Five years, one planned cancellation and one COVID-induced change later, the one-night, all-nighter festival Northern Spark is back.
Although this seems like a return to "normal," director Sarah Peters doesn't think of it that way.
"This is kind of an experiment like five years in the making," Peters said. "Northern Spark, to some degree, has always been an experiment. So I think for better or worse we're just continuing down that path."
This year's Northern Spark theme is "What the World Needs Now." The festival runs Saturday from 9 p.m.-2 a.m. along University Avenue in St. Paul across five locations — Victoria Theater Arts Center, Rondo Community Library, Springboard for the Arts, and the Minnesota Museum of American Art. The single closing event runs from 2-5:30 a.m. on Raspberry Island.
Participating artist Xavier Tavera, one of seven Latinx artists included in the exhibition "Mestizaje: Intermix-Remix" at the M, welcomed the return to an all-night format. At this year's Northern Spark, there will be free tours, patches and posters at the M from 9 p.m.- 2 a.m.
"An after-dark event in the city allows us to regain ownership of the cities, travel freely from site to site, bike, eat by food trucks, gather with friends and artists with the specific objective to present, observe and experience art together, at least for one night," he said. "We are social beings and because of that specific nature we need to gather."
Northern Spark began in 2011 as a new Minnesota festival modeled on the nuit blanche or "white night" festival of arts & culture in Paris that stretches from 7 a.m.-7 p.m. It kept that format until 2018, when it tried out a festival that stretched over two nights.
Artist Zoe Cinel, whose collective CarryOn Homes participated in Northern Spark 2018, felt excited about the return to the all-nighter format.
"I love the concept of Northern Spark, because where I'm from in Florence — things like the "White Night Festival," or "Nuit Blanche," happened every year," she said. "It is pretty common that even small towns have one ... knowing that there was something like that here, it's obviously very different — it's very chaotic in Italy — it is something that makes me feel at home, weirdly."
Over the course of five hours — from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. — a bevy of artists will take over University Avenue in St. Paul.
Mino Oski Ain Dah Yung and the Native Youth Arts Collective's "Start at Home" invites people to work on creating a banner around positive change at the Victoria Theater Arts Center.
Felicia Cooper, Kallie Melvin and Alex Young's "The Official Bureau of Lost Things" at Springboard invites people to submit their "lost thing" and participate in a collective grieving process.
Pang Foua Xiong, Mai Vang, Suzanne Thao and Sandy Lo's "Community | Joy & Friendship," rooted in Hmong embroidery practice of "Paaj Ntaub" (pronounced "pan-dow"), offers people a chance to rediscover joy during uncertain times. The project, also at Springboard, is guided by refugees and first- and second-generation Hmong Americans.
The Rondo Community Library hosts "Library After Dark," with various activities and projects. The full list of events is available at 2022.northernspark.org.
This year's festival ends with Sequoia Hauck's "ingiw mekwendamowaad ziibi: the ones who remember the water," a large-scale installation of cloth replicas of the Mississippi River (Ȟaȟáwakpa in Dakota/Gichi-ziibi in Anishinaabe) and Minnesota River (Mnísota Wakpá/Ashkibagi-ziibi) that span across Raspberry Island in St. Paul. The interactive project includes song, visual storytelling and movement, and the public is invited to experience and interact with the teachings of water.
The idea of having a single closing event is another twist in the all-nighter experience.
"We were trying to imagine a festival format that could kind of funnel into a central location because audience numbers are smaller at that time of the night, and so that this year seemed like a great time to try that," Peters said.
It seems like a return to the one-night event is even more crucial after last year's COVID-induced two-week-long format that lost much of the momentum. Last year's theme, "Alchemy," included in-person, virtual and mail art projects and a three-night associated event by Ananya Dance Theatre. The vibe was not the same, but spreading out events ensured social distancing during the early days of vaccines and COVID uncertainty.
The 2020 event was canceled, not because of COVID but because founder Steve Dietz departed, and the organization took a year off to regroup.
At the same time, Peters noted COVID is still a concern, and "the majority of our programming is outside and the indoor venues either require or encourage masks."
Despite the necessary COVID navigation, Peters felt in awe of the way the festival has come together, yet again.
"What's always so curious every year is that you put this theme out there and an open call," she said. "Then it's always very interesting to see what comes back in — the threads that connect to them."
Northern Spark 2022
When: Saturday, June 11, 9 p.m.-2 a.m. along University Av.; closing event 2-5:30 a.m. on Raspberry Island
Where: Locations on University Av. in St. Paul, including Minnesota Museum of American Art, 350 N. Robert St.; Victoria Theater Arts Center, 825 W. University Av.; Rondo Community Library, 461 N. Dale St., St. Paul; Springboard Center for the Arts, 262 W. University Av.; Raspberry Island, 2 Wabasha St., St. Paul.