Monday, October 4, 2010

Nuit blanche Yeahs, Nahs & Wha?-s

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?
I look forward to any comments others might want to share here, and I also look forward to reading reviews and comments on other sites too.

(Image of Kim Adams' Auto Lamp -- which worked as a kind of rotating, inside-out chandelier--from the City of Toronto)


Amy Fung said...

great questions!

Ingrid Mida said...

What a thoughtful and complete analysis of the event. I really appreciated all you had to say. What particularly interested me were your comments regarding the participation of larger institutions, the payment of artist fees, and the boundaries between contemporary art and spectacle for this event. Artists like me who create smaller and/or more subtle, introspective work have no place in such an event and that is why it isn't high on my priority list.

Anonymous said...


Leah Sandals said...

Thanks guys! I enjoyed your post as well, Amy. Great to see the event through first-timer eyes.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for all of your thoughts and observations, and great questions too (especially that last one in this context). A wrap-up like this is wonderful to read for those like myself who were out of town this year.

nick said...

Great post! My 2 cents, for people that gripe about the art sucking - when was the last time you did an all day gallery tour and liked everything? Art can and does frequently suck inside the white cube. Opinions are like *s.

Powell MacDougall said...

Loved the overview. I think that you need to be appointed as a Zone curator! But would you take the post if offered?

Leah Sandals said...

Hey guys,
Thanks for the support.

@nick, good point about art in galleries also being capable of suck. No art event is perfect, that's for sure, or at least perfection is rare.

@Powell, ha ha, touché! No, I'm not planning on curating--it's not something I'm good at. What I'm better at (though not perpetually)-->pointing shit out and writing about it. So I'm going to stick to the latter.

Christine Irving said...

I am still picking myself up off the ground after reading $400,000 went to Daniel Lanois! Most artist setup for free or scrounged for our own sponsors. My piece, Flux and Fire, cost me $8,000 of which I am slowly paying off: we setup a beer tent near our art with 100% of funds going towards the art piece (participants could sponsor us with $5 beers) but we were so off grid that the number of participants who came out was not enough to help offset the costs.

The art piece itself was highly interactive and only the second time a Burning Man piece has come to Toronto. I loved the looks on children and participant faces as they engaged with my art but I will not be able to do another Nuit Blanche without a sponsor or support; especially after hearing how much goes to exhibition pieces.

We should note that exhibition pieces are a closed selection process. Artists are not able to submit a proposal for consideration. This is a huge downfall of Nuit Blanche no one is talking about; this flaw cuts out local artists and the opportunity to fund larger interactive local pieces. Here is my most recent one for Burning Man 2010 and just an example of what Canadian artists are up to in the underground art scene.

Here are a few photos and videos from the evening. Lineups were never longer than 20 minutes as we had so few participants wandering Liberty Village.

I want Nuit Blanche to succeed but doing a post mortem - which would include artitsts and public - is mandatory.

Leah Sandals said...

Hey Christine,

That looks like a pretty crazy project! Whoa.

I did look at the Nuit Blanche material and there is an Open Call component. I guess if you get selected for an Open Call project you can get some "funding and production support" -

I commend you for trying to raise funds yourself on the evening of the event, but yes, since Liberty Village was not part of the "official" exhibitions this year I bet traffic was slower.

As I indicated in my post, I'm kind of two minds about this, or I guess to me it's an open question--how should artists be compensated for participating in NB? Is the exposure enough? I can say for Speed Art Criticism, the exposure was enough for me, at least this year; but we had outlays of time only, not money. (Though, yes, time is money, and we resisted outlays of cash, knowing that there would be none forthcoming.)

Would it have helped you save some money if the festival had been more upfront about the fact that artists do not get paid for independent projects, and can't expect to recoup their costs through the fest? How does it work for you financially at other fests?

Just wondering. I appreciate you sharing your experience! And the video!

Christine Irving said...

Hi Amy,

Just to clarify, open call is an afterthought pablum to keep local artists appeased. Open call at a maximum (please note maximum) offers $1,000 for an artist honorarium and $1,500 for production.

Open call does not scratch the surface of fair distribution of funds when one completely closed category - curated exhibitions - has such outlandish budgets as $400,000 for one piece.

For example, my art piece cost $8,000 to create and fuel. Plus we had to purchase our own safety fence, our own garbage cans to ensure the area was clean post event, pay for the provincial safety inspectors etc.

Had there been a submission process for exhibitions, who knows what amazing art might have surfaced for all Torontonians to enjoy.

The closed nature and large budgets available to exhibits are my issue with Nuit Blanche.

Christine Irving said...

Hi Amy,

One last item. I am a long time Burner and have been making art out of my desire to share at Burning Man and local events. My most recent project "The Heart Machine" was a major piece that still cost me money to make but I enjoyed doing as a group of volunteers.

The big difference between my experience as an artist at Burning Man and as an artist at Nuit Blanche is there was no option to submit our larger piece of art for consideration. At Burning Man, you will not see $400,000 going towards one piece. Instead, partial amounts are given to chosen projects to assist with funding.

I think Nuit Blanche should take a look at the Burning Man model of art funding and their fined tunred appreciation of artists who donate their time and creativity.

I do greatly appreciate your review and views and I look forward to your comments.

sally said...

"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."

WOOT! Right on Leah. The one thing I truly love about Nuit Blanche is the eye-opening fact that lots and lots and lots of people will gather around contemporary art when the hierarchical art world barriers are dropped. So some of us whoop a lot and then stagger around, and nearly all of us take pictures of each other, and maybe somteimes we are paying more attention to our friends and our maps and our apps than to the art. But it really seems that most people, even in the midst of carousing, are quite intensely curious about the artworks and/or want to get the most out of them that they can. It's pretty inspiring.

Tara Bursey said...

Hi Leah,

Thanks for this awesome rundown!

On a somewhat unrelated note, do you know if anyone got any photo-documentation of Speed Art Criticism? I'm writing about it, and my short session with Elena Potter, for school and could use an image to go with the short review.

Thanks a bunch!

Michael Wheeler said...

Amazing rundown Leah. I especially appreciated the questions you raise about how to translate a single evening where Torontonians are interested in contemporary art to a general culture of being into it.

I don't know if I have a clear thesis about how to achieve this, but certainly it is also a preoccupation of contemporary theatre as it fits into the capital A Art World in Toronto. There are some parallels with the Fringe Festival in this regard:

For 10 days in July seeing crazy and unconventional theatrical performances is a reasonable thing to do for people, and then not so much for the rest of the year. Summerworks is doing really well at broadening the appeal of that sort of experience as it blends with Queen W. and indie music - but again in a temporary festival context.

How to translate this sort of transient interest from the general public to consistent passion and excitement is the million dollar question for all of us capital A contemporary artists. This exists already in NYC, Moscow, Montreal, London, and Paris (also probably others). It is possible - will we get there? Jury is still out.

Speaking of art in other places - Dave Meslin has republished his post on his blog about Scotiabank naming rightsand Nuit Blache internationally- noting that other Nuit Blanches in the world don't let the sponsor incorporate their name in the official title of the event. Nuit Blanche in Paris is called: Nuit Blanche. Same with everywhere else. Seeing as Scotiabank just re-extended for 4 years the post - originally from 2007 - still seems relevant:

Leah Sandals said...

Hey Michael,

Thanks for your thoughts. I think the Fringe is an amazing festival that way too, in that it has an open, accessible feel and presents such a wide range of work. I wonder whether that gap will be bridged as well to larger institutions.

I guess one of the points that comes across about the Fringe and Nuit Blanche is that, although they are extremely different in scale and other natures, they present as (relatively) friendly, unpretentious and affordable. I really hope our major institutions can integrate some of those qualities. I know other elements like public education and media coverage can likely aid matters too--it's a complex question!

Thanks also for reposting Dave Meslin's comments on the corporate branding of Toronto's Nuit Blanche. It seems like naming rights are of increasing interest to Scotiabank and other types of arts sponsors. (How else would we have ended up with a "Michael and Sonja Koerner Director" of the AGO?) Scotiabank also demanded a name rebrand of the Contact Festival when it came on board as a sponsor this year. (Now it's officially known as the "Scotiabank Contact Festival".) Also, it's worth noting that Winnipeg just had its first "Scotiabank Nuit Blanche" last month. And also that Halifax is running its third annual "Nocturne" event, sponsored by a variety of corporations - - but none of them "name sponsors", this month.

In the end, all this stuff comes down to what the sponsor and arts org are willing to agree to. It seems like Scotiabank in particular is really interested in naming rights for the arts fests it sponsors. But it's also not alone in having that interest. I don't know what the answer is, but that name-branding is worth noting.