Above: Winter ping-pong at last week’s 4Play event in St. Paul. Photo by Ira Brooker.
While the stereotype of all Minnesotans loving the cold isn’t accurate – plenty of us would just as soon hunker down inside as soon as the temperature slips into single digits – we do take a perverse pride in doing things in the most frigid setting possible. That’s why you’ll hear so many Minnesotans brag about watching a sub-zero football game, or toughing out a brutal weekend of ice fishing, or even checking out an outdoor art exhibition in early January.
Last weekend’s Winter 4Play event, presented by Northern Lights and co-funded by the Knight Cities Challenge, was about as chilly an event as most people would care to undertake. But that didn’t seem to bother the crowd who came out to Saint Paul’s Fort Snelling State Park. Even as the wind chill dipped below zero, hundreds of adventurous sorts strapped on complimentary snowshoes and cross-country skis from REI and explored activities intended to stimulate both mind and body. “We were hoping for 1,000 people and 20 degrees, we got 2,000 people and five degrees,” said organizer Peter Frosch of GREATER MSP. “Success!”
Covering several acres of forest, beach and park space, the staging area incorporated all manner of winter events presented by a host of outdoor organizations and businesses. On the more active side, visitors could sign up for a mass snowball fight, attempt skijoring (a human-canine hybrid sport in which skiers are pulled by their dogs), or take a hike guided by the U.S Forest Service. On the slightly more passive side, attendees could try their hands at ice fishing and bird-watching, take a break in the Little Box Sauna, or just hang around the hot chocolate bar and socialize.
This first event, to celebrate winter, also included the ARTathlon. Conceived as a decathlon-style course, ARTathlon was more than just an art show that happened to take place in the dead of winter. Each of the eight exhibits was interactive and kinetic and encouraged reflection on the unique environs. Sometimes that was as simple as the “Hey, we’re playing ping-pong in snow pants” appeal of Peter Haakon Thompson’s WinTTer, essentially a mobile table tennis facility designed for outdoor play; or Meena Mangalvedhekar’s KhaChinga, a game of Jenga writ large with players balancing a stack of colorful cardboard boxes.
Along similarly sporty lines, Robin Schwartzman’s Arctic Golf was a mini-mini-golf course substituting snow for astroturf and snowmen and ice loops for more summery obstacles, a setup that elicited equal levels of excited squeals and frustrated laughter. None of the games flowed as freely as they might in a less frozen setting, but in this context that only added to the fun.
Taking things out of their familiar contexts was a recurring theme of the ARTathlon. Alyssa Baguss’s Text Me, for instance, stripped away the high-tech trappings of modern messaging in favor of bygone means. Participants stood on either end of a pulley system strung between trees and sent each other missives via sheets of paper clipped to a rope.
Monica Sheets’ Free Speech Machine, where everyone had a chance to get on a soapbox. Photo by Ira Brooker.
Over at Monica Sheets’s Free Speech Machine, meanwhile, visitors set aside their status updates to mount a literal soap box and announce their feelings over a megaphone. (Granted, the speeches would later be uploaded to the Free Speech Machine blog, but for ARTathlon purposes it was all about the moment.) Elsewhere in the audio orbit, Niko Kubota’s Tree Taiko Challenge found drums, pans and other implements of percussion strung spider web style between two trees, creating an organic aesthetic that complemented the steady, joyful banging.
Niko Kubota’s Tree Taiko Challenge. Photo by Ira Brooker.
As for the day’s highlights, Frosch said there were plenty. “Definitely the snowball fight! The ARTathalon! Many people loved the snowy mini-golf. The sauna was crowded all day, and a lot of people snowshoed. The cocoa, s’mores, and grilled cheese certainly helped keep people warm. Another big hit of the day was the fact that people weren’t on their phones – they couldn’t use them because of their mittens! It forced people to interact, which they did all day by singing, laughing, and playing together.”
While an event like Winter 4Play isn’t for the faint of heart or the sensitive of skin, there’s a sense of accomplishment in participating in art that asks more of the viewer than standing around a temperature-controlled gallery space. For those who braved the elements last Saturday, this was cold comfort in the most rewarding sense of the phrase. And the fun doesn’t end with the winter. 4Play is planning similar events for each season.
“One of the things people love most about living in Minneapolis-Saint Paul is easy access to four season outdoor recreation,” said Frosch. “With 4Play, we want to invite people together in one place to celebrate that and tell the world about it. 4Play is about reaching out to residents who have always wanted to try some new outdoor activity but weren’t sure where to go, what to do or how to do it safely. This is a big deal to help newcomers become a full part of this community by experiencing the outdoors, making new friends, and falling in love with a new way to play outside.”
Ira Brooker is a freelance writer in St. Paul, Minn. Follow him on Twitter with @irabrooker.