Life cycle

Getting intimate with cyanobacteria at the Minneapolis Institute of Art

Installation views of the MAEP exhibition "Alison Hiltner: It Is Yesterday"; 16 March 2017 - 25 June 2017; U.S. Bank Gallery; gallery 257; organized by Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program; Minneapolis Institute of Art

The nervous pangs Alison Hiltner was experiencing at the start of a recent work week were of the type you might associate with a vacationing dog owner who left her precious pet at the kennel. She knows the dog is fine, but she can’t help but wonder — maybe even feel a little guilty.

“This is the first Monday I actually skipped to go check on it,” she admitted over the phone. “But that’s mostly nerves. It does take maintenance. It is a living thing, so it has unpredictability programmed into it.

“It’s sort of like, ‘Hey, you’re doing great, kiddos.’ But next week there could be a problem. It’s sort of hard to say.

“I’ve tried to test for as many variables as possible, but there’s always the unknown variables. And they will eventually evaporate.”

There’s your clue. These “kiddos” are no ordinary pet. They are thriving, deep-green colonies of cyanobacteria, bubbling away in several dozen individual micro-environments, unaware that they are the stars of Hiltner’s first museum solo-exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, “It is Yesterday.”

In an attempt to create a more intimate connection between human viewers and these ancient, primitive organisms, Hiltner suspends her cyanobacteria soup at close to eye level in clear plastic sacks (actually upcycled vinyl beach balls). The sacks, illuminated by grow lights, hang in clusters of four from metal racks attached to the gallery ceiling, and above the racks snake yards of black plastic tubing that feed into the sacks, regularly releasing a stream of bubbles to aerate the cyanobacteria. When the air compressor kicks in, the sound filling the gallery is like a bubbling hot tub.

Hiltner is inspired both by science and sci-fi, and her mixed-media sculpture and installation art has over the years taken on an increasingly cinematic sheen — growing more convincing, while never exactly hiding the fact that it’s been assembled out of consumer goods and manufactured objects. An installation of biomechanical jellyfish at The Soap Factory in 2014 was an almost magical transformation of LED lighting and plastic tubing. At Mia, she takes a minimalist approach, but she doesn’t need to create much of an illusion; what looks like a lab for culturing cyanobacteria is essentially that.

This particular lab looks like it could be found on the lower deck of an orbiting space colony, but that’s just Hiltner using the visual tropes of science fiction to draw us in.

“Sci-fi, in particular, weaves this thread of being accessible for the general population, to kind of start and engage that curiosity about the natural world (and) technology,” she said.

Hiltner’s studio became cyanobacteria farm over a year ago, when she began cultivating the first of the aquatic photosynthesizers in fish tanks. If she manifests some emotional attachment to these microorganisms, maybe it’s more accurate to compare her to the patient gardener who dotes on her tulips and begonias.

And anyway, cyanobacteria could hardly be considered a pet. In fact, some cyanobacteria are toxic to the type of higher-order beings we usually keep as pets, like dogs, who can become ill or even die after lapping up toxic blue-green algae blooms — a misnomer, since it’s cyanobacteria and not algae that cause them.

Other types of cyanobacteria are harmless or, even better, downright nutritious, like spirulina, which you may have met in a teal-tinted post-workout smoothie — if you’re into that kind of thing. Certainly, most everyone is into our planet’s life-sustaining, oxygen-rich atmosphere, and for that we can also thank cyanobacteria.

Relatives of Hiltner’s “kiddos” were around more than 3 billion years ago — as we know from some of the oldest fossils on record — and they were responsible for producing enough oxygen to alter the chemistry of our atmosphere, so that the primordial muck of the Archaen Eon could eventually give way more complex animals — including us, eventually.

Which leads us back to Hiltner’s exhibition at Mia, where the artist offers us a chance to repay, at least symbolically, the tremendous debt we owe these little guys. At what looks like a microphone attached to the gallery wall, visitors are invited to blow into a sensor. The carbon dioxide levels of a person’s breath determine the amount of aeration fed into each of the little colonies.

“Of course we all appreciate having a beautiful environment and going into the woods or going to a park, but there is still this separation. I’m trying to delve into a more personal experience,” Hiltner explained. “I’m always like, oh, this sounds so crazy-weird, but what if it felt like a budding relationship?”

She said she aimed to create a “rudimentary form of communication” between human beings and cyanobacteria. When you visit, you might lean into the sensor and whisper a breathy “thank you.”

Hiltner’s exhibition takes us into the far past, to the deepest roots of life on earth, but it also forces us to think about our relationship to our planet and the other life-forms that share it now, at what feels to many like a pivotal moment.

“Nature can be nice to us if we are nice to them. That’s what my philosophy is, at least,” Hiltner said. “If we stop messing up, then we’ll be OK.”


It is Yesterday

Where: Minneapolis Institute of Art

When: Through June 25

Info:, 870-3000