A Solar Powered Art Installation at The Bakken Museum


A Solar Powered Art Installation at The Bakken Museum

Created by Artist Daniel Dean and a Team of Young Inventors

The Bakken Museum’s innovative Green Energy Art (GEArt) program, which recently sponsored a fascinating project with multi-media artist Daniel Dean, falls under the supervision of deputy director of programs Kelly O. Finnerty. It is inspired by The Bakken’s institutional goals of creating green energy awareness and inviting artists to release some of the creative spirit that is at the foundation of the Bakken’s collection of medical electronics, beginning with objects from as early as the 17th century.

Inviting Daniel to be the museum’s first artist in residence was an easy decision for Kelly and her staff to make. They all knew him to be an experienced and well-established artist who was already working on large-scale public art projects. Part of what he brings to all of his projects is a strategy of “defamiliarizing the familiar,” so that audiences come to understand spaces and sounds differently than the way they saw or heard them before. As a teacher, Daniel shares the Bakken’s values of encouraging creative experimentation with materials, which they both see as integral to the scientific and creative process.

Over nine months (?) Daniel worked closely with a team of high school students with many years of experience in the Bakken’s youth Inventor Program. Daniel was also the GEArt project manager, which included buying materials, scheduling meetings, and compiling the important Google docs and Tumblr that documented the process from whiteboard to installation. From the outset it was important that this project was a collaboration between Daniel, the Young Inventors, Bakken staff and engineering mentors. This meant that they did not begin with a final piece in mind, which like the mission of the Bakken Museum, is an ethos that embraces the process of creative inquiry.

Daniel and the Young Inventors started with some discussions about specific environmental factors and the tropes used to describe technological and social media networks, such as solar power, beehives, super-organisms and mega-fauna. Yet, three months into the project, Daniel said to himself, “I’m not sure we were going to get this done.” Like other art projects that don’t have a predetermined outcome, the group eventually pushed through this muddy middle stage, reaching a collective agreement on the direction the project would take. This decision making process instilled the importance of everyone taking some ownership of their individual role in the project. For example, each student was asked to talk about what they brought to the table. They then came up with their own job description, like “freethinker” or “solar sound specialist.” As a mother of a student commented, “The Green Energy project made the most of each member’s skills under the guidance of a gifted professional. The Young Inventors/Artists experienced the benefit of that type of collaboration by creating an artwork which illustrated how the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” 

Together, with the kids’ knowledge of music and solar energy and Daniel’s aesthetic interest in exploring the limits of technology, replicating natural sounds posed some rewarding challenges and thought provoking problems for the team to solve. As Bakken volunteer John King, the team’s engineering mentor, said during a recent interview, “Each decision is a problem. So there are hundreds of problems we solved in getting this from an idea to something that was mounted out there in the yard.” And once all of those problems were solved, the final project, titled “solarsonicinfinitysystem,” was installed in the summer of 2014 on the Bakken’s outdoor green rooftop gallery.

It’s design and presentation articulates some the tensions between nature and creativity, as well as the group’s interests in self-sustaining systems and the limits of technology. Even though the design, programming and speaker system are quite complex, the project is dependent on a direct connection with the sun and its coexistence with nature. The central pink Plexiglas octahedron, filled with solar powered motors, was directly inspired by the group’s interest in beehives and communal labor. “solarsonicinfinitysystem”’s transparency is an intentional DIY aesthetic; it reveals all of the welded hardware that makes the sculpture work but it also puts an accent on the tenuousness of technological fabrications. Embedded into the bamboo structure that holds up the central hive are circuits that randomly cycle through programmed translations of natural sounds. It was important that the final project embraced a certain amount of sonic inaccuracy and failure so that the mimicked birds and insects are not convincing enough to sound like the real thing.

With their well-established Young Inventors group, the Bakken is perfectly situated to cultivate and inspire new thinking in collaboration with artists like Daniel Dean. Ecological and transnatural art projects like  “solarsonicinfinitysystem,” which are at the intersection of biological systems and natural resources, and include creative interventions using repurposed consumer technologies, are going to continues to gain prominence with scientists and theorists. And, as the Bakken pursues new museum practices of inviting artists to work in their spaces, programs like GEArt will inspire people young and old with new perspectives on science and creativity while bringing an exciting new vitality and interest to the museum’s campus and collections.

-Author Christopher Atkins is coordinator of the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. He has curated and juried numerous museum exhibitions, co-developed site-specific installations, and worked on various artist-in-residency programs. His interests in visual cultures, critical theory, and literature inform all of his reviews, essays, and research projects.