Introducing Sprites, downtown Iowa City’s new interactive light installation

‘Sprites’ will officially launch on Friday, Oct. 8. — courtesy of Jason Smith/Little Village Creative Services

One of the most trafficked alleyways in downtown Iowa City is in the process of a complete transformation.

On Friday, Sprites, an interactive art installation, will light up the alley connecting Dubuque and Linn streets, and Washington Street with Iowa Avenue. Dynamic, colorful bursts of light will fill the once dark, Dumpster-lined space and change color depending on the time of day, temperature and the number of pedestrians moving through.

This highly collaborative public art project has been in the works for more than two years. Back in June 2019, the Iowa City Downtown District selected Slingshot Architecture, a Des Moines-based firm, as its partner in revitalizing the alleyway. Their plan primarily focused on creating a better lighting system to improve the overall safety of the area, while also improving its aesthetics.

Slingshot first designed a cable tensile sculpture that suspends between the alley’s power poles. Once the sculpture was completed, light designers assisted in illuminating the sculpture, which instantly improved the poorly lit space. After the lighting was installed, Jason Snell, a local multidisciplinary artist, began working to create a control system that responds in real-time to motion and audio cues.

“The initial piece focuses on an art exhibit above the space,” said Nancy Bird, executive director of the Downtown District. “Steve Miller [Slingshot’s lead architect] worked with MidAmerican and great partners like Mike [Lambert] to do the lighting, and then Rick Chambers to do the engineering, and Jason Snell to focus in on the event component of this.”

Lambert, a nationally recognized lighting designer, said he is deeply committed to this alleyway project. In the past, he has worked as a technical design advisor in projects at Yankee Stadium and Safeco Stadium, and even assisted in lighting Carver-Hawkeye Arena when it was being built in the early ’80s. Even with these major achievements, Lambert noted this alley installation has been one of his top five favorite projects in his career.

“I have a deep soft spot for this community and it’s a leader in so many ways,” Lambert said. “This project is intended to be a key component in the downtown energy, a feature that we hope people will seek out and go out of there to come by and take a look at what’s going on.”

‘Sprites’ is designed to make the alleyway into a regular performance venue. — courtesy of Jason Smith/LIttle Village Creative Services

For those walking past the alley, it will be tough to resist stopping to test out the interactivity of the space. The control system designed by Snell allows pedestrians to instantly connect to the installation. As soon as someone steps into the space, motion-sensor lights will come on to greet the person, and remain on as they walk through. The system also pays attention to the density of the space. As the amount of people increases, the sensors will react by firing off more light below the group. Snell notably refers to this as the exhibit’s “party mode.”

In addition to being activated by motion, the installation measures and adjusts to temperature.

“In the middle of winter or the hottest part of summer, the colors will map to a specific temperature palette,” Snell said. “Initially, I’m going to try showing cool colors in the summer. And then, in the middle of winter, as people are going home, have warmer hues like oranges, yellows, and reds rippling through the alley.”

Synesthesia, the exhibit’s premiere event on Friday, Oct. 8, will feature a dance performance and two musical performances, showcasing the installation’s ability to respond to both motion and sound. During a normal week, the installation’s sound responsivity will be turned off, but they will use it for concerts or special shows. As one musician plays the keyboard at the upcoming event, the instrument will send a musical instrument digital interface (MIDI) to the system which will result in the keys lighting up the sky.

After the premiere event, performances and concerts will continue to be regularly hosted in the alley. The goal is for other artists to come in, get inspired and create their own projects.

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“Really, every day can be an event as people move through the alley and see the little sprites that follow you,” Bird said. “It goes back to delight and surprise. Whenever anyone comes to downtown Iowa City we want them to see something new, refreshing and cool. I think this project lends [itself to] all of that.”

Lambert also highlighted the importance of spontaneity in one’s daily life, something he hopes the installation can provide to pedestrians in downtown Iowa City.

“What most humans really crave more than anything is surprise,” Lambert said. “That’s what we’re hoping to create, that unexpected experience that draws them in, and the next thing they know it’s 20 or 30 minutes later and they’re back on the street.”

The project involved collaboration between architects, light designers and artists. — courtesy of Jason Smith/Little Village Creative Services