Space Saloon Reimagines Okoboji Ecologies in Northwest Iowa

Artist collective Space Saloon recently completed the inaugural Public Art and Ecology Artists-in-Residence in the Okoboji region of Northwest Iowa. Observing local landscapes and diverse ecosystems, the team created a series of temporary installations, site-specific sculptures and multi-species performances. Working in association with Imagine Iowa Great Lakes and the Iowa Lakeside Lab, the process led to a series of public events reimagining how to engage regional ecologies.

Courtesy of Danny WillsCourtesy of Danny WillsCourtesy of Danny WillsCourtesy of Danny Wills+ 27

Courtesy of Danny Wills
Courtesy of Danny Wills

Continuing a series of innovative projects and installations, Space Saloon is a design laboratory that explore the potentials of site by crafting collaborative hands-on experiences. Their projects build community, promote tolerance, and foster engagement. In the Okoboji region, Space Saloon’s art installations presented scientific data in new and interactive ways, encouraging an engagement with the physical and invisible ecologies found around the lakes.

Referencing Duchamp’s Readymades, all materials were sourced from local hardware stores and dismantled for reuse and donation after the residency’s completion. Public art and ecology events were augmented with spatial audio, AR applications and data visualizations that were developed through collaborations with scientists, field-researchers, lab technicians and local students. 

Frog Dinner Theater

Courtesy of Danny Wills
Courtesy of Danny Wills

This installation immersed visitors in a spectrum of ambient UV and infrared light meant for attracting various species of insects and amphibians. The ‘frog dinner theater’ took place at dusk at Marble Lake and drew attention to the lake’s unique and important aquatic ecosystems.

Due to their evolutionary adaptation, fish and amphibians can shift their vision from terrestrial environments to the light environments of streams and wetlands where mud and algae filter out light from the blue end of the visual spectrum. Bullfrogs are particularly adept at simultaneously looking up into the air and down into the water through an enzyme (closely linked to Vitamin A) found in the upper half of their eyes. While insects, having certain photoreceptor cells in their compound eyes, are particularly sensitive to UV light wavelengths. Space Saloon’s installation thus combined these light wavelengths as an experimental feeding ground for frogs.

E. coli Water Collage

Courtesy of Danny Wills
Courtesy of Danny Wills

Temporarily located along Center Lake’s edge, this pop-up displayed water samples collected from all the public beaches of the Iowa Great Lakes. Visual interpretations of E. coli levels and blue-green algae data sets were projected onto the samples to create an immersive and informative environment.

Sewer overflows combined with agricultural runoff, and animal waste contribute to the high levels of bacteria that can be found in lake ecosystems. With regard to unsafe levels of E. coli, the bacteria count can trigger a public swimming advisory at 126 colonies per 100 millimeters of water – a “geometric mean” limit set by the EPA. Iowa has a “one-time” standard trigger at 235. The results, however, take time to process at a laboratory and may not reflect current conditions accurately enough. General knowledge says avoid recreation in the lakes a few days after it rains — the added water essentially flushes the county into the lakes.

With this in mind, Space Saloon’s ‘E. coli water collage’ aimed to present a more nuanced reading of the data by illustrating weekly fluctuations in water quality and showing clear visual comparisons between collected samples.

Owl-and-Air Conditioning Orchestra

Courtesy of Danny Wills
Courtesy of Danny Wills

Field recordings of local animals, aquatic creatures and human activities found in the region were installed in wooded areas around the lakes, drawing attention to the complex acoustic atmospheres of Okoboji.

Sound plays an important role in a range of behaviors for wildlife, such as locating food, avoiding predators and finding a mate. In terrestrial habitats, bird diversity and abundance have been shown to decline as a result of chronic noise levels around cities and along roadways. A number of species have demonstrated adjustments to their vocal behaviour in an attempt to adapt to the cacophony of human noise. The need to further understand the complex biological effects of noise and establish scientifically relevant thresholds of noise exposure is a priority for human health and wildlife conservation.

In line with these concerns, Space Saloon invited the public to experience an amplified simulation of an everyday soundscape from Iowa’s Great Lakes, which included man-made noises such as from air conditioning units, beachside music events and daily traffic in addition to field recordings of birds, amphibians and crickets.

AR Prototype

Courtesy of Danny Wills
Courtesy of Danny Wills

This installation at the Blue Water Festival and Art in the Park displayed four visual water samples collected from a range of lakes. By using the supplied tablet, public visitors could experience a prototype augmented reality (AR) application. This AR app displayed the most current data from volunteer lake monitors in a visual and experiential format.

The Cooperative Lakes Area Monitoring Project (CLAMP) is a volunteer lake monitoring program started in 1999 by Iowa Lakeside Lab and Friends of Lakeside Lab. Volunteers collect water samples throughout the summer on nine lakes in Dickinson County, Iowa. The goal of CLAMP is to educate local citizens about lake ecology by providing long term data monitoring of algae conditions. Bi-monthly monitoring data is tested and shared from over 20 sites across the lakes, from phosphorus and nitrogen levels to temperature, dissolved oxygen and water clarity.

The AR prototype developed by Space Saloon educated the public on how to read and interpret the various data sets through accessible forms of data visualization.

Courtesy of Danny Wills
Courtesy of Danny Wills

Space Saloon is a collective of architects, artists and researchers, led by Danny Wills, Gian Maria Socci and Rebecca van Beeck. Iowa Lakeside Lab provides science classes and research opportunities for university students and offers outreach programs to the public. The Artist-in-Residence program aims to create opportunities for collaboration and reflection between artists, scientists, and community members.

Research and Project Assistant: Emma Onstad

Installation Volunteers: Mari McClure, Colton Chambers, Garrett Warren, Travis Scheirer, Noémie Despland-Lichtert, Brendan Shea, Charity McDaniel, Ross Fix

Special Thanks: Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Okoboji Protective Association, Friends of Lakeside Lab, Pearson Lakes Art Center