Walker Art Center

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Igniting Change: Northern Spark Targets Climate Chaos

By Sheila Dickinson

As the summer solstice nears, Minneapolitans store up extra sleep to prepare for pulling an all-nighter at Northern Spark, the nation’s premier dusk-to-dawn experimental art festival. Themed Climate Chaos/Climate Rising, this year’s edition asks big questions about the human effects upon nature’s systems by hosting artist projects that process complex climate data concepts and push participants toward action. For a festival that over its six-year existence has infused wonder and transformation into mundane city spaces by creating newly imagined platforms, it’s a vital next step: pushing attendees to imagine that another world is, indeed, possible.

At its core, Northern Spark sustains and implements art as collaboration, engagement, and, for this and next year, activation—social, personal, political. Seeking inclusiveness, there isn’t a single overtly political piece in this year’s festival. Instead, the goal of the art is to emphasize that all humans, regardless of beliefs, are interconnected through the consequences of their actions toward climate change—and such intersections are illustrated by the merging of art and science, art and technology and between different fields of art, such as visual and culinary arts, performance and new media art. Under the umbrella of art, play, reflection, and new modes of practice, visitors are more likely to be motivated to take climate action than if they sifted through dry data or contemplated an image of a changed environment.

Through a series of hashtags—#nourish, #move, #perceive, #interconnect, and #act—a network is mapped that interweaves the disparate and widely varied artworks with the concept of Climate Chaos/Climate Rising. In past iterations, Northern Spark’s weakness has been a scattered sense that any experimental, participatory artwork that can weather the all-night quirkiness is welcome. This year’s concerted effort to bring cohesion and sustained thought to a potent topic is just what this type of festival needs. Now that Northern Spark is an established part of the summer festival circuit, drawing upwards of 50,000 people, it can mobilize the masses to dig deeper into the often difficult and challenging material of climate change through an array of ingenious ploys artists realize.

One such project involves 12,000 pounds of ice cut from one of the city’s lakes, Lake Calhoun, during the depths of winter. The ice has been stored at one of Northern Spark’s sites in traditional 19th-century manner, padding it with sawdust. This weekend it will become Phase Change, in which infrared lamps, programmed to increase or decrease in heat intensity, will melt the ice structure in sections: pre-industrial, current post-industrial, and worst case no-change future. All the while local youth from Climate Generation: A Will Steger Legacy will inform visitors about the effects of global warming on polar ice. At sunrise, visitors can join a chorus of others in another artwork, Plotform’s Water Quality Sing-Along, staged on the banks of the Mississippi. It takes traditional folk tunes and inserts lyrics created out of data collected on the bacteria and chemicals found in the local watershed and how they affect animal and human habitat.

Northern Spark has always evolved and changed, never being in the same part of the cities, swapping between St. Paul and Minneapolis, and each iteration loosely theme-based. The irony of 2014’s theme “projection” was not lost on the organizers. That year, Northern Spark went dark and wet, projections, but for a few, were cancelled as the heaviest and longest rain, an 8-½ hour deluge, kept people inside or under the Hennepin Avenue bridge, which proved an awesome makeshift performance art space in the end. Such weather weirding, combined with Rebecca Solnit’s 2015 call to make that ““year one,” the one where we face climate change squarely and work for deep change. Her 365-day call influenced both the longer time-based frame of the festival of a year, with two Northern Spark festivals as bookends, and climate change as actionable item front and center of all projects involved. So far four “Mini-Sparks” are scheduled during the year, as well as pop-up food refuges and community meals to converse about invasive species, and there is an environmental-themed book club at Hennepin County Libraries, with more programming coming.

In Backyard Phenology, Christine Baeumler, a professor in the art department at the University of Minnesota, teamed up with scientists and students to create a program that teaches viewer/participants to be phenologists—observers of nature—right here, right now. A mobile lab will debut at Northern Spark, beginning the yearlong process of participants recording their observations of the cycles, rhythms, and changes of plants and animals, as well as their own theories about these occurrences. Over 12 months these new, everyday phenologists can enter their data into a collective website and meet other backyard phenologists at events. Baeumler will compile this material into a video that will be projected at Northern Spark 2017.

In 2015, Northern Spark spread out over eight sites, including the major art institutions. Geographically condensed to two downtown hubs this year, deeper engagement with the art is more likely. Certain projects, if not most, lend themselves to prolonged visits, such as Energeia, a highly interactive performance that requires the audience to be part of the show and interrogate their own energy usage. With typical wit and exuberance, Roger Nieboer and his Lesser Mortals, extract involvement from even the most resistant.

Storytelling, as a necessary art form for communicating the experiences of climate change on a human and natural scale, features prominently. The Twin Cities is home to many migrant communities displaced by famine, war, drought, and other calamities linked to the instabilities of water and oil. Blessing the Boats grew out of Cedarside 2016, a project of the Creative CityMaking team in which artists asked residents in the largely immigrant Cedar Riverside neighborhood how they wanted to interact with the city. Many people said they wanted to be able to tell their stories, to have their journey stories heard. Blessing the Boats will offer guided tours within the Mill City Ruins, taking visitors on their own experiences of migration, uprooting, grief, and new life. Emphasizing the fact that the festival falls during Ramadan, Northern Spark will host a call to prayer performance (Adhan) at sunset, which will segue into a community Iftar in the Train Shed of the Mill City Museum.

Northern Spark is poised to do just that—to spark something, to ignite a surge of collective action, as potentiality. Census, by Annicha Arts, shows the movement of people, at first 25 then aggregating in intervals of 25, up to 100 performers. Moving like a flock of starlings throughout the night, not necessarily in unison, but a people connected, the performers will act in conversation and held together through leadership and collectivity.


Sheila Dickinson is currently participating in the Andy Warhol Foundation/AICA USA Art Writers Workshop in which she was selected by an art critic in New York City as a mentee. Beyond writing reviews for national platforms such as Artforum.com, ARTnews, Hyperallergic, and the Brooklyn Rail, she writes about pressing issues facing artists and everyday citizens locally for MN Artists, City Pages, and InReview. She has a PhD in Art History from University College Dublin.

Luke Savisky, E/x MN installed at Mill Ruins Park and Gold Medal Silos, Northern Spark 2015

Photo: Ian Plant

Danfung Dennis, Casey Brown, and Phil McNally, Condition One: In the Presence of Animals, 2015

Presented at Northern Spark as a preview for the Walker’s program New Frontiers: Virtual Reality

Futures North (Daniel Dean, John Kim, Adam Marcus, Molly Reichert), Phase Change, 2016

A flag by Plotform, part of the group’s Walker Quality Sing-a-long

Backyard Phenology: Climate Chaser Mobile Lab

Graphics by This is Folly, Camper Rehab, ThreeSeven

Some of the faces of Cedarside

Photo: Justin Sengly, Cedarside.net

Annicha Arts, Census, 2016

Image created by Labor Camp