Culture & Conversation

Gotham Goes Dystopic

For my first Scotiabank Nuit Blanche in Toronto last year, I took to Queen Street West – the “Plateau of Toronto,” I’d been told – and made my way east towards the centre. Mistake, I eventually found out. Contrary to Montreal’s all-night art fest, the Toronto edition is mostly clustered around the downtown core, where city-commissioned and curated works occupy centre stage. There are independent exhibits spread out across the city, but they occupy a distinctly second tier, with far less attention and funding than the official program. So this year I swallowed my reservations, steeled myself against the concrete canyons, and swore not to make the same error twice. Downtown, here I come.

Well I certainly found the heart of the action. From the wide-eyed families in the early evening to the drunken throngs circling the sidewalks well past 5am, the pedestrianized core was choked with crowds come to revel in the all-night art romp. Adding to the festiveness of the scene were the extended liquor licenses which pushed last call to 4am, while gourmet food trucks served up everything from shrimp tacos to brisket poutine. A delicious way to start the evening (Montréal, please take note).

The accent was on spectacle, with large-scale projections and visuals taking over the walls and streets of downtown Toronto, where works were clustered around King Street, Yonge and Bay. Compared to Montréal’s Nuit Blanche, the focus here is largely on the contemporary and visual arts, with far less space for cutting-edge music, dance and other performance pieces. As is often the case with Nuit Blanche events, the style and quality of the works was widely divergent, with much of it aimed at the casual art observer passing through quickly on their way to the next big thing. It was more “oooh” and “aahh” than avant-garde, and more “isn’t that neat” than art to sink your teeth into.

But Nuit Blanche is always a night where individual experiences vary greatly, and with over 150 works spanning three separate zones there’s bound to be hits and misses: The City Hall exhibits this year were all the buzz, with the vast underground parking garage transformed by the apocalypse into the multi-exhibit Museum for the End of the World. The sparse and futurist Nathan Phillips Square was the backdrop to Christine Davis’s World Without Sun, in which six satellite dishes displayed footage of destruction and renewal, with shots of ocean life, outer space and human warfare set to the echoing of ethereal soundscapes. With the UFO-like council chambers looking on, the eery ambiance of the square seemed almost too complete. You weren’t likely to leave City Hall with a smile, but no one can say the artworks lacked bite.

On the more disappointing side, the heavy reliance on locative and interactive media in many pieces often felt trite and lacking in creativity. Brian Cauley’s Thought Balloon was one such instance, where typewriters allowed participants to enter messages in glowing balloons hovering over an alleyway. And Eva Kevalam’s Shifting Time and Space dressed up a seance of Hare Krishnas by simply flanking kirtan performers with a live heart rate monitor one one end, and another large screen for thermal imaging on the other. Likewise, Memory Cubes by the Queen Street West Business Improvement Area (BIA) utilized cameras aimed at passersby whose images were then projected as bouncing cubes on a screen. Installations of this sort are of course tailored for the roaming Nuit Blanche crowds out to party, but unfortunately this type of technological art stopped being exciting about a decade ago.

More innovative were Berlin’s Simon Denny and Yngve Holen who crafted a nightclub-meets-office ambiance in Body Xerox. With DJs providing the beats as backdrop, photocopier machines punctured the darkened space with white light as scrap paper littered the floor around them. And Thom Sokoloski’s Fun House took passengers on a car ride – the piece and Zone A were sponsored by Chevrolet – through a carnivalesque car wash (minus the wash) which oscillated between the eery and the harrowing. A bizarre but effective piece.

But if many of the works sound a bit on the dreary side, there may be a reason. There were times when I felt that City Hall’s apocalyptic motifs had spread to the rest of the event as well, with much of the downtown core playing host to dystopic landscapes that sent a shiver down the spine.

It may simply be the zeitgeist of the times, but it’s hard not to see the influence of setting on the large outdoor component. This was the first year that the T.O.’s Scotiabank Nuit Blanche was centred around the financial district. Its wide barren avenues flanked by steel and glass bank towers provided a bizarre and uneasy canvas for the enjoyment of public art. Nor did the overwhelming focus on technological arts and lighting effects help much to counter the cold aesthetics of the space.

In a city as vast and sprawled as Toronto, clustering the exhibits can make a whole lot of sense. But next time, the city might want to consider an area with just slightly more colour and heart.

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