All-night art festival aims spotlight at climate change

Luke Savisky's installation E/x MN in 2015
Luke Savisky's installation E/x MN, in Mill Ruins Park and Gold Medal Silos, during Northern Spark 2015.
Ian Plant | Courtesy Northern Spark

Tomorrow is the second Saturday of June. For the Twin Cities arts community, that can mean only one thing: the return of Northern Spark.

The annual dusk-to-dawn arts event will be staged in two spots in Minneapolis this year, and it promises to be an immersive experience.

At a recent preview at the Soap Factory, visitors walked through a wall of sound created by the Minneapolis Shape Note Singers, one of the groups that will be performing all night at Northern Spark.

Executive Director Steve Dietz promised an easy experience.

"One of the things we're thinking about, and we want you to think about, is 'Come to Northern Spark and slow down. Come to Northern Spark and pay attention.' You don't have to travel all over the city to get to everything."

In past years, Northern Spark has spread across sites in Minneapolis and St. Paul. This year's focus will be initially on the plaza outside the Minneapolis Convention Center. It will later bloom around the Mill City Museum and the Guthrie Theater until sunrise Sunday.

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A member of the Minneapolis Shape Note Singers.
A member of the Minneapolis Shape Note Singers at the preview for Northern Spark 2016 on May 24. The Singers will perform all night long inside the Guthrie at the event on Saturday.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

Dietz said the focus this year is on climate change, and helping people understand it through art.

"We are not, per se, a political activist organization. We are definitely not a science organization," he said. "All of those things are incredibly important. But what we are trying to do is change people's attitudes, behaviors and engagement with the topic."

Northern Spark will launch with the unveiling of huge mobile moose and wolf sculptures at the Convention Center. Mayor Betsy Hodges will lead wolf howling at 9 p.m. At the same time, at Mill City, there will be a call to prayer marking the end of the daily fast for Ramadan, followed by an Iftar meal open to all.

Musician Helado Negro will play at the Convention Center Plaza.

Meanwhile, dozens of installations and activities will erupt in and around the Guthrie and the Mill City Museum. There will be an all-night choreographed dance with a cast of 100 people. There will be projections on the grain silos.

Architect Molly Reichert and her colleagues in a group called Futures North have been working on their project for a while.

"Yeah, we harvested 10,000 pounds of ice from Lake Calhoun in March," she said. It's been packed in sawdust at Mill City Museum since then.

"Come June 11th, the day of Northern Spark, we will assemble it in three different walls," she said.

They'll also assemble three banks of heat lamps, pulsing according to climate data from three time periods: pre-industrial, present day, and the future (should climate change continue at its current pace). Reichert said that as the ice melts, people will see a physical manifestation of change.

"You can also feel it in terms of temperature because the heat lamps will be very hot and the ice will be very cold," she said. "So the visitors will be able to experience this idea of climate change."

At the preview, Robin Garwood demonstrated his reverse wishing well. Rather than asking people to throw in cash, he's burying $1,000 in coins in sand. People can dig up coins and take them away.

Michael Murnane’s piece, Under Ice, 2012.
Michael Murnane's piece, Under Ice, from Northern Spark 2012.
Patrick Kelley | Courtesy Northern Spark

"Do you want to put your hand in?" he asked.

Each coin represents 350 tons of buried carbon, coal and oil, Garwood explained. Taking it out it hastens climate change. People can keep the money they find, or put it back and make a wish. At the end of the night he'll sift through the sand to see how much money remains. He has no idea how much money will be left. (I found a couple of half-dollars. "You can take as many as you want," said Garwood. People were watching, though, and I put them back.)

There are so many projects at Northern Spark that Dietz needed half an hour to describe them all. The event will end with yoga and singing at sunrise. And Dietz already knows that next year will be very different: Northern Spark 2017 will stretch along the length of the Green Line, between the downtowns.