Art and Technology at Northern Spark

Northern Spark is an art festival-type event that incorporates art installations, interactive art, music, theater, and dance performances, art creation, and more.  It occurs from dusk to dawn and (at least over the past two years) takes over several blocks of a Twin Cities neighborhood, so the night features prominently in all the work presented.  This year, Northern Spark took place from sunset on June 8 until sunrise on June 9, 2013 in the Lowertown neighborhood of St. Paul.  Most of the installations/performances/etc. were setup in and around the grounds of the Union Depot train station and the street immediately outside it.

I was and continue to be surprised at the technology used in many of the installations and performances. I realize that this focus on the medium and not the message is not a very “fine art” way to think, but many projects incorporated projected images and video, cameras, LED lights, and other custom electronics which I find simply fascinating.  Now, a lot of this may have to do with the fact that it is dark and therefore many projects had to have a built-in light source simply to be visible.  But it still gives a vastly different feel to the work than you get even in a very contemporary art museum.

An outdoor installation, Strange Attractor, used a camera to cause a giant LED light board to react to light patterns it detected.  I was never quite able to suss out what patterns caused it to respond, but it was cool seeing computer vision used in an art project!

Another interactive installation, can you listen to the same river twice?, on the shore of the Mississippi River utilized an underwater microphone wired up to headsets that were all attached to organically-shaped reclining benches lit up with LEDs.  The effect was very relaxing.

An installation piece on the train tracks, The World Is Rated X, utilized a camera on each end of an enormous, cage-like contraption, to project large images recorded by those cameras on opposite sides.

Yet another installation piece, Rooftop Routine, continuously projected a movie of women hula-hooping on a rooftop onto the side of a large building, high in the air.

The Siege Engines group had a trebuchet shaped like the Foshay tower (a “Foshaybuchet,” natch) that launched throwlights at a target all night.  This one was neat because they enlisted the public to help build the throwlights. I’m not sure this went as planned since I saw most people just walking off with the throw lights and very few of them were actually thrown at girders and such.

A group with a large, space-themed group installation, the astronaut spirit academy, incorporated a giant projected image of the rotating Earth.

The local Bell Museum had an inflatable planetarium in which they ran shows about stars, galaxies, and the universe all night.

Some of the really creative uses of technology I saw came from performance based groups:

The Forever Young silent dance party was quite interesting in that a faux living room was set up with a DJ who played music for participants to come in and dance to.  But, outside observers could not hear the music as it was being broadcast only to headphone sets worn by those dancing.  It was akin to watching a live version of a music video with the sound turned off.

One cool performance piece at Northern Spark was Instant Cinema: Teleportation.  In this piece, a trio of musicians improvised all night to live video being projected on top of them from a pair of videographers wandering the entire event, broadcasting back their live video.

Finally, my favorite technology-enabled piece was the late-night Gossip Orchestra, in which 20 excellent musicians, all sporting different instruments, sat around in a circle.  Audience participants would then act as a conductor, turning musicians on and off by enabling or disabling LED spotlights that would light up a musician when they were to play.  They could adjust the color of the LED spotlights to affect the mood of the music.  The musicians were all exceptionally good, they really did change and flow with the different “directors,” and the music created was phenomenal.

Many of the projects at Northern Spark demonstrate the types of cool art that are made possible by creative application of technology.  I am continuously surprised by this event, and encourage you to check it out next year!

Nate Bird

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