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The Alchemy of Art, Science, and Technology in Southern California

Robert Irwin's Miracle Mile at LACMA | rocor/Flickr/Creative Commons (CC BY-NC 2.0)
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BLUE SKY METROPOLIS is the untold story of how aerospace was central to the growth of California and its emergence as an economic power. The documentary miniseries focuses on the people behind the aerospace movement and will feature many of the current major players in the aerospace industry in California, which is the hub of modern day aerospace engineering. The aerospace century will unfold through the lives and words of the men and women who created it: John Northrop, Glenn Martin, Donald Douglas, Amelia Earhart, Howard Hughes, Walt Disney and Wernher Von Braun.
Blue Sky Metropolis Preview

Relive the excitement of man’s first steps on the moon and the long journey it took to get there with 20 new hours of out of this world programming KCET's “Summer of Space"  Watch out for “American Experience: Chasing the Moon” and a KCET-exclusive first look at "Blue Sky Metropolis," four one-hour episodes that examine Southern California’s role in the history of aviation and aerospace. 

Southern California and other large cosmopolitan arenas, as places for cultural intersection and memetic alchemy, are where creative economies best flourish and thus evolve. As just such a multi-layered social crossroad, L.A. and its neighboring communities have forged a unique creative presence, one with parts that are traceable to its longtime regional sources of art, science, and technology.

Technology's seminal L.A. moments are well known -- a mid nineteenth-century arrival of the Southern Pacific railway, followed by the discovery and industry of local oil by that century's end; the birth of movie and entertainment companies in the early 1900s; the advent of ship building and aerospace engineering and manufacturing during and after World War II; all of them furthered along by the allure of Southern California's work-and-play paradise climate, and all accompanied by the commensurate land/population expansion that continually thickens and diversifies the social soup du jour.

Less popularly recognized, perhaps, are stunning innovations resulting from how the region's historic industries, respected universities, and untethered culture attracted the inquisitive and somewhat skewed minds of young scientists -- reflected, to name a few, in the quaint beginnings of Jet Propulsion Laboratory as a place to experiment with rocket fireworks in the Pasadena foothills; the shared birth of the internet by UCLA ARPANET transmissions to Stanford; or the discovery of an expanding universe by Edwin Hubble at Mount Wilson Observatory. L.A. was, and is, a nexus of scientific change and exploration to which artists, scientists, and intellectually creative oddballs are drawn - people who are searching for the poetry of this change, uncovering its new vocabularies of expression, exposing its implications and defining its social discourse.

From roughly 1965 to 1975, a handful of local projects and movements captured and helped bring focus to the art-science-technology track of Southern California's present creative economy. The influence that flowed from the little stable of L.A.'s Ferus Gallery artists in the early 1960s, and that was revitalized through the recent Pacific Standard Time series of exhibitions and catalogues, recognized and aestheticized the presence of advanced technological industry in the region. Reflecting a West Coast impertinence toward its eastern minimal and pop influences, so-called "Cool School," "Fetish Finish," and/or "Light and Space" artists such as Craig Kauffman, Robert Irwin, Larry Bell, DeWain Valentine, and Helen Pashgian explored the expressive and perceptual potentials of new industrial materials by working with plastics and resins and chemical coatings, and generally engaging with engineers and scientists in the process. At the same time, Los Angeles County Museum of Art curator Maurice Tuchman launched an ambitious project to bring artists and corporate engineers together in the museum's Art and Technology Program, 1967-71, which resulted in some works being displayed at the avant-garde American Pavilion for the 1970 Osaka World's Fair, and that spawned an instrumental publication and major LACMA exhibition during the same year.

In L.A. today, the art-science maxim in some way infiltrates virtually every enlightened interaction of making, designing, and innovating -- the more visible list of participants including university affiliated programs such as UCLA's Art | Sci Center + Lab, LACMA's Art + Technology Lab, UCI's Beall Center for Art + Technology, Art Center's Williamson Gallery and Designmatters programs, UCSB's Media Art & Technology program, The Studio at Jet Propulsion Lab, plus smaller but no less vibrant collectives and non-profits like Machine Project, The Museum of Jurassic Technology, The Institute For Figuring, Sturt Haaga Gallery at Descanso Gardens, The Armory Center for the Arts, Innovate Pasadena, AxS Festival, and many others.

Perhaps a question to ponder while the art-science paradigm unfolds in this young century, aside from what new formal worlds it will reveal and what new innovations it will spawn, is why it really matters -- as in, deeply matters?

Broadly viewed, art-science in the twenty-first century can be seen as the current manifestation of an historical arc of change tracing at least to the nineteenth-century's European art history. Early Modern art's introduction of radical abstraction to the lexicon of painting, the dismantling of illusion in the pictorial space of painting versus its relocation of aesthetic experience to real physical space (i.e., paintings as windows through which we peer into a fictional world that looks beautiful and real but isn't, versus paintings as simply beautiful objects themselves in the real world) -- traded the security of a familiar and certain way of knowing our world for an unfamiliar and uncertain one.

We are still reconciling with this paradigmatic change. Science likewise does not presume to represent knowledge that is ultimate and certain, but rather that is subject to revision when warranted by a changing knowledge base. If knowledge is infinite, this will never cease to be the case -- and for an animal driven to great achievement by its curiosity, what could be better or a more beautiful prospect? We need, then, to be a bit more loving of uncertainty, of stipulating that we may never know everything, and of embracing the trade-off -- which is a certainty that there is always more to discover.

Read more about SoCal's intersection of art and science here.

Top Image: Robert Irwin's Miracle Mile at LACMA | rocor/Flickr/Creative Commons (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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