Northern Spark, an annual Minneapolis arts festival, recently lit up the work of artists re-imagining climate change, expanding it from an issue grounded in science, facts, and data into something spectators can see, touch, and more fully comprehend.

Concentrated along the Mississippi riverfront in the Mill District in mid-June, the 41 installations invited tens of thousands of visitors to think about climate change in new ways. The artworks provided space for questions, contemplation, and inspiration. An installation of white flags, for example, asked passers-by to take a flag and write down something they were willing to surrender to combat climate change.

This year’s arts festival focused on climate change for three reasons. Most concretely, during the 2014 festival, “it rained thunderously and magnificently for eight and a half hours” in a 100-year rain event, said Northern Spark Artistic Director Steve Dietz. This vivid experience of “weather weirding” made the Northern Spark team think about the question of climate change more seriously.

The organizers also drew inspiration from artists around the world who are committed to portraying environmental and climate-related issues. Dietz and his organization, Northern, wanted to present and elevate that work.

Lastly, after five years of hosting Northern Spark – during which time organizers have created an event now attracting 50,000 people – Dietz and others were interested in exploring how they could build civic participation around a pressing issue. Thus, a climate-focused Northern Spark was born.

During the event, the ideas, brainstorms, and creativity of event organizers and artists crystallized into an altered cityscape aglow with lights and movement – bikers flashed past, glow-in-the-dark ink highlighted crowd-sourced climate solutions, dancers represented resilience through choreography, and video projections flashed up on grain silos.

Festival organizers focused the theme into five broad categories related to climate change: perceive, move, nourish, interconnect, and act.


“I’m feeling the reality of this issue,” Minneapolis resident Jasmine Jones said. “There’s a sense of fantasy that this won’t happen; people don’t think about the future seriously, but live art makes it very real.”

Jones was standing in front of Phase Change – three walls of ice facing heat lamps programmed by climate data that pulsed according to pre-Industrial Revolution, present, and “worst-case” future climate simulations. While the wall representing the past maintained its ice the longest, the present and future walls melted more quickly throughout the night, punctuated by mini-collapses along the lines of the calving events on glaciers.

It was climate change brought to life, in a process that the artists call “data spatialization,” visualizing data in a physical space.

Phase Change elicited a sense of both beauty and tragedy among many of the spectators, who expressed feelings of sadness, stress, and awe. Seeing climate change up close, playing out on a scale that people can understand, was “vastly different from learning about it in a textbook,” said a student at Macalester College in St. Paul. Youth volunteers from the nonprofit Climate Generation: A Will Steger Legacy helped people unpack the feelings and thoughts that the installation evoked.

Artists Daniel Dean and Molly Reichert of Futures North, the collaborative responsible for Phase Change, said they are conscious of the strong emotions that their project engenders. “Feeling and seeing the piece change before your eyes will have dramatic impact on people,” Reichert said. The sight of ice on an unusually hot summer night added a feeling of nostalgia for the kinds of winters so associated with Minnesota. For Reichert and Dean, the 90-degree day they spent setting up the installation was both sad and fitting, a reminder of the unpredictability of the issue they were representing.


Northern Spark organizers conceived the “movement” theme to encompass human, animal, and plant communities. Community artists developed an installation showing the human toll through the lens of the immigrant experience.

Down by the shores of the Mississippi, Blessing the Boats encouraged visitors to write or reflect on immigration, the refugee crisis, and our own personal journeys, then share their blessing via an origami boat they added to a growing river of illuminated paper crafts. Climate change is forcing growing numbers of people to make the hard choice of leaving their communities, and as project curator Shá Cage shared from her experience, “No one wants to leave home.”

Another installation, the winning project of the annual Creative City Challenge, built on the larger-than-life stature of the moose in Minnesota culture: two spectacle-scale animal sculptures of a moose and a wolf.

Constructed from found and recycled objects, both were animated, interactive, and illuminated: pedaling a bike underneath the moose lit up its eyes and made its heart beat, while pulling a rope moved its head. The artists behind the works intended the animals to highlight a culture of deep ecology, which encourages reflections on our place as humans in the natural order.


“We can see phenological changes in our backyards, but can we see the impact of our actions, our carbon emissions, on people and places across the world?” Dietz asks. Artists, he says, can help make these connections. By choosing themes as disparate as refugee issues, backyard phenology, water quality, music, and agriculture, the artists gathered at Northern Spark created a vision for how climate change intersects with every aspect of our lives.

Installations also invited connections and engagement among visitors. At an Interfaith Iftar & Warm Conversations event, community members were invited to join with others breaking fast for Ramadan, and a sunrise yoga class brought together the stalwart Northern Spark-goers who had stayed up all night.


Scientists have deep understanding of how climate change will affect which crops can grow where, but what’s less well understood is how the spread of new edible indicator species could expand our eating horizons.

In Making the Best of It: Dandelion, artists developed a year-long series of site-specific pop-up food refuges and community dinners to “engage the public in tastings and conversation about the risks of climate chaos, our business-as-usual food system, and the short-term food innovations at our disposal.” Northern Spark 2016 featured a pop-up “refuge” that offered guided tours and tastings of dandelion in food and beverage form. It illustrated how the hearty, adaptable dandelion does well in disturbed ecosystems, making it a fitting example of how we must adapt and thrive in a changing climate.


Northern Spark did not set out with a goal of advancing specific legislation or targeting a particular audience, but Dietz says action is a very important outcome of the year-long endeavor.

He points to the event itself, which was down-sized in scale this year to be more walkable and bikeable. Organizers worked with Eureka Recycling to make 2016 a zero-waste event, and they will be evaluating this year’s event in order to improve sustainability measures in the future. Dietz says he hopes to create a trajectory, from the launch of the “Climate Chaos | Climate Rising” theme this year through Northern Spark 2017, resulting, he says, in an uprising of people around climate issues.

Katie Siegner is the communications coordinator for the Minneapolis-based nonprofit Climate Generation: A Will Steger Legacy.