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Elemental education

AxS Festival finds enlightenment in Nature, science and the bomb

By Carl Kozlowski 09/29/2011

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Beyond its worldwide fame as the home of the Rose Bowl and the annual Tournament of Roses Parade, Pasadena is also renowned for playing host to some of America’s top arts and science institutions. And as the executive director of the Pasadena Arts Council, Terry LeMoncheck is helping spotlight that dynamic mix of arts and science — from Caltech to the Huntington Library to Pacific Asia Museum to the Pasadena City College Art Gallery — via the AxS Festival.
The 16-day festival, which runs from Saturday through Oct. 16, offers an eclectic mix of performances, presentations, exhibitions and public conversations at numerous locations across the city. This year’s events center on the theme of “Fire and Water,” and according to LeMoncheck, it should be a hot time indeed for cultural aficionados. 
“I think that this is a way for people to experience our city for two of its greatest assets, the artists and the scientists at our most prestigious venues, by listening to eminent speakers and seeing artworks that were commissioned just for this festival,” says LeMoncheck. “What makes this year’s festival particularly special is we have significant funding from the James Irvine Foundation, the Parsons Foundation and the NEA to commission new works in theater, dance, sound and visual art.” 
 The AxS Festival — short for Arts and Science Festival — started in 1999 with the goal of occurring every three years, but proved popular enough to be held biennially. While LeMoncheck and her team of organizers are starting to plan for the next fest in 2013, she admits that their hope is to grow AxS into an annual happening. 
AxS has already made a big impact on the Pasadena scene, inspiring the creation of twice-yearly ArtNight in which numerous museums and galleries stay open late and share shuttle buses that enable people to explore well into a Friday night. This year’s theme of “Fire and Water” enabled planners to focus on the contributions of Caltech and JPL, with the biggest shows being a staged reading of the play “The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer” and the PCC exhibition “Picturing the Bomb,” offering the harrowing images of Rachel Fermi, granddaughter of Franco Fermi, who photographed the notorious project over its years of secret planning “One interpretation of the fire angle in this festival is the atomic bomb,” says LeMoncheck. “But water is represented by ‘Rain After Ash’ at the Pacific Asia Museum, which combines theatrical elements with an array of art styles.”
“Oppenheimer” portrays the famed scientist’s rise and fall, as he was originally hailed for creating the atomic bomb, but eventually became a pariah due to the unforeseen level of damage that the bomb created. After World War II, he was even subjected to hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee — a turn of events that should provide Caltech Director of Theater Arts Brian Brophy plenty of compelling material to perform and discuss with his graduate student actors as well as the audience. 
While “Oppenheimer” dramatizes the life and moral dilemmas of its title character, “Picturing the Bomb” brings the stark reality of the Manhattan Project — the top-secret program that resulted in the atomic bomb — to the fore. The images within are culled from the official Manhattan Project files, where they were intended to serve merely as documentation of the bomb’s development and testing, but wound up taking on surreal qualities as the passage of time brought increasing awareness of the horrors the bomb had wrought. 
“The first test bomb is shown with so many wires it looks like a Christmas tree, and a photo of the Trinity test explosion looks like a luminous snowball,” says LeMoncheck. “We had Fermi and Samra take images that ranged from the casual to the official documentation of the project, and the results wind up suggesting entirely other dimensions.” 
Among the other top events of the fest are award-winning New York Times journalist Charles Duhigg’s discussion of “Toxic Waters” at the Pasadena Central Library and a talk between academic William Deverell and wilderness fire lookout-turned-bestselling author Phillip Connors on the impact of wildfires on the Pasadena region in “Fire Season” at the Huntington Library. 
Besides the talks, Steve Roden curates a four-part performance art series called “Ignite/Flow” at the Art Center College of Design’s Wind Tunnel Gallery, and art critic and historian Lucy Lippard presents a discussion about art’s potential to educate and inspire audiences to take action on climate change issues at the talk “Weather Report: Art and Climate Change” at Art Center’s Ahmanson Auditorium. 

For more information, call (626) 793-8171 or visit


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