Alison Hiltner's creepy-cool sci-fi art is a commentary on climate change

These pods are part of an interactive installation.

These pods are part of an interactive installation. Alison Hiltner

With elements that grow and change before your eyes, artist Alison Hiltner has created a living sculpture that is part science experiment, part science-fiction fantasy. For her upcoming exhibition at the MAEP Galleries at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, Hiltner uses microorganisms as her medium, growing them in giant plastic sacs that hang from the ceiling in a post-apocalyptic, surreal setup.

MAEP: Alison Hiltner

Minneapolis Institute of Art

Hiltner doesn’t have a science background, but she calls herself a science fan. “I’m not claiming to be an expert,” she says. “I am intrigued by the sciences, but ultimately I’m a storyteller. I love the visual tropes of science fiction.”

Upon entering the gallery, you’ll encounter a projection of bubbles that were filmed in a cultivation tank, which is connected to the installation. As you enter the larger room, you are then greeted by a forest of sacs filled with something called cyanobacteria. These are sometimes called “blue-green algae.” It’s a primitive form of algae, one that’s a building block of our atmosphere.

The installation also includes a sensor, constructed to look like a mouth piece from a vintage telephone or old microphone. You can breathe into it, which affects the rhythm of the cyanobacteria. Hiltner describes the reaction as “an excited conversation.” The sensor is actually evaluating co2 levels of your breath.

The immediate interaction between viewer and object creates a simplistic interaction of sorts with nature. As you breathe, you are having a direct and immediate effect on it, unlike out in the greater world, where a human’s effect on the Earth goes a lot more slowly.

Unearthed in Hiltner’s sometimes humorous, sometimes foreboding work is a commentary on climate change. Using sensory data as part of how the piece evolves, the work creates personalized experience on the relationship between humans and the natural world. By recording sensory data in real time, collected from visitors, Hiltner comments on the impact of humans on the natural world, using cyanobacteria as a microcosm for that relationship.

“[The work] is an exploration in forging some kind of intimate connection with the viewer to incite curiosity,” Hiltner says. The hope is that people who experience the work will become driven to invest in the world around them.

Hiltner’s preparations for creating the piece is based on a lot of research. “Contemporarily speaking, we have access to a great deal of information through the internet,” she says. For example, part of her research involved visiting the algae laboratory at the U of M.

Hiltner chose cyanobacteria instead of actual algae because it’s easier to cultivate and produce. “Also it has a stunning green color to it,” she says. “It’s the color a child would literally pick up to color a plant.”


Alison Hiltner
MAEP Galleries at Mia
There will be a public reception tonight, Thursday, March 16, from 6 to 9 p.m.