Alison Hiltner: It Is Yesterday

Review by Gretchen Gasterland-Gustafsson

Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program (MAEP)
Mar 16–Jun 25, 2017

Artistic collaborations between humans and animals or plants employed as art materials fascinate me with their evocative capabilities and ethical complexities, and Alison Hiltner’s It Is Yesterday does not disappoint. The structure and content of her work reflects Donna Harraway’s statement that from one perspective “a cyborg world is about the final imposition of a grid of control on the planet,” (“A Cyborg Manifesto” 154) seen in the gridded structure of control imposed on cultivated colonies of Spirulina. However, the way Hiltner’s installation presumes a mutual dependence of human and algae evokes Harraway’s other perspective that this same cyborg world “might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints” (“A Cyborg Manifesto” 154). Hiltner’s work exemplifies both of these aspects of a “cyborg world” featuring the inextricable linkage and interdependence of humans, nature, and machines in what can be read as a dystopian vision of the future we humans have already wrought through our actions. Her title for the installation certainly points us in this direction.

The viewer enters the gallery through a darkened room where a narrow letterbox shaped video fills the width of the facing wall with a moving image of a bubbling green liquid projected at eye level or above, offering the impression of being underwater. This submerged feeling quickly dissipates as one walks to the left into the more starkly lit larger chamber. While the video is not a crucial element of the piece, it does serve as a mechanized, pixilated, stuttering representation of what we would see in live action in the illuminated, living part of the display.

Hiltner’s installation juxtaposes growths of blue-green algae housed in plastic polymer sacks. These nearly body-sized sacks hang in groups of four from metal grates suspended on tension wires mounted high on the gallery walls. These multiple sets of four evoke a legion of punching bags, attached to a host of tubes, clamps, wires, lamps, and humming machines that aid in the aeration and feeding of these algae colonies. An important detail of this installation is located to the right as one enters the installation room: a round, perforated disk, attached to the wall by an adjustable arm of the type found on Anglepoise lamps. This object has accompanying wall text in a discreetly small, sans-serif black font: “Blow into this.”, surmounting the admonition: “Please do not touch.” As a viewer, your breath is wanted, not your lip or fingerprints. The whole room feels clinical—sanitized for your protection—with natural growth safely contained and artificially fostered. A didactic panel in the darkened antechamber informs you that “algae transforms carbon dioxide into oxygen accounting for seventy-five percent of the oxygen we breathe,” making algae an oft overlooked but indispensible part of the ecosystem on which we are dependent. Hiltner’s work serves simultaneously to move algae into the spotlight while also containing it in a fully controlled and artificial system. The installation is like a grow house for oxygen, and the carbon dioxide for the transformation is provided by the viewership.

Multiple or larger breath intake apparatuses would have had more impact, but Hiltner’s point is well taken. As humans we are completely dependent on the environment we are also rapidly destroying with our efficient industrial methods designed to serve human needs and the needs of capital while ignoring and overlooking the needs of the environment that sustains us. This intervention is open to both utopic and deeply ironic readings depending on how you as the viewer absorb the display: if you offer a puff of your exhaled CO2 you can create the conditions for these hardworking algae colonies to manufacture oxygen for your life force! CO2 for algae, and oxygen for us—that is what makes it mutual!—a kind of air co-op.

Multiple or larger breath intake apparatuses would have had more impact, but Hiltner’s point is well taken. As humans we are completely dependent on the environment we are also rapidly destroying with our efficient industrial methods designed to serve human needs and the needs of capital while ignoring and overlooking the needs of the environment that sustains us. This intervention is open to both utopic and deeply ironic readings depending on how you as the viewer absorb the display: if you offer a puff of your exhaled CO2 you can create the conditions for these hardworking algae colonies to manufacture oxygen for your life force! CO2 for algae, and oxygen for us—that is what makes it mutual!—a kind of air co-op.

Sound and smell play roles in this ironic impression as well. When confronted with algae, which as a Minnesotan I associate with warm summer months, I recall a heavy smell containing both green growth and rot, and the sounds of bugs and birds along with the usual traffic noises. While inside the installation, I kept remembering a line from a Firehouse song: “from these machines, hums come; engaging, releasing, lapping, and plunging,” as I listened to the electrified hums, clicks, and burbles of the machinery as it cycled on and off, as far from natural sounds as those heard in any laboratory. Blue-green algae blooms are considered dangerous to human and animal health when they break out in bodies of water, but Spirulina is also marketed as a miraculous high-protein superfood and dietary supplement, so maybe Hiltner’s containment strategy is warranted for this taxonomically slippery algae, understood as a kind of transitional state of being between plant and animal. Perhaps this algae with its strangely varying green hues already lends itself to Hiltner’s science fiction film set treatment. The invitation to participate with one’s breath, and the spectacle of contained growth, perhaps promising our own delayed decay in the oxygen infusion offered, make this installation a compelling one to return to over the course of its run to monitor progress.

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