Plume Project lights up the night sky with art

Arts / Article

Video by Asia Ward on Vimeo. Photo by Aaron Dysart.

The District Energy steam plume may be the most misunderstood of all of the Twin Cities’ landmarks. Many of the commuters who pass through downtown St. Paul each day assume it’s a column of smoke polluting the atmosphere over the Mississippi River. In reality, the plume is the byproduct of one of America’s most sustainable, renewability-focused heating and cooling plants. Soon it will also serve as an unlikely canvas for one of the more evanescent art projects Saint Paul has ever seen.

Starting with a kick-off party Nov. 17, three artists from the City Art Collaboratory will project a variety of images against the plume, effectively lighting up the night sky with their art. The Collaboratory looks for intersections between art and science within St. Paul. On a tour of the District Energy facility, artists Asia Ward, Aaron Dysart and Emily Stover began discussing the plume as an outlet for their work. “The three of us all have experience using projection and programmable lights in our public artwork,” said Ward. “It seemed natural to use the steam plume as a projection surface. It is so ghost-like and ephemeral, like a cloud. Because it lacks boundaries, and because of the reflective quality of the droplets, we wanted to know what would happen it we projected onto it.”

As a test run, the group projected images onto smoke from a campfire. They were impressed with the results and began planning a triad of science-inspired, interactive art projects. Dysart’s Solar System uses real-time NASA data to create an ever-shifting array of light and color that moves in concert with actual storms and spots on the surface of the sun. Stover’s Rumblings invites viewers to call a phone number to hear an energy-themed poem by a local poet, while the plume lights change in accord with the reading. Ward’s Plume Coloring Contest asks local residents to submit energy-related drawings and other artwork that can be magnified and projected over the city.

The group approached the Plume Project, a Knight Arts Challenge winner, as a collaborative effort, but each artist still presided over his or her own project. The result is three unique creations in service of a shared vision. “The goal was to come up with three different types of prototype displays on the plume in order to figure out if one or all could be more of a permanent project,” said Ward. “The projects are a small part of the big picture, which would be overwhelming if we tried to accomplish it alone.”

“It’s been an interesting way to work,” said Stover. “Though we’re each equal partners in the collaboration, we are also lead artists for our personal installations. We’re able to rely on the broader expertise and critical advice of each other while retaining creative control.”

While the sheer spectacle of the Plume Project is likely to be the biggest takeaway, there’s also an educational component that the artists hope won’t be lost on the audience. All three cite District Energy’s sustainable, conservation-minded approach to energy production as an inspiration. “I’ve known about the plant and what it does for years and have always thought that it should be celebrated,” said Dysart. “We all need power, and here is this very efficient system in the middle of the city, though no one knows about it. The plume is gorgeous to look at, and stems from a sustainable way to meet our needs.”

“Some people may have thought that the steam plume was an eyesore, but we saw it as something that was beautiful, dynamic, ephemeral, and hidden in plain sight,” said Stover. “It’s an honor to help expose this beauty to our city, and we’re really grateful to all of the people who are allowing us make art with it.”

The Plume Project kicks off on Tuesday, Nov. 17 with Emily Stover’s Rumblings. Aaron Dysart’s Solar System launches Dec. 22, with Asia Ward’s Plume Coloring Contest following later this winter. For more information on the Plume Project, visit To learn more about District Energy and the steam plume, visit