Culture & Conversation

Rising to the Occasion

While I would rarely suggest that Montréal’s pulsing art scene should be taking cues from Toronto, Hogtown’s Nuit Blanche this past Saturday was a great success thanks to people who never get their due credit… the curators. The event went out of its way to demystify the curatorial process by dividing exhibits into various zones, each with its own curator and thematic focus. While the star artworks of the night were found at Museum for the End of the End of the World curated by Janine Marchessault and Michael Prokopow and presented at City Hall, I ventured a bit farther east to spend the night in Zone C.

All five curators took part in a panel discussion just hours before the event (as part of the Nuit Talks lecture series) to appeal for the city’s interest in their chosen art projects. The two-hour discussion was a marathon, and I’m probably one of about a dozen who actually tuned into the online livefeed, but for the artistically picky and time-strapped the event was a godsend.

After hearing from Helena Reckitt that she included a Trisha Brown piece in her commissioned works, I automatically assumed she had fantastic taste, at least according to my palette. And after my massive Nuit Blanche fail in Montréal last year (I ended up making the rounds with a group of people who were singularly focused on seeing the Biodome’s penguins run outside of their cage. I do love penguins… but really), I was more than happy to place my night into Helena’s hands.

All of the works in her jurisdiction focused broadly on time and space. She was interested in how public art can transform mundane space into community space, the division between public and private, and how technology mediates our collective experience. Repetition appears over and over again in the works, and many make use of sound a means to fill and penetrate space.

The four works I took in during the night strung together surprisingly well according to her conceptual interests, and led to an organized, engaging, and best-yet Nuit Blanche experience. Thanks, Helena.

Trisha Brown – Planes
This was a remounting of Trisha Brown’s project originally performed in 1968. Playing with the convergence of multiple “planes” of perspective, three dancers scaled a vertical, white wall. Projected onto the wall was a looped video filmed Jud Yalkut on 16mm film.

The soundtrack engulfs the space with what seemed to be the sound of long, drawn-out foghorns… I couldn’t have been more wrong. This was really the soundtrack of a vacuum cleaner compiled by Simone Forti. Either way, the droning didn’t provide much support for the dancers who slowly, yet fluidly moved around the wall at a constant, supremely controlled pace. The resistance in their movement added to the appearance of fighting gravity. They clung to the wall only by the help of round holes throughout the surface. While manipulating gravity, they still managed to play off of each other in their improvisation—pausing to mirror one another in tableaus. One dancer kept reaching toward the audience, seemingly in an appeal to help her as she appeared to freefall through the air above a projected cityscape.

The success of the piece comes from the amount of visual planes it manipulates to disorient the viewer. Firstly, there’s the real (the viewer’s own) vertical plane from the ground up; secondly, the spatial orientation projected in the film—generally an aerial view gazing downward; and thirdly, the viewer’s sense of depth as the dancers’ limbs penetrate the wall and momentarily disappear.

Even our temporal sense is collapsed thanks the rapidly shifting frames of Yalkut’s film. Images include aerial views of New York, street views from inside a taxi, intergalactic spaces with rockets shooting by, industrial objects, liquids full of amoebic shapes, free-falling babies—though all offer only a fragmented, partial view that plays with the dancers’ bodies in disproportionate relation to objects and space.

Brown, who worked with the famed Judson Dance Theatre and was heavily influenced by John Cage, was fascinated by unconvential performances spaces. Choreographing dances for rooftops or along the side of buildings, Brown spend a large part of her career exploring underutilized spaces around New York. And it is this function, the ability to give new life to space and to a city, that makes Planes so powerful.

Though tucked between office buildings in Dundee Place, the viewer was given an expanded sense of space and a heightened sense of their bodies in relation to the city around them. If even for the 12 hours of Nuit Blanche, the poetry of the city was made a little more visible.

Katie Paterson – Earth-Moon-Earth
In this remounted, intergalactic concert experience, the audience listens to the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata as it’s eerily plunked out by a self-playing grand piano. However, notes have been dropped out, the pace is inconsistent, and it is sometimes out of key. Why? Blame it on the moon.

Katie Paterson translated the score into Morse code, and teamed up with a group of “moon bouncers”—radio technicians who employ Earth-Moon-Earth (E.M.E.) technology to bounce sound off the surface of the moon. After sending out the radio signals from the US, she recaptured it using another (much larger) satellite in Sweden. Lastly, she had the returned Morse code retranslated back into a musical score and recorded. The result is a peculiar version of the familiar piece. Notes have been absorbed by the moon’s craters or simply lost along the way.

Miki Uhlyarik, the volunteer on site, explained that much of Paterson’s work involves interactions between technology and the natural world. In this piece, the impact of the sound’s transformations is far from negligible. The original score for Moonlight Sonata’s first movement is five minutes. Once translated into Morse code, it becomes three times that length.

Earth-Moon-Earth blatantly interrogates notions of authorship. Who’s the real artist responsible for the final score—Paterson, the E.M.E. technology, or the moon itself? Miki pointed out that she also wanted to show how many people with diverse areas of expertise can cooperate on one project. She certainly stretched the geographical limits of collaboration, even beyond the Earth’s boundaries and back again.

Brian Cauley – Thought Balloons
Toronto’s Brian Cauley presented a piece that forced its viewers to relate to each other in public space via the same technology that so frequently isolates us. Simulating text messages and status updates, audience members typed a message onto a typewriter and saw it displayed onto one of the floating, luminescent, blue balloons suspended above an alleyway.

As expected, there was a pretty wide array of thoughts—some were uninspiring or cryptic in their strictly personal meaning, others were sentimental, and some were exceptionally lewd. But as the anonymous messages appeared, disappeared and shifted around the balloons, it was most interesting to listen to the responses of people watching.

The exclamations tacked onto the messages as viewers read them aloud passed severe judgement on the words that, if not for their broadcasting in public space, would never have received such scrutiny. As viewers read the messages out-loud to one another, they expressed shock: “‘I’m having Nick’s baby’… Oh my gosh!” and approval: “Awwwww… ‘Namaaste,’” all with a disregard for whether or not the or the author was right beside them. My personal favourites were the meta-messages, ie. “this is a product of peer pressure”.

Cauley was able to highlight the potential for public space to bring a community together. However, the anonymity of the messages struck me most strongly with a reminder of how technology distances, and disembodies individuals—even while they’re crammed together in the same alleyway.

William Robinson – Young Prayer
Halifax’s William Robinson created Young Prayer to ruminate on rock culture, particularly its widespread cliché of guitar smashing. An electric guitar is strung up from the ceiling, slowly lowering onto the ground and rising again. The guitar is connected to three large amps, creating extreme and sporadic auditory feedback.

Every time the guitar “smashes” into the ground, Robinson highlights the clichéed nature of guitar smashing while celebrating its auditory effects—marking the historical gesture as a performance in itself. But the piece’s greatest success was the interplay with its setting inside the Metropolitan United Church. As the guitar rose, it hovered in front of large stained-glass windows that highlighted rock culture’s tendency to blur the boundaries between sacred and profane. The guitar’s rise and fall became a hauntingly embodied metaphor for our elevation of rock stars into cultural saints, and their all too often crash as a result.


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