Northern Spark illuminates, rain or shine

Balancing Ground — a new art installation near the Minneapolis Convention Center. Credit: Photo by Eric Best

Northern Spark returned to Minneapolis this year, though artists and organizers struggled through thunderstorms.

Organizer Northern has put on the sunrise-to-sunset art event four times, but this year’s festivities were by far the wettest and the wildest. Organizers cancelled a handful of the 125 projects due to the rain and flooding, but a vast majority of events continued despite the adversity. The Spark continues to grow, with an expected 50,000 participants this year (though the rain likely affected attendance) and more than 35 venues across the Twin Cities.

I monitored the weather all day Saturday, June 14, as the typical Minnesota weather flip-flopped from moderate thunderstorms to near-perfect spring sunshine. As the Spark’s opening ceremony rolled around at 9:01 p.m., the clouds and rain had returned and wouldn’t let up.

However, I couldn’t miss Northern Spark. It only comes around once each year and it’s never too far away. The festival’s website also allows participants to plan an event schedule, though there is no route or map feature.

Embracing the rain, I decided to go for it, though instead of riding my bike around the Twin Cities, which I would always recommend for Northern Spark, I went by car.

My first stop was the Weisman Art Museum on the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities campus, which hosts the Raptor Center’s “Birds of a Feather” event, a fan favorite.

When a few friends and I arrived on campus, the Weisman was packed with both gallery art fans and people excited to see gigantic birds of prey in the middle of a museum designed by one of the world’s most celebrated architects—and I was part of the latter.

We got front-row seats, right next to tarps that program instructor Kayla Wolfe said were for messy bird food and the occasional bird dropping. Four ominous crates stood behind Wolfe as she made her way in front of an audience of couple hundred. She pulled out an owl, a peregrine falcon and—the finale—a bald eagle, as the audience cooed with each animal.

The best part was seeing an eagle poop twice in an art museum (Wolfe didn’t flinch).  I’ll never understand modern art.

Wolfe told the audience she hopes showing her passion for birds fuels our creativity. This is the beauty of the festival. With so many diverse artists and events literally changing the space of our cities, Northern Spark has a charismatic way of engineering serendipitous—and downright silly—behavior.

Undeterred from the downpour outside, my cohorts and I travelled to the other end of the city to see one of this year’s largest and most interactive installations, “Balancing Ground,” at the Minneapolis Convention Center plaza.

The project, which architectural designer Sarah Designer Amanda Lovelee said resembles a minimalist chapel, won the 2014 Creative City Challenge earlier this year, a competition to build temporary artwork that “encourages a sense of connectedness to the city…”

The structure glowed with a rainbow of colored light, switching between glowing reds, greens and purples refracted in prisms that hung from the skeleton beams. It offered little protection from the rain, though I came prepared with a jacket and nearly a dozen of us walked through the installation.

Between thunderclaps it was hard to make out the interactive audio elements of “Balancing Ground,” which begin as participants walk among the pews or play on several seesaws. The installation chimes in with alternating audio and interviews with professionals about the theme of balance.

For those who didn’t weather the storm, I’d recommend seeing “Balancing Ground,” which will continue to be a part of public events, including yoga sessions with Gorilla Yogis during the first Sunday of summer months.

The final leg of our journey ended at about 1 a.m., walking around oddities like the Hack Factory’s water balloon-throwing trebuchet and Asia Ward’s “Simon”-inspired digital hopscotch game outside the MCC plaza. The weather did eventually get to us, as we traded soaked jackets for a heated car.

Leaving downtown, I saw plenty of small outdoor installations that were empty or unvisited. It was likely that the weather drove people to pick one or a few indoor, destination venues. However, the doom and gloom of the rain wasn’t a deterrent for many fans and diehards. With plenty of high-energy (GRRRL Party at MCC) and ambitious (Scott Pampuch’s 100-course meal) events, this year’s festival still offered excitement.

I look forward to next year, when there will — fingers crossed — be no rain and we’ll be able to bike between several venues comfortably. Northern Spark is at its best when Twin Cities residents can interact and connect easily in new, exciting ways, and this year was no different. A little rain never hurt anybody, but it can make it hard to travel safely through the city. With Minnesota weather, it was bound to happen sometime.