Art beat // Chaos afloat

A fascinating mash-up of art and science at SooVAC

THE WEDGE — It’s not every art installation that requires daily feedings, but David Bowen’s “soft chaos” does, and so Soo Visual Arts Center Executive Director Carolyn Payne had been showing up to work early in November.

Usually, that is. Running late on Thanksgiving eve, Payne was still at it when a visitor wandered in shortly after the doors opened and walked into SooVAC’s rear gallery, empty but for five small-scale helium blimps, each about 4 feet tall and carrying a little gondola.

The food — a mixture of powdered sugar and powdered milk that Payne carried in a pail — was for the pilots: a small swarm of houseflies.

“If it were rats or snakes or something, I would have a problem,” said Payne, unbothered by a few buzzing escapees as she tapped about a teaspoon of powder into the miniature crew cabin of each airship.

In what is one of the most fascinating gallery shows of the year, Bowen’s art installation-cum-science project creates an environment where biological and mechanical systems interact. It is at once beautiful, thought provoking and slightly creepy.

Bowen’s ingenious airships are controlled by the movements of their housefly crews, who live above an array of LED lights and below a grid of light sensors. As they flit about the clear-plastic gondolas, their interaction with the lights and sensors activates four small propellers.

Those propellers whirred to life when Payne, having topped off the blimps with fresh helium, released them into the gallery. They floated slowly and gracefully around the room, rising and falling, gently bumping into each other and the walls.

The spinning propellers combined into a high-pitched mechanical chorus, then faded, then picked up again as the houseflies buzzed about their cages or didn’t, according to their insect whims.

The blimps’ movements seemed random, until a fly, resting atop a sensor one supposes, sent one of the blimps careening across the room. Rising to eye level, it brought the tiny gondola’s passengers into focus.

“soft chaos” is not just about biological and mechanical systems, but about transformations: insect activity into electrical signals into mechanical movement.

Perceptions, too, are transformed; there’s little brainpower to speak of between the blimps’ circuit boards and their buzzing crews, but there is the illusion of intention. Guppies aren’t very smart either, and people keep those as pets.

Dog-like, the blimps gather at the door to Payne’s office in the evening.

“It’s kind of creepy at night when you’re alone with them,” she said. “I come out of the office and there’s three lined up at the door and it’s like, ‘Hi.’”

One so inclined could take one of Bowen’s blimps home as a pet. They’re selling for $1,500 a piece, a price that does not include a spare tank of helium or housefly food.

Of course, the flies would have to be replaced regularly. Delivered from a supplier as pupae, they generally live only two to four weeks.

And not everyone has the space for a blimp, even a small one.

Said Payne: “One board member said he would purchase one if he lived in a loft.”

Go see it

“Aoft chaos” runs through Jan. 2 at Soo Visual Arts Center, 2638 Lyndale Ave. S. 871-2263.