Field Museum

Reporting On / by Katherine Sharpe /

Constructing art and science on a frozen Minnesota lake.

The Art Shanty Projects, now in its sixth year, is an art-science-design expo constructed annually on the deep-frozen surface of Medicine Lake in Plymouth, Minnesota, 10 miles from Minneapolis. This year, more than 20 teams won grants to construct “shanties” on the lake, which range from the Norae Bang Shanty, where visitors can belt out a karaoke tune, to the Radical Mapping Shanty, where people can draft experimental diagrams of the laketop community. Art Shanty “is about creating an experience that interacts both with a community of people, and with the surrounding physical environment,” says Project Press Secretary Andrew Sturdevant.

Several of the shanties have overt scientific themes — as science is a natural bridge between people and environment, Sturdevant points out. “Out on the ice in the middle of a lake, it’s pretty easy to make connections to science,” he says, adding that it’s the kind of environment where questions about biology, climate, and related subjects naturally arise. Here is a tour of the Art Shanty Projects’ scientific-themed shanties and their creators’ take on the intersection of science and art.

Biology Shanty. Image courtesy Joey Reid

The Biology Shanty, an Art Shanty Projects tradition, has been around since the event’s first year. Staffed by doctoral students from the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior at the University of Minnesota, the plywood and insulating-foam shanty is handed down from one generation of grad students to the next. “Limnology,” (1) the word emblazoned on the shanty’s front wall, is the study of inland waters, including lakes.

Biology Shanty. Image courtesy Joey Reid

Inside, a trap door opens in the floor to reveal a hole that the team drilled through the two-to three-foot-thick ice of Medicine Lake. Shanty leader Joey Reid, a second-year PhD student, and his staff help visitors drop a zooplankton net into the water to collect copepods, tiny crustaceans that live in the lake as freshwater plankton, and then examine them in the on-site dissecting microscopes (2). Last year a visiting scientist took a meter-long sediment core from the ice. This year the shanty features a YSI probe used to study processes like photosynthesis in the water.

Reid says that art and science intersect, as they both concern communication. While artists seek truth in the slithery world of human relationships, and scientists in mountains of specific data, they share a goal: “finding effective ways of communicating our understanding of the world with other people.”

Ped Pex Power Pod. Image courtesy artshantyprojects2009 on Flickr

In the Ped Pex Power Pod, visitors can hop on one of three bicycle generators and pedal their way to a cup of java heated with the clean energy they’ve just produced. Felicia Glidden, a sculptor and metal caster, enlisted her sister Veronica, also a sculptor, and brother Colin, a builder, to design and build the bike-powered pavilion, named for PEX,  the super-resistant plastic (3) that forms the domed shanty’s frame. To build the generators, the siblings removed the bicycles’ front wheels, mounted them to wooden frames (4), and connected the back wheels to the spindle of an alternator with a serpentine belt. The alternator connects to a 128 amp-hour deep-cell battery, which runs to a Duracell Powerpack inverter that the shanty’s coffeemaker is plugged into. A cyclist can generate 80 watts of power in 15 minutes of biking, though it takes more than that to boil a cup of water. Felicia Glidden confesses that not all of the coffee served in the shanty is brewed with human energy — yet. She and her siblings are still refining their set-up.

Ped Pex Power Pod. Image courtesy artshantyprojects2009 on Flickr

Glidden, a former engineering student, believes that science and art are united by their physical approach to the world. She became interested in alternative energy while researching whether she could practice sustainable metal casting. Ped Pex is an installation, but it’s also a real experiment in process. So far, it’s taught the Gliddens and their visitors to respect energy on a whole new level: The cycling, says Glidden, “generates such little power that you have to figure out ways to use less.”

Outside the IAMER Research Lab. Image courtesy Andrew Dayton

The IAMER (Institute for the Advancement of Metatemporal Education and Research) Research Lab shanty blends science fact and science fiction. Shanty bosses Erin Fenton, who works in research and collections at the Science Museum of Minnesota, and Andrew Dayton, a web producer for American Public Media with an art background, act as if they are time-traveling scientists with no basis of knowledge about the present, so that they and their visitors may survey and study the art shanty community as though it were a foreign world. The activities include a visitor and resident census of the Art Shanty community, a “game-based study” of local red-tailed hawk life, and archaeological digs (5) in which visitors unearth twentieth-century objects and theorize about their possible uses.

Fenton and Dayton say that the purpose of their shanty isn’t to mock science, but to encourage thought about the role that creativity and play holds in scientific pursuit. “We approach our ‘research’ with a level of absurdity,” admits Fenton, “but we also follow standard scientific methods. The goal is to involve people of all ages and backgrounds in art and science, while also encouraging critical thinking.”

Originally published January 27, 2009

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