Spitzer Space Telescope


October 11, 2008 - January 9, 2009

Spitzer Science Center, California Institute of Technology
Alyce de Roulet Williamson Gallery, Art Center College of Design

Please note: OBSERVE has been extended through January 18. The Art Center campus and Williamson Gallery will be closed for the holidays December 20 - January 4.

The NASA Spitzer Science Center at California Institute of Technology and Alyce de Roulet Williamson Gallery at Art Center College of Design have collaborated on OBSERVE, an exhibition combining art and science. OBSERVE has commissioned five contemporary artists to create works of art in collaboration with the science, knowledge, and technology resources of the Spitzer Science Center, a NASA/Caltech-JPL lab managing the infra-red deep-space Spitzer Space Telescope. The project began in August 2007, with conversations between Spitzer scientists and five artists: Lita Albuquerque, Lynn Aldrich, Dan Goods, George Legrady, and Daniel Wheeler.

A 75-page print catalogue for OBSERVE is presently in production.

Preface and Acknowledgements
Stephen Nowlin,
Director, Williamson Gallery

I love science. I could never be a scientist.

At birth, I imagine the DNA passed my way just wasn't sequenced for an easy chumminess with math and formulas. Nor did I have welded into my early existence a storehouse of patience — no, not nearly enough to spend years in a remote corner of the knowledge spectrum, chipping away clue-by-clue at some stubborn secret. I love science, but my formal exposure to it, like that of so many others, is remembered as having been pretty dull — gnarled textbook chapters with threatening questions at their conclusion, and a system of failures and rewards focused almost entirely on memorizing lots of stuff. Nowhere in the mind-numbing thicket of pages, texts, diagrams and quizzes was it ever expressed to me that science has a soul. No poetry ever interrupted the unyielding stream of facts and figures demanding to be recalled. The rare field-trips to science museums were a day's escape from the classroom, a ride on the bus, a lark punctuated by artifacts behind glass, lectures and captions, labels, and more boring linearity. It was almost as bad as church.

What an unlikely overture, then, to what eventually became my affection for the discipline of science and its deployment of rigor, reason and painstaking evidence-gathering. I wasn't supposed to like science, so what interrupted the inevitable product of this forgone equation?

Science isn't just about what science knows — it's also about what science, as a human concept, means in the culture where humans reside. Meaning is invested in symbols, and symbols are elusive things, irrational and everywhere, and mostly harvested in the province of art. Symbols seem like the opposite of plain facts — they contain hyperactive memes, and spread like viruses, infiltrating and irritating cultural stasis, sometimes to the breaking point. Symbols help make change. Dignified facts and rascally symbols are closely aligned, though, and both are forged in the furnaces of science, among other places. I think I was led to science through its symbols, through its art. I admire science for its brains, but what it symbolizes is what seduces me. Science symbolizes that we humans are audacious and unafraid, we are the gods of a rational quest for truth, no matter that it may demand we shed sometimes treasured shackles from the past. Science is the essence of chutzpah — with an exquisitely dissonant beauty found in its minutia and unfathomable scale. Science is liberating, even while its practice has issues and serious unintended consequences with which society must struggle. It is a constant provocateur. Perhaps in the end what science best symbolizes can be reduced to a tiny and splendid fact about ourselves — we humans are simply and helplessly curious, and nothing for long impedes the force of our curiosity.

Kids like quests and mystery stories and tales of courage — so how come my science education as a kid missed all the above? I know many of those who teach science have wondered the same thing, and they have embraced new ways of talking about the subject. It was just such an open mind about engaging with symbols and constructing metaphors as tools of communication, that enabled the innovative NASA Spitzer Space Telescope and Caltech's Spitzer Science Center to become partners in this art exhibit. I am very grateful for the opportunity to have worked with a group of enlightened scientists who saw in this collaboration the means to fulfill their mission of bringing the strange and complicated matrix of today's astronomy to a different audience. And I am equally grateful to have been able to use this occasion to work with a group of talented and professional artists, and to do in some small way the thing my DNA was apparently sequenced for — inspiring and making contemporary art that stirs meaning.

Dr. Michelle Thaller, astronomer and director of Spitzer Science Center's education and outreach program, was a principal co-organizer of OBSERVE, and it was her early embrace of the concept, along with her inspirational participation in the process that followed, which made the project both possible and successful. From the beginning, the Spitzer group was enthusiastic, curious and willing to participate in a series of artist/scientist meetings that began in August of 2007. I wish to thank them all, and extend my appreciation especially to Dr. Tom Soifer, director of the Spitzer Science Center, Dr. George Helou, director of the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center, and Dr. Gordon Squires, Director of Communiaction/IPAC, for their support and encouragement. Others at Spitzer who contributed enormously were Dr. John Good, Dr. Robert L. Hurt, Dr. Thomas Jarrett, Jim Keller, Rosanne Scholey and Linda Vu. The artists, it goes without saying, were the project's shepherds, guiding it toward the beautiful and the provocative. Lita Albuquerque, Lynn Aldrich, Dan Goods, George Legrady and Daniel Wheeler were all eager from the beginning to engage their personal artistic sensibilities with the symbols and metaphors of Spitzer astronomy, and it was my pleasure to work with each of them. They were assisted in their installations by the important contributions of others, including Isabelle Albuquerque, Jon Evan Beasley Andres Burbano, Ben Dean, David Delgado, Sussan Deyhim, FLIR Systems, Hub Construction Company, Knack Studio, Gilad Lotan, Ginger Matsuura, Spencer Mishlen, Eric Nyquist, Sophie Pegrum, Pylon Technical, Matt Sheridan, Sky Image Lab and Javier Villegas.

At Art Center, my sincere appreciation goes to Julian Goldwhite, Williamson Gallery associate curator, for his steadfast and creative management of the exhibition's complicated gallery reconfiguration, and to his leadership of our stallwart installation crew; to Sean Donahue and Christiane Holzheid in the Graduate Media Design Program; to Film Department Chair Ross LaManna and in particular to seventh-term undergraduate film student Ben Koffman who followed the development of OBSERVE with a video camera for months; to graphic designer Winnie Li who created the print catalogue's beautiful pages and also designed the invitation to this exhibit, writer and editor Vanessa Silberman who conducted insightful interviews with the artists and edited the catalog, Ellie Eisner who handled production, and Steve Sieler for his overall guidance on the design process; to Steven Heller and his associate Vahe Alaverdian, Art Center staff photographers who spent days in the gallery extracting exquisite photographs from dark rooms; and my appreciation goes as well to the Development, Alumni, Student Life, and Marketing and Communications staffs. I wish to thank Terry LeMoncheck, executive director of the Pasadena Arts Council, for her interveiw of myself and Dr. Michelle Thaller, and for graciously moderating the opening reception panel discussion. Without general funding from the following, the exhibition simply would not have happened, and they have my deepest appreciation: National Aeronatics and Space Administration's Spitzer Science Center at California Institute of Technology; the Williamson Gallery Patrons; and the Pasadena Art Alliance.

Finally, I wish to express my ongoing gratitude to Art Center Trustee Alyce de Roulet Williamson for her support and endorsement of the Williamson Gallery programs; and to Art Center's Interim President, Frank L. Ellsworth, for stepping in as a speaker and co-host for the exhibition's reception, deftly merging with the rush-hour traffic of a dynamic institution after only two days on the job.

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Williamson Gallery exhibitions are made possible in part through the generous support of the Williamson Gallery Patrons and a grant from the Pasadena Art Alliance.

OBSERVE is funded in part by NASA's Spitzer Science Center at California Institute of Technology.