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Social change the Nuit Blanche way

Fog in Toronto #71624. Photo by Noelle Elia.

Nuit Blanche, a “free all-night contemporary art thing” that took place in Toronto last September 30, demonstrated how creative events can transform a city both emotionally and politically. Beginning at sunset and ending at sunrise, Nuit Blanche is the brainchild of Christophe Girard, the former Deputy Mayor of Paris, who sought to bridge the gap between contemporary artists and the Parisian public. Launched in 2002, it has since become a successful export to Brussels, Rome, Madrid, Helsinki, Istanbul, Montreal and Riga, Latvia. Cities are unique, each defined by the energy and attitude of the people who live in them. The beauty of Nuit Blanche is that it’s culturally translatable from city to city, citizen to citizen. All at once, it’s literal, literary, metaphorical and conceptual. And like a game of connect-the-dots, Nuit Blanche was born out of a series of interrelated inspirations. White night, nuit blanche, notte bianca, beliye nochi, la noche en blanco: waking dreamtime, sleepless night, a time for exploration and enchantment.

“IT IS NOT WITH INDIFFERENCE THAT HE LOOKS AT THE SUNSET WHICH IS SLOWLY FADING ON THE COLD PETERSBURG SKY…HE IS HAPPY AS A SCHOOLBOY WHO HAS BEEN LET OUT OF THE CLASSROOM AND IS FREE TO DEVOTE ALL HIS TIME TO HIS FAVORITE GAMES AND FORBIDDEN PASTIMES.”Fyodor Dostoevsky, “White Nights”

Dusk, the magic hour artists, poets and cinematographers love. It’s a liminal time where something is ending, something else is beginning and we’re suspended in-between. Day for night. Each summer, distant northern latitudes experience midnight twilight where the sun remains just below the horizon, never fully setting. These “white nights” have become a symbol of St. Petersburg and are celebrated annually with cultural events. While living there in 1848, Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote the short story, “White Nights—A Sentimental Story” (from the Memoirs of a Dreamer). The tale follows a lonely, downhearted man who, for four nights, wanders the city streets becoming ensnared in fantasies about a woman who has sworn her love for another. Over a hundred years later, Italian filmmaker Luchino Visconti adapted the story in 
Le Notti Bianche (1957), starring Marcello Mastroianni. Both narratives highlight a universal longing for something more, something better.

Artists, like dreamers, often feel misunderstood and marginalized by society. The general public, in turn, often feels cut off from the art world either through the exclusivity and insularity of the gallery system or from the inaccessibility of the underground. One of Nuit Blanche’s requirements is that the majority of the programming take place in public spaces where people can interact and intersect. These ‘free zones’ have historically been backdrops for revolutions, celebrations and manifestations. Nuit Blanche’s ideological roots run deep, having evolved out of several generations of activist and public art practice that dealt with self- representation and community identity; from, for example, Allan Kaprow’s Happenings in the late ’50s and ’60s to feminist and Marxist art in the ’70s, ACT UP and Gran Fury (two media-savvy AIDS activist art groups) in the ’80s, and culture jamming and ‘subvertising’ in the ’90s. Taking art to the street is synonymous with taking it to the people.

“THE PUBLIC IS INVITED TO ENCOUNTER THE CITY THROUGH ART IN A NEW WAY; BY CREATING NEW ROUTES AND AVENUES FOR UNDERSTANDING, AND BY CONNECTING THE CITY’S CULTURAL SITES, WE LOCATE OURSELVES AS AN ACTIVE PUBLIC, INDIVIDUALLY AND COLLECTIVELY PARTICIPATING IN THE CITY’S BECOMING.”
Toronto Nuit Blanche press release

Holger Lippmann and Alekos Hofstetter, Toronto Project, 2006. Photo by Noelle Elia.

Two ingredients essential to effective public art activism are empathy and accessibility—the ability to recognize oneself in the face of another, of an ‘Other.’ As Victor Hugo observed, “Great perils have this beauty, that they bring to light the fraternity of strangers.” Therein lies the work. For the inaugural Nuit Blanche in 2002, installation and conceptual artist Sophie Calle took over the Eiffel Tower. High atop the City of Light, she created her own window of accessibility, a little makeshift bedroom all white like a dream. You could enter only if you told her a story. Once you did, you got to toast the experience with a glass of champagne—a gesture celebrating new connections. Like Paris, Toronto also focused on contemporary artists, putting forth the challenge: “If the city was offered to the artist, how would the artist in return offer the city back to the public?”

“LET’S TALK OF A SYSTEM THAT TRANSFORMS ALL THE SOCIAL ORGANISMS INTO A WORK OF ART, IN WHICH THE ENTIRE PROCESS OF WORK IS INCLUDED…SOMETHING IN WHICH THE PRINCIPLE OF PRODUCTION AND CONSUMPTION TAKES ON A FORM OF QUALITY. IT’S A GIGANTIC PROJECT.” —Joseph Beuys

Amongst critics and collaborators, there had been rumblings of skepticism and doubt: would the people of Toronto be curious and adventurous enough to be a part of this social experiment? Surpassing all expectations, over 420,000 people took to the streets on a drizzly, autumn night. Divided into three main zones—Bloor-Yorkville (A), University- McCaul (B), and Queen West (C ) —130 exhibits and numerous independent projects were available for the public to experience. Nuit Blanche had five curators in total, ranging from internationally established to established-emerging. Fern Bayer, Peggy Gale and Chrysanne Strathacos curated Zone A, Kim Simon worked Zone B and Clara Hargittay had Zone C. People discovered art on street corners, in swimming pools, galleries, community centers, churches, parks, alleyways, museums, construction sites and car washes.

While not all of the art was mind- blowing, there were some stand-out exceptions like Michael Snow’s thoroughly satisfying film, Counting Sheep, projected on the Planentarium dome, Fujiko Nakaya’s Fog in Toronto #71624, Thom Sokolowski’s rows of glowing white tents— Confinement of the Intellect —in the pit of Trinity Bellwoods Park, Adrian Blackwell’s circular, wooden social sculpture, Model for a Public Space (speaker) in Grange Park, and John Greyson and David Wall’s tongue-in- cheek, pro-penguin sound/video installation, Roy and Silo’s Gay Divorce, in the Harrison Baths and Pool. A singular moment was stumbling into a darkened gallery at 4:30 am, being handed a flashlight to peer at the art like a cat burglar and hearing someone snoring in the corner. But the chef d’oeuvre was the public’s enthusiastic participation and the exciting blurring of boundaries: the city became a landscape of creative possibility.

Pharmacopia. Photo by Noelle Elia.

Toronto Mayor David Miller, spotted in the hide-and-seek fog, raved about the event and promised that if he were re-elected (he was), there’d be a second one in 2007. Such a confirmation of success pleases Laurent Amiand immensely. Working alongside Girard since the event’s inception, Amiand moved to Toronto in late 2005 to help the city develop its first Nuit Blanche. “In France,” he says, “it’s harder for contemporary artists living in the city to make a name for themselves, especially when there are so many historical, classical institutions. Nuit Blanche became a way to give them visibility and because it was organized by the city, people were very confident. They trust the city and they knew that the city would take care of them—it was a way to give back the city to the people.” While the budget in Paris is considerably larger, Toronto’s was sizeable, at approximately one million dollars. “In Europe, we have some amazing, big cultural budgets, but we don’t have lots of sponsorship,” explains Amiand. “Here, in a way, it’s quite the opposite.” To achieve the desired scale and scope, one of the country’s largest banks, Scotiabank, became the primary sponsor—a seamless melding of art and commerce, and an offering to the people, gratis.

Although the genesis of Toronto’s Nuit Blanche was in 2003, it didn’t pick up momentum until October 2005 when Jenn Goodwin went to Paris to meet Amiand and get a first-hand feel for how the event could translate in Toronto. An internationally recognized dancer/choreographer and filmmaker, Goodwin is known for her provocative work. She joined the Special Events department at the City of Toronto and became the programming supervisor for Nuit Blanche. Not your typical civil servant, she’s an example of a creative personality that’s defining Toronto today—working both independently and within the system: “You have to change things from the inside.” Her favorite Paris Nuit Blanche moment was entering Sacre Coeur to the sight and sound of 300 guitars all playing one note. “It still gives me chills. The impact was incredible.” Nakaya’s fog sculpture in Toronto had the same effect on her. “It was this experiential piece where people could really slow down and be in the environment with the art. Hang out in the fog and take it all in.”

Hugman. Photo by Noelle Elia.

Tokyo-based Nakaya was an early video vanguard artist and created her first fog sculpture over 35 years ago. For her Toronto site, she chose Philosopher’s Walk, a winding path that sits on top of an ancient creek bed in the heart of the University of Toronto. Shaped by the shifts in wind and temperature, this “atmospheric sculpture” transported people out of their everyday lives. Enveloped in luminous shadows, blurry whispers and camera flashes, people were slip sliding into a lost vortex of time and space. It felt like slow dancing inside an artist’s imagination.

Standing alone in the misty fog, arms outstretched, was an unidentified man in a suit with a paper bag over his head. Not officially a part of the night’s programming, Hugman was there for the hugging. Such a “simple” performance exemplified the true spirit of Nuit Blanche. No walls, no theory, pure art with heart. Throughout the night, everyone was commenting on the energy; there was a feeling of playfulness in the air, of fun and adventure. “It was like a giant slumber party,” adds Goodwin. One of Amiand’s favorite pieces was Darren O’Donnell’s Ballroom Dancing where hundreds of coloured balls were being tossed around a big room filled with dancers. “It was so nice at the beginning of the evening, there were all these children playing DJ, choosing the music and playing with the balls…it’s very rare for little children to be able to participate in an art event.”

The timing of Nuit Blanche echoes discussions taking place in lecture halls, PR firms and coffee houses around the city and queries being explored in articles and anthologies: “What is Toronto’s cultural identity?” As it sheds its long-held persona of being stuck in the shadow of New York City (which Torontonians resent yet covertly cling to), catch phrases are popping up like “coming-of age,” and “Toronto finally grows up.” Renovation and construction remain an endless pastime, always in frame. But while big cultural institutions spend a billion-plus in “transformations,” these giant architectural explosions can feel more obtrusive than cutting-edge. For a lot less money, Nuit Blanche turned out to be more avant-garde than a new façade or exhibition space could hope to be because it was a gift of interconnectedness, a kind of “positive emotional activism.” To connect the final dot, Dostoevsky offers the last word, “His imagination is again stirred and at work, and again a new world, a new fascinating life opens vistas before him. A fresh dream—fresh happiness!”

Noelle Elia is an artist, writer and filmmaker whose politics are based in aesthetics and emotional connection. Interested in what makes us similar rather than different, she searches for common threads as a way to get inside this never-ending question.

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