10 things we saw at Northern Spark, best to worst

JAY GABLER | Updated 6/10/2013

From a burning house to a giant bat on a bike, there was much to remark about at this weekend's Northern Spark art festival.

1. A burning house. The high-flown concept of Chris Larson’s torching of a full-scale model of a St. Paul house designed by vaunted architect Marcel Breuer (according to the Northern Spark handbook, “the spectacular flame prevents melancholy arising from the loss of Modernist purity and rationality”) was largely lost on the large crowd that showed up to watch it burn. Discussion among attendees almost entirely ran along the lines of (1) when does the burn start? (2) look! it’s burning! and (3) okay, it’s burning, let’s get out of here. Still, the burn was an epic spectacle—an unforgettable sight, and an attraction that probably kept a large portion of the crowd hanging around at the festival until 2 AM.

2. Bedlam’s back. It was a triumphant night for the long-awaited Bedlam Theatre space in Lowertown. The space hosted a dance party that attracted a raucous crowd late into the night, demonstrating its utility as a venue for the kind of performance/parties that are Bedlam’s specialty. It didn’t hurt that a bar was available, dispensing liberal libations at an event where booze was not in abundance (unless you count the private flasks). The challenge for Bedlam now is to attract that kind of party when there isn’t a house burning down two blocks away.

3. Diverse ages. There were plenty of twenty-somethings milling around Lowertown, but this third Northern Spark also attracted pre- and post-Millennials in quantities rarely seen at late-night downtown events. Teens and tweens, out well past the Mall of America curfew, conspicuously reveled in the availability of a big Saturday night event they could attend for free and without a fake ID. They mingled (or at least stood in line) with culture vultures from X, W, and V, the latter carrying camp chairs to set out for the big bonfire.

4. A silent dance party. The presenters of the Forever Young dance nights have flourished by embracing a “parents’ basement” vibe for their parties; their idea to present a silent dance party (music was DJed via headphones) in full view of everyone’s parents in a model of a family home’s basement in the middle of St. Paul’s Union Depot was both a lot of fun and—in its way—a much more interesting art concept than that embodied by Chris Larson’s flaming Modernist monument.

5. A very clean Lowertown. Not only was Lowertown spic-and-span for the crowd’s enjoyment, a small army of workers wearing construction vests and carrying brooms was deployed to make sure the neighborhood remained free of debris. This Disney-World-like touch made for spotless streets, but compromised at least one artwork: Robyn Hendrix, who was overseeing a block-long collaboratively created sidewalk-chalk board game, tweeted that the broom patrol had swept up her sidewalk chalk.

6. A lady choir. Though the acoustics of the Union Depot Head House (seriously, that’s what the space is called) weren’t particularly friendly to the Prairie Fire Lady Choir, a large and enthusiastic crowd gathered to hear their many-voiced interpretations of songs by the likes of Metallica. “It’s 1 AM and I’m clapping for a choir,” commented artist Scotty Gunderson in disbelief.

7. A stressed-out art bouncer. At about 12:30 AM, mnartists.org editor Susannah Schouweiler told me that the crowd at Analog Cave, a writing-into-art project presented at Bedlam by mnartists.org and Rain Taxi, was starting to get a little surly. “People don’t want to wait, even a few minutes!” she said. Apparently participatory art installations are something Minnesotans want, and want now.

8. A giant bat on a bike. An alarmingly large mobile sculpture, Hover was created by Alicia Dvorak and Mitchell Dose. Rolling down Fourth Street on its pedal-powered pedestal, the bat with a several-foot wingspan attracted a lot of attention—too much, it proved, when around midnight the sculpture was commandeered and damaged, the artists told a friend of mine. The nocturnal creature was an apt addition to the overnight art festival, but its colossal creepiness also served to draw attention to how poorly lit Lowertown is at night.

9. A graffiti tunnel. “This is a very well-contained graffiti experiment,” commented one observer on Underpass of the Eyes of Freedom, a participatory work created by Hamza Salim, Dunya Alwan, Islam Shabana, and Hend Kheera. Attendees were invited to use spray paint and stencils to “reinscribe” symbols of the Arab Spring, but the work’s political charge seemed largely lost in the festival-like atmosphere of Northern Spark.

10. A bunch of hungry people. The Twin Cities now have so many food trucks that we devote festivals to them, so many that brick-and-mortar restaurant proprietors are complaining of lost business. At this bustling event full of people with late-night munchies, where were all the trucks? Only a relative few were in evidence, and they were drawing long lines—especially Messy Giuseppe, strategically positioned on Fourth Street between Jackson and Robert. The newly concentrated Northern Spark has proved it can draw a crowd that’s hungry for art—but next year the organizers should note that Minnesotans get hungry for food, too.