Two artists ‘lock it down’ with projects illuminating the history of St. Anthony Falls

Star Tribune

Sept. 14–The lock at St. Anthony Falls doesn’t send boats up and down the Mississippi River anymore. Now it hosts art.

On Friday and Saturday nights, St. Paul artist Aaron Dysart will project a rock-concert-like light show inside the lock’s empty tank. Huge colored floodlights will be arranged on the walkways surrounding the lock. The intensity of the lights will shift according to data from logbooks kept by the Army Corps of Engineers during the years the lock was in operation — specifically, when it was filled with river water, or emptied.

“Each half-second of the show is a day in the life of the lock,” said Dysart. “The saturation of those lights will change based on the pool height. They’ll go from a cool blue to kind of a warm purple.”

Along with Andrea Carlson, Dysart is presenting artwork inside the lock, which was closed two years ago in an attempt to halt the spread of Asian carp. A massive cement structure that’s equivalent to a 50-story building laid on its side, it operated as something of an elevator for vessels on the Mississippi River.

Dysart’s project, called “Surface,” can be viewed from the walls of the lock, which will be open to the public.

The lights will be pretty consistent until the very end of the piece, he said. “As they start to flicker and go out, it will reflect the end of an era of navigation through that place.”

Dysart spent a lot of time looking through the handwritten logbooks kept by lockmasters over the past half-century.

“The lock is this really gigantic imposing structure, but what you get to see in the logbooks is the really personal history of people who tended it, from cleaning the break room to a jumper on the bridge,” he said.

Vanished history

The control room of the lock, built to last, with thick rubber knobs and a control panel reminiscent of Homer’s nuclear power plant cubicle in “The Simpsons,” is accessible but no longer occupied. Opened in 1963, it was shut down by act of Congress as part of an $8.2 billion water infrastructure plan — the first time such a waterway was closed to halt an invasive species, though it is relevant to note that the fish have been making their way up the Mississippi since the 1970s.

The lock will only be used for flood control, though it remains open for tours, and its observation deck is accessible during daytime hours through September to those who want a close-up view of the falls.

“They didn’t de-authorize the mission — they just suspended it,” said Mike Ruscha, lockmaster for the Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock, the Lower Lock just downriver, and Lock Dam 1, near the former Ford plant in St. Paul.

Any type of “manmade” progress like this, of course, comes at the behest of the natural world. Andrea Carlson’s project, called “The Uncompromising Hand,” speaks to the destruction of Spirit Island, a limestone island that once existed near the Stone Arch Bridge, just downstream from the lock. A site that was sacred to the Dakota, the island was gradually dismantled between the 1890s and 1960s.

Carlson’s project also takes place inside the lock. On the evenings of Sept. 29-30, she will project re-creations of the island through hand-animated video, with accompanying text in Dakota and English, scrolling horizontally in the direction of the water flow.

Rather than lament the past, the project speaks to the potential for an “alternative future,” or, as Carlson describes in the text, “learning from our past to protect the environment for future generations to enjoy.”

The two artists are friends. Both of their projects are supported by the Mississippi Park Connection, which has been working to get people more excited about the river.

“The park rangers give lock tours and everything, but how can we get even more excitement about this place right at St. Anthony Falls?” said Katie Nyberg, the nonprofit organization’s executive director. “At the same time we started talking to Aaron about his ideas, we were also approached by some other artists and by the Northern Lights festival. I wondered if we could get a grant to prototype this idea of using the lock as a canvas for art, so I approached the St. Anthony Falls Heritage Board and applied for funding. We received funding, and here we are.”

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Waterways Council, Inc.