5 years ago, Mayor David Miller gave the city of Toronto a tremendous gift known as the Nuit Blanche art festival. For those unfamiliar with this concept, Nuit Blanche is borrowed from Paris, the translation being ‘white night’. From sundown to sunrise, one night only, the streets transform into a wild art gallery, with a range of free offerings in all forms. From gallery installations to projections, from music to mad performance, Nuit Blanche encourages the public, normally not mass consumers of contemporary art, to come and challenge their perceptions and senses.
I was at that first Nuit Blanche, wandering through the University of Toronto campus and far beyond, finding myself at turns moved to tears and laughing in disbelief and wonder. The city had become Wonderland, and nothing made its usual corporate sense. It was paradise.
Over the years, corporate sponsorship has crept into the event, and while some things have improved, others have dramatically worsened. I have never missed Nuit, and have watched the weirder works be supplanted by pretentious art that feels forced, as if the sheer belief the artist holds in his or her import should justify my respect and reverence. This is where the artists and curators fail to understand that Nuit isn’t for your typical self-congratulatory artist cliques; it’s for the public. It is about making the everyday men, women and children expand their minds, dabbling their toes happily in something more imaginative than the status quo, something more powerful.
I care very deeply about this festival. I want it to succeed, and I want it to thrive. But the lukewarm reactions of the last two years by even myself have left me with no choice but to speak out, before those whom this festival should be countering become the gatekeepers and dictators of content.
Nuit Blanche, I love you, but we need to work on a few things. As Joan Rivers would say, if her Botoxed face still moved, “Can we talk?”
Wowing Toronto: A Non-Critic’s Critical Guide To Nuit Success
- One of the strongest moves has been to compress the zones, allowing easier access to more works in a night. This must continue, with more optimal use of the Financial District’s vacant spaces and lobbies, as well as university campus grounds. The Parkdale/Liberty zones are still too inaccessible, forcing event goers to choose Downtown versus West End; improve connections (read: not street cars).
- Transit is better, but still very piss-poor compared to what it should be. The streetcars are too congested on King due to clubbing crowds and Nuit combining. There are no discounts for travel, which doesn’t serve single travelers well at all when it comes to the Day Passes. There is enough corporate sponsorship now, surely, that we could have a sponsor for transit, footing the bill to offer a $5 single-rider day pass for the event, full Bloor line service to faciliate travel for those from Scarborough and the GTA, and increased frequency of bus service perhaps from Dundas West shuttling to Liberty Village? Said sponsor (say Amp) could have booths in several stations and run ads on the transit video screens.
- Yonge street was closed off (great) but there were huge gaps devoid of art exhibits. Improve use of Yonge street space. If the street is closed, use the roads as artistic areas.
- If it takes ten sentences to justify that a performance piece has an artistic vision, it’s either far beyond the scope of the layperson, or simply NOT ART. Moving concrete is NOT art. I’m sorry, but it’s not. Nor is projecting random images onto buildings. These pieces should be drastically reduced to bring down audience frustrations with the festival (i.e., “I walked here for THAT?”) This isn’t to say that mundane acts cannot be artistic; I was thrilled with the genius of this year’s Yonge-Dundas fire. It was a great thumbing of the nose at artists who try too hard to make a project into art, a fantastic discussion point for myself and two strangers last night. Which brings me to…
- Could we please have less ‘great art minds’ curating the zones, and more ‘average people’ assisting with the curation? Perhaps, instead of unique curators, have a team comprised of an artist/art world member, an avid Nuit fan and/or an average ‘layperson’ serving as a check that people will appreciate the exhibits, or at least understand the artists’ intentions. This festival needs to bridge the gap and bring ordinary Torontonians into the art world, not exclude them. The greatest evidence that this is the trend is that art critic favourites of last night’s events were the pieces I heard the most griping about from the audiences.
- The original Nuit had next to no lines; the fourth had so many line-ups that it was impossible to see much; and the fifth had an exhibit that made fun of the plethora of lines. Nuit, we have plenty of large, open spaces: NO MORE LINES! I have no idea why there needed to be a line for Lower Bay Station’s Dune. Considering how little there was to see, why couldn’t it have been a steady ebb and flow, similar to the Nuit Market and The Swans’ Lake? Why were there lines for Aurora? Perhaps that installation needed a larger space, to allow flow? Lines are the reason people avoid amusement parks; Nuit should be a meandering experience at all times, like an enormous gallery.
- Conversely, as much as I love interactive pieces, if that element creates wait times, the piece isn’t suited for an event this busy. Nuit 4’s Witches’ Cradles was one of my favourite exhibits of all time, but the enormous wait to participate was a two hour time killer for me. Events such as 2008’s mascots gone wild in Lamport Stadium work because there is plenty of room for all, and opportunity to interact.
- Atmosphere is crucial. At the first Nuit, there was a found exhibit of articles related to shipwrecks, a moving work to enjoy. Outside, a sunken courtyard was flooded with a soundscape of drowning and water. It was unnerving, and unforgetable. The Daniel Lanois takeover of City Hall this year was brilliant; not only did it make successful and powerful use of projections, it blended music with the visuals that left goers like myself lying for hours, contemplating what was being seen, along with spontaneous acts of performance and joy, like dance circles. We need more of this. It will tone down the drunken silly behaviour and command attention.
- The addition of the TIFF Lightbox exhibits was very welcome this year; my companion and I did the Singin’ in the Dark twice, because it was so much fun. Sometimes, we don’t want to overthink things; we need those moments to just be joyful in the middle of the night. As much as critics complain about the drunks and partiers now, we need a few pockets of channelled crazy to blow off our overtired energy, to better appreciate the serious works. Stop knocking them!
- Nuit Blanche should be about making the ordinary extraordinary. Whether it is transforming a building into a waterfall, creating a haunted subway station, or bringing the serious to a state of spectacle, the point should be to make us forget that Toronto is a city. While The Calm was meant to be a moving piece on the sole survivor of a shipwreck, it didn’t pull audiences in far enough, because the building remained a boring office building. Sandra Rechico’s 1850 was pretty, but also didn’t properly convey what it meant to because I could still see the restaurants beyond the blue lighting. Now: imagine that fog and blue lighting inside, while The Calm’s projections played through the mist and hues. That would have been spectacular, accessible and an incredible piece of art.
- Staffing and security need to be carefully considered. My friends and I were treated horribly by disorganized staff at Lower Bay Station. One white-coated volunteer and the hired security stopped us from proceeding upstairs to the outside line queue, instructing us to join the group headed for the exhibit. Upon arriving at the final stairwell, two other white-coated volunteers were extremely curt and ordered us back outside to wait properly. When we explained who had directed us, they continued to be unnecessarily rude for five minutes, before allowing us through begrudgingly. Do not fault the public for following your directions, ever. Plan better, and have staff who are genuinely happy to be part of the event. The rudest Nuit volunteer seemed absolutely furious to be working. Definite buzzkill.
- If the event isn’t going for the full 12 hours, it’s not a Nuit event. I’m sorry, but the late start to several exhibits near Bloor and Bay, coupled with events closing before sunrise, pisses us off. This event has a year to be planned out; there’s no excuse for this. If I am outside from start to finish, I should be able to enjoy the art in any order I choose, without restriction. This is becoming an increasingly prominent issue and gripe of the public, and needs to be addressed.
Scotiabank is offering Toronto another four years of this wonderous event, an event that blows Luminato’s “everything good has a pricetag” nonsense away. I can live with corporate sponsors, if they provide our artists with the funding to shut down streets and blow people’s minds. I cannot live with a festival that becomes so ho-hum, I need a drink or three to enjoy it. Let’s make Nuit Blanche magical again, shall we?
As I sang last night, 5 hours in: “Don’t Stop NUIT-ing!”