What It Means to Light Up the St. Anthony Lock

A colorful light show fills the now-defunct lock with its own history

courtesy of the soap factory

He’s known for making a boat out of soap, throwing a disco party for cows, and sculpting artificial tree limbs, so you might not guess that St. Paul city artist Aaron Dysart’s new installation—a light show projected inside the Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock—is inspired by something as unemotional and non-whimsical as numbers.

But this weekend, Surface fills the historic St. Anthony Falls Dam with hissing fog and beams of light that take their cues from data points describing more than 50 years of lock operations—meaning, in other words: thousands and thousands of numerical figures.

“What I like about scientific data,” Dysart explains, “is that it’s very specific but still needs to be interpreted. Otherwise, it’s just a bunch of numbers.” As opposed to a scientist breezing through a spreadsheet, Dysart wants to translate those measurements into relatable, emotional experiences—a math-to-feeling transformation at the heart of his new project, also one of his biggest.

After three months of preparation, Surface‘s timed system of spotlights and floodlights will illuminate a haze released inside the dam’s empty channel. The Minneapolis lock makes a tremendous canvas: It measures 500 feet long, 50 feet tall, and 45 feet across—the size of a skyscraper laid on its side. Changes in the lights’ hues and saturation visually interpret figures Dysart culled from nearly 50 textbook-size volumes, dating back to the lock’s opening and handwritten by attendants who noted the day-to-day operations of raising and lowering water in the lock for flood control and boats going around St. Anthony Falls.

courtesy of northern lights

Courtesy of the Soap factory

The project came about after the lock closed two years ago, to stymie the advance of invasive carp. Dysart suggested to the Mississippi Park Connection that he make art out of the now-desolate space.

His credentials check out. For more than a decade, Dysart’s site-specific work has investigated how our built environment overlaps with the natural world—often washed in a sense of humor. Think: a pine tree busting through a plaster wall. That humor usually involves a stubborn, sad, and tender hope, too. In 2011, he poked fun at the way we often understand only half of what it means to “clean the river” by building a boat out of (non-toxic) soap and rowing it across the Mississippi, like a child in a guilt-tripped dream. He has “thrown parties” for cows and trout—or at least, he’s hung unobtrusive disco balls over a field and a stream, respectively. Last year, he set up a purple-green-blue light show tinting the giant steam plume that chuffs out of the biomass cogeneration plant in St. Paul. The steam fledged into different colors according to NASA readings of solar activity (the point being that the sun is our other big, renewable energy source).

Similar to that steam-plume project, Surface transcribes scientific findings as light effects. But here, floodlights brighten from cool blues to warm purples depending on how many times, from the 1960s to today, attendants activated the lock one day to the next. A half-second of the show represents one day in the lock’s history. Rotating spotlights simulate the river’s ever-churning surface, and shifting hues signify changing pool height.

While collaborating with the ghosts of those lock attendants, Dysart intends no judgment on the lock’s future. (The question of whether or not we should restore it is now up in the air.) Instead, he remarks on how closely we’ve watched this section of the river. A half-century seems, to us, like a long time, but the Mississippi itself goes back millennia. “There’s this huge, deep, deep history, and even looking at just 50 years in this one block, it’s super complicated,” he reflects.

The lights sputter as the show ends, notating the lock’s last years, when fewer officers recorded its operations.

The humor and the sadness might come through only subtly to spectators watching along the dam’s perimeters. But they still surface as a sense, so particular to Dysart’s work, of humanity approaching the impassive natural world—with curiosity, with kind intentions, even deference—and hanging a disco ball, and marveling at the colors, but never truly knowing, as if desiring to close the distance between our emotions and a wall of numbers.

Surface (free and open to the public)
Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam
September 15 and 16, 8–10:30 p.m.

Courtesy of The Soap Factory

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