MINNEAPOLIS — How do you measure artistic success? Is it in the number of visitors who attend an event, enter museum doors, click on a website? Or is success the quality of interaction with the art displayed, the music performed, or the participatory piece? It’s hard to quantify, but I’m pretty sure Northern Spark, an all-night, Nuit Blanche-inspired, art festival in Minneapolis, fits the bill.
At dusk on Saturday, June 13, the excitement was palpable as the dark descended and art appeared out of unexpected places. In its fifth iteration, Northern Spark is the premiere Nuit Blanche in the US — ambitious, influential, and experimental, the all-night affair exposes over 50,000 people for one night to a hundred art projects, installations, participatory events, and projections across six sites in Minneapolis. Unlike traditional Nuit Blanche events in Europe and Canada that occur in the fall, Northern Spark happens mid-June, before the mosquitos arrive, and during the shortest nights.
The festival launch was held in the courtyard of the Mill City Museum “ruins,” where Minnesota opera singers suddenly appeared on a balcony and began belting out the only aria I truly love, “O mio babbino caro.” Northern Spark requires just this, being open to each artistic encounter, knowing that this piece is the one to see at that moment in the night, and foregoing the desire to see everything. I liken attending Northern Spark to travelling in a new city: it turns the resident into a guest, reintroducing the city anew by artistic interventions into common, utilitarian spaces.
The Midwest, in general, is associated with the mundane and mediocre, so getting a group of artists to let loose for a night in the city is bound to shake things up. There are no beer gardens, none of those ubiquitous white tents selling trinkets and crafts, and the art on show contains few objects, putting interaction and audience engagement as priorities. The three key art museums, Weisman Art Museum, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and the Walker Art Center remained open all night, while the hub of artistic projects commissioned by presenting organization Northern Lights occurred around Mill City Museum, perched along the Mississippi River near the iconic Stone Arch Bridge. There, I wandered alone (my young artist companion bailed on me, saying Northern Spark wasn’t serious enough for her) among throngs of people of all ages. Yes, Northern Spark can be seen as populist spectacle, with fun projections, such as Luke Savisky’s “E/x MN” in which he projected visitors as colorful giants onto the smooth, curved surfaces of disused grain silos. But the festival also welcomed everyday people to experience art outside the frame, beyond paint on canvas.
Northern Spark is a cross between an art experiment, social practice, all-night party, and, because this is Minnesota, state fair (a portion of St. Paul was purposefully built for the annual two-week state fair). This year, with the large crowds, a fair-like feel prevailed; however, so did the serious, thought-provoking artworks. Several art projects challenged consumption and value in the art world and beyond. The Chinese sweatshop spoof, “Bumfack Co,” mocked the high-end ceramic world. Crammed inside a small plywood shack were volunteer ceramicists from the Northern Clay Center, toiling away as they duplicated knock-off high art ceramic pieces by the likes of Grayson Perry, which were then displayed and hawked to passing “customers” by Keven R. Kao and Xia Zhang, co-producers of the project. I witnessed Zhang lecture on the big name ceramists whose work they were copying, asking the visitors to make a bid for one — seeing that the market value is $100,000, she started bidding at $50,000. No takers? No surprise. Over her shoulder I could see a sign for my next port of call, “Marketopia,” by Roger Nieboer. Wonderfully chaotic, people crowded around Nieboer, who distributed and collected clipboards with a questionnaire attached, which provoked deeper thinking about personal consumption habits — “do you go to the mall or a yard sale” kind of questions. After fifteen names were called, I heard my name belted out through the megaphone. I was asked to sit down and discuss my responses with a consumption specialist, who then explained the rules of the free market exchange. I was then admitted into the market with a dozen stalls trading a range of goods from eggs, to flowers, shirts, and songs. To get a daisy, I shared a personal story. I wanted a bottle of water labeled “elixir of love,” but needed an egg, so I sang two lines from a love song to the woman with eggs. Both projects, through satire and fun, released the viewer from consumer to participant, if for a night.
I could have spent an hour just at Nieboer’s installation, but I wanted to see one of the museums. I bolted over to the Weisman to find it crammed full of people; a band was playing in one gallery, while a dance performance, “Still Life” by Morgan Thorson, was happening in another. Right outside the Weisman, which sits on the University of Minnesota campus, is the Washington Avenue pedestrian bridge where dancers in Grace Minnesota’s “Don’t You Feel It Too?” stretched as far as I could see, silent and writhing to songs in their own earbuds. By 2am I made it to Peavey Plaza, an urban park of a brutalist bent, made entirely of huge concrete slabs that create a morose, modernist amphitheater. In a stroke of genius, the organizers placed a range of video and analogue games, which gave the space the futuristic feel it deserves. There was Revolver’s sadist “Write Fight III,” where two people with hands in leather holsters attempted to pull down the holsters close enough to sheets of paper to write, as well as several other games that visitors played with their phones. The most conceptually and visually beautiful game was “Vietnam Romance” by Eddo Stern, a war game rendered with a backdrop of watercolor landscapes — anathema to the violence witnessed, but in line with the romance of Vietnam war films which the game references.
Finally, there was “Still/Life/Syria” by Osama Esid, a Minneapolis-based, Syrian artist. The photography and video exhibition, documenting a Syrian refugee camp, hung in the decrepit remains of the old riverside mill. In the darkness down by the river away from the bustle of the festival, a solemn and respectful air surrounded the photos glowing in spotlights. With those images in mind, I left the festival at 5am, disagreeing with the cynics who think it’s wasteful to pump so much funding into one event.
Northern Spark took place on June 13 from 9am–5:26am in various locations throughout Minneapolis.