‘Gadget’ exhibitrevisits the Manhattan Project

David Szlasa interviewed surviving members for multimedia installation

The world’s first detonation of a nuclear weapon occurred on July 16, 1945 at the Trinity testing ground near Alamogordo, New Mexico.

This was the first of three tests that came out of the country’s infamous nuclear engineering program known as the Manhattan Project.

Though history has since reconsidered the original sentiments that continue to cloud this controversial page in history, unbridled optimism was the driving force that brought nuclear power into existence.

Theater designer David Szlasa learned firsthand about that optimism when he conducted interviews with the surviving members of the Manhattan Project. He aims to recapture this complicated time in his multimedia installation “Gadget,” which he unveils at The Thick House theater in Potrero Hill on Friday.

The idea to create “Gadget” came to Szlasa while visiting the Bradbury Science Museum located at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

Set up in a similar vein to San Francisco’s Exploratorium, the museum’s series of interactive exhibits about nuclear power rallied a class of fourth-graders, who engaged with the exhibits with great enthusiasm.

The sight of such opposing forces compelled Szlasa to chase down those individuals who also engaged and engineered the nuclear age with paralleled enthusiasm and a surprising romance with their work, even today.

“It made it very complicated,” Szlasa said, referring to the positive recollections of that period of time surviving members have. “The content that I was getting wasn’t what I thought it would be.”

Szlasa’s research is thorough and even includes a sit-down with Berlyn Brixner, considered the official photographer of the Manhattan Project.

The result of those efforts is a 360-degree experience that runs approximately 60 minutes. Most of the action is contained to the theater’s small stage, which is also where the audience is positioned.

Three projection screens will flicker with archival footage from the Manhattan Project combined with more recent footage shot by Szlasa culled from his interviews with the project’s survivors.

Popular culture’s interpretation of nuclear power is also woven into the mix, with scenes from “Red Dawn” and “The Terminator,” among others. Two DJs spin a combination of audio feed from Szlasa’s interviews, archival audio and music.

Meanwhile, bubble-shaped domes that hang from the ceiling are mounted with speakers and invite participants to stand underneath and hear more audio footage collected from various interviews. Dancer Sherwood Chen also appears on stage.

Overall, “Gadget” serves as an inventive and contemporary reinterpretation of the original viewpoints without being too heavy-handed with its new message.

Art Preview

Gadget

When: Friday through Oct. 29

Where: The Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco

Price: Tickets are $15

Info: Call (415) 821-4849 or visit www.zspace.org

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