shanty square

Minneapolis Art on Ice: Art Shanty Projects

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It is cliché in Minnesota to talk about the weather. A plethora of eye-rolling jokes govern this territory of small talk. “Minnesota has four seasons: almost winter, winter, still winter and road construction.” “You know you’re a Minnesotan when you find -20 degrees a little chilly.”

For better or worse, harsh climate is what we’re known for. Bad humor aside, there is something to these admittedly oversimplified stereotypes about the way Minnesotans bundle up and make the best of it. Some of this can be seen in our abundance of cold weather outdoor festivals. A lot of Northern cities deal with winter this way, and we have our fair share: the St. Paul Winter Carnival; the City of Lakes Luminary Loppet (a candlelit cross country ski race), the Art Sled Rally in Powderhorn Park, and the Polar Bear Plunge to name a few.

Among these celebrations of dark and cold, the artists of the Twin Cities build their own wonderland at the Art Shanty Projects (ASP). For the past eight years, ASP has organized a month-long public art happening that adopts and transforms one of the Midwest’s dominant cultural forms of coping with winter, ice-fishing. This tradition consists of people building wooden shacks, hauling them out onto a frozen lake, stocking them with beer and tackle, and hanging out while fishing through a hole in the ice. This is a ubiquitous and minimally regulated past time. The Department of Natural Resources dispenses permits for these structures and in some communities up North, entire economies (legal and non) develop on area lakes as folks (primarily men) take to these shacks-away-from-home for entire weekends.

Borrowing from this custom, ASP calls for the creation of an ”artist-driven temporary community” where artists design and build shanties that are parked on a frozen lake and open for public participation. For the cold month between the MLK and President’s Day holidays, Medicine Lake in suburban New Hope, MN is animated by a village of creatively themed shanties, performances, and other activities. The line up of projects changes every year, but in any given season a visitor to ASP is likely to participate in activities that involve on-ice dancing, board games, crafting, dress-up, sports, music, liminology (the study of lakes), hot beverage consumption, and eating hotdogs as quickly as possible before they get cold.

ASP started in 2004 when artist Peter Haakon Thompson installed a lone art shack on Medicine Lake, the body of water around which he grew up. With some friends he built a hybrid art studio / ice shanty from discarded plywood and invited others to drive the 20 minutes or so from Minneapolis to spend time at there as a lake-based retreat. Together they turned the ice house into a giant camera obscura, held film screenings, shoveled a heart-shaped skating rink for Valentine’s Day, and survived several bitter cold sleepovers.

The next year Thompson recruited co-director David Pitman to put out a call for artists-builders, and partnered with the Minneapolis non-profit art space The Soap Factory to provide general support as well as building and storage space for the selected artists.

By 2007 the ASP had secured funds from the McKnight Foundation for artist stipends, perfected a jury process, set up a dedicated fund for on-ice performances through, and was on its way to becoming a popular weekend attraction for visitors inside and outside of the arts community.

Aside from the serene landscape of the snow-covered frozen lake, the original inspiration for ASP was to take advantage of the absence of codes and building restrictions for ice fishing houses. While a permit is required, the process is simple and doesn’t involve inspections or specific structural regulations. This relative freedom leaves open a highly imaginative terrain for would-be architects. The form and function of the shanties have become more fantastical over the years. Here is a very small set of examples: an indoor forest, a tiny black box theater, a round knitting room, a recreation of Ernest Shackleton’s stranded South Pole expedition in an overturned rowboat, a karaoke box (a perennial favorite), two sauna shanties—one in a repurposed airstream trailer, a one-room school house with a wood burning stove, a giant robot, a toy shack with stuffed animals for insulation inside clear plastic walls, an igloo with a soundscape, a shanty for drinking tea.

In addition to these experiential and experimental structures, the shanty community has come to host several services over the years, including a radio station, an Art Car Taxi Service, an inter-shanty post office, a hotdog stand and a print shop that produced a weekly hand-set letterpress printed newsletter of tweets sent to @shantyquarian. Each weekend is also filled with on-ice performances ranging from interpretive dance ice skate contests to bike races to fashion shows to condensed versions of Shakespearean dramas.

These lists could go on, but you catch the drift. There is no shortage of things to see and do and most of it happens at 32 degrees or below.

It is probably appropriate for me to disclose at this point that I was once an ASP builder. In 2007 I worked with a team to design and program a shanty, and in the process, I spent more time on the lake that winter than I ever had in Minnesota’s more temperate seasons. One of the unexpected lessons I learned is that constructing something that could withstand wind and ice was only one of our challenges. The other work was in welcoming hoards of visitors into our little building every weekend for four weeks. People bundled in endless layers would come and go all day, some staying long enough to thaw out and ask questions about our building methods or architectural motivations. We talked ourselves hoarse. This was exhausting but exhilarating. We found most everyone to be curious, kind and grateful. And when the sun went down on Saturday nights and the public made their way back to their heated homes, we got to know our fellow shanty owners as we’d gather around the Lil’ Buddy propane heater and tell stories from the day over a round of whiskey. It was an uncomplicated experience of community: shared intensity, and temporary commonalities characterized by long hours in extreme temperatures. This dedication is what makes the ASP thrive. The participating artists extend an incredible amount of their own resources in the currencies of time and enthusiasm.

By traditional standards of arts programmatic achievement, ASP is a success. It has amassed a loyal following, plenty of quality proposals are sent in each year, and every season attracts new audiences from across the metro area—without a penny spent on marketing.

One of the challenges to this project now is a quandary that sounds familiar to any young arts organization that wants to find a way forward other than the ”grow or die” mantra pervasive in capitalist model non-profit strategic thinking. ASP is committed to staying small, in the sense that although the audience and interested artists are growing, the overall size of the project is capped at around 30 shanties each year. Maintaining an intimate community and a respectful relationship with the lake and its neighbors remain strong values, which in many ways pose a challenge for the traditional concept of growth. The project wants to stabilize, but not to institutionalize.

In light of that, the project’s leaders—most of whom are volunteer board members—decided to shift to a biennial schedule in order to deliberately make time and space for experimentation. Going forward, ASP as we know it will take place every other year, potentially on different metro area lakes, purportedly to further broaden exposure to the project and to generate participation from a new set of artists.

The off-year will be reserved for new opportunities yet to be determined. Ideas include but are not limited to artist projects in all types of surplus space; backyards, empty lots, snow piles, and unfrozen lakes, or partnering with other arts organizations who want to enact like endeavors.

It is a brave move to take a model that works and shake things up. It will be a long winter without the Sit n’ Spin Shanty, the Dance Shanty and the TonoSauna this year, but as the hearty brutes that we Minnesotans are, we’ll survive.


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