A woman on a swing on a moon on a float at Northern Spark's Psychedelic Parade. / Photo by Claude Peck

I was gone last year, so I missed the Northern Spark, but I heard about it from friends who waited for hours to see a virtual white horse galloping on the Mississippi near downtown St. Paul on a laser-lit barge. There was a glitch and the horse never materialized, but my friends said it was fun hanging out in a crowd late at night.

I had a similar feeling at this year's event. I checked my mobile app and headed to river near the Guthrie to catch the promised "Psychedelic Parade" across the Stone Arch Bridge. We saw it in the distance, a bobbing tentlike structure moving slowly over the bridge. Because of the heavy crowd, we didn't catch up to it until it was nearly at the other end of the bridge. There we discovered a colorful hand-pushed float with a two-headed octopus, a sculpted moon and some trapeze swingers.

Sorry, Spark organizers, but that is not a parade. That is like 1/100th of a May Day Parade. It was kind of embarrassing to see the giant turnout this one-float parade had generated, as if we are all just so darn happy to get out of the house on a warm night.

We mooched around a bit in the park on the north side of the bridge.A ragtag marching band seemed to be tuning up but not really marching, and not really playing. We saw an "installation" of tented white holiday lights with some rags tied between them. We saw another installation, temporarily broken, that employed rags tied as banners and some live projections on a transparent wall panel.

We saw a projected movie on the facade of an old mill, of a woman making cookies. And another projection on an old mill that cast it in blue and purple light. Sorta cool, but meh. Back across the bridge, and there were some loudspeakers with electronic soundscapes. On the old silos near the Guthrie were some very tall vertical projections of squiggles, colors and glyphs.

What is with all these projections that seem to have no conceptual content, no thought-provoking depth, no participatory aspect, no entertainment value, no apparent contextual raison d'etre (though I heard the cookie movie had to do with the food companys that owned the mills), just some underbaked visual sidebars writ large in the night? 

It was fun biking down there. The crowd was genial and the night very warm. So I enjoyed being lured out by the Northern Spark. But since it is primarily about art, performance and installation, I wondered why there was so little of real interest in those areas. It was nearly impossible to figure out if there was something worth going to at a nearby or a more remote location. So we went home and sat on the deck with a drink until the half-moon came up about 1:30 a.m.

It was the most stirring and worthwhile thing we saw all night.

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