"Adorable" and "easygoing" is how Alison Hiltner describes the algae she's been cultivating for her new exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. It's been three years since she first got serious about the organism 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 that has one foot planted firmly in science fiction and the other dipped into larger scientific and existential musings.
Overall, 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 uninflated 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 gallerygoers 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.
The lab-like landscape feels vaguely familiar, like any of several sci-fi movie sets from the last 30 years. But it's also wry and humane — appropriate, since Hiltner wants you, the viewer, to consider your relationship with the algae and, by extension, the planet.
Hiltner is working with spirulina, commonly known as algae but since 1962 considered a cyanobacteria, among the most primitive life-forms on Earth. Perhaps, the exhibition suggests, we are taking this life form 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."
(Screenwriters, take note: Hiltner had been working with this premise long before the premiere of "Arrival," the Oscar-nominated movie that explored alien communications.)
A self-described sci-fi geek, Hiltner enjoyed "Arrival" and counts "Blade Runner" as an aesthetic influence. She loves "Dr. Who" and what she calls the "smoke and mirrors of bad TV science fiction." She likes seeing "the guts of machines" and takes an inquiring, tinkering approach to developing art — she calls it "ever-evolving research and development."
While improvisation is a given, Hiltner doesn't leave much to chance; she prepared 3-D drawings of the gallery layout and sought advice on structural design of the overhead armature. She hired a tech-savvy fellow artist, Maxwell Hoaglund, to lead programming and experimented with algae containers before and after a 2015 prototype exhibition at Concordia College.
Like much good art, 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.''
In high school, Hiltner flirted with becoming a genetic engineer, but found her enthusiasm dampened by Advanced Placement biology and chemistry classes. "I decided it would be more fun to play one on TV," she quips. She went on to earn a BFA at the University of Kansas and an MFA at the U of M.
Earlier works included "Sweat Sucking Business Suits" (2004), comical contraptions for stressed-out executives. "Manifest Destiny," a 2009 show in Bethesda, Md., ate up gallery walls with huge virus-like structures, made from such humble materials as balloons, hot glue and rubber bands.
It was during a 2014 Soap Factory residency that she first explored kinetic sculpture, using minuscule vibration motors in the ends of long, dangling strands of silicone, turning inert material in an anxious, mesmerizing life-form.
Hiltner's mind is an inventor's warehouse of materials, cultural references and facts about algae, which is being explored as an energy source and planetary carbon dioxide scrubber. One scientist, Hiltner said, is studying the movement of algal cilia to understand lung disease. Spirulina has been touted as a "miracle food."
Of course, some algae is seen as a cause or harbinger of environmental degradation: Arctic algae may be hastening glacial melt; harmful algae blooms have become an annual pattern, stoked by excess nutrient runoff and global warming.
In May, before the show at the Art Institute has closed, Hiltner will be installing a related exhibition in Skien, Norway, and, this fall, a solo show at Rochester Community and Technical College. Lest she become preoccupied with the next set of buckets, tubes and processors, Hiltner is focusing on the near term and seeking ways to relax.
To that end, she says, "I'm into YouTube videos of people taking things apart."