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The Mobile Shanty, a community fixture, leads the May Day way

may day parade map
MinnPost illustration by Andy Sturdevant
Mainly, the May Day Parade shows off the deeply weird streak of cross-cultural populism that’s been South Minneapolis’ calling card since at least the mid-1970s.

The annual May Day Parade in Powderhorn Park is an event people look forward to all year for so many reasons. A themed parade anchored by giant papier-mâché puppets, but also featuring cyclists, marchers, dancers, brass bands (South Minneapolis must have more brass bands per capita than any other part of the cities), stilt-walkers, and other artists working in related fields, it runs from 25th Street in Phillips down Bloomington Avenue to Powderhorn Park, culminating in a ceremony and singalong.

Mainly, the Parade shows off the deeply weird streak of cross-cultural populism that’s been South Minneapolis’ calling card since at least the mid-1970s, when the Parade began; 2013 was its 39th year. Aztec dancers, crustpunks on tall bikes, old hippies, socialists and libertarians, mayoral candidates, artists, kids of every ethnicity and nationality, all their parents and grandparents, all utterly and fully occupying the street and park, celebrating the arrival of warm weather together. It’s so joyful that it always seems a little sad that the streets of South Minneapolis aren’t so thronged with humanity all year long. It seems, more than at any other time of year besides the Fourth of July celebration, like a true urban center — diverse, bustling, noisy, hectic, and fun.

My favorite part of the Parade, though, is that it’s such a reliable intersection of two favorite Minneapolis topics: community engagement and the weather. It’s a way to mark time in that interstitial period between winter and summer. I’ve lived in or around Phillips-Powderhorn for nearly my entire eight years in Minneapolis, and I can distinctly remember the weather for each parade going back to the beginning. Last year it was nice, but it had been delayed a week for rain, so the crowd seemed a little more sparse. The year before that it was freezing cold, but people still turned out en masse. This year is the most crowded I can remember it in a long time.

Each parade has a loose theme, the procession of puppets telling a four- or five-part parable related to ecological and social justice themes. Each section is created by a team of artists and volunteers at the nearby Heart of the Beast Theater over the course of the winter. Instead of focusing on the individual segments, however, I’d like in this instance to take a closer look at one particular float. I’m not actually sure that it’s formally a part of the program, but it’s appeared in the past few parades.

parade photo
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
The smoke is from an oil barrel, split in half and mounted
atop, and seems to contain a side of meat roasting on a
barbecue spit.

It’s often the first one down Bloomington in the parade, and is also the most wildly over-the-top — a lean-to metal corrugated shanty suspended on an auto chassis, pulled by three cyclists, and billowing smoke and flames. The smoke is from an oil barrel, split in half and mounted atop, and seems to contain a side of meat roasting on a barbecue spit. And that’s not all — a drummer sits behind the goat roast, banging out a drum solo on a full kit. The shanty pulls behind it a caged half-pipe, where skateboarders do tricks as the whole contraption rambles along. It’s surrounded by a group of men and women on foot and on bikes, trailing along, occasionally waving to the crowd but mostly just enjoying walking down a sunny city street that, only two weeks earlier, was choked with ice, filthy blackened snowbanks, and parking tickets.

This float has one of the most storied secret histories of any piece of public art in Minneapolis. Over the course of the past half-decade, I’ve seen it on Medicine Lake in the winter, down along the banks of the Mississippi, parked in residential neighborhoods across South Minneapolis, and for the past year or two, heading up the May Day Parade. I don’t know the entire lineage, but I do know that the core of the piece began its life as the Mobile Home Shanty, a project by Juliana Peterson and Julia Kouneski created for the Art Shanty Projects in 2008.

The Art Shanty Projects is a now-biennial event held on a frozen Medicine Lake in Plymouth, where artists build thematic, modified, or otherwise reimagined ice-fishing shanties and place them out on the ice for a month in the deepest winter. The Shanty Projects shares some of the same Twin Cities DNA with the May Day Parade — it’s also a celebration of community, collaboration, and large-scale, ephemeral public art. The Mobile Shanty was one of the few shanties that could move across the ice, powered by a mass of bicycles on the inside. About a dozen people would get in and pedal away.

mobile shanty photo
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
The Mobile Shanty is now more like an invading Viking
horde than ever.

One of my esteemed MinnPost arts-writing predecessors, Molly Priesmeyer, wrote about it then while covering the Shanty Projects: “The off-kilter, Civil War-era house floats along the ice trail like a ghost…‘We really liked the idea of creating something that moved,’ Kouneski says. ‘Kind of like the whole idea of Vikings and invading.’”

(The Mobile Shanty also shares some DNA with the Pedal Cloud, which made a cameo appearance in The Stroll two weeks ago — Kouneski and Peterson were assisted by metal artist Hans Early-Nelson in building the Mobile Shanty.) 

Years later, the Mobile Shanty has changed hands from the original artists, picked up some modifications — every year, it’s gotten more and more elaborate — and is now more like the invading Viking horde that Kouneski references than ever.

In its earliest iteration, the shanty had a smokestack that seemed to billow white smoke, but which was in fact the collected breath of everyone in the shanty working up a sweat while pedaling; now the smoke billows off of it is made by the barbecue that’s happening on the top. The visual aesthetic of the whole scene, with the dead meat and flames and black-clad revelers, has a very Road Warrior vibe. It’s not dystopian, though, in the way that particular cultural touchstone and its spiritual descendants are.

Instead, it’s a kind of utopian statement — it’s possible to build a moving structure that can cook a meal, facilitate a drum solo, pull a skateboarders’ half-pipe, and be the center of a moving celebration, all using the most rudimentary materials. That corrugated metal lean-to shanty is still at the center of it, serving as a reminder of the amazing and unexpected afterlife a piece of artwork can have as it’s passed down through the years, from person to person, from group to group, finding new uses and new adventures along the way.

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