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Cosmic Knowledges: Site-specific Art at Mount Wilson Observatory

June 15, 2012 by Aparna Bakhle in Art, Performance with 0 Comments

In physical cosmology, the first generation of hyperstars, believed to have formed less than a billion years after the big bang, emitted light that ended the ‘cosmological’ dark ages. This earliest brilliance was termed first light. It seems apt to frame KNOWLEDGES similarly, as this emerging artist-organized curatorial initiative aspires to facilitate an entirely unique experience of the Mount Wilson Observatory through a contemporary arts lens. In seeking to create dialogue between contemporary art practice and geographic sites of historic, scientific, or under-examined cultural influence, KNOWLEDGES engages the public in direct experience with art and site.

Center for Land Use Interpretation

Ever since Edwin Hubble discovered the ‘general expansion’ of the universe using the Hooker Telescope, Mount Wilson Observatory has played a significant role not only in the history, aesthetics, and ecology of Los Angeles but also astronomy, scientific discovery, space exploration, optics, recorded observation, and philosophical questions of cosmology. KNOWLEDGES Founder Christina Ondrus and Elleni Sclavenitis, Associate Director and co-curator with Ondrus, both also artists, germinated an inspired impulse to bring together over 30 contemporary artists whose work extends from the nexus of ideas embodied by the Observatory itself.

Fabrik was able to delve a bit deeper into the impetus for realizing KNOWLEDGES, a site-specific experimental week-end long art event that will take place at Mount Wilson Observatory, Saturday June 23rd and Sunday June 24th, 2012.

Fabrik: Can you share a bit about the process by which you and Elleni Sclavenitis arrived at perceiving a need for this particular type of project? Has anything similar been attempted before on the actual physical site of the Mount Wilson Observatory?

Christina Ondrus (CO): I first visited Mount Wilson Observatory (MWO) in 2008, and immediately was captivated by the site. I was in grad school at the time (CalArts), and our class was searching for a venue for its culminating exhibition. I reached out to the Observatory, and was delighted by their initial support of a proposed exhibition. It ended up not working for that purpose, but opened the door. Then the 2009 Station Fire, the largest in Los Angeles’ history, threatened the Observatory and limited road access for nearly two years. Last summer, Elleni and I started working together to realize the show. The timing was just right—the Angeles Crest Highway was restored and the Observatory was ready to reach out to the surrounding community. This is the first event of its kind ever held at Mount Wilson. The idea for KNOWLEDGES emerged with the core question, what are the many forms of knowledge produced at a specific site?

Elleni Sclavenitis (ES): Christina and I were friends and colleagues at CalArts. We graduated in 2009, in an economic climate that limited opportunities and funding for emerging artists. This freed us in a sense to think about how we could create our own opportunities. I loved Christina’s idea of putting together an exhibition at Mount Wilson, and we began talking about how to make it happen. Similarly to the art world, the science community has also faced restricted budgets in the last few years. Mount Wilson is currently in the midst of its own campaign to raise awareness of its unique historical status.

Fabrik: This group art event aims to present contextual explorations of contemporary art and science. Can you speak more as to the formal parallels between these two disciplines, which some might even see as diametrically opposed?

CO: The act of looking, observing is key to artistic and scientific practices. Both are creative, generative processes wherein we interact with the world. Much of the equipment at MWO employs methods also used by artists—at the Solar Tower, daily sunspot drawings have been handmade for nearly one hundred years, direct photography through the 100-inch telescope captures nebula, galaxies and images too faint for our naked eye, which may be colored though an interpretive process. Not to mention the masterful craft and construction of the telescopes themselves, which are built for the ages. The interior of the 100-inch telescope evokes a modern-day Pantheon. But more than just formal parallels, the show opens conversations for local and cosmic explorations that extend from the nexus of the Observatory into our everyday lives.

Fabrik: What can be gained, from your individual perspectives, through ‘envisioning the unseen’?

CO: Everything! I think of the Einstein quote that imagination is more important than knowledge. to envision = infinity “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

ES: To me, “envisioning the unseen” is one way to define art-making: the artist renders the unseen visible, or articulates the unspoken.

Fabrik: How specifically do you engage with ‘consciousness,’ and perhaps even its perception, in your particular practice(s)?

CO: My art often explores gaps or slippage between the rational and irrational, two huge categories for describing experience. I am fascinated by questions of consciousness—how do we know what we know, where is consciousness located—as an action, a site or a moment? Language factors hugely into these questions—how do we communicate and translate experience? Essentially, these are questions of right vs. left-brain processing—the analytical vs. the phenomenological. I am interested in different vocabularies that describe similar experiences—intersections where science, philosophy, art and mysticism all strive to comprehend the shared magnitude of existence.

ES: My recent web-based work, Industrial Los Angeles (http://industriallosangeles.org), traces the marks of industry on the Southern California landscape. This project is about unearthing a hidden past, and interpreting our surroundings both perceptually, in the present, and intellectually through their history. I’m interested in bringing to awareness an understanding of how and why the city appears as it does; in excavating its underlying strata to reveal the political, social and economic forces at work. Much of my art deals with understanding the present through the lens of the past.

Fabrik: Are there any scientific discoveries made in the last 100 years that inform your own work(s)?

CO: Generally speaking, scientific discoveries of the last century continue to rock our essential perception of reality, in ways in which I don’t think we are fully aware. The theory of relativity, for example, although accepted scientifically, has not fully permeated our shared cultural experience of time. We still adhere to a linear concept.

Specifically, artistically: After my first visit to MWO, I was inspired by Michelson’s speed of light experiment, in which a spinning, eight-sided prism refracted a beam of light from Mt. Wilson to Lookout Mountain. I created a welded kinetic sculpture loosely based on this to evoke the speed of consciousness and states of visualization. I used the form of a dodecahedron, one of the Platonic solids, a shape the Ancient Greeks used to describe the shape of the universe, and my prism was a natural quartz crystal suspended at the center point as the sculpture rotates.

ES: Los Angeles was the capital of the aerospace industry for most of the 20th century, with companies like Lockheed, Douglas and Hughes drawing people west to work in their massive plants. In many ways, aerospace made Southern California, but perhaps because its influence is so vast, its presence is often unseen. My project Industrial Los Angeles (http://industriallosangeles.org) explores this hidden history. I’m interested in how the scientific innovations of Southern California have both expanded our understanding of the universe in profound ways, and built an industry that manufactures destruction.

Fabrik: What parameters were helpful or necessary in determining how artists would be invited to participate in KNOWLEDGES?

CO: Elleni and I both brought our perspectives to the curatorial process. As a starting point, we brainstormed a list of artists whose core practice revolved around ideas related to the Observatory including astronomy, physics, space exploration, etc. Then we expanded upon the myriad site-specific aspects of MWO and included the ecology of the Angeles National Forest, the history of the aerospace industry, the impact of MWO’s founding on Los Angeles and the Hollywood history of stars. We wanted to initiate a dialog for artists who live and work in Los Angeles to connect with the site, while recognizing diverse artistic vocabularies.

Fabrik: Can you whet our appetites with some of what might we expect to experience and see within the exhibitions, performances, film/video screenings and other forms of temporary art installations on the observatory grounds, as well as the performance-accompanied night viewing sessions through the Hale 60-inch telescope?

CO: The artists’ projects are amazing, and many are new for this show! During the day, works will be on view throughout the grounds, including inside the Astronomical Museum with its backlit solar and galactic images, film screenings and lectures will take place in the beautiful, historic theatre, and some works will be installed outdoors at the many scenic vistas. There will be unexpected moments for viewers to encounter connections between art, science, history and site: sound installations by Viralnet, a new series of drawings by Russell Crotty, a lunar-like-surface painting by Jennifer Boysen, Marilyn Lowey’s mysterious “Cosmic Latte” orb illuminating the forest, and Emilie Halpern’s quiet meditation, “Moon Drift”, just to name a few.

The Night Viewing Program (Saturday) is truly unprecedented. Normally, only small groups who have reserved the telescope are allowed on the grounds after dark. (Due to safety concerns, admission will be limited*; check http://theknowledges.org for up-to-date schedule info)

Inside the dome of the Hale 60-inch telescope, Katie Grinnan’s “Astrology Orchestra” will perform handmade natal-chart inspired instruments tuned to planetary spin frequencies, ambient sound project Sneaky Snake will set the mood for a galactic journey, while visitors gaze through the eye piece of the telescope at celestial objects throughout the night. Cloud Eye Control will perform a version of “Final Space,” a stunning multi-media work. James Benning’s “Night Fall”, a gorgeous 97-minute film capturing the transition of light to dark in a California forest will be screened in the historic theatre. There also will be a series of lectures and much more. A full schedule of events will be posted on our website: http://theknowledges.org

Fabrik: What, if anything, has been revealed about yourselves and/or the site of the Observatory through the process of producing KNOWLEDGES?

CO: The wonder of MWO keeps unfolding each time I visit. It is a truly extraordinary place. The magnitude of discoveries that took place there feels resonant throughout the site. You can touch the base where the first speed of light measurement took place, see the chair where Hubble sat and observed the expansion of the universe, which laid the ground for the Big Bang Theory, and walk the same footbridge as Albert Einstein. These human traces resonate with me and highlight our shared search for understanding our place in the universe.

ES: Because of MWO’s isolation, the site has remained remarkably untouched over the years. It’s like a time capsule with artifacts of past discoveries and old avant-guarde technologies; at the same time, the significance of the discoveries made there continue to resonate today.

As we realize this project, the parallels between art-making and science become more apparent: both involve a quest to articulate the unseen and to understand human experience.

Fabrik: Located in the Angeles National Forest, the Mount Wilson Observatory, noted for its ‘surprisingly constant atmospheric conditions,’ allows for magnificent views of Los Angeles and environs. What observations have emerged, for either of you, about the physical metropolis of Los Angeles, literally or symbolically?

CO: Los Angeles is a huge metropolis, and often we are living in a haze—literally, with the marine layer or smog, and metaphorically in the blur of our daily routines. Visiting Mt. Wilson one mile above Los Angeles, offers a refreshed perspective on the city below through a connection to the natural ecology of the San Gabriel Mountains and Angeles National Forrest.

ES: The city sits so quietly below, it invites contemplation. MWO is uniquely Southern Californian – a place where nature, science, history, capital and the visionary’s quest come together. It’s a nexus for the forces that formed Los Angeles and offers a vantage point from which to take in the past and the present, the universe above and the city below.

Fabrik: How can interested Angelenos participate in helping to preserve and support Mount Wilson Institute, a world heritage site that is also a non-profit corporation that receives no federal or state support? What are your thoughts/feelings on why it is important and even essential to do so?

CO: For starters, go up and visit, take a tour, have lunch at the Cosmic Café…it’s a beautiful afternoon. Or get a group of 25 friends together and reserve the telescope for a night viewing session. You can become a Friend of Mount Wilson Observatory, too. Membership supports operating and maintenance costs, and contributions to their ‘Campaign for the 21st Century’, support plans to restore historic structures as well as to build a new visitor’s center. They also actively recruit docents.

The threat of the Station Fire highlighted the fragility of the site, and how in a flash, a universe of history could be erased. Los Angeles has a precedent for bulldozing history in favor of strip malls, parking lots, and “progress” in general. (Actually, Norman Klein discusses these ideas in his book, “The History of Forgetting” and will lecture as part of the show.)

For me, Mount Wilson is a safe haven, above the bustle of the city, where we can connect to nature and cosmos…the star stuff that we all are.

For more information on KNOWLEDGES, please visit: http://theknowledges.org,
www.facebook.com/theknowledges

Information about Mount Wilson Observatory: http://www.mtwilson.edu

Images Courtesy Center for Land Use Interpretation and The Artists

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About Aparna Bakhle

Aparna Bakhle-Ellis is a writer enthralled by the consonance and dissonance of ‘being’ in Los Angeles. L'écriture féminine, outsider art, and altered states of consciousness rank high among her myriad interests. She is also Fabrik’s Managing Editor. 

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