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Regan Smith previews Northern Lights' all-night festival, Northern Spark: Nuit Blanche, featuring dusk-to-dawn interactive art happenings throughout the Twin Cities, with 100 projects by more than 50 regional artists and organizations, on June 4 & 5.
By Regan Smith
May 18, 2011

From dusk on June 4 to daybreak June 5, make your way through a nighttime wonderland of events, installations, and performances - throughout the Twin Cities.

IN 2006, NORTHERN LIGHTS.MN founder, president, and artistic director, Steve Dietz, helped organize the first Zer01 SJ biennial, a seven day festival of art highlighting the theme of "the interactive city," which took place in San Jose, California. The event was a huge success, featuring the work of more than 250 artists representing over 40 different countries and drawing in excess of $9 million dollars in revenue for the city. The problem?  The activities ended at 2 a.m. every night, and like a whiskey-jonesing bar-goer just diving into his second wind, Dietz wanted still more.

Four years of idea-percolating and 18 months of practical planning later, Dietz has turned his a.m. arts bender dream into reality. On June 4 and 5, Northern Lights.mn, a "roving, collaborative, interactive media" nonprofit art agency, will host Northern Spark: A Nuit Blanche, the Twin Cities' first ever all-night outdoor art festival. Nuit Blanche -- which translates to "White Night," "All-Nighter" or "Sleepless Night" in French -- is a worldwide arts movement that originated in Europe, which centers around an all-night festival featuring various installations, performances, social activities, and an outdoor gallery in the center of the city.

Beginning at sunset (8:55 p.m.) on June 4 and ending at sunrise (5:28 a.m.) on June 5, the cities of Saint Paul and Minneapolis will serve as outdoor galleries for 100 projects by regional and national artists. The work on view will range widely in scope, form, and public interactivity, from laser tag at the Soap Factory to bioluminescent algae suspended in a veil along the underside of the Stone Arch Bridge. The festival is a result of collaboration by more than 50 institutional partners, each sponsoring one or more projects throughout the night; according to Dietz, the assortment of installations and events are designed to highlight the urban beauty of the Twin Cities by "combining outdoor space with indoor culture."

Though Saint Paul is the state capitol, Minneapolis is often thought of as the Twin Cities' hipper, younger sibling, and the cities' unique arts scenes are frequently pitted against each other with "who's cooler than who" sorts of comparisons . Northern Spark has upended that adversarial relationship by designing the festival as a regional event, for which the two cities will work in tandem. Turning that sense of civic competition on its head was one of the main goals of the festival, says Dietz. "We want to showcase the richness of the Twin Cities culture all at one time. We all talk about it, but then we go to one show, or one event and one bar, in one city -- and that's our night."

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"We want to appeal to a broad audience with something that's not just fireworks, but that's serious artwork, and acknowledging that the public is a kind of site-specific parameter that the artists are interested in. Get people who don't usually come to arts events into the MIA or the Walker for free -- give them a taste for it."

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In a direct effort to counter the one night, one city trend, artists will exhibit work in five major areas across both Twins: Zone A is the Minneapolis Riverfront, Central Avenue, and Stone Arch Bridge; Zone B consists of the hotels and galleries in Downtown Minneapolis and several sights in the North Loop; Zone C comprises the exhibition "triangle" between the Walker Art Center near Hennepin Ave, Minneapolis Institute of Arts and Minneapolis College of Art and Design near 3rd Ave South, and the galleries near Franklin Avenue and Lake Street; Zone D is the Saint Paul riverfront, including Harriet Island, with an inland stretch starting at Upper Landing Park through the Science Museum and Central Library to Landmark Center and Hamm Plaza; and, finally, for Zone E you have Lowertown, Saint Paul.

If the Twin Cities are a tandem bicycle, then the Mississippi River is the chain, the spokes, and the wheels; the pedal-pushing power that ties the whole concept together, both physically and culturally. So it's fitting that one of the highlights of the festival is the Mississippi Megalops, a "floating Chautauqua" presentation of illustrations, performances, and scientific expression organized by Works Progress. The Megalops will take place on the Jonathan Padelford paddleboat as it travels down the Mississippi River and back for four one-and-a-half hour journeys throughout the night, thereby providing a literal and direct artistic link between the two cities. 

The accessibility of the event to anyone and everyone who might be interested in art, and even those who aren't, is an integral part of the Nuit Blanche movement, says Dietz. "We're interested in that audience who might not normally self-identify [as arts consumers] by paying  X amount of dollars  to cross the threshold of a cultural institution, and give them a taste for it. Get them inside the Walker or the MIA for free. [We're interested in] appealing to that audience with something that's not just fireworks, but that's serious artwork, and acknowledging that the public is a kind of site-specific parameter that the artists are interested in."

Which is why every installation, exhibition, and yes, even paddleboat ride during Northern Spark is completely free, though pre-registration for some events is encouraged. Free bus rides from zone to zone will also be provided, and each station will be staffed with volunteers who will offer maps, guides, and schedules to visitors. All this information and an in-depth look at each of the artist projects can be found on the Northern Spark website at www.northernspark.org.

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Related links and event information:

Northern Spark: A Nuit Blanche will take place June 4 at sunset (8:55 p.m.) through the break of day June 5 in various locations throughout Saint Paul and Minneapolis. 

mnartists.org and the Walker Art Center are hosting a number of events and activities  for Northern Spark: A Nuit Blanche in Nightshift, on the Center's grounds throughout the night. Find out more about it here, on the Walker's website.

You can read more about individual projects and participating artists for this year's all-night festival on the mnartists.org blog from now until June 4. Find an exhaustive list of projects, a schedule of events, background information, social media links, and more on the Northern Spark website.

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About the author: Regan Smith lives and works in Minneapolis as a freelance writer of all genres. Her work can be found in The Villager newspaper and The Tangential, among other, less exciting places that pay the rent. She is also the co-founder and Editorial Director of Paper Darts literary and arts magazine, though that doesn't pay for anything but fun times.

MN Artists