Image: Backwards Through the Lens: May 20, 2012 Annular Eclipse, Mount Wilson Observatory.
Publication essay for KNOWLEDGES at Mount Wilson Observatory, 2012.

What Knowledge Is Gleaned One Mile Above Los Angeles?

By Christina Ondrus

KNOWLEDGES at Mount Wilson Observatory brings together a constellation of more than thirty contemporary Los Angeles artists whose work extends from the nexus of ideas embodied by the Observatory itself - astronomy, scientific discovery, space exploration, optics, recorded observation, philosophical questions of cosmology, the history, aesthetics and ecology of the site and its influence upon the cultural landscape of Los Angeles. KNOWLEDGES engages the public in a unique opportunity to experience Mount Wilson Observatory through the lens of contemporary art.

To wander amid the Mount Wilson Observatory grounds, one becomes aware of the unique nature of the site. Perched on a ridge in the Angeles National Forest, the Observatory experiences surprisingly constant atmospheric conditions. This is due in part to what is known in meteorology as the inversion layer, an effect where cool, moist sea air is trapped in the desert valley. Below, the flat areas of Los Angeles may experience the combinatory effect of the inversion layer with air pollution, as smog, or the hazy mornings of "June gloom." But one mile higher, the air is remarkably clear and constant, with views extending east to the Inland Empire and desert valley, north to the San Gabriel Mountains and South-West to Catalina Island and the great expanse of the Pacific Ocean.

In 1904, these site-specific factors compelled George Ellery Hale to choose the location to build an astronomical observatory that would revolutionize science. Mount Wilson came to house the most advanced observational equipment of the time, including the Hale 60-inch telescope, followed by the Hooker 100-inch telescope, which was the world's largest for more than thirty years. Historic discoveries at Mount Wilson include the detection of the sun's magnetic field, the first observations of spiral galaxies, Michelson's first measurement of the speed of light, and Hubble’s early research that suggested the expansion of the universe and laid the groundwork for the Big Bang Theory. The magnitude of discoveries that took place at Mount Wilson feels resonant throughout the site, and innovative research continues to this day. You can touch the base where the speed of light tests took place, see the chair where Hubble sat and observed the expansion of the universe and walk the same footbridge as Albert Einstein. These human traces highlight a shared search for understanding our place in the universe.

Just as the Copernican revolution ushered radical perceptual changes throughout religious and secular society in the 16th century, so too is our shared consciousness molded by discoveries of the last one hundred years. Into the 20th century, ether was postulated to be an invisible substance that bound the universe together and our Milky Way Galaxy was thought to be the center of the universe. Today, physicists have new theories of dark matter and dark energy to describe the vast amount of yet unknowns that constitute the universe. We now know our galaxy is one of millions and the possibility of a multiverse may be a reality. Einstein famously retracted his postulate that the universe was static after Hubble's observations proved otherwise, calling it his "biggest blunder." This profound example highlights the instability or relativity of knowledge. Seeing parallels between theories proven and displaced throughout history gives one pause to wonder, how do we know what we know? Where is knowledge located? What discoveries will have radical implications on our conception of reality? How can we objectively know ourselves in a moment in which we are fully embedded?

Mount Wilson Observatory is a locus from which nearly a century of such questions and exploration extend. Historic and contemporary advances co-exist, with state-of-the-art equipment like the six-telescope light gathering CHARA Array nestled alongside the once revolutionary reflecting telescopes. With increasingly huge telescopes built around the world each year, it is unlikely another will hold the title of largest very long. Moreover, it is wholly possible that this moment in astronomy will never be observable again. A thousand years from now and onward, stars and galaxies at our current periphery of observation will expand, possibly beyond the limits of study from earth. Knowledge of them may become myth, receding into the horizon of mystery, as today we view some ancient culture’s understanding of the night sky. This imperative summons us to explore our surroundings and ask, "where are we going, where have we been?"

Los Angeles has been home to many searching for their origins in the great beyond: scientific explorers at Mount Wilson Observatory, Caltech, NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory; transcendent religions of Theosophy and Anthroposophy; sci-fi writers including Phillip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury and Aldous Huxley; self-realization psychonauts and occultists alike intermingle with avant-garde art schools like CalArts and Art Center. Greater Los Angeles is a site of both inner and outer-space exploration, whose influence is far-reaching. Perhaps it is no wonder these ideas converge on the west coast, where the continent meets the sea, fulfilling a spirit of Manifest Destiny that drove westward expansion: once exploration reached the continent’s edge, where else was there to go, but to the skies? From the 1950’s onward, the boom of the Southern California aerospace industry influenced a generation of artists to create an aesthetic vocabulary unique to the West Coast. Artists of the “Cool School” and “Finish Fetish” utilized many of the industry’s cutting edge materials-polymers, resins and fiberglass, in conjunction with a surf-rock lifestyle. Artists of the Light and Space Movement created environments out of the immaterial-the same medium studied by their astronomer counterparts. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art even sponsored an Art & Science program in the 1960’s that paired visual artists in collaboration with scientific industry and research. Artistic innovation in tandem with science continues to thrive in Los Angeles…but just as postulates of parallel worlds enter into probability, so multiplies the variety of artistic practices and perspectives.

KNOWLEDGES at Mount Wilson Observatory presents contextual explorations of a group of artists whose practice orbits around questions of space, observation, site, contemporary art and science-the formal parallels between which are many. The titles "observer" and "visionary" can be used to describe the practice of both artist and scientist. The act of looking is key, but so too is the ability to create conceptual models to envision the unseen. Both are creative, generative processes used to articulate the world. Scientific documentation and engineering correlate to artistic exploration and craft by employing many of the same methods: at the 150-foot Solar Tower, daily sunspot drawings have been handmade for the last one hundred years, direct photography through the 100-inch telescope captures nebula, galaxies and images too faint for the naked eye, which may be colored though an interpretive process. The telescopes themselves are built for the ages, utilizing masterful craft and construction that evokes a modern day Pantheon. But more than just formal parallels, the show opens dialogue for explorations on both a cosmic and local scale that extends from the nexus of the Observatory into our everyday lives. All of these activities share an aesthetic discourse with art, but moreover, they emphasize a fascinating exchange between traditional and innovative methodologies that render consciousness and transform experiences of the universe into knowledge.