Northern Spark 2014!

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Northrop Auditorium, 9:02

I may be beginning to recover from an awesome late night adventure through the rain soaked streets and sidewalks of Minneapolis last Saturday at the Northern Spark, the unique and exciting arts festival stays up all night long in the Twin Cities. Of course, it must be said I stay out the entire night less often, in general, than I once did, but there is no better reason to stay up past your bedtime than this. At Northern Spark’s fourth annual event, multitudes of artists, institutions, and other cool people lit up a stormy night, populating much of the city with surprising discoveries, interactive explorations, and fellow adventurers. Dreamlike, mysterious, and thought provoking, the festival represents the best of the Twin Cities culture, in all its diversity, creativity, and secrets. Ranging from dancing, writing, music, technology, and every other facet of human culture and life, the Spark has something to experience for everyone. I stumbled into my first Northern Spark in 2012, was so impressed with this smorgasbord of creativity that it became one of my most anticipated events of the summer, and 2014 did not disappoint!

After spending a couple of weeks perusing the wide variety of events, I created a list of options that appealed to me; with one hundred and eighty separate projects and performances going on throughout the night across the city, along with the Twin Cities finest food carts and many other festivities, it can be difficult to decide what to do, but with that much stuff even the most ambitious would never be able to do everything, which is part of the fun. Who knows what, or who, you will find yourself encountering? Downloading my My Night App along with a little interactive storytelling app, the MysteryPhone, which added a “real” adventure to the night in an attempt to thwart the devious Dr. Obscuro, I was ready to go. The fact that these events, with the exceptions of the launch and closing parties are free for participants makes them accessible to anyone interested in going and is certainly an awesome component; you can participate in all of this wonderful and innovative artistic experiences no matter your budget!

With the 2014 theme of “Projecting the City,” in order to reflect on what the city could be, imagine transformations, affect change, realize the power of the individual to make the urban environment better. This theme of imagination and the blurring of the lines between the real and the magical seems to me to be very appropriate for the festival, and really appeals to my love of juxtaposing the real and the unreal.  As the Twin Cities metro continues to evolve into one of the best, most vibrant metros in the country, these examinations can lead to some real insights. As the storm began to settle over the city, “projecting” the city skyline into the power of the natural world, this theme was even more strong.

As the evening began, a dark, wall like cloud appeared over Minneapolis accompanied the rumble of thunder as lightning began to arc through the night sky. Later, I would hear that a certain meteorological phenomenon known as “gravity waves” were responsible for this, the first display of a night full of atmosphere. The skyline looked pretty awesome, even if the ominous beginnings of the storm promised a wet, windy night.  Still, my friends I approached our first stop, Northrop Auditorium at the University of Minnesota, fellow festival goers were already gathering, waving multicolored umbrellas and hurrying up the steps to Northrop Mall, under the majestic columns of the recently renovated edifice. As the rain began to pour down from the roiling sky in torrents, we entered the auditorium to the eerie, ethereal traditional Javanese music of the Sumunar Gamelan Ensemble. Odd that I have not been inside the columns of the auditorium since my graduation ceremony at the U, er, a few years ago, and the wide spaces of the historic building echoed with the sound of bells and gongs.

We listened to the music, accompanied by the thunder outside, and watched the growing crowd mill through the building while we waited to be scanned by the University of Minnesota libraries’ 3D scanner. We chatted a little about librarianship as the University librarians used a new scanning device on each of us in our various eccentric poses as we stood upon a spinning pedestal, the program capturing our likenesses for recreating via a 3D printer. I am extremely curious to see how it turns out once I get access to one of those, and it was also fun to see how the program reacted to our showy poses.

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A mysterious University of Minnesota campus shrouded in rain during a lull in the storm.

My first clue on the MysteryPhone app lead me to the Bell Museum of Natural History, a favorite of mine when I was a nature-loving kid, filled as it is with dioramas of Minnesota wildlife and other such fun stuff. The University campus was lit by occasional flashes of lightning, making for an atmospheric and eerie ambiance as I walked through the old familiar paths of my undergraduate life. The clues led me into the museum, to examine the red bellied woodpecker in its display among other small mounted fauna. Sadly, my phone ran out of batteries at this point, but there were so much to do without being distracted by technology.

The museum was even more packed with fun for the Spark, as setting of Close Range/Far Afield, exploring the natural world from the common insects living all around us to the edge of the universe; it was almost overwhelming how many things to do were packed into the small spaces of the museum.  From the wild, chaotic movement of Chimera, a screen on which was projected animated skeletons with the skulls of animals in surreal backgrounds, puppeted by the movements of anyone dancing in front of the screen. As the partipants lept and windmilled around the front of the stage, their on screen, skeletal alter egos cartwheeled and spun, their skulls being swapped out every few moments for some other lifeforms, as their bones rattled and jumbled among each other. It was hilarious to watch kids and adults alike leap about to make the skeletons dance.

A very interesting and informative virtual planetarium was set up in the museum as well, and we got a nice tour of the immensity of the universe and saw how our entire solar system is revolving around the center of the galaxy and several thousand light years. Finally, we got to visit with some entomologists and hold some fairly large cockroaches, a giant cave cockroach and a bat cave cockroach. Did you know that termites are actually members of the cockroach family? I guess I am glad that we don’t have to deal with either of these species too much in Minnesota. These giant cockroaches seemed pretty friendly as cockroaches go, though and just seemed to be interested in exploring the full length of your arm before being gently knocked back into their habitat.

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The mild mannered bat cave cockroach, Eublaberus distanti, from Central and South America, an insect that prefers dry guano.

Our next stop, after leaving the University of Minnesota campus and crossing the Mississippi to the West River Parkway, where we were to check out the events at the Loft Literary Center (more on this in a later entry) and the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, offering Ascetic Apparatus’ 1978 exhibition and the Loft’s Galactic Web of Wonder, celebrating the literary work of Douglas Adams. Housed in a roomy old warehouse, this was a great place to get out of the rain and indulge in some creativity. I grabbed some tea from the cafe to help get through the night and, along with dozens of others, learned how to craft my own little zines, (or two, or three) with some nice paper, a few stamps, and a stapler, and then tried my hand at printing an awesome souvenir screen printed poster, courtesy of Ascetic Apparatus’ well known designs. The neon marbled paper, sadly, turned out to be beyond my abilities. In addition to these wonderful arts and crafts, there were intriguing mini-books and other works of art on display, harkening back to the retro artistic styles of 1978 and featuring an overwhelming surplus of cool ideas. In fact, we just happened to spend the rest of the night there making ‘zines, posters, and, heading upstairs to the Galactic Web of Wonder, where we added to the galactic web of life, the universe, and everything, even if the big questions were not totally answered. Things were winding down here, and after a few humorous rounds of mad libs, it was a good place to finish for the night.

By this time, we were starting to feel our own batteries beginning to drain and so we returned to the wind swept, water strewn night and called it an end for Northern Spark this year. The mystery of Dr. Obscuro had to be left undone, like much of the mystery that is the Northern Spark. A continuation of the exploration will occur next summer, on the second Saturday in June, and one can only imagine and dream what wonders might be found!

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