Two a.m. Saturday night, Bay St. is thoroughly occupied. A human island in the middle of the street dances to a thumping rock beat. Line-ups at caravans offering food and free coffee are dozens deep. The rest of us slide by like a human snake under neon and starlight. Insiders call it Nuit – (sounds like noowee).
Scotiabank Nuit Blanche, Toronto’s $3 million dusk to dawn art fest attracted more than a million people last weekend, most of them young, cool-looking and very interested in the art. I was amazed at the patience of so many people waiting for a chance to get a peek at the action, straining to decode 9-point type in their brochures or consult the Nuit app on their phones. There’s no denying the citizens of Canada’s largest metropolis take their culture seriously.
The core event in this City-run event was dead serious, though not without irony. A multi-artist exhibition called Museum for the End of the World took over Nathan Philips square, several parts of City Hall and the venue’s vast underground parking garage. The theme was crisis and creativity, imagining the end of humankind.
Vancouver polymath Douglas Coupland kicked off the underground exhibition with a battered car still smoking after what appears to be a deadly crash. No sign of bodies, but the gore comes later: raw piles of animal bones strewn like a leitmotif through several tableau vivant of quotidian scenes. A grade school classroom, teacher and students wandering like zombies. A bad suburban Christmas presided over by a ghoulish Santa. An office where wounded bodies slump over chairs and sprawl on the floor. Live actors move in a daze or freeze.
Iris Häussler, who unsettled quite a few patrons with her mocumentary-style installation He Called Her Amber at the Grange a few years back, presented another work in the same vein, Ou Topos. The centrepiece was a camper trailer that we are told was discovered in a remote part of City property. Once occupied by a man driven by fear of nuclear catastrophe, it overflows with piles of canned food wrapped in lead and mounds of documentation on the lethal effects of radiation. A detailed description of his complicated life story accompanied artifacts presented in museum-like glass cases. Spectators gazed with reverence at artifacts from his life story. A visual short story built from stuff, the installation had the power of great fiction. Häussler is one of the few conceptual artists whose work needs little textual explanation, and yet ironically, is the kind of vision one would willingly discuss at length.
Sarah Beck’s Postcards from the End offered spectators a chance to be photographed from inside her real-sized images of destruction. Her previously-acclaimed Dirty Loonie kinetic sculpture was there, a stuffed loon trapped in a perpetual motion machine repeatedly dipping its beak into a barrel of oil. Quite extraordinary.
The other participants – videos projected on a towering tableaux of satellite dishes, a perpetually singing choir, sound and light constructions – had a strong on-site impact but slip away when the medium becomes words. No matter. This kind of art – so perishable and yet so forceful – is both crowd art and utterly personal. Consumable on site.
Inside, the City Council chamber was packed to the rafters at 11 pm for Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek. Dressed in a baggy black t-shirt, he faced a multi-tiered arc of seats, while those of us sitting to the sides got to watch his image echoed on a bank of small monitors and a large overhead screen, turning the discourse into a multi-media event. When I came in, he was talking about how our dreams of subverting social control are actually necessary for social control, the individual urge to revolt, necessary to sustain ideology. He has a strange tick of rubbing his nose and scratching his ribs in exactly the same place, repeating the gesture incessantly. The juxtaposition of deep thoughts, thick accent, rubbing, scratching, repeated endlessly on so many screens quickly dissolved into an event of its own, and after a few moments I had to flee.
Outside, a few dozen people stood around in the chilly night, riveted by his voice on a loud speaker. For a moment I felt tempted to join them, but caved and kept on walking. The future may indeed be apocalyptic but the present, at least, is always available on YouTube.