Aaron Dysart is great at art and bad at science, but he loves them both. It's as if one can't exist without the other.
"To me, science is great. I love it. I am a science geek," he said. "I am a crappy scientist because I get fascinated and go on tangents and I am not a precise person. That's not what interests me."
Scientists gather data and distill it into meaningful results. Dysart takes other people's scientific data and transforms it into colors, lights and other optics that people can experience together. But you wouldn't necessarily know that from just looking at his artwork.
Born in Minnetonka and based now in Minneapolis, Dysart has lived in the Twin Cities for most of his life, aside from his college years, when he studied religion and philosophy at the University of Montana in Missoula before returning home and attending grad school at the University of Minnesota.
Currently he is the City Artist of St. Paul, and his work has been seen around town, projected on places both familiar and surprising. Chances are you've come across it — from a collection of glowing rocks that respond to temperature in front of the St. Paul YMCA, to a projection on the decommissioned St. Anthony Lock and Dam, where he created an immersive light experience based on data from handwritten logbooks kept by lockmasters over the past 50 years.
Now he moves his art back indoors for "Passage," an exhibition opening Saturday at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. The show is simple yet scientifically complex, and contains only two pieces.
For "Latitude," he had seven nylon "tube dancers" — the ones often found on the street, used to sell cellphones or used cars — custom-made, and changed the shade of the colors as they flickered and floated around. Each tube is linked to eddy flux towers gathering atmospheric data across the globe, hence the piece's name.
"They don't just measure the amount of carbon dioxide present in the air, they measure the direction of which it is moving," said Dysart. "So scientists can figure out if the land is releasing more CO2 or sequestering it."
Jack Becker, former executive director of Forecast Public Art, has known Dysart since 2009, when the artist received a grant to build a boat out of 600 pounds of soap and row it in the Mississippi River in an effort to metaphorically "clean it up."
"He's very much about the experience of bringing people together," said Becker. "He creates a communal experience, or a social experience — especially his use of disco balls and trees, stuff like that, which kind of reminds me of the Surrealists, like [Marcel] Duchamp putting a bicycle wheel on a stool. It forces you to think about these juxtapositions."
Data vs. color
Dysart seems to have two worlds going on in his art — one connected to nature, the other to data visualization.
In his recent project "Byproduct," the façade of the Fulton Brewery's taproom was covered in colors that shifted as they were generated from a huge mirror ball. The colors embodied data from a sustainable wastewater project.
He worked on the project with Paige Novak, a professor in the U of M's Department of Civil, Environmental and Geo-Engineering whom he met at a conference. She was excited by the idea of reaching more people with the data by transforming it into art, light and color.
But Dysart also liked how the project brought people together. "People drink beer because of its carbon dioxide and alcohol byproducts, which are just the yeast cell living its life," he said.
Dysart "is clearly inspired by data and information that others might find totally boring and uninteresting," said Becker, "and he is using it to animate or enliven or bring attention to something that is otherwise invisible."
As people sipped beer at Fulton, they were immersed in a stream of color driven by data. Sometimes the lights went dark, depending on whether the bioreactors went down — a variability of real science.
It was a secretly powerful experience that the drinkers weren't even aware of, unless they read the wall label explaining it.
"I am interested in the spectacle and the visual power of what's happening to create something lovely, and then as you read and dive deeper and deeper it has these kind of layers — it's not just a pretty spectacle," said Dysart.
"It is based on this real science, and the experiments happening are about people trying to be better members of the community."
Aaron Dysart: Latitude
Where: Minneapolis Institute of Art, 2400 3rd Av. S.
When: Nov. 20-Feb. 27. Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Fri.-Sun. & Tue.-Wed., 10-9 Thu.