Making the Best of It: Dandelion
Northern Spark 2016
Public art engagement
Core Collaborators: Valentine Cadieux, Aaron Marx, Sarah Petersen, Marina Zurkow
with Jim Bovino, Director of Fermentation at GYST Fermentation Bar, Courtney Tchida, Kim Bartmann and Anne Saxton of Barbette and other enterprises, Kristi Varner at Gigi’s Cafe and Squeaky Willow Farm, Jerry Fodness and staff at Gigi’s Cafe, Jourdan Morris at Mill Valley Kitchen , and to dandelion providers:Courtney Tchida at Cornercopia Student Organic Farm at the University of MN and Emily Paul at The Good Acre
Commissioned by Northern and presented as part of Northern Spark, Climate Chaos | Climate Rising, 2016-2017, with the support of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Knight Foundation and additional support from the University of Minnesota School of Architecture BDA program
Documentation from Northern Spark, 2016. In order of sequence of interaction. Click on images to enlarge.
All images courtesy Sean Smuda.
We chose a beautiful unmowed park site, under the ruins of the Gold Medal Flour Mill, icon of "big ag" in the Midwest, and at the edge of the last lock along the Mississippi River. In mid-June, it was filled with weedy wildflowers -- including some dandelions.
Over 20,000 people attended Northern Spark this year. The theme of the festival was "Climate Chaos/Climate Rising." How do you make serious work in a relatively circus-like atmosphere? How do you make joyful work about such a serious subject?
In order to create a sense of calm in the maelstrom of events and installations, and because we wanted to provide a sequenced experience (15-30 minutes) for participants, we created a loose boundary around the space, allowing for people to observe from outside or to wait to participate.
Tours of 6-8 people at a time were invited in.
We had up to 4 "guides" working simultaneously.
Guides are identified by their yellow umbrellas. These were local experts with different backgrounds: biologists, artists, farmers, and food activists. They were invited to lead in their own way, providing an improvisatory space developed in rehearsals.
While people waited to come in, an Orator read excerpts from a wide range of books and pamphlets, in the manner of an old-time newspaper hawker. The readings ranged from children's poems about dandelions, to MN park rules on foraging.
The site consisted of three "nodes" or small structures:
- a Microbiome node (right),
- a Macrobiome node (top), and
- a Refuge (left)
Each node had a particular theme, related to dandelions, health and climate change.
The first stop n the tour was the Microbiome node. This node addressed human being inner ecologies - the beneficial micro-flora (bacteria) that live in our guts.
In the microbiome, node, a "Gut Fairy" dispenses dandelion root tincture to feed your inner ecology. Dandelion roots contain high amounts of inulin, a polysaccharide that feeds these micro-flora. It is often taken in a tincture or a tea.
The next stop was the Macrobiome node. Participants were invited to sit down and talk with the guide about the Mississippi River, hydro-power, grain mills, infrastructure, and the limits of monocultural farm production. Washed raw dandelion leaves were sampled - much as they'd be used in salads or as cooked greens. They are very bitter. Guides were invited to talk about bitterness and denial, in the face of climate changes that are altering the growing season, and jeopardizing the food system we have grown to ignore.
The last stop was the Refuge node. This structure functioned as a snack bar, conversation and interview space.
In the Refuge node, a dandleion-expert team were in charge of prepping climate change fortune cookie questions, snacks, and running documentation.
We worked with local chefs and fermenters to make dandelion snacks. The dandelions - flowers, roots and leaves were harvested from neighboring urban farms and gardens by the core group.
Snacks included dandelion flower power bards, dandelion kimchee pancakes, and dandelion root pickle.
Master fermenter Jim Bovino made a large amount of pickles.
Each snack came with a question, in the form of a fortune cookie slip.
There were several "fortune cookie" questions:
How are you making the best of it?
What kind of sacrifice is also an opportunity?
What foods and resources engage and sustain you over the long term?
How would your life be different if food was as available as dandelions?
What superpowers would you like to help you with climate uncertainty?
What are you afraid you might have to live without?
What makes you most uneasy about the climate crisis?

Participants volunteered to allow us videotape their thoughts on these questions.
Conversations continued after the guided experience was complete.
The Making the Best of It: Dandelion team: a corps of about 15 guides, orators, documenters and food servers; they were offered a modest fee for their time. In preparation for the event, we had several meals, meetings and brief rehearsals. The corps was free to improvise along a set structure of events, and we asked guides and severs to "hit" some key points, but were otherwise free to bring their own experiences to the project.
Bird's-eye view of our site, in the context of the larger festival along the Minneapolis side of the Mississippi River
Silk flags flew high about each node, representing dandelion relations with humans and ecologies.
- create conversational spaces to discuss climate change in creative and playful ways
- use experiences (such as eating, snacking, meal-making) as venues for unconventional approaches to understanding one's role in climate change
- highlight neglected food sources that, in modest amounts, are freely available
- use food sources such as dandelions to discuss connections between humans and other species, insides and outsides (micro/macrobiomes)bodies,
- connect participants to the way food systems work, and their possible problems in unstable or shifting climates
We have many other collaborators and contributors to thank. More info on our human and dandelion collaborators here: