Plume Project aims to make art in St. Paul's sky

The project uses the steam from the power plant.
The Plume Project uses the steam plume from the District Energy St Paul plant on the edge of downtown because it is so visible from so many places.
Euan Kerrr | MPR News

The steam plume that floats over downtown St. Paul debuts as a work of art Tuesday night. Over the next three months the plume will become a brightly lit repository of poetry, information and even pictures.

On a recent windy night, Emily Stover huddled in the lee of the Science Museum and looked up at the vapor plume rising from the District Energy St. Paul power plant. When asked, "Why the plume?" she had a quick response:

"Why not the plume?" she said, laughing. "I can't think of a place that's more St. Paul."

The plume is hard to miss in downtown St. Paul, particularly in the colder months. It blossoms out of the plant and over the city, its size dependent on the wind and how hard the plant is working.

It's usually a pristine white. But during the evening hours through January, it'll be a rainbow of constantly changing colors. An array of lights installed inside the stack switches the color from baby blue to rich magenta, then volcanic red and beyond.

But the colors are just the beginning. Tuesday night sees the launch of Stover's project "Rumblings," in which she adds the work of six poets to the mix.

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"People can access those poems by calling a phone number, which will trigger the light show while they are listening to the poems," she said. "So the plant actually seems to speak their words."

One of the poets is local writer and singer Dessa, who reads her poem, "Circle Games." It begins:

If you had a thermal image of me now,/The pits of my eyes would be brightest,/Recessed and dipping closest to the core ...

It's an oddly powerful sensation, seeing the huge plume come alive, popping and bubbling to the cadence of the words whispered in your ear by a poet through your phone.

It's a personal experience, too. Only one caller at a time can hear a poem. Other callers are put on hold until it's their turn. People in the queue will hear music by the local band Father You See Queen. "Rumblings" runs through Dec. 8.

Next up is Aaron Dysart's project, "Solar System." He's linking the lights to information fed from a NASA observatory monitoring nine spots on the sun.

"So as the surface of the sun changes, whether there's a flare or a sunspot, that will directly correlate with a change of color and intensity on the plume," he said.

Dysart hopes the beauty of the project will get people thinking about energy and how the power generated by the plant originally came from the sun.

"I like how there's layers if you investigate," he said. "Just like this plant, it has this beautiful plume, but as you investigate what makes it, it has layer upon layer of meaning, and beauty within that as well." "Solar System" runs Dec. 22 through Jan. 8.

Nine lights are linked to a control console.
Nine lights linked to a control console have been installed inside the stack at the District Energy St Paul plant for the project. They can quickly change the color of the vapor plume.
Euan Kerrr | MPR News

The final project is called "Plume Coloring Contest." Artist Asia Ward will use a huge projector to display images in the plume.

"It's not just a flat surface, it has three-dimensional space," she said. "So the image takes on this almost three-dimensional quality to it, because it's projecting onto a cloud that ebbs and flows and moves."

As its name suggests, the Plume Coloring Contest is open to the public. Ward will put out a call in early December for images on the theme of positive energy. The project will coincide with the Winter Carnival in January.

Artists Asia Ward, Aaron Dysart and Emily Stover
Artists Asia Ward, Aaron Dysart and Emily Stover stand in front of the District Energy St Paul Power Plant.
Euan Kerrr | MPR News

Each image will be given a specific time slot so its creator can come down and see his or her work against the night sky. Ward says all three of the artists are also offering webcam options for people who can't, or don't want to, be there in person.

"So if it's too freaking cold, and you just want to see it happen, you can look at it from the plume cam," she said.

Ward admitted she is inspired by the bat signal from the Batman stories. But the inspiration for the Plume Project came from Nina Axelson, a vice president at District Energy St. Paul. She was looking for ways to educate people about the plant and energy use. She hopes the project will inspire them.

"This has never been done before," she said. "Ever."

She said the Plume Project is already generating excitement in her industry, so it could live on.

"We presented on this in Boston, and people from other countries came to us and said, 'Can we hire your plume-vendors?'" Axelson said. "I said, 'Well, I'll ask them and see if they want to go to Qatar.'"

If nothing else, it would be warmer than January in St. Paul.