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Mia exhibit combines algae, sci-fi

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Alison Hiltner blows air into a mouthpiece to interact with algae.
Minneapolis artist Alison Hiltner blows air into a mouthpiece to interact with algae in sacks at the Minneapolis Institute of Art on Monday. Hiltner's solo exhibition, "It Is Yesterday," which explores the symbiosis between algae and humans, opens Thursday at the museum.
Richard Marshall for MPR News

Alison Hiltner, the artist behind a new exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, developed a love of science fiction at an early age. 

"I wasn't allowed to watch a lot of television, and only PBS shows," she recalled. "So I would watch 'Doctor Who' and 'Star Trek' with my mom. I loved it. I loved the idea of exploration and curiosity and investigation and all of those things sort of set to this magical land of make-believe — at least to a little kid."

As she grew, her tastes evolved. Now her touchstones are the movies "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "Bladerunner." One is cool and sterile; the other, a grimy cityscape. 

Minneapolis artist Alison Hiltner
"It's a bit nerve-wracking, but we'll get there," said Minneapolis artist Alison Hiltner, who was photographed at the Minneapolis Institute of Art on Monday. Hiltner's solo exhibition, "It Is Yesterday," which explores the symbiosis between algae and humans, opens Wednesday at the museum.
Richard Marshall for MPR News

Hiltner's exhibition "It Is Yesterday" has aspects of both. The main room is filled with clear plastic sacks hanging from wires. Each contains gallons of primitive green algae — cyanobacteria — gurgling and bubbling away. It's part biology lab, part lair of a mad scientist.

Off to one side is an apparatus that looks like it could be an old microphone, but viewers are supposed to breathe into it. It's hooked up to an Arduino, a simple computer. 

"When a viewer blows into this apparatus, there's a CO2 sensor that collects data from their breath, and then interprets that data through an Arduino that then turns on and off the aeration pumps," Hiltner said.

So each time someone exhales into the device, the sacks of algae respond with a pattern of gurgles. Different levels of carbon dioxide generate different responses. Suddenly, humans and algae are having a rudimentary conversation. 

Algae-laden water bubbles as it releases carbon dioxide.
Algae-laden water bubbles as it releases carbon dioxide in one of 52 3-gallon sacks as part of Minneapolis artist Alison Hiltner's solo exhibition, "It Is Yesterday."
Richard Marshall for MPR News

"I sort of patterned that off of 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind,' when they're first starting to communicate with the mother ship, and that sort of interchange of sequential noises," she said. "This time, it's bubbling and gurgling."

Hiltner is using imagery from science fiction along with an ancient life form to engage viewers on issues of climate change, said Nicole Soukup, assistant curator of contemporary art. Not until she came into contact with Hiltner's work did she learn that  algae is responsible for more than 70 percent of the earth's oxygen, Soukup said.

"It's a key part of our existence that we often don't think of in an urban environment or even growing up in Minnesota, right? Algae is the bane of your existence in the summer," she said. "I can't tell you how many conversations I had growing up about how horrible algae was and how it was killing off our lakes!"

Hiltner refers to the algae affectionately as her "kiddos." What's happening in the room is very similar to what you do at home with your houseplants, she said: You give them carbon dioxide, they give you oxygen. But now you're sharing the experience with a primitive form of algae, the same life form that created enough oxygen on this planet for humans to evolve. 

Hiltner likes to think of her work as a sort of natural history exhibit from the future. Thus the show's title, "It Is Yesterday."

Brittany Reif-Wenner, left, and Sara Wichterman help hang the show.
Brittany Reif-Wenner of St. Paul, left, and Sara Wichterman of Minneapolis work through tangles of power lines and air hoses to help mount "It Is Yesterday."
Richard Marshall for MPR News

"I'm playing around with the aspect of time and the contemplation that sometimes our actions come too late or too early," she said. "So it's the idea of trying to protect and preserve and troubleshoot a rapidly changing environment."

Hiltner said that if people can form a connection with the algae, there's hope that they will connect with their own environment in new ways.

"It Is Yesterday" opens Thursday at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.