Tristan Pollock reviews Twin Cities Northern Spark

Tristan Pollock reviews Twin Cities Northern Spark

"Welcome aboard the Mississippi Megalops!" exclaimed Shanai Matteson, co-founder of Works Progress and one-third of the brain trust behind the Mississippi Megalops: A Floating Chautauqua, an art-infested 200-person paddle-boat cruise, and my first stop on the inaugural dusk-to-dawn Northern Spark Nuit Blanche festival. The project was one of over 100 installations by more than 200 artists in Minneapolis and St. Paul, on display within a June 4, 8:55 p.m. (sunset) to June 5, 5:23 a.m. (sunrise) time frame.


The concept of a Nuit Blanche (French for "white night") has Russian and German origins--the prototypes being the White Nights Festival in  St. Petersburg and the Long Night of Museums in Berlin, both begun in the late 90s. In 2002, Paris followed with its inaugural Nuit Blanche; and Bring to Light, in 2010, was New York City's first all-night arts event.

A Fantastic Voyage

As the vessel shoved off, the audience was advised that the Megalops' crew included both a "captain" who could perform marriages, but wasn't licensed to actually drive the boat (he wasn't  the real captain, thankfully), and a so-called Dock Boy/Personal Gilligan, who was on hand to keep an eye out for giant Asian carp (none were spotted). Matteson then explained the project's name: "'Megalops' is a type of fish, a big fish," she said. "And 'Chautauqua' is a format that merges all different types of ideas." 

Merge they did. The presentations that followed were river-centric, factoid-loaded narratives ranging from an extensive history of the Mississippi to a lyrical first-person account of cave exploration. Every presenter inspired a cacophonous round of applause. 

The most compelling act of all, at least for me, was a video by photographer Peter L. Johnson entitled "Immersion." Johnson's work posed the question: is it safe to immerse oneself in the Mississippi River? Subjects of the experiment were shown as they submerged themselves for fifteen minutes. Their voices were heard reading a waiver explaining the possible health hazards of the dip--ranging from dizziness to depression to a weakened immune system. And so, unfortunately but predictably, the answer to Johnson's question turned out to be: no, it is not safe, due to the myriad pollutants that lurk in the depths of Old Man River.

At 9:45 p.m. we were back on dry land in Saint Paul and I was headed to the opposite shore and Upper Landing Park to see the marquee event of the night: Jim Campbell's "Scattered Light." The awe-inspiring display of 1,600 light bulbs fitted with LEDs and hanging from wires of various lengths could only be described as otherworldly. The bulbs--acting like pixels--were programmed to display moving images. You could travel deep inside the bright bulbs, or hang back and watch the images: shadowy human figures that moved from one end of the display to the other. If you missed it, this is the only installation that will outlive the festival. Experience it from dusk to 2 a.m. every evening through July 24.

The Light of Night: Stone Arch Bridge


Between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m., the most densely populated area of the night was undeniably Zone A: The Soap Factory and Stone Arch Bridge. Twin Citians of all types and ages--there were no curfews for these midnight explorers--could be seen wandering through the glowing urban cityscape. On the downtown side, participants had the opportunity to choose which of Deborah Miller's photographs would be projected in gargantuan dimensions on the Gold Medal silos. Hennepin Island Park on the north side provided a venue for outlandish poetry, virtual (projected) graffiti and, oddly enough, chair building in silhouette.

Artists and installations stretched across the bridge as far as the eye could see, and if you looked a little farther you might have caught the "Ceil," a laser projection by Osman Khan that used the water vapor from St. Anthony Falls to create an esoteric-looking electric-green canopy. 

My personal favorite in this area was the interactive hide-and-go-seek game called the Egg & Sperm Ride: players with glow-in-the-dark, sperm-shaped helmets hunted a giant egg riding a tricycle, and when they caught it, it lit up. 

And for the undeterred and unafraid, there was U of M artist Diane Willow's eerie bioluminescent plankton zone underneath the Stone Arch Bridge: in one of the bridge's arches, bioluminescent microorganisms were suspended in a seawater-filled membrane. The arch was dark and empty until crowd movements prompted the organisms to light up, transforming the space and casting an otherworldly light on the crowd.

A Night Made for Bikes

A freshly broken ankle made biking from site to site impossible for me, but the Northern Spark festival was ideal for two-wheeled exploration, and the weather couldn't have been better for biking, with its mid-seventy-degree temperatures. 

Many of the night's interactive projects catered directly to the bike crowd. When you heard the occasional bike zoom by emitting orchestral tones from mounted synthesizers, you were experiencing The Bicycle Synthesizer Ride, created by Chris Farstad and Alex Dyba. 

One of the most popular bike-oriented events was the Mobile Experiential Cinema by Daniel Dean and Ben Moren. More than a hundred bikers gathered at West River Parkway, directly beneath the Hennepin Ave Bridge, and then traveled the city, stopping at various places to view sections of a multi-part movie. The surprise: the sites and the sections corresponded, and each movie section was projected onto walls or other surfaces at the site where it was filmed.

The End of the Beginning

At around 2:30 a.m., my crutch-supported body had just about had enough. Last stop: Loring Park's Glow-a-Bout. The communal night games played there combined the traditional--Capture the Flag--with the Northern-Spark-specific: a glowing orb substituted for the flag, and there was plenty of luminescent body paint for everybody.


But the night didn't end there. On my drive home, I spotted street artists Jojo and Peyton's repainting of Intermedia Arts' Lyndale-facing wall mural: it had a wispy, glowing, Northern-Lights vibe. 

At the end of my white night, I was exhausted but exhilarated, and not just by the art. I  realized that the importance of Northern Spark went well beyond what was on show. Our first Nuit Blanche brought people out of the comfortable confines of their homes at an odd hour for an illuminating experience of togetherness.

This was the first Northern Spark, but it won't be the last. If you attended, or would like to help shape next year's event, share your thoughts with the organizers here.

Photos, top to bottom:

Sperm-heads pause in their quest to illuminate an egg in the Egg and Sperm Ride.

Osman Khan's laser projection "Ceil" shimmers over the river.

Grain on grain: One of Deborah Miller's gigantic projections

Two images of the Northern Lights mural going up on Intermedia Arts' wall.

All photos by Bill Kelley


This post was originally published by Tristan Pollock on The Line.

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