“Do you know how to use a power drill?”

That’s the first question Alya Ansari ’19 (Mumbai, India) fielded from media and cultural studies professor John Kim on her first day of work last summer with Kim’s Twin Cities-based design collective, Futures North.

No, Ansari told him, she did not know how to use a power drill.

His next question: “Do you want to learn?”

And then Ansari was off and running with Futures North on a project that would go on to win first place at the SXSW Eco Place by Design conference in October. But first the team had to build Phase Change, an installation for the Twin Cities all-night arts festival Northern Spark.

Using 12,000 pounds of ice harvested from a Minneapolis lake in March 2016, Phase Change presented three climate change scenarios: pre-industrial, present day, and “worst case.” The team stacked ice blocks under a lattice of infrared lights programmed to turn on and off based on these climate change scenarios, melting the sculpture at different rates.

Ansari, a media and cultural studies major, hadn’t crossed paths with Kim in the department before last spring, but she knew about his background as a new media artist. She emailed him to introduce herself and ask if he needed a research assistant, and Kim brought her onto the Futures North team to work on the design and fabrication of Phase Change. Thanks to one of Macalester’s Educating Sustainability Ambassadors student-faculty collaboration grants, Ansari secured funding for her work on the project.

And she dove into the intensive physical construction. The tasks required to build the installation were wide-ranging and hands-on, from operating a saw and assembling circuit boards to shoveling sawdust and cutting ice. As Northern Spark drew closer, the Futures North team worked long days in a northeast Minneapolis studio.

Beginning at 9 p.m. on June 11, Phase Change debuted successfully at Northern Spark. For Ansari, seeing the event unfold firsthand—and behind the scenes—was transformative. “When I heard about this all-night arts festival, I thought it sounded too good to be true,” she says. “Everyone’s there to celebrate art and creativity. The point is to spend the night enjoying art—and to me, that’s bliss.”

Northern Spark ended at 5:26 a.m. on June 12. Ansari continued helping with outreach after the festival, including web design. Four months later, Phase Change won the Art + Interaction category at SXSW Eco Place by Design, an Austin, Texas, conference focused on innovative solutions that drive social, economic, and environmental change.

And, thanks to Northern Spark, Ansari’s Twin Cities connections have multiplied. She’s in talks with the festival’s director in hopes of arranging an internship and taking a course at another college from a professor she met through Northern Spark. She’s also on board with any follow-up projects that emerge from the Futures North team. “I chose Macalester because I knew the Twin Cities were renowned for the arts,” she says. “I knew the arts scene was here, and last summer, I found it. That’s been life-changing.”

October 27 2016

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