As I’ve mentioned previously on this blog, this was my most conflict-of-interest-filled Nuit Blanche ever, since I was participating in a festival project (Speed Art Criticism) and also on a festival panel (When Critics Speak…). This means that my point of view is less objective than ever. With that disclaimer, here are my Nuit Blanche yeahs, nahs and wha?-s for 2010, which join extensive existing online postmortem discussions at the Star, Torontoist, BlogTO, Prairie Artsters and other sites.
- Zone C. The main challenge of curating for Nuit Blanche, in my opinion, is gathering works that can be seen and engaged by large crowds of people simultaneously, and that can be continuously in action for 12 hours. (Finding appropriate sites for same is also part of the game.) To me, a lot of the works (and sites) in Zone C, curated by Christof Migone, met this challenge. There, I greatly enjoyed Zilvinas Kempinas’ Big O, Kim Adams’ Auto Lamp, Michael Fernandes’ Arrivals/Departures, Davide Balula’s The Endless Pace, Max Streicher’s Endgame, Martin Arnold and Micah Lexier’s Erik Satie’s Vexations and more. I thought the scale and contexts of these works really worked well.
- Music and sound. Sure, Daniel Lanois has zero contemporary-art credibility, and in a lot of ways it’s infuriating to art folks to see him get centre stage (and top budget, $400,000) at Nuit Blanche. Still, the sound setup at Nathan Phillips Square was pretty awesome and immersive. I was reminded of some conversations I’ve had with Heather Nicol, curator of Art School Dismissed, who notably integrates musical performers into her projects. In these conversations, Nicol noted that contemporary art often dabbles in sound and dance, and because those domains have their own history in art practice, there can be a misconception that art “owns” these areas. But really, art doesn’t—dance and sound are also places where, well, dancers and musicians work, right? Furthermore, Nuit Blanche operates on an arena-rock scale of hundreds of thousands of audience members… why not actually integrate a little arena rock? To this point, I enjoyed the Daniel Lanois work (though was kind of annoyed by the cliché go-go girl thing), Kianga Ford and Isabelle Noel’s Dances with Strangers (which was pretty joyous when I dropped by), Dave Dyment’s Day for Night, and the roving (non-programmed) band of drummers that I spotted at University and Queen and later at OCAD. (The other projects named were curated by Anthony Keindl.)
- Improved (though still far from perfect) logistics: better attempts at dealing with crowds and the flow of crowds; shutting down more streets; a more compact and easily walked zone for “official” exhibitions; more places (it seemed to me) to warm up while still being able to view works; longer TTC service
- My own improved attitude and physical situation: This involved resting up during the day, bundling up and packing up for the evening out, vowing to skip anything with a long lineup, and lowering my expectations overall in terms of “what, exactly, I was going to see.” I also committed to staying out for six hours, which reduced time pressure. If I had only gone out for two, I might have been more disappointed. Also, I got to spend three hours afterwards sitting in a nice little guitar shop where people came by to talk about art, which ended up being surprisingly pleasant. If I had had to deal with the cold wind for those remaining three hours, I may not have been as enthusiastic.
- The people who came out. As usual, this is the most impressive part of Nuit Blanche. Sure, there are tons of drunk folks just looking to party, who can sometimes be annoying. And yeah, I saw my share of pukingness. But for the most part it seemed to me that people were really looking to have fun, have a good time, share something together besides just getting drunk. It was touching to see the Ontario Crafts Council Gallery full of people at 3am. We had some great folks come out to Speed Art Criticism from 4am to 7am, of all time slots! And I feel like I saw lots of people were not gallery regulars. This outreach component of the event remains pretty stunning.
- The volunteers. How do they do it? I do not know.
- Retro-schoolishness flavour. I experienced some pangs of this at Hart House, which showed works that were both academic and fun-feeling, textbook and tantalizing: Gerald Ferguson’s One Million Pennies, General Idea’s Orgasm Energy Chart, Colin Campbell’s video, Marina Abramovic and Ulay’s Imponderabilia. I got a similar feeling at Zone B’s Reunion, curated by Sarah Robayo Sheridan. This was a 12-hour performance based on a 1968 John Cage and Marcel Duchamp performance at the same site, the Ryerson Theatre. When I was there, Takako Saito (I think!), a Japanese Fluxus artist, was dressed like a chessboard and encouraged the audience to pull strings attached to her outfit. When the strings were pulled, certain parts of her outfit would fall off. After this, a black and white film on Cage and Duchamp was screened, and I felt like I was in the same era—like those audiences you see in old Dan Graham documentation. Something about that “waiting to just see what will happen-ness,” of schoolishness and academicness, was there. Which was nice for me, though it may have shut out others.
- Random shit: Mammalian Diving Reflex’s collaboration with the Toronto Weston Flea Market, bringing the vitality (yes, the vitality) of the burbs to a highly commercialized and mall-ified downtown. People playing video games on the façade of the Drake at 3:30am. The white balloon sculpture floating out a second floor window of the Gladstone. Etc.
- Logistics and safety gaps: Despite better efforts made to manage crowds this year, there were still issues with crowding during peak times, so much so that I occasionally felt unsafe as crowds spilled out into traffic-filled roads and car-drivers waged battle with pedestrians who had nowhere else to go. It seemed like longer stretches of Queen and Dundas should have been closed OR routing and signage improved to direct pedestrian traffic more safely. On another note, it’s unnerving to see skateboarders and cyclists, sans lights, going the wrong way down working streets—not safe, even though I understand the feeling of being invincible until proven otherwise. So I guess my point is there still seemed to be too much potential for injury, both in the design of the event and in some of the actions of its visitors.
- Transit: Again, great to see extended TTC service but next year it needs to be thought through a bit more. If the event runs to 7am, buses need to consider starting earlier on the Sunday morning and running later into Saturday night—not just the subway.
- Zone A: One thing that sucks about curating Nuit Blanche, I bet, is that if you don’t get it right the first time out, there’s basically no time to tweak your plan or troubleshoot. No closing one small gallery and reopening it tomorrow. And it seemed like there was a lot to troubleshoot in Zone A, curated by Gerald McMaster. I think McMaster has put together some really interesting shows in galleries, and put together an interesting group of artists here, but with Kent Monkman’s performance shutting down fairly early, with the difficulty of seeing the projections on the ROM (which could have been bigger), and with the time-lapse nature of Agnes Winter’s Monument to Smile (I think this could have worked better in the Nuit Blanche context if the building façade was full of images the whole night, and these images just slowly rotated, rather than going through a 4-minute cycle from no images to a full canvas), the official portion of Zone A ended up a disappointment, at least for me.
- Borrowed complaints, aka, stuff I overheard and am now passing along: The apps for the evening were too slow, only showed you what was in your zone even if works from another zone were nearby, and wouldn’t download info to your phone, where it would be faster to access than from a central server. So—more app development next year, please.
- How could our major cultural institutions use the lessons of Nuit Blanche to reach wider audiences the other 364 days of the year?
- Why was the AGO completely dark around midnight? Is it not in their interest to use this event for outreach? (Same going for the Power Plant and other major art institutions?) (This is a bit of a borrowed question, something that seems to be in the air.)
- How can we ensure that Toronto artists benefit from this event equitably and accordingly? To this end, I was reminded of a statement by Artscape’s Tim Jones: “Artists in this city do a great job of paying other people’s mortgages.” In doing projects for Nuit Blanche, many artists help the city increase its social and creative capital. What are they getting in return? I can imagine that for some emerging artists or spaces, just participating and being promoted alongside NB is compensation enough. But it’s definitely not compensation enough for everyone. Also: Do the artist fees for Nuit Blanche reflect CARFAC standards? (I haven’t done research on this point, obviously.)
- Who are the people behind the “Save Nuit Blanche” postcards distributed at the event, aka OneToronto? What would public reaction be if Nuit Blanche was cancelled? (Seems unlikely in the near future given that Scotiabank has pledged support for four more years, but still…)
- Could this event ever be extended into the daytime to be more family friendly? Or just more people-who-can-only-come-in-the-daytime friendly? (I realize this could be a disaster, but I’m curious.)
- Can we just let go of (or attenuate intensity around) the whole “drunken people” complaint around Nuit Blanche? Fact is that any large public festival ends up having a party component. My husband pointed this out when he said “Well, it’s just like the Regatta.” See, the Regatta in St. John’s, Newfoundland, started out as a sailing and rowing celebration, but now a lot of people just treat it as an excuse to party. And as much as some people don’t like the distraction from sailing and rowing, etc., there’s no outcry from the community that “Regatta should be stopped because there’s too many people just partying, people who don’t care about boats.” Further on this stream of thought, I was reminded of my own hometown’s Calgary Stampede, which started out as a rodeo event. The rodeo still happens, of course, but I can assure you that thousands of folks at all levels of the social sphere use Stampede as an explicit opportunity to get shitfaced—often for 10 days straight. And yet, there are no anguished cries from the rodeo community that “no one really cares about the rodeo anymore, so we shouldn’t do it.” Sure, ideally, people should be out at Nuit Blanche to see some art, but any large public event is going to have a carousing component. As long as people are kept safe and it doesn’t become hooliganism or violence or a public nuisance, maybe we can just deal? Or maybe just look at it as a safety and public nuisance issue rather than a disrespect of art issue? (Note that this doesn’t mean I want to see Nuit Blanche become exactly like the Regatta or the Stampede; just that it’s of a similar scale and by its nature will have similar problems to deal with.) Also... to belabour this point further, there are plenty of events in the art world where people get drunk--they're called openings and fundraisers. So is the "problem" that it's "non-art-world-folks" getting in on the falling-down-drunk action here? Sometimes that's what the "problem" seems like to me.
- What is contemporary art, exactly? (This is a question that gets more mystifying the longer I'm in this field...) Is it anything someone with "contemporary art credibility" makes? Is it's what's curated by someone with "contemporary art credibility"? Something shown in spaces that have "contemporary art credibility"? All or none of the above?
- Why is it that "contemporary art" might be interested in the "carnivalesque", but resist the carnival itself? Must contemporary art always address the -ism rather than manifest the thing itself?
- Is part of the reason that these 1 million people don't come out to art institutions during the rest of the year that many contemporary art institutions (or institutions with "contemporary art credibility") tend to resist showing large, spectacular works, which are considered facile, easy, nonrigorous, etc, within the "contemporary art community"? Another way of posing this question: does criticality about the spectacular in the contemporary art world undermine its ability to show engaging art that can be both spectacular and smart?
(Image of Kim Adams' Auto Lamp -- which worked as a kind of rotating, inside-out chandelier--from the City of Toronto)