To Imagine Boston's Future, Artists Deploy 'Sauna Diplomacy' In The Seaport

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The "Sweat It Out" pop-up sweat lodge in the Seaport. (Courtesy Lani Asuncion)
The "Sweat It Out" pop-up sweat lodge in the Seaport. (Courtesy Lani Asuncion)

Outside, on a recent Thursday evening in Boston, it was 33 degrees. Inside, in a mobile sauna parked in the Seaport, 10 strangers sweated around a wood burning stove. The thermometer read 165 degrees, though there could have been a hundred-degree temperature variation from the floor to the sweat lodge ceiling.

The public art installation, called “Sweat It Out,” was a collaboration between local artists Misha Rabinovich, Caitlin Foley and Heather Kapplow. They’d created a pop-up sweat lodge in the Seaport District, and invited Bostonians to shed their wool layers and enjoy a post-work schvitz. It’s funded by the New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA), and runs on Sundays and some evenings through December at the Envoy Hotel in Fort Point.

The centerpiece of the installation was the mobile sauna, a hand-crafted cedar sweat lodge parked on the Harborwalk. A few steps away, they’d transformed the Envoy’s art space, run by the Fort Point Arts Community, into a sauna-themed lounge with a changing space, camp shower and bright orange beach chairs.

The Envoy, a boutique hotel, anchors a block in the Seaport District which has transformed from an industrial wasteland in the early 1900s, to a grungy arts community in the 1990s, and now to an entertainment district with a new movie theater, big retail stores, luxury condos, chain restaurants, skyscrapers labeled by corporations, public sculptures, beer gardens, and college students roaming in drunken packs.

“You’re walking around the corner, and the building that was there is no longer there, and there’s a giant piece of construction there, and traffic,” said Kapplow. “We’re living in a time where the landscape is constantly shifting, and it’s really stressful.”

The dramatic visual changes in the neighborhood reflect huge shifts in the demographics and culture there as well. "Sweat It Out" aims to create a calm and welcoming space to talk about what Boston is now and what it's becoming. "It's a test about who gets to do what, in some ways," said Kapplow. "You can come in and build a building, but can you walk around in a towel?"

The artists, clad in a grey waffle-knit robes, greeted visitors with fresh towels and spa slippers. They encouraged people to hydrate with lemon-infused water.

While the artists are interested in all forms of sweatbathing, the event is most inspired by Finnish tradition of sauna diplomacy. “There’s a saying that everybody in the sauna is equal,” said Foley. “Collective sweat can create solidarity between people.”

Orion Kriegman, a food justice activist and director of Boston Food Forest Coalition, was invited to facilitate small group discussions on the future of Boston. “The idea is to create a space where we can talk freely and openly, and share about complicated and often emotional topics,” he explained.

Kriegman was wearing red bathing shorts and a towel. “I have led conversations in unusual contexts, out in fields around fires,” he said, “but usually, they’re not as freeform.” Here, people would be encouraged to float in and out.

Patty Pribus and her husband were visiting from Charlottesville, Virginia. They passed by on their way to dinner and saw a woman standing outside in shorts. “We thought, what is wrong with that girl?” Now, after a meal at the Barking Crab, they sat in towels talking with locals about the Boston food scene. “Boston is awesome,” she said.


Rabinovich fielded questions about the origins of the sauna, and ladled water onto hot rocks to create a sizzling steam. “We wanted to create this warm, neighborly space,” he said. He hopes that “when the sauna leaves, the warm space it creates is left behind.”

He pressed his forehead against a piece of pH-reactive paper that was tacked on the wall to create a “sweat print,” and encouraged others to follow suit. Foley came in to switch out the paper and display the print in the lounge.

The lounge space was designed to echo the sweat lodge. The soundtrack was a live feed of conversations from the sauna, distorted and piped through the speakers. A diffuser in the bathroom wafted a subtle cedar scent. A video of backsweat, dripping off sauna bathers’ backs, projected in a loop on the wall.

Artist Christen Shea served tea from a ceramic pot she’d created for the event. She brewed it with water steamed by the sauna’s wood-burning stove. Lucia Jazayeri, a repeat visitor, made a platter of Finnish sauna-inspired snacks to share: Scandinavian open-faced sandwiches, deviled eggs dyed with beets. She’d read that sauna snacks should help replenish electrolytes, so she didn’t skimp on the salt.

Participants sit inside "Sweat It Out's" lounge space. (Courtesy Lani Asuncion)
Participants sit inside "Sweat It Out's" lounge space. (Courtesy Lani Asuncion)

At 8:15 p.m., a small group gathered in the lounge to discuss the future of Boston. Orion Kriegman, now wearing business casual, read ground rules off a large sheet of paper stuck to the glass: Speak freely and openly; Use “I” statements; Keep an open mind; Agree to disagree.

For Janice Willett, an Allston resident, reflecting on the world we would leave our children brought her a sense of deep-rooted anxiety. “I carry around a sense of responsibility without knowing how to take action. And a certain amount of guilt,” she said. “Like I should be more active doing something about it, but I don’t know where to begin.”

Kriegman asked group members to close their eyes, and imagine themselves in hot air balloons, floating over Boston 30 years in the future — a future in which everything had worked out for the best. “Begin to take note as you float towards Boston,” he instructed. “What do you hear? What do you see? What do you notice has changed?”

The group’s visions carried strong environmental themes. A future with no cars. Neighborhoods that were self-sufficient in food and shelter. A city adapted to sea level rise.

One participant envisioned the Greenway as Venice. “I saw infrastructure built up, so the water flowed below it,” she said. She saw the same buildings, but with bridges and walkways connecting them.

Rabinovich also imagined a water-laden future. “I saw people fishing, and I saw robots helping people fishing. And then I saw some really cool floating farms.” Kriegman interpreted, “There’s a certain amount of work that’s been taken over by [robots] in a good way, and some adaptation to the water with the floating farms. The fish were doing well, so the oceans were thriving.”

“The fish were doing well,” Rabinovich agreed, “but they had little antennas.”

Kriegman thanked the group for gathering. “I don’t have any profound conclusions. I’m happy for this to stay in discussion. I don’t know if we want to do another round of saunaing, and then come back,” he offered. “Whatever feels right.”

“Maybe we can do 100 years into the future after we sauna more,” Rabinovich said.

"Sweat It Out" runs for the next two Sundays in the FPAC gallery at the Envoy Hotel in Fort Point. You could also visit during gallery hours on Wednesdays (4-8 p.m.), Thursdays (12-5 p.m.), Fridays (12-5 p.m.) and Saturdays (12-5 p.m.). 

This segment aired on December 27, 2018.



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