My first year at Nuit Blanche taught me four things.
1) We look a lot harder when we believe there’s something we’re supposed to see.
This is what most of us know about Nuit Blanche: It’s an all-night contemporary art event, taking place in and transforming downtown Toronto.
Aha. “Contemporary art.”
Hearing these words immediately ignite suspicion. After all, art itself can take any form, can be delivered to us through any medium—and, well, once we realize that it’s not just art, but contemporary art, our suspicion inevitably jumps to a jittery paranoia.
We squint warily into the murky Toronto evening. After all, “art” can ambush us at any given moment, when we least suspect it. Ah! We see something! That’s so cool! Is that—?
Nope, just a row of compost bins. One of them’s tipped over.
That’s a bank. Okay.
Over one million people flood downtown Toronto for Nuit Blanche every year. Part of the fun of the event, really, is to watch these people flock to any perceived irregularities in the cityscape, so eager to bask in culture and creative expression and prove to their friends that they didn’t just go for an excuse to smoke pot and drink all night.
So, how do you differentiate art from accident? Is that giant lump of yellow LED lights in the middle of Fort York a breathtaking example of modern sculpture, or are the crowds just drawn to it like insects drawn to your brightly lit bedroom window in the middle of summer? Maybe it’s all just a mindless, instinctual thing, and the near-zero night temperatures are getting to everybody’s head. Your hands are too numb with cold to look for your program booklet to check if there’s any exhibition resembling the bright bundle of lights in front of you. (For the record, that particular installation was literally called “Bright Bundle.” Yes, it’s that easy.)
Thankfully, you don’t need to reach into your bag to check if something is “art” or not! Because, conveniently…
2) You can tell it’s art because there’ll be a sign saying so.
We live in a world reliant on labels. Thank God for that, too. How else would we be able to tell contemporary art from just a dude who decided to attach a rubber chicken to his bike? The sign system for the Nuit Blanche exhibits is simple. Will there be anything of social relevance inside that museum building? If there’s a sign telling you there is, then there you go!
But it’s here that sophisticated culture vultures face their next great obstacle—what exactly is the social relevance of a lady grinding out an endless chain of sausages in a caravan (“The Melodious Malfeasance Meat-Grinding Machine”) outside of a hotel, looking like her fingers must be very horribly chapped and frozen? Well, that’s the thing…
3) They provide the art. Hopefully, the viewers will make it into something meaningful.
Here’s a neat little activity to do the next time you attend Nuit Blanche or visit your local art gallery. Absorb all that is esoteric, postmodern, tastefully ambiguous, and confusingly vague. Now spit all of that back out, making sure to attach to these pieces your very own intelligent, resonant, and original interpretations! Remember, “messages” sent by the art must be universal, enduring, and—of course—very incredibly deep. Relax. It’s not that difficult. Just remember—when in doubt, all you need to do is mix in some phrases like “human nature” and “tragic fate.”
For instance, the piece of performance art called “The sun will always rise and fall from east to west” is presented through a group of mysterious, dark-clad actors carrying large pieces of yellow cardboard cut in the shapes of a big circle and two thin triangles. The pairs carrying the two triangles represent “east” and “west” and the big yellow circle (the “sun,” get it?) twirls around them as they play a clumsy game of tug-of-war. The whole affair lasts around eight minutes and of course there’s a point to it. Obviously, it’s a reflection of how humanity’s interpersonal conflicts and attempts to disrupt nature have entrenched us in a vicious, predictable, and self-perpetuated pattern. The cyclical, self-destructive nature of the human condition is clearly represented by how the performances are repeated every half-hour throughout the night. Finally, as much as we understand that we are whirling headlong to our inevitable demise as a species, we cannot help but be mesmerized (for, like, at least eight minutes) by the disaster that we have created and so we continue to feed the fires of our fate.
4) I mean, it’s not like anyone really cares about art anyway.
Let me say this again: Over one million people flood downtown Toronto for Nuit Blanche every year. You can’t honestly believe that they’re all here for the art, can you? Are there even one million people in Canada who like contemporary art? Are there even one million people alive who can claim to “get” it without being laughed at?
Joking aside, criticism of contemporary art and postmodernism is often redundant, boring, and overdone. Personally, I did not find the work presented at Nuit Blanche to be very compelling—but as an art un-enthusiast and clueless kid trying to have fun, that’s perhaps to be expected. There were thousands of attendees similar to myself, and thousands more who really were just there to smoke pot and drink with their friends all night.
Is that wrong? Not necessarily. Does it reflect poorly on the nature of the event? Not at all!
Behind these pieces of art—which are presented with variable success to each individual—is an expansive event that is meant to be experienced holistically. Nuit Blanche provides a unique opportunity for us to engage with the city, with the city’s people, and with the (possibly intoxicated) minds of the city’s people. It opens up a channel for creativity and exploration. How many chances do we get to experience downtown Toronto on a Saturday night with one million others gathered for the same purpose?
Maybe “The Melodious Malfeasance Meat-Grinding Machine” is a politically charged symbol for the state of our economy. Maybe not. Maybe “Bright Bundle” is nothing more than a colossal waste of space, effort, and electricity, and will ultimately be the death of us all. Maybe not.
Either way, nothing will change how hard I laughed when I saw a lady carrying a “Vote Olivia Chow!” sign walk primly down the street at 1 in the morning. I guess you just had to have been there.