Water is Life: Northern Spark builds on last year’s theme with an art festival along the Green Line

Dandelion, Against the Grain, and Ice Fall— Feel The Change, Northern Spark 2016 // Photo by Dusty Hoskovec

“Water is Life” became the rallying cry of the water protectors trying to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock, and now those words flow between St. Paul and Minneapolis via the Green Line train.

Andrea Carlson’s colorful train-wrap design, which reads “Mni Wiconi” (water is life, in Dakota) on one side and “Nibi gaa-bimaaji’iwemagak” (the water that gives life, in Ojibwe) on the other, first hit the tracks on March 3, and will act as a central piece in this year’s Northern Spark Festival, which takes place along the transit line from dusk until dawn on the night of June 10.

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The art festival’s new route along the Green Line will highlight different communities in Minneapolis and St. Paul through partnerships with community organizations and nonprofits doing work around social justice and the environment. It’s all part of a two-year theme, begun in 2016, which emphasizes climate change and the ways communities can work together for a healthier Earth.

When Carlson first talked to Steve Dietz, who runs Northern Lights.mn, the organization responsible for the Northern Spark Festival, he told her that the festival didn’t want to make the issue of climate change political. That’s when she thought of the phrase “Water is Life.” “That seems like it should be political, but it’s not,” she says. “I just want to get that language seen.”

Accompanying the text on the train are a water panther and thunderbird, and the colors Carlson uses bear significance in Objiwe culture. “It’s blue on one side and red on the other,” Carlson says. “When those two colors come together [it means] strength and healing.”

Since its first year in 2011, Northern Spark has often featured performances, installations, or projections that have touched on issues of water, energy, and the environment. The festival has taken care about where it takes place, centering activities around bike paths and public transportation, as well as the Mississippi River.

MINN_LAB, Weather Report, Mill Ruins Park, Northern Spark 2016// Photo by Dusty Hoskovec

Last year’s projects ranged from coral reefs made from recycled materials to popsicles made from the “polluted water” of a dystopian Minnesota futurescape. There was even a portable soil lab where people could test soil from their backyards for heavy metals. As in past years, there were large projections and epic performances, showing that art can be as spectacular and stunning as it is beautiful.

The benefit of having a two-year investigation about climate change means Northern Spark gets to build on last year’s work. “What we learned was that there was a huge amount of interest in both the topic and the idea of bringing something more topical to the Northern Spark Festival,” says Dietz. This year, there’ll be an even greater focus on what people can do to make a difference, whether that means calling senators and representatives, recycling more, or biking. “It is really about a cultural shift,” Dietz says. “Art is not just a fancy way to talk about climate change, but it is in itself an action.”

Northern Spark will have a more intimate feel this year, due to its location. Unlike past years where huge projections, like on the side of the grain silos along the Mississippi River, created a sense of spectacle, this year’s festival takes place in new places like Little Mekong and the Rondo neighborhood, giving visitors a sense of the unique cultural aspects each place. In addition, there will be sites in Lowertown, around the Weisman Art Museum, at the West Bank station, and around U.S. Bank Stadium.

Next page: Connecting communities

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