Whither Ice Follies?

Sculpture Ice Follies

Frozen Piano on Lake Nipissing, 2014. Photo: Gordon Monahan

2014 marked the tenth anniversary of Ice Follies, a biennial exhibition of site-specific art situated in the city of North Bay, about 200 miles north of Toronto, and staged in the depths of winter out on the icy surface of Lake Nipissing, around which the city curls. Founded by North Bay-based artist and curator Dermot Wilson (who was also then director of the local public art gallery), it was inspired by the architecture of the ice huts of fisherman that dot the ice through the winter. In his years heading up Ice Follies, Wilson brought together local, national and internationally prominent artists (like Peter Van Tiesenhausen, Kim Adams, Ernest Daetwyler, Susan Detwiler, and FASTWÜRMS, as a few) who created pieces out on the snow-covered ice of the lake.

Seeing Ice Follies could best be likened to something akin to embarking on a kind of pilgrimage. It’s a long drive from anywhere to North Bay, and once there, seeing the work itself out on the snow-covered ice can involve some rather intense physical commitment. Though pieces have never been situated overly far from the shoreline of the lake, trudging through soft, knee-deep snow to crawl into, say, Peter Van Tiesenhausen’s tiny snow cave that framed a contemplative view of a featureless horizon of sky and snow, or to climb your way up an enormous mound of snow and then back down into Simon Frank’s Hut was to necessarily say “yes” to what’s been aesthetically shaped out on a cold, windy northern lake. And being wet and cold has always been part of the package.

Sculpture Ice Follies

Frozen Piano on Lake Nipissing, 2014. Photo: Gordon Monahan

Most recently, for the 2014 event, Gordon Monahan, an internationally acclaimed sound and visual artist, created a piano-based piece that, in part, responded like an Aeolian harp to the relentless winds that sweep across the ice. (The link for Ice Follies with video footage of works can be found at http://www.icefollies.ca) Piano on Frozen Lake Nipissing was located close enough to the shoreline and a nearby parking lot that it could be heard from there. While such an at-a-distance encounter necessarily missed much, it did make the work available in part to those physically unable to make the trek out onto the ice, and managed to address, if only inadequately, the problematic issue of accessibility that has always plagued Ice Follies.

So now, with five incarnations of the event come and gone, major organizational changes are underway. The public gallery that had long been the institutional umbrella for Ice Follies has entirely severed its connections, and as a consequence Ice Follies Biennial Collective Inc. was formed in 2012 to provide administrative structure and secure funding for projects. The biggest obstacle facing Holly Cunningham, currently the Chair of the organization, is the issue of changing audiences. When Ice Follies was inaugurated back in 2004, interest and support by the community was high, but as national and international attention for subsequent exhibitions increasingly gathered steam, the interest of and participation by local and regional organizations and groups seemed to inversely decline. These days, it seems, the exhibition creates barely a ripple in the area.

Sculpture Ice Follies

Frozen Piano on Lake Nipissing, 2014. From a distance. Photo: Gordon Monahan

This is a huge concern to Cunningham and the two other cultural organizations (the artist-run organizations White Water Gallery and the Near North Media Lab, both located in North Bay) that collaborated with the Collective in producing the 2014 Follies. What’s ultimately at stake, then, is the very survival of the event. Without interested participation at any level by community groups and organizations, Ice Follies runs the risk of utter irrelevance to its host community.

And so that brings us to the here and now, with the proverbial clock ticking and just under two years left before the next incarnation of Ice Follies is scheduled to hit the ice. With the assistance of a recently received grant, Cunningham and her board of directors are in the beginning phase of a year-long re-evaluation of things, studying their options in terms of restructuring Ice Follies into a much more community-inclusive arts festival that will very likely include artist-led workshops and what Cunnigham calls “community-engaged art,” in addition to the site-specific works that have given Ice Follies its aesthetic identity.

That will leave only a year to put it all back together again, and when that happens, things may look decidedly different. The biggest change may very well involve a shift away from the curatorially shaped structure Ice Follies has always maintained (and which has been both the basis of much of its funding support at the provincial and national level, and the very reason for the interest in the exhibition nationally and internationally) and toward a process of decision-making by committee based around an open call for proposals.

There’s real risk, here, of embarking on a path toward another form of irrelevance that could very well leave Ice Follies as little more than a hollowed-out shell of what it had once been. Decision-making unmoored from focused curatorial structure could entirely gut the exhibition of what has always been its aesthetic strength.

Whatever the outcome, the lake will freeze and thaw and freeze once again before we know how this new wind will blow across it in the winter of 2016.

By Gil McElroy

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