Inevitably, upon explaining the idea of the Art Shanty Projects to someone unfamiliar with them, a comparison to Burning Man will be made. NPR, BoingBoing, City Pages are all guilty. I’ve even caught myself pitching the event as “Freezing Man.” I lived in San Francisco for the past three years, and so I’ve picked up a second-hand knowledge of Burning Man (though I have yet to attend). In fact, the first time I had heard of it was after I had moved to the Bay Area and noticed that for one week at the end of summer the city got really quiet. Being a native midwesterner, and having recently relocated back to the Twin Cities, I was no stranger to the Art Shanty Projects — and ice house culture at large. So I was eager to make the trip up to White Bear Lake to see this year’s incarnation.
On the surface, Burning Man and the Art Shanty Projects may seem to have a lot in common. I assume that’s why the comparison is so often made. However, if you dig a little deeper, I think the comparison is a lazy one, and actually does a disservice to the Art Shanty Projects by writing it off as a smaller off-shoot of a larger, more important event. And it couldn’t be further from the truth. Let me explain.
My source for all things Burning Man is my friend Jason Meyers, who incidentally grew up in White Bear Lake, but has lived in San Francisco for what seems like forever, and has attended Burning Man over the past 16 years. On paper, Burning Man is an experimental community that pops up in the Black Rock Desert for one week — the last Monday in August through the first Monday in September — every year. Radical utopian ideals of society, commerce, and relationships are played out in a mixture of art, performance, and socializing. Unfortunately, like anything that achieves a certain level of popularity, the culture begins to dominate the content. According to Jason, today’s Burning Man attendees are largely relegated to two camps: “Old Guard Burners” who have attended over the years but have become increasingly cliquish and closed-off to newcomers, and the younger urban crowd who use the event as an excuse to experiment with drugs and strangers’ bodies. Still, he believes the openness of the community and freedom of expression are the event’s highest priorities.
Now the Art Shanty Projects have neither the history nor the reach of Burning Man: its attendance is estimated to be over 60,000, while the Art Shanty Projects drew around 2,000 on opening day this year. However, the two events do have some things in common. Both are arguably held in otherwise inhospitable landscapes. Both encourage the idea of encountering art and art experiences outside of the museum and gallery (Burning Man with its Mutant Vehicles and various installations, Art Shanty Projects with their artist-commissioned shanties). And both envision the landscape as a blank canvas or “Temporary Autonomous Zone” of sorts. Even the founder of the Art Shanty Project (and former Bay Area resident), Peter Haakon Thompson, said that he found inspiration in the desolate solace of both the Nevada desert and the frozen lakes of Minnesota. That said, if community is to be understood as the central focus of Burning Man, Art, I would argue, is the focus of the shanties.
On opening day I arrived just in time for the “Sparkle Parade,” arguably the most Burning Man-esque aspect of my entire visit. A marching band with various large bicycle-driven polar bears danced along the temporary ice-road in joyous fashion. Toddlers and senior citizens alike joined in and made the loop past the 21 shanties about three or four times. From there on it was a largely voyeuristic experience, opening doors to strange structures with no concrete idea of what to expect. Some were more social than others. The Dance Shanty greeted me from the outside with thumping bass of the Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back,” and upon entering the geodesic dome a group of delighted strangers cheered at my arrival. Then I danced. The Elevator Shanty is a kind of short-form theater, which is actually quite hilarious if you’re invited “backstage.” The Meta (as in metaphysical) Shanty offers itself up as healing center, leading workshops on aromatherapy, yoga, and astrological readings. Aesthetically, it’s a gorgeous structure with the center part of its floor constructed of pink Himalayan salt bricks. It’s a space where you just want to sit, warm up, and listen to the conversations of others.
Like an inverse Burning Man, the one aspect that is rarely discussed in regards to the Art Shanty Projects is the culture. The ice house, by definition, is a structure on ice to protect one from the elements while fishing. However the popular culture of ice houses is overwhelmingly male, isolative, and alcoholic. Sure, you might socialize with your fishing/drinking buddies, but it’s an unspoken rule on the ice that you don’t go around knocking on other people’s shanty doors and walking in uninvited. The Art Shanty Projects completely subverts this aspect and turns the ice house into a family-friendly and open art experience that makes it OK for what midwesterners commonly find horrifying — approaching and talking to strangers. In that respect, the shanties (and midwestern culture) still have a ways to go. I didn’t feel that the shanties had formed a tight-knit community yet (it was just the first day, and the Town Hall Shanty was still soliciting names for the community at the time of this writing). But should I even be expecting that tight-knit community from the shanties — or is that an expectation born from the comparisons to Burning Man?
To me, it seems more fruitful to compare the Art Shanty Projects to events like Chicago’s Guerrilla Truck Show or Brooklyn’s Lost Horizon Night Market, both of which use the back of moving trucks to host temporary art installations. Like the shanties, both repurpose an existing structure and transform it into a space for experiencing art. Or perhaps Elevation 1049, a site-specific art experience located in the Swiss Alps, would be a good touchstone for the Art Shanty Projects, with its focus on contemporary art outside of the museum and off the walls. But enough with the Burning Man comparisons! It’s a superficial similarity at best, and at worst it stunts the discussion of an otherwise exciting artistic experiment on ice.
But if you are looking for a Burning Man experience, I recommend trekking across Highway 61 to Bald Eagle Lake. It was there that I encountered a structure of more than 300 Christmas trees, stacked more than 20 feet high and meant to be set ablaze that night. In addition to the pyre the residents of the lake had created their own snow castle — complete with draw-bridge — that housed a fully stocked ice-bar. Ice-cold.
Eric William Carroll is an artist living in Minneapolis. He currently teaches at Macalester College.