Walker Art Center

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Ice Land
Art Shanties Plant a Flag on Medicine Lake

By Paul Schmelzer

Uncharted territories, even in a relatively sparsely populated state such as Minnesota, are few and far between. But each January, when the average temperature lingers around 7 degrees Fahrenheit, one such place comes into being, briefly, on the frozen surface of Medicine Lake, just west of Minneapolis. Now in its eighth year, the Art Shanty Projects have turned a swath of ice usually reserved for fisherman and snowmobilers into a temporary autonomous zone where artists open the doors of specially constructed shacks to host everything from dance-offs and karaoke parties to solar music performances and demonstrations of invented cultures.

“One of the exciting things about a frozen lake is that it’s temporary land,” says Peter Haakon Thompson, cofounder and director of the project. “That is essentially the only ‘land’ left where you can plant a flag and put your thing up there.”

The notion of planting flags, a theme Thompson’s been exploring in his recent art, speaks to the emphasis on “place” in the projects: staking a claim, however briefly, on an otherwise inhospitable slab of winter-hard lake. Whether through workshops on making studded bike tires at the ICE-Cycles Shanty or viewing the surrounding area mirrored on the walls of the Reflection Shanty, projects are testaments to place, both in their literal response to the surroundings or in the example of the hardy types who creatively choose to address winter on their own terms.

Hi-tech and lo-fi

Fresh from teaching a class in the One Room Schooolhouse, Anthony Warnick, outfitted in a seasonally appropriate beard and warming himself beside a woodburning stove, discussed the project one weekend in late January. Generators or electricity aren’t permitted in artists’ shanties, which makes his class all the more unique: sans computer, he used a chalkboard to lead a session on HTML, the markup language used to build web pages.

“We’re trying to show how easily information can be taught and learned in almost any environment and how all of us are constantly teaching and learning,” the MCAD web design grad says of the schoolhouse he built with Katinka Galanos, Patricia Healy, Alyson Coward, and Derek Ernster. “School isn’t something we should think of a segregated place where you go, but it’s an activity we’re always doing.”

He calls the ice a liminal space. “It is between water and land,” he says. “Because of this, visitors are willing to participate in ways they may not if they were in a traditional gallery, for instance.”

A similar fusion of lo-fi and high-tech is demonstrated in the Letterpress Shanty. Using Twitter, Facebook, and a blog, shanty members are soliciting tweets, marked with the hashtag #shantyq, to typeset and print each weekend in The Shantiquarian, a newspaper that’s distributed on the lake. Fascinated by the current resurgence in the use of old printing techniques, artists Jeff Peterson and MC Hyland decided to bring metal typesetting to the lake.

“The younger poets who are printing chapbooks and returning to this old technology are the same people who are using the web and publishing Internet chapbooks,” Peterson explains. “You see it all across the arts. There’s this huge connection between social media and high-tech contemporary communications and this fascination with older technologies. We wanted to combine the use of social networking with the letterpress so that people from all over the country—and I would love to see some from all over the world—can be a part of something very physical in a very specific location with the distribution coming out of an ice shanty on a lake.”

Place and Play

Garbed in red union suits, frilly aprons, and furs, artists Sarah Honeywell and Aneesa Adams say that they see the Art Shanty Projects as about “embracing this culture rather than longing for it to be different”—or, she adds, warmer. It also brings a healthy dose of fun.

Visitors to the Naughty Shanty, which is modeled after a Romani (or “gypsy”) wagon called a vardo, are encouraged to steal cookies from a cookie jar, pull the finger of a mannequin hand emerging from a picture frame (you know the resulting sound effect), or deface a copy of the Mona Lisa (which already bears the “LHOOQ” graffito Marcel Duchamp used on a reproduction of the famed work).

“As artists we feel like the art world is so serious in so many different ways, so it’s fun to be not serious—to be naughty,” says Adams. Then, gesturing out a tiny window at the blank-canvas ice patch, she added, “This is a big wide open space.”

Another metaphor for the project might be a playground, as the Sit-and-Spin Shanty demonstrates. An egglike orb made of yellow- and green-stained wood slats, the shanty transforms the childhood toy it takes its name from into an enclosed pod in which visitors can get the shanty spinning like a merry-go-round by cranking a steering-wheel-like hub. Play here, as much as place, is the key.

“Play is the most natural way that we relate as people,” says Tory Roff, who created the project with Bridget Beck, Erick Briden, Sammie Warren, and Dan Isaacs. “Kids recognize that very early and very intuitively, but I think we forget it. Forcing people to get together in this little space and play together is, I think, the most positive thing about this.”

Pink-faced from his outdoor role as ride operator and doorman, Roff says his team’s background is well-suited for the project. Warren works with the landscape and furniture design studio ROLU, for instance, while “Bridget does sculpture for kids, and I build playgrounds for kids as my day job. This is kind of a natural fit.”

From a fort for grownups to a pop-up community

Both these elements—play and place—were there at the very start of the Art Shanty Projects in 2004. Thompson says that he and a few friends came up with the idea of making a “fort/studio/clubhouse” on the ice, but when he mentioned it at an artist’s talk, project co-founder David Pitman proposed that it be opened up to artists. What started as a lone shanty now includes 23.

That first year, and for six of the ensuing years of the project, Pitman lived full-time in a shanty on the lake. While he’s not calling Medicine Lake home during the four-week run of the 2012 project, he’s still running the small pirate radio station he founded in a shanty that first year, K-ICE, in the Seward neighborhood of Minneapolis and online. An artist who’ll be pursuing a graduate degree in social work, Pitman likes how the Art Shanty Projects are expanding ideas about art by bringing in creators who may not define themselves as artists, moving the art experience from indoor institutions to unusual outdoor spaces, and reaching out to new audiences.

And, perhaps the project is helping expand the definition of art itself. Notions such as “relational aesthetics” and “the commons” often used at art institutions these days are played out daily during shanty season.

“With a lot of the things that go on out here, what’s key is the takeaway of the experience instead of the development of the object,” he says. “The importance of the things you get here is not as important as the experience.”

Thompson concurs, noting that ideas such as relational aesthetics describe the kind of experiences going on at Medicine Lake, but pointing out a key difference. “There’s also an earnestness to it that feels a bit separate from things that often get talked about in the art world. Partly because we’re open to anyone proposing a shanty.”

Late each year, organizers announce a call for proposals, with winning entries getting a stipend to help build the structure. “If you’re willing to call yourself an artist when you propose something,” he says, “we look at those just the same as we look at ones that come from people who are grad students at the U’s MFA program or people who’ve been practicing art for 30 years.”

In engaging and highlighting creative people, the project is linked to Thompson’s other work, most notably his iconic A Project. Several years ago, he constructed a gigantic sculptural letter A that could travel on a trailer to art events and neighborhoods as a testament to the presence of artists. Greeting card–sized placards printed with the same red A still appear in the front windows of homes across the Twin Cities, indicating that artists live here.

Like the shanties, “The A Project for me was about that idea of finding place, too: we’re artists, we’re here, letting people know we’re an integral part of this place.”

In the end, Thompson seems most energized about using art to facilitate new ways of seeing. “I love the way the art shanties get all kinds of people to think in a different way, hopefully, about a place they maybe see all the time,” he says. “In this instance, it’s a frozen lake you relegate in your mind to snowmobilers and ice-fishermen. One of the things that gets people excited about ice-fishing is this idea that you have a little fort that adults get to hang out in.”

“I think there’s lots of people who would love to have a little fort on a lake but aren’t interested in fishing at all and they need an excuse.”

Peter Haakon Thompson, flag in hand, at the Art Shanty Projects

Photo: Anthony Kwan

A scene from Medicine Lake

Photo: Paul Schmelzer

A decorated bike at the ICE-Cycles Shanty

Photo: Paul Schmelzer

Alyson Coward, Anthony Warnick, and Derek Ernster inside the One Room Schoolhouse

Photo: Paul Schmelzer

MC Hyland and Jeff Peterson inside the Letterpress Shanty

Photo: Paul Schmelzer

A view of typeset tweets in the Letterpress Shanty

Photo: Paul Schmelzer

Chloe Driessen, age 8

Photo: Paul Schmelzer

Pete and Chloe Driessen cross the Nordic Village Bridge, under which a troll is hiding

Photo: Paul Schmelzer

Aneesa Adams and Sarah Honeywell in the Naughty Shanty

Photo: Paul Schmelzer

Tory Roff

Photo: Paul Schmelzer

The Sit-and-Spin Shanty

Photo: Paul Schmelzer

Peter Haakon Thompson

Photo: Peter Haakon Thompson