was never found, fascinated theater artist Corey Madden. As she delved into Arnold’s story more closely and read his most famous poem, Hymn to Persephone, Madden found him to be a kindred spirit who shared her love of Greek mythology. She tucked the details of his tragic trek away in her mind as “one of those stories that I collect for later use,” she says.
And use it she did. Two years later, Madden’s Rain After Ash, a “multi-modal” theater piece with three characters — Arnold, Persephone and Persephone’s mother, Demeter — is set to debut Oct. 4 at the Pacific Asia Museum. The piece will employ audio, projections, Arnold’s poetry, a Japanese dancer and even the museum itself — and is part of the Pasadena Arts Council’s AxS (pronounced ak-sis, standing for the intersection between art and science) Festival, with exhibition openings and events running Oct. 1 through 16. Madden describes her work as a “fractured narrative.” As much a commentary on the use of technology to disseminate information as it is on Arnold’s experience, Rain After Ash is the kind of story that is a seamless fit for AxS, which is designed to celebrate Pasadena’s unique position as a leader in both the arts and sciences and nexus where the two intersect.
“There are larger cities in the world and larger institutions in those cities than we have in Pasadena, but you’d really be hard-pressed to find any place in the world that could boast the kinds of arts and science institutions and resources that we have right here,” says Pasadena Arts Council trustee Stephen Nowlin, who is curating Worlds, an installation of large-scale and contemporary art, scientific artifacts, sculpture, video and sound at Art Center College of Design’s Williamson Gallery from Oct. 14 through Jan. 15, 2012. “Art and science are really in the DNA of the place.”
The festival’s roots go back to the first citywide collaboration among Pasadena arts organizations in 1999, when they coordinated a slate of exhibitions on the birth of SoCal’s contemporary art scene in the 1960s. It was also the genesis of the city’s biannual ArtNight, when institutions around town open their doors for free. The success of that seminal event, “Radical Past,” prompted subsequent citywide shows exploring the arts and sciences in 2001, 2004 (when the Pasadena Arts Council got involved), 2007 and 2009. The Pasadena Arts Council’s role in the festival has grown from that of managing partner to, this year, event producer.
The marrying of arts and sciences isn’t anything new, says Pasadena Arts Council Executive Director Terry LeMoncheck.
“[Astronomer] George Ellery Hale had the idea some hundred years ago,” she says. “He came to Pasadena in the early 1900s and built the observatory on Mt. Wilson. He became involved in Pasadena’s academic and cultural community and played an important role in the development of Caltech and the Huntington Library, persuading Henry Huntington to permanently endow his estate and collections so they could be publicly available.”
Says festival Producer Aaron Slavin: “The intellectual project of artist and scientist is in large measure the same. They’re really different kinds of people, but they’re pursuing the same kinds of end, which is ultimately reducible to an insatiable curiosity they have about whatever project is in front of them.”
Nowlin agrees. “Some of the most compelling intellectual, social, cultural ideas of today are coming from the biological sciences, bioengineering and theoretical physics; the implications that filter down to how people conceive of themselves and the world in which they live, the universe, the cosmos, the impact that modern and contemporary science have on philosophy and religion,” he says. “If you think of art in that way, that art is an embodiment of ideas, then in many ways you can say that science is the new art –– certainly in terms of technology, which has affected the arts as artists begin to use new material and digital material.”
The “Fire & Water”–themed festival has the added benefit this year of funding from the James Irvine Foundation, along with the Ralph M. Parsons Foundation, the City of Pasadena and the National Endowment for the Arts, enabling the Pasadena Arts Council to commission four public art and performance works specifically for the festival. “That gives the festival — we like to use a scientific term — a center of gravity,” Slavin says with a wink.
AxS takes place at 16 venues throughout Pasadena, including the Gamble House, the Huntington Library and Boston Court Performing Arts Center. Opening night begins with an enhanced stage reading of Carson Kreitzer’s The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer at Caltech’s new Cahill Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics, staged by Caltech students. “It’s a really moving meditation on Oppenheimer’s life, his conscience and his memories,” Slavin says of the play, which focuses on the rise and fall of one of the American theoretical physicists dubbed “father of the atomic bomb.”
Participating artists also include photographer Rachel Fermi, whose exhibition of archival photographs from the secret world of the Manhattan Project, Picturing the Bomb, will open at Pasadena City College on Oct. 5. Fermi is the granddaughter of Oppenheimer’s colleague, Enrico Fermi.
Slavin cites the work of visual strategist Dan Goods, who works at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and is a festival presenter, as a perfect example of the cross-pollination that naturally exists between art and science. Goods’ interactive installation at the Pasadena Museum of California Art, Beneath the Surface, is inspired by the science and technology behind NASA’s Juno spacecraft mission to Jupiter, which embarked Aug. 5; it’s designed to help museum viewers experience Juno’s visit to a cloud-covered planet. “He’s got the most amazing job in the world,” Slavin says. “He essentially makes visible for people inside the JPL fraternity — and outside in the world — things that are, essentially, unseeable and unknowable.”
While Nowlin acknowledges the natural tendency for art and science to overlap, he suggests it’s useful to give that relationship an extra boost. “It goes back to the ancient dualism that we have, our right brain/left brain, intuition and intellect, emotion and reason, those kinds of dualisms that we all realize, but at the same time we admire ... individuals who are able to integrate both of them,” he says. “It’s only productive that we try to bring those worlds together.”