A “White Night” at the Movies

7 mins read

Toronto’s first Nuit Blanche, a 12-hour extravaganza of contemporary art, felt like a ’60s Happening. Audiences in over 130 sites became energized, willing participants in the installations and events created by a diverse group of artists. I am focusing on only three artworks, each of which was produced outside, using DVD projection.

The first is by one of Canada’s finest artists, Michael Snow, a member of the Order of Canada and a Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters in France. In 2000 he won the Governor General’s Award in visual arts and media for his film work. Now in his late seventies, Snow is probably having his busiest decade ever, working as a filmmaker, sculptor, musician and painter. The second art site featured German artists Holger Lippmann and Alekos Hofsetter, a sculptor and painter respectively, who collaborate with 3D computer animations. Invited by the Goethe Institute earlier this year, they worked with two local architects as part of their ongoing exploration of “urban deconstructions.” The third multi-media artist, Paul Collins, produces video, music and painting. Collins began his art career in Toronto, moved to Paris 25 years ago but continues be an active part of this city’s local art scene.

Michael Snow’s site was 
the stately McLaughlin
 Planetarium prominently 
located at the south end of
the historic landmark, the 
Royal Ontario Museum.
 Curators Fern Bayer, Peggy
 Gale and Chrysanne Stathacos “programmed” the Bloor and
Yorkville area, by matching 
artists and places “with a
 past, now re-framed by
artists’ interventions.” A former
working planetarium, the
McLaughlin has not screened films of constellations on the inside of its 85′ high dome for more than a decade.

Adapting his earlier work shown at the 2006 Whitney Biennale, Snow created Counting Sheep a 15-minute loop projected onto the exterior of the spectacular dome. The subject is a simple, yet spell-binding recording of three sheep munching their way, in a single file, across a pasture. Moving slowly to the left of the camera frame, the sheep reach the end of the frame, then turn, head right and begin again.

The backdrop to the pasture is an ocean with rolling waves and white caps breaking in the far distance. As with Snow’s seminal Wavelength, the viewer is drawn into the slow rhythm of the waves. Here were hundreds of people at a busy downtown location, gazing up at the dome and lulled into a contemplative scene. As the curators wrote, “the sheep performance resembles the characteristic ambling—from good spot to good spot— of visitors to an art gallery, and the image recalls pastoral paintings of the English 19th century, so familiar to gallery-goers.” Snow’s projection onto the spectacular dome produced a stunning result, with the hoi-polloi out for a good time at Nuit Blanche enjoying it as much as art aficionados.

At the north end of the Royal Ontario Museum is the Daniel Libeskind “Crystal,” the ambitious renovation which is currently under construction. This is a complex, multi-angular design with massive steel beams and metal and glass cladding that rises five stories above its Bloor Street frontage. Using this enormous construction site as backdrop, artists Alekos Hofstetter and Holger Lippman produced a DVD as a critique/analysis of the existing architecture and the new design. Their dynamic black and white computer animation, named Nuit Blanche after the event, was a visual vortex of building fragments exploding and imploding on the screen. Splintering lines and planes rapidly expanded and disappeared; segments quickly fell apart and then reassembled again. The fast motion was hypnotic as it drew the viewer into a fast-paced interaction and dissection of architectural forms.

While Snow, Hofstetter and Lippman screened their work near Bloor and Avenue Road in the heart of Toronto’s richest and most established district, other pieces were being shown on West Queen Street West where art galleries abound. The City of Toronto’s Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (MOCCA) is a bulwark of the area between Shaw and Gladstone Avenues, programming innovative local and international projects, and Nuit Blanche was no exception. Outdoors, in MOCCA’s open space, hundreds of viewers gathered to watch Paul Collins’ latest DVD projection called 24-hour Stooges. Collins’ work, whether it is video, painting or music, is clearly a little tongue-in-cheek. His idea, to use the popular American comics The Three Stooges seemed odd, but turned out to be a good fit.

Rummaging through a Parisian video market, Collins was surprised to discover the Three Stooges’ 1940 classic short, A Plumbing We Will Go. As he told me, finding the video was odd because the Stooges are unknown in France and the tape was in NTSC format which is incompatible with Europe tape players. “What was the tape doing there?,” Collins queried. “Clearly it was put there for me!“

Initially, Collins decided to create an ironic bon mot and riff on the Scottish artist Douglas Gordon’s famous 24-Hour Psycho, which radically slows down the Hitchcock masterpiece. Slowing down his found tape, Collins decided he wanted to create what he calls an “American, Jewish and Collinsian cultural object.” The resulting effect was quite disorienting but very engaging. The trio’s normal quick jabs and slap stick routines morphed into almost a dream-like series. The silly antics transformed into a strange, dark drama. The soundtrack was also altered, with Curly, Larry and Moe’s quick dialogue thick as molasses, barely decipherable. They are no longer familiar, goofy guys but almost menacing characters. Through a random find, Collins created a strange manipulation of a popular comedy team into a format that no one could ever have anticipated.

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