116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — A popular nighttime alley is finally getting its moment in the limelight.
But Iowa City’s latest permanent public art installation in the alley between South Dubuque Street and South Linn Street, just north of US Bank, is more than a simple spotlight — and it comes in just about every color.
The new tensile sculpture and motion-sensitive interactive light installation unveiled Oct. 6 displays different colors at various speeds, depths and brightness levels, depending on how many people are in the alley and how they’re moving.
“When a pedestrian enters the alley a sprite — cluster of light — zips across the length of the alley to greet them and stays with them as they walk though,” said Jason Snell, the creator of the new art’s lighting control system. “Each person gets a new color. When people meet in the alleyway, their colors mix.”
So on a busy night outside of adjacent Studio 13 or Elray’s nightclubs, for example, sensors will calculate the density of how many people are in the alley.
“It’s like the system is having a party with the people in the alley below it,” Snell said.
Using a body of water as a metaphor, Jason said each pedestrian will cause their own ripples, adding up to a big splash of light with multiple people. Demonstrating the full effects and abilities of the new public art was a dance and music performance Friday evening.
Aside from its “pedestrian mode,” Snell said a “concert mode” can take audio input signals and translate them into light activity — a feature he’s hoping bands and artists will take advantage of to enhance their performances.
“I want this system to be used by other artists. It is a public art system,” he said.
Though work on the system started in 2019, it took until now for the lighting installation — a roughly $40,000 venture between public art grants and Iowa City Downtown District (ICDD) funding — to become a reality. Though the art was inspired by the “H” style utility poles that give the alley a unique identity and sense of place downtown, the poles themselves had to be replaced for the project to continue.
After receiving MidAmerican Energy’s blessing, the project’s lead architect said they soon realized the utility poles were rotted, prompting a delay so they could be replaced.
Though they ran into some delays, the project design itself was simple, said Steve Miller, architect for Slingshot Architecture. Using white half-inch braided polyester rope over the alley, the tensile structure mimics the look of nearby utility poles and reflects the light projected on it. The material was chosen for its longevity and resistance to stretching and weathering.
Slingshot Architecture’s vision for the alley first focused on the need for additional lighting to improve entrances for nearby businesses and pedestrian safety. But with the functional art, those involved hope to illuminate a new identity for the alley that will increase public use and catalyze further investment in downtown alleyways.
For both Snell and Miller, revitalizing an alley with such a unique lighting system was a first.
Snell has been creating sensor-based systems for about five years, and starting working with motion sensors fives ago with dancers in Berlin, Germany. In 2017, he started working with headbands that could transform electric waves from the brain, allowing users to compose music with their thoughts. He also had a temporary installation in an Old Capital parking ramp stairwell that triggered light and sound with pedestrian movement, composing a slowly evolving song.
With temperature sensors in the alley installation, the city can use software he created for the system to use warm colors in cold weather or cool colors when it’s hot out.
Improvements for the alley won’t end with the completion of this first phase, said Nancy Bird, executive director of the Iowa City Downtown District. In the second and third phases, they’ll seek to repave the alley in 2023 and improve solid waste collection. By doing this, she said she hopes to further activate the alley for special events or an improved daily pathway.
“It is great to see the first dramatic step of our larger plans for this alley get implemented and we are extremely grateful to all of our partners in planning, engineering and public art that have been working diligently to make this happen,” she said in a news release. “This is another showcase demonstrating that collaboration and innovation in public art is a great path forward for creating safer spaces while setting the stage for business and civic vibrancy.”
The ICDD’s overall strategic plan includes a number of initiatives focused on improving the pedestrian experience.
“There are a lot of opportunities that could unfold in the coming years if we continue to seek it out,” Bird said.
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