Article

Lightsey Darst offers an on-the-ground dispatch from this year's Northern Spark festival -- vying projections, glow-in-the-dark games and synchronized swinging, luminous dance and cadres of night cyclists, alight in the dark.
June 14, 2012

Photo courtesy of the Walker Art Center

8 pm. COFFEE. IT’S GOING TO BE A LONG NIGHT.

8:45. Headed out toward the Midtown Greenway on bikes. Excited.

8:50. As we glide down onto the Greenway at Bryant, we’re greeted by a song-and-dance featuring a shimmying telephone and women in fishnets and hot pants -- no idea what it’s about. Polite applause. Telephone keeps dancing after the skit. We head east. At the Fifth Street crossing, a homeless guy on a bike rummages through a trash can. He seems to have gotten the memo: his torso’s wrapped in tinsel.

8:58, sunset. It's is the official kickoff for Northern Spark’s dusk-till-dawn, but at 8:58, the sunset turns out to be disappointingly bright. The Spark guide left me expecting a kaleidoscopic phantasmagoria on the Greenway, some surreal utopia of bike projections and aurora borealis, but so far this looks like any other Twin Cities festival: families, people bopping around to overlapping live music, puppets, glowsticks, papier-mache. Someone is biking a dragon, taking the whole Greenway to turn around. He and others create a complete bikejam. Apparently, I could ride over a spray-painted board and help make some art -- if I could ride. People peer down a billowing silver throat at a little monitor flickering neon pastel lines. “This is going to look really cool when it’s dark,” someone volunteers hopefully. A bike is positioned charging into the silver maw.

We head further east, past a film modestly projected on a side wall, small, out of the way, and still on pause. At the Hiawatha end of the Greenway four very sincere young women draped in sheets declare to a small audience, their theme is love, which they pronounce with as much enthusiasm as if they have just discovered it.

Headed back west, we pass two guys who, unlike everybody else, look like they might typically haunt the Greenway at night. They bike slower and slower as the reality sinks in: no quiet bridges to rest under tonight, art’s taken over. I feel almost sorry for them.

Time to abandon the clogged Greenway scene for MCAD. Biking north, we notice a strange effect: rays of light extend high into the sky from the fallen sun.

9:30. The MCAD play zone. Here we find the stupidest thing of the night -- and by stupid, I mean divinely inspired: Keetra Dean Dixon’s hung the MCAD skyway with swings all facing the same direction and so close together that swingers have to synchronize to avoid bruising each other. They’re not too good at this. Passing through, the skyway is chaos; from below, the swinging skyway’s reminiscent of an oared vessel -- minus the taskmaster, the military purpose, and the progress.

Beyond the swings, we find glow-in-the-dark badminton. A childhood dream! I have to play. The birdie’s visible all right, but I can’t see my racket, the net, or any distance cues. Every time I go for a shot, I miss, lob the birdie out of bounds, or peg my partner, right in the sternum. Plus, we have five or six players, three shuttlecocks, and no rules. Some people take this as a reason to stand still, but I bounce around like a drunk Tinkerbell. THINK and WONDER, two lighted signs command, but I’m laughing so hard I’m a little worried I’ll hork up a lung.

Meanwhile, out on the lawn, a bunch of rather serious people are nailing together lumberyard discards. Rafts for a dawn sail? A wall, it turns out. Don’t ask; these people have hammers.

Deep inside MCAD, we stumble across two guys (Ryan Hughes and Matt Reimers) so absorbed in videosonic noodling they don’t look up as people come and go in their trippy atmosphere. The high, square room -- draped in white sheets, splashed with vintage candy colors (think Dots, circa 1976), awash in waves of moody guitar -- feels like a stage. People pose for photos, but we seem to all have the sense we’re not what this room wants, or not yet. On the wall, a guy in a dark trenchcoat, arms out, flies into an urban scene.

Last note at MCAD: a tamarack bog has taken over the foyer roof. Prairie restoration, ten feet at a time. 

10:30. Flying through downtown. Off Hennepin, it’s dead as usual, but with more bikes -- other than that, no sign of Spark. We navigate Second Street Guthrie and Stone Arch traffic, then pump up Washington toward the West Bank. Time for a beer.

11:15. A little late for Vanessa Voskuil’s Shift at the Barbara Barker, we find ourselves videotaped, which calls everyone’s attention to us. Are we art? The man behind the camera is one of three roving documentarians determined to put an extra layer between the audience and this diffuse, semi-pedestrian performance. Voskuil rolls and unrolls little mats; her performers slo-mo it up to the doors. This might call zombies to mind if they didn’t have little lights in the palms and on the soles of their feet: the signs of soul. With Voskuil, they flicker back and forth between devotional and day-to-day. The best part is watching Voskuil’s long expressive arms comb and shepherd light. “We’re witnessing the birth of a new cult,” someone says as the performers break and begin greeting us, no bow, no applause.

11:45. We’re off through the quiet campus, over the river to the Weisman, where I’m keen to take a flashlight tour -- “like an art thief!” I say perhaps a little too close to the museum doors. Towards the river, a woman stands calmly inside a vast lampshade.

We flood into the Weisman with a bunch of students -- very young, not a line to their faces, docile but game, like a bunch of summer campers. Oh no: the Weisman is out of flashlights! I race after a couple of people already leaving and grab their LEDs. The problem, I realize after I illuminate a few things, is that I already know this art so well from my own student days that seeing its dim corners only brings back 2002 in all its glory. We wander. In another gallery, we find a sculpture like a cluster of gears. We’re trying to get a sense of it when we notice the sculptural shadows we’re casting on the wall with our flashlights. Instantly, a performance arises: five or six of us in rhythmic shadow play, converging, diverging, chasing. One guy gets close enough to the sculpture to cast it on the ceiling, where its gears become cosmic tracks. When it’s over, I turn around and discover a semi-circle of people watching.

On the way out, we hand off our LEDs to another couple. “Make your own art!” I squeal. They seem to get the idea. Outside, there’s a line for the lampshade, and the raptors (there were raptors, and bats, and other live things) have been packed up in their crates for the evening. “Goodbye, owls!” a young woman calls, clapping her hands once above her head.

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People are lined up to boogie on platforms; they’re lined up for a container labeled “The Greatest Thing”. A nude show? An enormous cow? You’ll never know.

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12:30. One of the mysteries of Northern Spark is whether observed personalities correspond to places or times. Will the MCAD zone always be playful? Or has the swing hall gotten violent, the badminton league-quality? Has the video room found its star? Is the Greenway still painfully sincere, or has it taken a turn for the wild? Whichever, Stone Arch after midnight is packed and buoyant. The north end of the bridge is clogged with glowstick-enhanced dancing. “It’s a rave!” I say. Apparently not; you’d need more drugs. Still, a moment later I see a guy tumble off his bike for no clear reason.

The Stone Arch/St Anthony Main area is so busy it defies investigation. Everyone has a friend or a posse and everyone is headed off in a different direction -- except for the older guy with a touring bike, sitting at a picnic table alone, reading his Spark guide. “That’s the saddest thing in the world,” my friend comments. Also not going anywhere, or not immediately, are two couples engaged in some tricky airplane balances that verge on the sexual. Are they an event or just exhibitionists?

We come out onto the thoroughfare of Main Street, where there is at once everything and nothing to choose from. There are lines for everything, crowds for everything, projections everywhere, and there’s no more distinct common mood than enthusiastic distraction. People are lined up to boogie on platforms; they’re lined up for a container labeled “The Greatest Thing”. A nude show? An enormous cow? You’ll never know.

“It’s the usual thing with a weird visual,” my friend says -- or a sort of weird visual, because it’s hard to make a truly strange image these days. Body Pong seems only mildly entertaining, even to one player, who’s trying to figure out how to game the Kinnect and make the least effort while his girlfriend jumps up and down like a volleyball champion. A party, half at St. Anthony Main and half in some apartment, warrants a glance. The many projections blur together, so many advertisements for our bright, pixilated, multidimensional future. Why are those people lying on their backs staring up at a blue-lit building? Who knows? We pass a row of beached Art Shanties, where the actually handmade projection of old-fashioned shadow-puppets creates a brief buzz of cognitive dissonance. “That’s a pretty dope shanty, though,” a guy says -- but whether he means this one or the next one along, where gaily dressed people lie exhausted but open-eyed and vaguely reproachful under colorful lights, I can’t tell. And I can’t find David Goldes’s THE Northern Spark; somehow a flaming wheel doesn’t stand out here.

The visual that actually does catch me, strangely, is a woman icing a cake silently and slowly, slathering on buttery dollops of wicked frosting. The poisonous sensuality of it gnaws at the techno-topia; provocative but open, it sets a more subtle stage than anything nearby.

Further along we happen across Aniccha Arts’ nine-hour dance In Habit: Living Patterns, which, from our brief exposure, is a series of slowly unfolding images on a high stage. I would like to be the kind of person who could give this the attention it surely deserves; its clarity calls out to me above the carnival midway ruckus. But, at the moment, I have a more pressing call: to get another beer.

1:20. Downtown again. The usual post-party depression, usual well-lit nothing. I’m identifying a Spark problem: right about now, I really want a drink and a snack, but I want them not from a food truck, not in the heart of Spark-ness, but as an escape. Thus fortified by booze, conversation, starch, silence, and sitting down, I might be good until 3 or 4 am. As it is, though, the bars and kitchens are closed, and there’s nothing for it but more Spark.

2:00. The Spark guide led me to think that, in the wee hours, the Walker Art Center would be a rather quiet, studious place -- storytelling, Acoustic Campfire, Drawing Club -- but it feels more like a manic, contentless version of the Stone Arch scene. People are dancing before fires, casting lithe and enormous shadows on the Walker theater’s back wall; others are scrambling all over the art boulders that say “Please do not climb.” Everywhere -- fire, voices, activity, crowds. The cadre of people making puffy paint images on black paper seems no less wired: “We will do this!” their purposeful elbows announce as they make butterflies. A circle of bummed-out security guards watches from a distance. “He says it’s art, so. . .,” one of them shrugs.

At this point, I wouldn’t know art if it hit me, and since getting hit by art is more than a marginal possibility at Northern Spark, I think it’s time to go home. 2:30. Somehow, some of these people will stay up another three hours to greet the sun. What they see then will surely be brilliant; the rest of us will wait a few more hours for illumination.

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Related information and links:

Northern Spark – nuit blanche Twin Cities took place at various locations around Minneapolis from dusk, Saturday, June 9 until dawn, Sunday, June 10. Find  more information about the artists, performances & installations for this year’s event on the festival website: http://2012.northernspark.org/index.php

Read Deborah Carver's essay on the cultural history and public arts context of Northern Spark >>

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About the author: Originally from Tallahassee, Lightsey Darst is a poet, dance writer, and adjunct instructor at various Twin Cities colleges. Her manuscript Find the Girl was recently published by Coffee House; she has also been awarded a 2007 NEA Fellowship.

MN Artists