Iowa City Downtown District’s Winter Night Lights dazzle Iowa City

Throughout February, Iowa City will enjoy the Iowa City Downtown District’s self-guided Winter Night Lights in the Ped Mall which features interactive light experiences, giant rabbits, and a silent disco event every Friday.


Emily Nyberg

Inflatable bunnies sculptures are seen in the Iowa City Pedestrian Mall on Sunday, Feb. 12, 2023. Sculpture artist Amanda Parer’s Intrude bunnies are part of a month long Winter Night Lights experience put on by the Iowa City Downtown District. (Emily Nyberg/The Daily Iowan)

Stella Shipman, Arts Reporter

While strolling through the Pedestrian Mall, it’s hard not to notice that Iowa City has become home to a host of six new inhabitants. Rabbits as tall as 40 feet have nestled in close to buildings and benches and appear simultaneously cute and imposing. These luminescent creatures are one of many new downtown light experiences.

Throughout February, Iowa City’s Ped Mall will be filled with brilliant light installments to brighten this winter’s chilly evenings as part of the Iowa City Downtown District’s Winter Night Lights.

The Winter Night Lights program is a multi-faceted, self-guided experience. It features light installations from different artists and companies. The city is also arranging a silent disco event every Friday night at the Ped Mall, which previously proved popular in the summer.

Map by Jami Martin-Trainor/The Daily Iowan

The staff of the Iowa City Downtown District implemented the Winter Night Lights program to encourage economic activity during the cold season. The district has encouraged people to go downtown, especially since COVID-19.

“I think, first and foremost, that [the Winter Night Lights] gives another reason to come downtown and see these kinds of interesting installations,” Nancy Bird, Iowa City Downtown District executive director, said.

One light installment is the internationally renowned “Intrude” exhibit by Amanda Parer. The exhibit has been featured in Shimokita, Japan, and Madrid, Spain. Parer is an Australian artist who focuses on painting and sculpting. Her work typically explores themes of interaction between humans and the natural world.

This particular exhibit recognizes the impact of rabbits on the natural environment. European rabbits were introduced to North America with the arrival of white settlers about 200 years ago. Their presence has since dismantled portions of nearly every ecosystem on the continent.

Today, rabbits are commonly seen in nature, and some people even keep rabbits as household pets. Parer’s exhibit reflects both the cuteness and the intrusive status of these creatures.

Six white blow-up rabbits were installed intermittently around the Ped Mall, each composed of light and air. They lounge in various positions — some lying down, some sitting, and one even playfully rocking back with its feet up. Their comfortable placement emphasizes how they overtook the area.

Each rabbit has its own name, and people can learn more about the rabbits and the exhibition by scanning the QR codes on the signs beside them.

Parer worked with engineers and electricians to create the massive sculptures from digitally scanned models run through a computer program.

Though its composition is foundationally simple, the artistic essence of the exhibition is in its layered meanings. Just as much as the rabbits draw people in, they take up an inordinate amount of space in an otherwise open environment. This is reminiscent of how the species originally dominated the land.

No matter where the exhibition has been installed, Parer has noticed that people have similar reactions to the rabbits.

“I’ve found that adults become children around them,” Parer said. “They really enter this sort of fantasy world, and that’s just beautiful. And, of course, children just automatically respond in that way, too. So, it’s nice to inject a bit of wonder in a given environment.”

The City of Iowa City reached out to Parer over the summer about installing her “Invade” piece.

Bird said the Winter Night Lights program was a great opportunity to appreciate Parer’s art as well as her environmental messages.

2023 also happens to be the Year of the Rabbit in the Chinese Lunar Year calendar, further emphasizing the iconography of the rabbit.

Another installation is a 120-foot light canopy. It is strung over the alleyway perpendicular to South Linn Street off the Ped Mall, which experiences regular foot traffic. The canopy is unique from the other installations because it will be a permanent fixture.

These lights, along with the interactive “Singing Trees” that have also been reinstalled in the Dubuque Street corridor, were a project purchased from Limbic Media.

According to its website, Limbic Media is a “trans-disciplinary team of artist-engineers with a passion for technology and the arts” that transforms public spaces with interactive light experiences.

The purchase of the light canopy was funded by the University of Iowa, which helped the Downtown District choose a project that would promote fun activities. The installation of the lights was an endeavor sponsored by Neumann Monson Architects and physically carried out by Martin Construction.

Installation required the consideration of several factors, including the age and infrastructure of the buildings the lights are hanging between and the permanency of the project.

After consulting with several engineers, including those from Limbic Media, the lights were successfully hung with stainless steel cable and anchored to the cement and brick of different buildings. They are now elegantly draped in strings of vibrant rainbow-colored luminescence over the Ped Mall alleyway, beautifying the otherwise barren space.

The lights also interact with sound by syncing up to music to produce changes in the color and patterns of the lights. According to Limbic Media, activating an audio-reactive mode will allow the lights to respond to any sounds in the environment or “dance” to certain songs.

Andrew Martin of Martin Construction said the light canopy will be fun for people to engage with.

“Hopefully, they’ll be able to use it for all the various holidays, and I’m sure they’ll use it for the festivals and some of the art stuff,” Martin said. “I can’t imagine they won’t get involved with it somehow.”

The “Scribble Lights” by Iowa City-based artist Ali Hval have been a brilliant fixture of the Ped Mall since its installment in December 2022. It is composed of rope lights and zip ties and will remain on display during the winter to provide consistent brightness to the Ped Mall.

Each light installment is a stunning work of art that anyone can appreciate. The Winter Night Lights serve as a reminder that Iowa City is a community influenced by and focused on art in every form, and it encourages residents to brave the cold and support local businesses.

“So, we’re trying to set the stage for others to come and enjoy [the Winter Night Lights] and have fun,” Bird said. “Hopefully, you get a taste of downtown in the winter and what a nice place it is to be then and all the different shops and restaurants that you can stop in while you’re poking around.”