With the door of the small shanty closed, the only light comes from under your boots: the ghostly blue-white of ice 16 inches thick. The water below that layer of ice is another 15 or so feet deep. Whatever sunlight diffuses through the surrounding water and ice gives the shanty a glow that is just bright enough to illuminate eight piano wires suspended from ceiling to floor at the center of the hexagonal hut. It’s like standing in the dark on the surface of a faintly glowing breath mint—except there are sharp cracks and pops and quick, high-pitched pulses playing on an overhead speaker, which is hooked to a hydrophone plunged into a hole in the ice just beyond the shanty’s thin walls. You can pluck the piano wires, which resonate in bass tones that reverberate through the entire structure. If a car drives by on the ice, as indeed happens, the speaker registers deep, groaning pops while someone plays the wires with a violin bow, which snaps in half later that day due to the cold.

“You are standing inside a musical instrument right now,” Jonathan Loyche tells guests gathered in a circle around the resonating wires. Jonathan and his wife, Rebecca, erected their Under the Lake / Sonic Shanty as a way to “fish for sounds,” Jonathan says. Their musical instrument imagines what it might be like to dwell underwater, immersed in the ambient transmissions of water, ice, wind, and snow.

A Gallery on Ice

The Loyches’ Sonic Shanty is one of 19 that make up the 2016 Art Shanty Projects’ On-Ice Program on White Bear Lake, about 20 miles northeast of Minneapolis. Every weekend in February, visitors are free to march out onto the ice—overcoming whatever fears they might have—and, as Monica Sheets, chair of the Art Shanty Projects’ board of directors, explains, “explore art in a relatively unregulated public space.”

Perish the thought that the surface of a frozen lake in Minnesota is a strange locale for an art show. For where there’s Minnesota, there’s winter, and for some people winter in Minnesota means ice fishing in a little shed on a frozen lake. Inside, you keep a space heater or stove to defend yourself from the chill. From there, it’s really only a hop, a skip, and a jump to the ice shanty as art installation.

Started in 2004, the Art Shanty Project has grown into one of the region’s most curious and intriguing public art spectacles. Each shanty is a winterized cabinet of curiosities, jury-selected to showcase what both professional and amateur artists can do with a $1,500 stipend to bring their lake-top vision to life. From the loud music and never-ending dance party of the Dance Shanty to the pipe-fitting demonstrations of the Boiler Room Shanty and the Minnesota-native teas available in the Botanical ShanTea, the art shanties represent a “uniquely Minnesotan festival” indeed, as a map provided to visitors on the ice says. In 2014, 11,350 people visited the shanty village on White Bear Lake. After taking a break in 2015 to become a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the festival is back in force.

Organizers emphasize that the most important aspect of the project is to support their artists. This year’s stipend is a 30 percent increase over 2014. Provided the shanties continue to secure funding from organizations like ArtPlace America, Monica Sheets says, stipends will increase again next year. Moreover, keeping the event to around 20 shanties will maintain the program’s intimate feel.

Still, it’s hard to avoid the thought that simply hosting an art show on a windswept, icebound lake is the real point of the project. As Sheets says, “Being on the ice facilitates unusual interactions” between artist and audience. It’s not quite an art gallery and not quite a carnival, so people have neither the usual quiet distance from an artist’s work nor the anonymous ease of paying for a ride and getting off when it’s over. Plus, it’s damn cold. Visitors and artists alike have to endure a minor ordeal of wind and snow just to arrive at the door of each exhibit. Meaning that the Art Shanty Projects is interactive art primed for the hardy and the sporting. Here there is no such thing as a winter that can’t be relished with the help of eccentric contraptions.

Shanties and Other Devices

While project organizers emphasize support for artists, the artists themselves tend to emphasize their audience. At the Ouijatotter Shanty, there’s a little shanty to warm up in, but the real attraction is outside, where Paul Owen, Jeff Berg, and Derek Ahlberg have constructed a set of three connected teeter-totters. As visitors teeter up and down, they turn driveshafts connected to belts and bicycle wheels that, in turn, spin a large plate marked with alternating YESes and NOs. If you scrawl a question on a chalkboard attached to the nearby shanty, the Ouijatotter will give you your answer in true Rube Goldberg fashion.

But people tend to use the teeter-totters without worrying about answers. According to Randy Lewandowski, who helps operate the Ouijatotter, audience response is the most important thing. And, he says, “I’m hearing a lot of laughter.”

The Matoska Tonka Pedal Bear is making its second Art Shanty appearance. Matoska Tonka means “big white bear,” and you can see why immediately: Built on a Volkswagen chassis, it’s 12 feet high and 20 feet long. Visitors sit inside and pedal as a group while a pilot at the front steers the giant creature on a route that weaves between shanties. There’s also a series of strings and weights inside. If you pull in the right way, you can move the bear’s head, open and close its mouth, and wiggle its tail. It’s a machine for recalling the mythic stories of White Bear Lake, a place rich with Dakota history.

Playing the Ice  

The draw of such ingenious contraptions is obvious. But if organizers focus on artists and artists focus on their audience, it’s reasonable to wonder who fixates on the art itself. There should be something besides diversion and fun—although those are, admittedly, no small things.

It is places like the Loyches’ Sonic Shanty—with its powerful pull on the senses—that most readily answer such questions. Or take Julie Benda, Kelsey Bosch, and Kathryn Miller’s Sound + Vision Shanty, where a hole in the ice displays the greenish, frigid half-world of the lake bottom while a hydrophone pipes in the noise of shifting ice. Though it’s tempting to think that such shanties create an unearthly experience for visitors, they’re also deliberately and oddly prosaic. It’s just ice, water, and earthy noise. Both shanties recall composer John Luther Adams’s installation The Place You Go to Listen, in which seismic, meteorological, and geomagnetic data are fed through a computer program that translates them into sound and light.

It turns out that there is an art to being on the ice, and it requires unaccustomed forms of attention and a willingness to feel out of place. The most challenging shanties show us that ice is an alien world of finely tuned temperatures and pressures. To get a sense for its intricacy, you need antennae only an art shanty can give you..

MH Rowe lives and writes in Minneapolis. His fiction has appeared in Black Warrior Review and Columbia Journal (online), among other places. He has also written for Utne Reader, Popular Mechanics, The Awl, and MinnPost. Find him online at annotations.tumblr.com.

From Public Art Review #54, where this article originally appeared as “March of the Art Shanties.”