Where there is Minnesota summer and vaccinated people, there is outdoor art.

Northern Spark, the free nighttime public art festival, returns this weekend with a new, COVID-friendly format. To ensure social distancing, the festival will stretch from June 12 to 27 instead of being concentrated into two nights.

This year's theme is alchemy — the idea that artists are contemporary alchemists who transform matter, materials and idea into feeling. The fest offers an alchemical mix of events in St. Paul's East Side and Rondo/Frogtown neighborhoods, as well as virtual and mail-art projects. There are 10 projects in all, plus a three-night associated event by Ananya Dance Theater.

Co-director Sarah Peters had to start figuring this year's Northern Spark long before it was even clear if a vaccine would be available.

"It was in that mind-set that we decided to go with a hybrid set of forms and do some virtual projects, knowing artists were doing some exciting work in that territory," said Peters. "Northern Spark has always had projects like that."

Unlike other popular Minnesota arts events, Northern Spark didn't have to cancel last summer. In accidentally perfect timing, it had already planned to take the year off to regroup with the departure of founder Steve Dietz.

This year's festival kicks off from 6-10 p.m. Saturday with "You Change Me," a sprawling dance party in the Rondo neighborhood and online.

Led by Lelis K. Brito, the Venezuelan-American theater director, choreographer and educator, the project is like a dance-centered game of telephone with 31 participating dancers. A "dance caravan" will drive through the neighborhood, eventually ending at the Victoria Theater or Springboard for the Arts.

As the caravan stops at each location in Rondo/Frogtown, a dancer will pick a place, then share a dance with five others who will then change it, record it, and then pass it to five more people. Each location creates what Brito calls a "memory lode." Eventually, the dances will be compiled into a long video collage for all to see.

As a guest in the neighborhood, Brito spent time getting to know it and the people, a process similar to her recent work with Harry Waters Jr. on last year's BareBones Halloween event along E. Lake Street in Minneapolis, which responded to what Waters called the "triple pandemic of COVID, systemic racism and the [then-impending] election."

"The dance part is really about our relationships, even virtually," said Brito. "I am an in-person kind of person, but even virtually we are communicating from body-to-body and we are changed and transformed by the people and places we interact with."

Not all events require viewers' presence. Yeej Moua's "The Wind Always Strikes the Highest Mountain," a film that tells the story of Dej, a Hmong teenager (her name means "water") who loses her brother in the pandemic, has three virtual screenings June 24, 25 and 26.

Moua was fascinated by the way that Hmong funerals, which normally last for three days, had to be crunched into a single day because of pandemic restrictions. In his original script, Moua was going to cast a grandfather, but elders weren't interested in participating because of the pandemic, so he switched it to a sister-brother dynamic.

"Dej comes to an understanding of why things happen the way they did, and why the three-day funeral doesn't really matter in the end," said Moua. "It's more the idea of love and the initial bonding and the experience that you have with this individual."

Got mail?

This year's Northern Spark also includes three mail-art projects. Peters wanted to give some love to the U.S. Postal Service while spreading something positive to strangers.

"We were talking about viral spread and how that idea has been in our consciousness in such a negative way because of COVID," said Peters. "We wanted to play with idea of spreading joy rather than grief or sadness."

Corinne Teed's "Collaborative Blocking: A Community Map" invites people in the Rondo neighborhood to take a walk. A total of 1,000 randomly selected residents will receive maps in the mail with directional prompts that will guide them through familiar places. Tia-Simone Gardner, a Black feminist scholar who works in geography, photography and time-based media, worked as a contributing artist on the project.

The piece of paper is a "Turkish map-fold" style, making it look sort of like a clam that's opening its mouth.

"We were excited to send something in the mail that would feel like a gift, and be kind of magical to open," Teed said. "The conceptual map will offer them a few prompts, including standing on the I-94 bridge and thinking about the history that's beneath the asphalt."

Although Northern Spark won't be the same, Peters feels it's shaping up surprisingly well, all pandemic things considered.

"We had a dream of in-person, but we were waiting to hear on funding and any clue about public health news," said Peters. "We didn't hit 'go' until March, when funding came through … and by that time we felt, with the Biden administration, the vaccine rollout was real."

@AliciaEler • 612-673-4437

Northern Spark 2021: Alchemy

When: June 12-27.

Info: 2021.northernspark.org.