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Nuit Blanche – Toronto
by David Yu


This was my first time attending Nuit Blanche Toronto and I was determined to make the most of the event. I speak of  Nuit Blanche in formal terms: event, festival, etc.. but really for those who do not know – Nuit Blanche is a one-night only art party with dramatic interactive art works taking over the entire downtown core of Toronto.

Actually Nuit Blanche is not a homegrown event. Toronto appropriated the concept of the "white night" from the original event in Nantes, France. Now Nuit Blanche events have spread across the globe under different monikers, but still hold true to one common goal:  to create art happenings that transform and take a city hostage for one night. The transformative experience and party-like atmosphere widens the audience to contemporary artwork as well as gives artists the chance to work in sites and venues not normally available.

As soon as I stepped on to the subway platform making my way to the central areas of downtown Toronto -where most of the projects were taking place - I was aware of the impact that this event has created. My subway car was filled to beyond capacity, the atmosphere excited, the chatter reflected anticipation of experiencing “weird” and “fun” art experiences. Really?... was I hearing this correctly or was this a symptom of having my private spatial bubble so far invaded that my mind has finally collapsed and I have officially started to loose it? It must have been the way that the city of Toronto has advertised Nuit Blanche as an all night art party that has contributed to this overwhelming interest in fine art.

The Feast of Trimaichio in Queens Park was my first stop. The nine channel symphonic video was an amazing visual set amongst the dark park where it was installed. The screens surrounded the audience in an enclosed space where they were treated to overly sumptuous visuals of beautiful people working out on treadmills, lounging in digitally crafted ostentation, and creating actions that point to a sexually charged nature. The pace of the work was perfectly edited giving enough away to allow for our MTV trained minds to “get it”.

In the middle of Yonge St was Athea Thauburger’s The Police Station. This performance seemed to be a direct response to the police action suffered by Toronto during the G8 summit. Performers dressed as police officers raided the crowds and arrested people under an unspecified profile. The police would all explode out of their make shift station and canvas the street rounding up people that fit their profile. Naturally, confusion and noncompliance ensued. The work was edgy, especially since the performer cum police officers looked very real. To put it starkly Toronto lost faith in the Toronto Metropolitain Police Unit after G8 and Thauburger’s work asks us to explore how we as a society can be “policed” when there is no transparency of the law that is outlined to us.

L’echo – l’eau by Richard Purdy was based inside the MaRs Center where Purdy created a  two inch pool with logs. Viewers were invited to walk along the water barefooted and navigate logs placed within the walking path. This experience was one of the biggest anti-climaxes of the night. The line was miles long by the time I arrived for this installation. The experience of walking the logs barefoot in water didn't create a profound experience shift. There was no epiphany reached. I do get that it was about the slight gesture of experiencing this phenomena and Purdy was literally asking usto get our feet wet within an art experience. The work just did not live up to the scope that it could have been.

On the other hand, Heart Machine by Toronto artist Christine Irving lived up to its promise absolutely. The sheer fact that this sculpture debuted at the Burning Man festival set the tone: fire and a whole lot of it. Making my way down the street, I could tell I was close from the frequent explosions of fire reflecting off the offices surrounding the parking lot where Heart Machine was installed. It seemed as though a piece of Burning Man had fallen into the centre of Toronto. A truck with turn tables parked beside the work provided a 1990’s drum and base rave vibe. Ravers wearing fun fur, ruffs, and animal ears were dancing everywhere; there was more fluorescent than one can shake a glow stick at. The energy was up with people cheering and entranced by the explosions of fireballs. Not giving away anything of my past, the experience was super-authentic. It was fun, free flowing and infectious.

Completely juxtaposing the frenetic action in Heart Machine was Isabelle Hayeur's calm video installation Ascension at the Metropolitan United Church. There is something about the architecture of churches that creates a sense of somber calm. The work projected an endless pathway of archways mimicking the the interior of the church. A resonating tone reverberated throughout the chapel increasing in intensity until it reached its crescendo where the video slowly blurred into a half-light and half darkness oblivion. The inescapable ideas of life and death combined with the location made this piece very succinct.

Two of the best events in Nuit Blanche this year were situated literally side by side on the festival map. Tie Break was a performance by Geoffery Pugen and Tibi Tibi Neuspiel where they reenacted the tie-breaking tennis match between John MacEnroe and Bjorn Borg during the fourth set in the 1980 Wimbledon finals. The performance was supposed to be a stroke per stroke replay of the exact match. Here, the instant reply was transformed into a nostalgic performance. A great side to this performance was the involvement of the audience as a third performer within the work, as both performers and audience engaged in this fanciful time warp.

Moving on, I came upon Iain Forsyth's and Jane Pollard's intense installation titled Soon.  Several spotlights searched an enclosed courtyard area surrounded by tall office buildings. Sounds of helicopters and deep tones projected into the enclosed space created an air of anxiety. Viewers within the space were tracked by spotlights crisscrossing and searching, the beams of light enhanced and exaggerated by rising smoke caused by fog machines installed throughout the entire courtyard. The installation kept viewers on edge by the controlled theatrical chaos where one can enter and be completely caught up within the drama of spectacle.

Nuit Blanche Toronto was an amazing experience. The artwork saturated the entire downtown core. It allowed viewers to re-explore, re-discover their own city again. Even public artworks that were not on the festival map were given special attention by art seekers. I literally witnessed people posing for photographs beside public pieces of art that have been installed for decades. The night challenged the city to be involved, to interact with the work and event, and to view public spaces in entirely new ways. At 5am I was on my way home happily exhausted, mentally stimulated, and art rich.

~David Yu, a writer living in Toronto

(Images: AES+F, The Feast of Trimalchio, 2009-2011; Tibi Tibi Neuspiel & Geoffrey Pugen, The Tie-break, 2011; Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, Soon, 2011; Courtesy Scotiabank Nuit Blanche 2011, Toronto)



Posted by David Yu on 10/7/11 | tags: Toronto mixed-media installation festival art video-art

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