HomeEducationSustainability EducationNorthern Spark 2016 meets Grand Challenge curriculum

Northern Spark 2016 meets Grand Challenge curriculum

9:00 PM – 5:26 AM – that’s not a farmer’s sleep – wake cycle, but the hours participants revelled along the banks of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis for the 2016 Northern Spark Festival. Sponsored by Northern Lights.mn, a Twin Cities art agency focused on interactive, cutting edge projects, Northern Spark took on a theme for the first time this year that will continue through June 2017 – Climate Chaos/Climate Rising, using immersive and collaborative projects to explore climate change and how we live and are shaped by our relationship with ourselves, each other, and nature. If climate change is a symptom of a broken relationship with our place in the natural world, Climate Chaos/Climate Rising is a gift wrapped in a festival wrapped in a crisis that can bring us back to questions we need to ask about consumerism and unlimited growth and how to boldly face and repair damage we have done. All while experiencing connection, joy, insight, and active hope. No small feat.

In this same fair city, the University of Minnesota has taken on a new approach to stubborn, complicated societal issues by creating the Grand Challenge Curriculum, addressing issues like climate change, feeding the world and our energy systems, with interdisciplinary classes such as “Can We Feed the World Without Destroying It?” and “Making Sense of Climate Change – Science, Art, and Agency”. As part of the Spring 2016 Making Sense of Climate Change class, participants in the class, myself included, spent the semester on a range of activities, assignments, reflections and explorations, including the creation of a Northern Spark project. We fearlessly and collaboratively examined our relationship with each other, our systems, our own power and deepening our knowledge of the science and the art that can illuminate the path to a system that honors our relationship as creatures in a living system.

We profiled artist change agents who are out there publicly proclaiming the brutish and beautiful relationship we have with each other and our environment, challenging us to honestly look inward and not be lazy or cowardly about our role. We spent thirty powerful minutes each week alone in one place in nature, bringing into minute focus, with just the magnifying glass of observation, the incredible array of life systems right under our feet if we take the time to look away from our screens. We looked at the science of climate change through effects on forests in Northern Minnesota and resilience and vulnerability in our food systems, using the lens of lyrical expression, critical engagement, and transformative action, from the art and environment practice of Tim Collins and Reiko Goto, to collaboratively pull the concepts from the dry page to the living breathing systems that are capable of creating lasting societal change. This collaborative aspect of the class was where the magic happened, in our in class projects and ultimately in our creation of our project for Northern Spark, Surrender: What Are We Willing to Lose?, developed over the course of the semester.

White flags are pinned in the ground at the surrender eventSurrender: What Are We Willing to Lose? The question seems negative on the face of it. Surrender sounds like giving up and loss sounds bad. We developed this question as the foundation of our project over the course of the semester, knowing that it is a question that makes us take a hard look at what we have already lost due to climate change and what we fear losing, whether it’s our favorite forest, bird, or ice skating outdoors in winter. As negative as climate change is and feels in our psyche, it also is an opportunity to shift, realign, refocus, renew what it means to be human, a key goal Northern Spark laid out for the next two years.
Surrender can mean letting go of consumption for consumption’s sake, letting go of our blind eye to the effects of our choices on soil, land, air and water. Losing our unwillingness to embrace the interconnectedness of people and systems, as we really see that refugees are us, that war is us, that dirty lakes and litter are us. And if this is true, we have the power to change it. We asked participants to reflect on the question, what are we willing to surrender to fight climate change and/or what do we refuse to surrender to climate change? They wrote their answer on a flag, the symbol of meaning and identity and also surrender.

A wooden horn engraved with the word "Surrender"A path was laid in the grass to an oversized handmade and carved megaphone, crafted by student Xavier Tavera Castro, for people to publicly shout out their proclamation, a way to create agency and accountability for what we have boldly proclaimed. An enclosed circle was created for people to plant their flags as a symbol of our collective effort and power, and turned out to be one of the most visceral and pulsing aspects of the project. Throughout the evening the circle had to be enlarged over and over as over 1500 flags were planted. Participants and passers by crouched at the edge of the circle to see what others had written, proclaimed and promised, others stepped across the boundary into the circle, a visible expression of our desire to be connected to what others are saying they will do – acknowledging the reality of climate change and our agency to band together and address it. One or two or ten flags are a sign, but over a thousand was a resounding in your face of love, action and hope.  My personal statement was surrendering my feeling of powerlessness in the face of climate change. But, there were also sign of reality and what we are up against culturally, with some proclaiming things they would never give up, like long showers. Or laid out bare their fears of losing things that make our hearts break, like a livable planet for future generations of humans and other creatures. There was no denying, though, the overwhelming spectacle and visual and written expression of our awareness of our role in creating and addressing climate change.

And there we have the question that Northern Spark and climate change have laid in front of us and that we humbly, yet boldly tried to answer in our Grand Challenge class. What does it mean to be human in the age of climate change? Can we shift and change our systems and our very selves to face the reality of climate change in ways that make us more effective and compassionate or will we shy away, asking “what can one person do?”. Can we work together with disparate values, goals, and levels of awareness and agency to co-create the necessary change? In the small corner of the world in the classroom at the University of Minnesota, with four professors, seventeen students, 15 weeks of class, and one incredible night of Northern Spark – I can say it is surely possible.

Momentum will continue as we catalog all the responses that were written on the flags, as our pledge of accountability in creating the project. The flags will take on a second life as markers in tree research, our commitment to not creating more waste in the execution of our project. As we catalog, what themes will emerge? What surprises or shocks? What happened at Northern Spark during our project, and all the other projects that same night, that is beyond our comprehension or perception? How can we as students, citizens, professors, university administrators and humans take this project and the question of surrender and loss and their positive and negative facets to another level, whether on our own or as a collective effort? Every day the question is presented and every day, each choice we make and step we take reveals the answer.


Photos courtesy of Kyle Samejima

Communications Assistant


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