Steve Dietz prepares for a St Paul “Spark”

Northern Spark Artistic Director Steve Dietz prepares to present more than 70 projects during this weekends St Paul-based event. (MPR image/Euan Kerr)
Northern Spark Artistic Director Steve Dietz prepares to present more than 70 projects during this weekends St Paul-based event. (MPR image/Euan Kerr)

Steve Dietz tells a story about the first Northern Spark. It was three years ago, and as artistic director he was scheduled to say a few words to open the event. The problem was, he didn't know if anyone would be there to listen to what he said.

"We had no idea," he said. "So I was going to go out and say some words on the Stone Arch Bridge (in Minneapolis) and I said to my family 'You have to come out, because I don't want to be the only person speaking on the bridge.' And there were thousands of people there."

Such are the thrills and chills of running Northern Spark, the all night festival which this year will happen in a five block area around the Union Depot in St Paul.  As ever, Dietz has a sparkling set of projects to display, but he does seem to be keeping his eyes on the sky.

"We will happen rain or shine," he said firmly. (This does, of course, raise the question of what constitutes 'shine' for a festival in the dead of night? Moonshine? But let's move on.)

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 Dietz gracefully handles the always unfair journalist request to pick out a few highlights from the 70-plus projects. He points out how some are on-going, while others will come to a crescendo at specific times.

First he suggests people might want to check out photographer Monica Haller's move into sound installation with a piece called "Can you listen to the same river twice?".

"And she is putting a hydrophone into the river and creating special furniture that you sit in, designed by Molly Reichert," Dietz said. "And then mixing the live feed of that sound of the river underwater with historic sounds and with found sounds along the river between here and New Orleans, and creating a very contemplative experience. You are sitting out on this deck. You are looking up at the stars. You are listening to the river. And you are thinking about that water that started here and then ended up in New Orleans. And then, where else does it end up? So I think those kind of contemplative experiences are really fun and important."


Secret city
Secret City ephemera (Image courtesy Northern Spark, photo Ben Moren)

For those folk who can't seperate themselves from their mobile devices there is Secret City, a cellphone tour created by Daniel Dean and Ben Moren.

"You call up a number and this person starts talking to you, and says 'Walk down this alley, turn right,' and then really directs your attention to small things and how do those small things actually profoundly effect your passage through the city without you necessarily realizing it," said Dietz.  "And they help you realize it."

" Piotr Szyhalski is back with a project, which talks about the nature of labor in the 21st century," Dietz continued. "It seems like you are actually always filling up a hole, and then digging it, and then filling it up. And it's like this endless labor."  The piece called "Permanent Labor"

"And that is what the project is actually about. And so there's a fun nine-hour choreographed performance."

Arab spring graffiti (Image courtesy Northern Spark)

The Minneapolis-based Arab cultural group  Mizna is offering a hands-on experience called "Underpass of the Eyes of Freedom" in the carriageway area below the Union Depot.  They have brought in Hend Kheera, an artist from Cairo, who has prepared stencils of graffiti from the Arab Spring.

"And the people will be able to take those stencils and spraypaint onto the carriageway wall, this idea of democracy and personal empowerment and political empowerment in St Paul," said Dietz. "And then later that becomes the hidden background to one of the permanent mural pieces that the union depot is commissioning for the carriageway."

There is a musical ping-pong table too if you want your hands-on experience to be a little less political.

Chris Larson
Chris Larson on the site outside the St Paul Union Depot where his recreation of a Marcel Breuer house will burn at 2 AM Sunday as part of Northern Spark.

And of course there is the "Celebration/Love/Loss" by St Paul Chris Larson who has built a full-sized replica of a Marcel Breuer house which will be burned to the ground at 2 am Sunday morning.

Dietz  raised the money for the project and says it works on an intellectural level - and a primal one.

"Who doesn't like staring at a fire?" he asked. "And this house, you can watch it burn down without any guilt."

Putting on a festival like this, based on the nuit blanche festivals of Europe, is a huge logistical challenge, but one Dietz says pays off. When asked how he defines success he says the simple way is to just look at the numbers of people who turn up.

"But one of the things we have discovered that is a goal, but also surprising, is that people really love the experience. We do these surveys and they come back and say'This was the most amazing night of my year,' or, 'This really changed how I think about the city,'" Dietz said. "And there are some really profound comments.  And in the end, for me, that's the success: this notion that art can reach out to a much broaderaudience in a really profound and affecting way."