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Algae in bloom at Minneapolis Institute of Art

March 17, 2017

Minneapolis artist Alison Hiltner has created a responsive environment that explores the symbiosis between algae and humans. Credit: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

Diane Hellekson writes in the Minneapolis Star Tribune that it’s been three years since Alison Hiltner first got serious about algae. But last week she said the relationship felt like it’s been going on forever. “I wake up in the morning and calculate how many gallons of algae I need to move,” she recounted, midway through her two-week push to install “It Is Yesterday,” an ambitious, provocative show at the Minneapolis Institute of Art that has one foot planted firmly in science fiction and the other dipped into larger scientific and existential musings.

Overall, Ms. Hiltner transported nearly 100 gallons of algae-water, by the bucketful, for the exhibit, which opened Thursday and runs through June 25. Working in an inflatable kiddie pool, she and a small crew of paid and volunteer assistants transferred the liquid to large un-inflated plastic balls, which were then connected to an aesthetically engaging life-support system.

A total of 56 teardrop-shaped sacs, heavy with a multihued soup of green, are suspended in groups of four from a canopy of metal racks. Each sac is warmed by a utility lamp and connected to black tubing, tangled overhead like sinister vines. The tubes connect to a hydroponic pump that serves to aerate the algae. But this does not occur unless gallery-goers breathe into a CO2 sensor, which triggers an Arduino microcontroller to actuate a series of power switches that run the pump.

While this may sound sophisticated, it’s really a digital Rube Goldberg machine, which the participant sets into motion without seeing the precise chain of events – one of several minor mysteries that contribute to the show’s charm. Ms. Hiltner wants you, the viewer, to consider your relationship with the algae and, by extension, the planet.

Perhaps, the exhibition suggests, we are taking this life form — spirulina in this case — for granted. What if we consider this microscopic earthling something more than “other” and ponder further how we might be affecting it? “I like the idea of communicating without the infrastructure,” she says, “without any common ground.”

Like much good art, Ms. Hiltner’s doesn’t tell you what to think, or offer a linear cause-and-effect lesson. It’s more nuanced than that, and more fun. “I am drawn to the act of wonderment that leads to investigation,” she says. “I like to give people tools rather than hit them over the head with information.”

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