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Iowa City artists create calming experience atop downtown parking ramp

The top level of the Chauncey Swan Parking Ramp in downtown Iowa City is the setting for #x201c;The Parking Space,#x201d
The top level of the Chauncey Swan Parking Ramp in downtown Iowa City is the setting for “The Parking Space,” a free, interactive public art experience created by (from left) writer/poet Steven Willis, composer Ramin Roshandel and choreographer Stephanie Miracle. They describe it as a “curious, multidisciplinary audio journey full of questions, reflections and illuminations of the ordinary. It can be accessed online through next fall. (Photos courtesy of Stephanie Miracle)
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Three Iowa City creatives have found the perfect place to park their art — atop the Chauncey Swan Parking Ramp.

The public is invited to park themselves in “The Parking Space,” a free 27-minute site-specific, open-air, interactive listening experience designed to calm participants. They’ll hear bits of history, soothing music and meditations as they discover the changing scenery from various vantage points overlooking downtown Iowa City — and in one instance, be invited to dance as if no one is watching.

All that’s needed are a willing spirit, headphones and a cellphone, tablet or other internet-enabled portable device to plug into the piece conceived and created by choreographer Stephanie Miracle, 38, composer Ramin Roshandel, 33, and writer/poet Steven Willis, 27, all part of the University of Iowa community.

They created the $4,000 project with a $2,000 Public Art matching grant from the City of Iowa City and their own artistic contributions. It’s open now, and will remain available through next fall.

For Miracle, a UI visiting dance instructor, the idea grew out of her previous project, “Mammals in Captivity,” a 25-minute participatory podcast based on exhibits in the UI Museum of Natural History.

Originally conceived as a modern dance “tour” moving through the mammal exhibits, the UI closed the museum before the dancers could film their works. That forced Miracle and her students to pivot into an all-audio realm.

The online piece, posted in July, began with the sounds of nature, as well as music composed by Roshandel, and moved into narration, sensory exploration and bits of history and science.

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Miracle used that as a springboard for “The Parking Space.”

Beginnings

“With the pandemic continuing, I had been interested in working with this form a bit more, but was looking for ways for it to be more participatory and physical,” she said. “I knew Steven through the university, and I had actually intended on having him be a voice in the museum project, but because the live version got canceled, we didn’t get to build on that relationship.

“Then I happened to see him walking his dog in the park one day over the summer, and it just reminded me how much I really wanted to get the opportunity to work with him.”

Miracle and Roshandel already were discussing setting a student work in a parking lot to film for the recent UI virtual Dance Gala. That set in motion the notion of bring Willis onboard for a new public art installation. Securing the city’s matching grant was the key component, and talks began in earnest in August, before the start of the UI fall semester.

“It just started with some conversations and walks and visiting different places, and that’s how it began,” Miracle said.

Willis admitted being a little wary at first. An active writer and much-lauded slam poet, he will receive an MFA in acting from the UI in 2021.

“I felt like I had so much on my plate,” he said, but Miracle’s energy and enthusiasm won him over.

“There was a moment where I almost was like, ‘No,’ but when I saw the willingness she was going to take to write the grant, I said, ‘I have to.’ When you see someone who really has a passion about something, and has a glow and aura — and I remember saying in one of the emails, ‘I’m for sure you’ll get the grant — I could just tell the way things were aligning,” he said. “It was one of the best decisions that I made. I hope people really enjoy it.”

Roshandel was ready to run with a project well-suited to the pandemic and its physical distancing protocols.

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“I really liked the idea ... that people need something to listen to, something to think about, to just calm down a little bit after all these past few months,” Roshandel said. “This was the first idea of the piece — something calming that would happen at that specific spot. We had dance movement, music and poems or text in mind.”

They hiked and biked the city, looking for the ideal spot in which to merge their artistry.

“I was really surprised by the amount of time spend just talking about this,” said Roshandel, a Ph.D. candidate in the UI’s composition program. “One of the very first meetings that we had, Steve asked, ‘What does Iowa City mean for each of you?’ We had a short chat at the parking space, and then we decided to go to the Kinnick Stadium.

“I think we sat down and talked for like, two hours. These three different aspects or perspectives were very interesting for me, and to see which direction this would go. In other words, how these three different directions can converge into one.”

Sense of Identity

Roshandel, a native of Iran, said the projects he’s created during his four years in Iowa City have been “attempts for me to find myself — find my new identity in this culture, dealing with this language. ... Just being involved in this project, in this specific town, in this specific space, is valuable to me.”

For Willis, who born and raised in Chicago, then moved to New York for college and the UI for grad school, Iowa City is “a place of possibilities,” which translates to “The Parking Space.”

“One of the things I talked about with Stephanie and Ramin was this idea of community,” he said, “and one of the things about being in small-town Midwestern cities, is that’s a huge component of it. I admitted that I didn’t always feel like a participant in the community as much as I was an observer.”

No matter how hard he tried, he never quite felt like an Iowa Citian. “Doing projects like this, where we most literally took over a space, was necessary for me to feel that way.”

It’s also a bridge between his various UI studies and Iowa City creations.

“What I talk about in the project was necessary because the biggest part of all artistic pedagogy in the Western world is very much centered around the present moment, connection to the breath, where it is in the body, acting on impulses. To come to this project the way it turned out, is kind of full circle,” he said.

“It’s saying, ‘Hey, everything you’ve been learning about the past two and a half years about what it means to be an artist and what it means to have a creative process, is kind of what the world needs to just survive right now as a person. So in a way again, Iowa City and this project becomes a necessary experience to really understand that.”

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In the year and a half that Miracle has been here, the Oklahoma native who has lived coast to coast and in Germany has discovered Iowa City has “all these little pockets or portals of entrance. ... Part of it is the approachability of a small town, and there is a creative sparkle to it.”

The team talked about ways to represent the city’s complexity and “the historical layering — what the parking garage is built on,” Miracle said. “And instead of presenting answers with the project, this returning to the breath, sitting with some questions, using your visual faculties, your other senses to survey what you can see, and locating yourself in the present moment to those histories or complexities.

“I felt like the three of us were actively investigating those possibilities, and through this project, we invite people to do the same. We don’t know more than the listener, per se, we’re just inviting them to be with us in that enquiry.”

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

At a Glance

• What: “The Parking Space,” a site-specific, outdoor interactive listening piece

• Where: Top floor, Chauncey Swan Parking Ramp, 415 E. Washington St., Iowa City

• When: Through fall 2021

• Cost: Free

• To participate: Walk, bike or drive to ramp (75 cents per hour to park in ramp); download audio; bring headphones; dress for weather

• Instructions: Stephaniemiracledances.com/the-parking-space.html

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.