It’s been a year since Curiosity landed on Mars, in what The New York Times called “a flawless, triumphant technological tour de force,” and since then the rover has been sending back astounding images and data. You’ve probably seen the weirdly familiar Martian mountain ranges, the rover tracks and the famous selfie, and if you haven’t, log on to mars.jpl.nasa/msl (for Mars Science Laboratory, its more prosaic name) for a bonanza of pictures and information.
I have a special place in my heart for Curiosity. Back in fall 2011, on a visit to JPL, I had the opportunity to stand in the visitors’ gallery above the shop during its final stages of preparation for a Nov. 26 launch. It was a scene I’ll never forget. In this sterile environment, scientists, engineers and technicians in white bunny suits appeared to move soundlessly around the rover, adjusting here, tightening there, with such care, precision and delicacy that it seemed to be choreographed and in slow motion. When I fully grasped the reality that this little Mini Cooper-sized craft was going to Mars — let me say it again, to Mars — I was, I confess, a little verklempt.
That moment provided the thematic inspiration for the 2014 AxS Festival. In just a few weeks, opening on Sept. 19 and running through Oct. 5, 19 presenting organizations will offer an extraordinary array of exhibitions, performances, play readings, talks, screenings and other activities that explore the nexus of artistic and scientific curiosity, those essential strands of Pasadena’s DNA.
You won’t want to miss two marquee events presented by the Pasadena Arts Council (PAC), the festival producer. At the corner of Colorado and Orange Grove boulevards, in a change of pace from parade bleachers, you will see the elegant dome shapes of the SPHAERAE, an inflatable temporary pavilion designed by Dutch architect Cocky Eek. In it, PAC will feature immersive art/science/technology experiences from a roster of local and international artists. Laser lights scanning the surface of soap bubbles create the vivid prismatic effects of “10,000 Peacock Feathers in Foaming Acid.” Actual data from the Curiosity rover inspires “SOL PATH,” a concerto for solo viola, percussion and soundscape developed in residency at JPL. Sonic pilots navigate across breathtaking expanses of the sun and moon in “Solunaris.” These and 27 other presentations at the SPHAERAE will launch you into profound dimensions of art/science collaboration.
Just a half-mile away at the venerable Gamble House, wunderkind Mark Allen will channel the unique gifts of Machine Project oh-so-carefully through our Craftsman masterpiece to create experimental tours and dances, group naps, operatic bird beaks, séances, videos, architectural lawn furniture and a secret Swiss-Japanese fusion restaurant — all to reveal the history and visual ideas behind the Gamble House in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Complementing these live events will be works by notable California artists in juxtaposition with 1909 aesthetics, as well as workshops (paper-cutting, edible arts & crafts, embroidering in architecture, and more) which stream the contemporary Maker Movement right alongside the Arts & Crafts Movement. Did I mention the two-story puppet?
And that’s in addition to exhibitions at the Williamson Gallery at Art Center, Descanso Gardens’ Sturt Haaga Gallery and Shumei Hall, activities at Kidspace, performances by Pasadena Master Chorale and Pasadena Pro Musica, and play readings by About Productions at the Pasadena Playhouse and at A Noise Within. MUSE/IQUE’S inimitable Rachael Worby will lead a late-night discussion about the science, structure and artistry of “Bach the Creator.” Carnegie Observatories, one of Pasadena’s best-kept (but not for long) science secrets is partnering with Pasadena Conservatory of Music for “An Evening of Pasadena-Inspired Astronomy and Music.” USC Pacific Asia Museum, Theatre at Caltech and KPCC are all on deck with more events to pique your curiosity.
Curiosity. It’s what drives artistic and scientific inquiry at all the places in Pasadena where creative minds are at work and at play. And this interplay between human curiosity, scientific investigation and artistic risk-taking reflects a cultural zeitgeist that not only defines Pasadena as the City of Art and Science, but also illuminates the richness, diversity and sheer innovation of human aspiration and achievement in the 21st century.
So as darkness falls in the coming weeks, look for Mars in the southwest sky and as you ponder that ruddy dot 50 million miles away, think of Curiosity roving across the Gale Crater, tirelessly at work at the forefront of space science and representing the very best of what curious humans can accomplish.
Terry LeMoncheck is executive director of the Pasadena Arts Council. For more on AxS Festival 2014|CURIOSITY, visit axsfestival.org.