Seeing art in a steam plant’s plume

Arts / Article

Video projection on a steam cloud.

Four St. Paul artists are coming together to create public art with organizations that have a positive environmental impact. Their 2014 Knight Arts Challenge award winning Plume Project is made up of three distinctive components conceived of individually but created with shared resources, connections and equipment.

And all area created for the canvas created by District Energy’s plume.

The Plume Project started after a group of artists from the Saint Paul Collaboratory toured the District Energy steam plant. Andrea Steudel had the idea of working creatively with the plume in some sort of projected way. So she pulled together an Avengers-style crew of artists she knew might have different testable ideas. Steudel, Aaron Dysart, Emily Stover and Asia Ward got together over a campfire, and put on a pot of water so they could experiment with the steam. Slowly a multi-faceted, large-scale idea emerged. The Plume Project team (from left to right): Andrea Steudel, Asia Ward, Emily Stover, Aaron Dysart.

One of the reasons the Plume Project became three disparate but connected components is because on their initial tour of the District Energy plant. On that outing, the artists didn’t have a specific goal, which opened everyone up to looking for possibilities. Aaron Dysart says it highlights the power of touring somewhere or learning something without a specific end in mind.

“I think artists come at it in a completely different way. So I think each one of us had a weird, slightly skewed interest,” Dysart said.

The artists have come up with a plan to use the plume as a canvas with three different approaches.

Dysart, a sculptor with a lot of experience working with wood, is leading a component called Solar System. It will highlight the central role of energy in people’s lives by using the surface of the sun to dictate the lighting of the plume.

Data from NASA’s Solar Dynamic Observatory will control the color and brightness of theatrical flood-lights on the plume.

“I’m trying to relate systems that we wouldn’t see as similar. So, taking the sun, which is the power plant of the solar system, and mapping that structure on the central power plant in the city. It’s really about seeing a microcosm and macrocosm in how they relate rather than that they are so different or apart from each other,” Dysart said.

“I think humans tend to posit themselves outside the system when, in fact, we’re under it.”

Asia War’s Positive Energy, is a large scale drawing contest, with the plume as the canvas for local residents to fill with images of what positive energy means to them. Ward says, “My focus comes from an educational stand point but I also want to get people involved, so, my project is more like making a way where people can put their own work on the plume without having to be an expert or artist or professional.” Positive Energy will encourage participation in recognizing a landmark energy facility, give local residents a spectacular platform to express themselves, and bring awareness of basic energy concepts and consumption to St. Paul. 

“I want people to be able to learn a little something and also be proud of something they can see on a floating cloud-like object,” Ward said.

Emily Stover, meanwhile,  considers her work “to be about the way we live together in the land. And in urban environments that involves infrastructure. There’s this intersection of order and chaos and the natural and built environment,” Stover said. Her component, “Poems from the Source,” seeks to reveal the hidden rhythms of the city’s underground energy systems by synchronizing a private and poetic experience with a public light display.

“I’m going to have poets compose short pieces of work that can be heard via telephone. You dial a certain number that will trigger a light show that corresponds to the poems,” Stover said. “This plant touches everybody in the city and my work will hopefully make them more aware of it.”

Steudel not only brought the cohort together but is now working as the overall producer, keeping things moving and building and maintaining relationships with their partners at District Energy. And all four artists agree that District Energy has been a surprisingly supportive and open partner.

The clear communication from District Energy and overt excitement about the project has made the artists even more motivated, to the point of making it really feel like a shared project. Stover went on to describe the way District Energy’s support has impacted them, “It’s sort of gone beyond site-specific to relationship specific. It’s weird, but every time we walk out of there I feel like we’ve been in a big business cuddle.”

Dysart agrees. “We’re dealing with an industry and a business and we find ourselves raving about this plant. At times I’ve sounded like I’m a spokesperson for what they do but I kind of feel that way because I love the plant and what it does so much,” Dysart said. “I’ve installed in weird places before and inevitably you end up having to deal with the people who run the facilities and even the guy who runs the facilities for District Energy, Mike Burns, has just been like, ‘what do you need?’

While they’ve already begun experimenting with components of the Plume Project, the planned fully launch is set for the winter of 2015.

You can follow their progress and find out what you can do to help by going to