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AxS Festival: Sights, Sounds, and Science Collide in Pasadena

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What do you get if you combine laser beams, tar from the La Brea Tar Pits, slippery soap bubbles, mouse DNA, dazzling images from Mars, neon colored bacteria, hyper-real soundscapes, video projections, immersive installations, some accordion music, a psychic reading, stomp rocket design and a bird choir? What if you add 100 artists and musicians, a composer/cognitive scientist, a physicist/pianist, two sonic pilots, and a sound/light/space artist, plus a long list of themes, including curiosity, emergence, complexity, wonder, perception, light and space, Bernoulli's principle, uncanny philosophy, decay and failure? Oh, and art and science?

The answer is the massive 2014 iteration of the AxS Festival (pronounced aksis), presented by the Pasadena Arts Council and its partners across 16 days beginning Friday, September 19 and devoted specifically to the intersection of art and science. The event includes exhibitions, live media events, performances, lectures and more, all of it organized with the desire to spark curiosity.

For Terry LeMoncheck, executive director of the Pasadena Arts Council, Pasadena provides a natural home for this exploration. "We think of Pasadena as the city of art and science because of the extraordinary assets we have here and have had here historically," she says. She points to a terrific essay by Stephen Nowlin, director of the Alyce de Roulet Williamson Gallery at Art Center College of Design. Titled "Pasadena, City of Art and Science," it highlights the role of everyone from astronomer Edwin Powell Hubble in the 1920s, to JPL's space exploration, architecture by Charles and Henry Greene, and the innumerable art and science institutions throughout the city. "There are larger cities in the world," writes Nowlin, "but few if any are better branded by the impact of art and science or able to replicate Pasadena's extraordinary blend of institutions engaged in those two explorations."

SPHAERAE, Designed by Dutch architect Cocky Eek (2012; polyethylene, PVC and air), Developed in Partnership with Synergetica Lab and the Artscience Interfaculty Program in the Hague | Photo: Couresy of the Artist
SPHAERAE, Designed by Dutch architect Cocky Eek (2012; polyethylene, PVC and air), Developed in Partnership with Synergetica Lab and the Artscience Interfaculty Program in the Hague | Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

This year's AxS event, the sixth so far, for the first time expands to include an international group of artists devoted specifically to art and science. Cocky Eek, for example, teaches in a program that's actually titled ArtScience at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague, and her work is invested in scientific exploration. For example, her contribution to AxS is the giant, five-bubble, all-white inflatable structure called SPHAERAE, which will serve as the venue for many of the sound and media performances during the festival. The project emerged from her research into the design of an immersive space. This included investigating the rich history of inflatable architecture, but also exploring the specific materials that she would use: extremely lightweight fabric, air and wind.

"Here in Europe, art traditionally must have a meaning," Eek explains from Amsterdam, "but what we like to do is to work with the elements themselves, whether it is light, sound, air, water or even plants. So that is where the science comes in: we take away meaning and just work with raw matter. So we are not working towards a goal or an idea, but just working with materials."

Eek goes on to explain that SPHAERAE is completely white inside. "Everything: the floor, the ceilings, the walls, everything, so that you feel endless, you feel like there's no horizon. Also, because it's just one color, you start to dream. It becomes a dream space." She adds that the structure also feels like a giant tent. "It's massive, you're there with a big group, and people lie down, so it's like you're looking up at the stars in this big, collective experience. That's something that I like a lot."

The first project to be showcased in "SPHAERAE during its stay in Pasadena will be Evelina Domnitch and Dmitry Gelfand's immersive performance "10,000 Peacock Feathers in Foaming Acid," for which the artists use laser beams to scan the surfaces of soap bubbles, creating incredibly beautiful images that will be projected onto the inner surface of Eek's giant structure. The artists, who are based in Amsterdam, explain that their interest in science is connected to the work of physicist David Bohm, and what he describes as the "inner show" we create through our sensory experience in order to make sense of the world. "There is a lingering 'inner show' of the senses, leading to the future transformation of knowledge and theoretical frameworks," they explain. "With our installations we try to recreate this moment, when you experience something for the first time and its significance is manifest, but its contours are still nebulous and mysterious."

Domnitch and Gelfand have created two high-resolution videos that they have offered to avant-garde composer William Basinski as a basis for an audiovisual performance called "Solunaris." Basinski, who is now based in Los Angeles, explains that one of the videos captures the year-long movement of the sun; the projection speed is altered so that viewers see that movement across just an hour. The other shows the moon moving through its cycles. "No one has seen the sun like this before," says Basinski.

Basinski is known for his fascination with failure. "I work with obsolete technology, sometimes failing obsolete technology, specifically analog tape decks, and I use loops," he says. He continues, "This work is almost like scientific research in that failure happens frequently and you learn form it. Sometimes the failure is the end result. With my most famous work, "The Disintegration Loops," I was trying to simply take some old tape loops and just run them on a tape machine and convert them to digital. In the process, the glue failed and then the iron oxide particles began to drop out, leaving silence. It happened in a profoundly beautiful way and that became my seminal work and launched my career." For "Solunaris," Basinski will be working with loops and shortwave radio transmissions, in collaboration with Richard Chartier, who works with granular synthesis.

"The Machine Project Field Guide to The Gamble House," Artist mock up featuring Jessica Cowley and Patrick Ballard, 2014 | Photo: Ian-Byers-Gamber
"The Machine Project Field Guide to The Gamble House," Artist mock up featuring Jessica Cowley and Patrick Ballard, 2014 | Photo: Ian-Byers-Gamber.

While SPHAERAE will serve as a central site for many of the audiovisual performances, AxS includes many other sites as well. For example, Mark Allen, the founder and artistic director of the inimitable arts organization Machine Project, has created "The Machine Project Field Guide to the Gamble House," which uses the iconic Arts and Crafts house designed by Charles and Henry Greene in 1908 as a venue for situating the work of a wonderfully long list of artists. Allen says he was interested in the house in part based on its odd relation to time and history. It's now considered historic, but when it was built, it was futuristic. He is also interested in playing with the tension between the domestic space of the home, and the exhibition of artworks normally seen in gallery settings, where detail and ornament are stripped out. "What would contemporary studio art by artists in L.A. look like in this space?" he asks, noting that work by artists as diverse as Sterling Ruby and Laura Owen will be on view. Machine's programming also includes work that's attentive to craft, including a projection on the exterior of the house by L.A.-based media artists Raphael Arar and Chris Weisbart, and a series of workshops, including a Solar Sun Chime Workshop, an Urban Cat Architecture Workshop and a Plant Preservation and Natural Perfumery Workshop.

Rebeca Méndez, "CircumSolar, Migration 3"
Rebeca Méndez, "CircumSolar, Migration 3."
Rebeca Méndez, "CircumSolar, Migration 3"
Rebeca Méndez, "CircumSolar, Migration 3."
Jennifer Steinkamp, "6EQUJ5, 2012" | Photo: Jennifer Steinkamp and Marcus Leith
Jennifer Steinkamp, "6EQUJ5, 2012." | Photo: Jennifer Steinkamp and Marcus Leith.

Another terrific component of the AxS festival is a show titled REALSPACE at the Williamson Gallery at Art Center College. It was curated by Stephen Nowlin and includes a large-scale video titled "CircumSolar, Migration 3"from a new series of work by LA-based artist Rebeca Méndez exploring migrating birds, and Jennifer Steinkamp's architectural projection "6EQUJ5," positing a new idea about the origins of the earth.

The list of artists and events goes on and on, and offers an amazing opportunity to see a lot of artwork in a short amount of time. In accounting for the range of projects included in AxS, Robert Crouch, Director of Artist Programs at the Pasadena Arts Council, says of the curatorial process, "I'm interested in exploring artists working in performance, sound and video, and artists who do not only phenomenological work, but also work that is political and has cultural significance." He continues, "There tends to be an either/or. Either people are pushing the technical, formal and structural aspects of the medium or they're dealing with representation. It's really hard to curate a program that is legible that does both." AxS, however, achieves this mix, creating a full array of experiences for diverse participants. Crouch points to SPHAERAE itself as emblematic of this blurring of boundaries. The structure is at once nostalgic, reminiscent of the inflatable architecture from earlier decades, and yet futuristic. It is also an object that will be fetishized for its sheer spectacle and size, and it's a project with utopian notes, embodying a very contemporary desire for a kind of participatory connectivity among people gathered together in a real space.

For newcomers to laser beams and soap bubbles, hyper-real soundscapes and fluorescent proteins, the best advice comes from William Basinski: "The most important thing is to relax and let go of expectations -- just let go."

Watch our short documentary on the video art of Steve Roden:

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