Three Reasons For More Northern Spark

[Faces pressed against the Bedlam window to gaze at mystery drawings.]
You live long enough in this town, you start to repeat yourself. There are certain conversations that come up again and again, like verbal whack-a-mole games. There's the one about running into the same people over and over again, the one about how interesting people keep moving to the coasts and what's to be done about it, the one about how the vast majority of [arts/ theater/ journalism/music] funding always goes to the one really large non-profit, and then there's the argument about where the best juicy lucy can be found... You live long enough in this town, you start to repeat yourself.

One of the conversations I've been having and having lately is about changing the provincial imaginary of the Twin Cities. "We're too complacent, too set in our ways," so it goes. "Other cities around the country and around the world have such inspiring in their [street design/ nightlife/ artistic culture]. We're tired of waiting for change. We need to stop talking and start acting, just do something, stop whining and bring new ideas to life!" Something like that, anyway. It's a fun conversation to have, kind of therapeutic, but most of the time the call to arms rarely seems to lead anywhere.

That's why the Northern Spark seems so refreshing to me. It's a great example of people actually following through with a new big idea. For the past three years, instead of just wishing over and over that Minneapolis and Saint Paul were more like [Paris/ Montreal/ New York/ Berlin], people have been actually putting together an a big all-night festival and making it happen. For the last three years we've staged "nuits blanches" in Minneapolis and Saint Paul, with no little success. I know a few of the organizers, and each year seems like a real struggle. But I think this is one of the more important recent Twin Cities trends, precisely because its so difficult. All-night creations like the Northern Spark fest (and to a lesser extent, things like last weekend's Greenway Glow) rattle the Twin Cities' complacency like a big etch-a-sketch. These events open up spaces and times for new ideas and new social groups to form and grow. 

Here are three reasons to keep it going for years to come...

[This guy definitely goes to bed early.]
#1: Disrupting Expectations - Stories about Minnesota culture tend to go heavy on the protestant ethic narrative. Something about Northern European hard work, a state filled with humorless farmer labor conservatives where time is money. The Minnesota state photograph perfectly illustrates this ideal, the old bachelor farmer praying over his spartan early-morning breakfast before heading out to milk the cows. This whole ideal is predicated on sensible hours and tempered prudence, e.g. no liquor on Sundays, our (until quite recently) 1 AM bar close.  Saint Paul: the city that sleeps; Minneapolis: anti-New Orleans.

Northern Spark is the opposite of this story. Here Minneapolis and Saint Paul are the cities that stay up all night on a whim, that throw reason and circadian rhythms to the wind. Here we have an all night party. For a night, museums veto their calculating and stay open until 1AM for a dance party, setting things on fire. Here for a night, people are actually encouraged to walk alone down dark alleys in the middle of the night. The night-time city, its silhouette normally dominated by the looming latent towers of insurance and banking, transforms to a dream city of the young and unreasonable.

[Haller's river listening project.]
#2: Interacting with the City Itself - Typically, you'll find art shut up inside a museum, guarded by pillars and lions, surrounded by antiseptic white walls. Even more public forms of art, sculptures or performances, tends to come with some frame separating it from urban humdrum, something saying "here, this is different, this is special, this lies outside your everyday city." One of the best things about the Northern Spark is that the city itself becomes part of the experience, the buildings, the landscape, the city viewed from a radically different temporal position.

Sometimes the art focuses on this city. Some examples from this year: Monica Haller's Can You Listen to the Same River Twice? which brought people down to the river itself (not easy to do in downtown Saint Paul) to listen to underwater sounds travel up from the sea; or my favorite project, Daniel Dean and Ben Moren's Secret City, where you listened to a long wandering narrative on your cell phone, while exploring the alleys and roofs of Lowertown, a story that allowed me to touch the city itself, lifting me above the crowd for a loving lonely minute.

Other times the city itself is the art, viewed through a new lens with a new frame. Traveling from place to place through Minneapolis at night, riding along the greenway through the dark and quiet hours knowing that waiting for you at the end is a museum still open. Passing another group, the streets normally dark and dead filled with people. Tonight, the dumpster underneath the overpass is a hot-tub with a person inside.

#3: A Different Audience - Last year, Northern Spark ended for me with a sunrise at the top of the Foshay Tower. It was 4:45 in the morning, the sun would rise in half an hour, and a long line snaked through the money-drenched lobby of the W Hotel waiting for the elevator doors to open. The line was a social jumble, a mix of backgrounds and sobriety levels. For every urban hipster there was someone who'd spent the night at a biker bar. Granted, the W Hotel bars are a horrorshow on many evenings, but a feeling of amazement dawned on me that the owners and managers of so many wealthy buildings and museums had been persuaded to open their doors to the public in the middle of the night, to let anyone in off the street to wander galleries and rooftops, spaces normally closed to the drunk and disorderly.

In the day city and in the night city live different people. During the first hours of the Northern Spark, the crowd is full of families, folks from the suburbs looking for light spectacles, willing to push a boundary or two just enough for tomorrow's story. As the night elaborates and grows longer, those with bedtimes and alarm clocks weed themselves away, and a whole new group of people thrive. Here you'll find the anti-bankers, the night people: artists, musicians, drunks, and third-shifters. There's a democracy to the middle of the night. For once the pleasures of the city, of crowds and strangers, become nocturnal. Minneapolis New York. Saint Paul à Paris.

[The Foshay Tower observation deck from Northern Spark 2012.]


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