Monday, October 4, 2010

Nuit Blanche 2010: First Impressions

Let me preface this by saying that when all is said and done, Nuit Blanche was the worst part of my Toronto art experience this week. I otherwise had a great time visiting dozens upon dozens of galleries and spaces throughout the city, even taking in a theatre show at Buddies in Bad Times, seeing Trigger at the gorgeous new Light Box, and of course the highlight of seeing and hearing live the one and only Lucy Lippard. I certainly don't regret doing Nuit Blanche, but I probably won't do it again.

In its 5th year, Toronto’s version of its outdoor all night art festival has been accumulating this “must-see-art” mentality that completely takes over the city’s downtown streets, public transit, and public landmarks with this fervour and rigor that one would think a war had just been won. Naturally, I wanted to check it out.

While the festival proper officially begins three minutes to seven p.m., most of the satellite and  independent projects were open, and so beginning with the galleries on Queen Street West (which weren't all formally part of N.B., but were certainly bracing for it), I began at 4 p.m. with Eliza Griffiths' vernissage at Katharine Mulherin.

As a new series of figurative sketches based on fictional characters for a yet-to-be determined theatrical narrative, Griffiths continues her study of contemporary young women that rebel and confront, this time with an apparent focus on drawing and androgyny. Having a light conversation with the artist in attendance, this would be the most art-centric conversation I would hold for the next 12 hours.

A few hours later and many forgettable stops later, I found myself standing in line to enter Campbell House Museum. Drawn by the glow of the fire (which, of course, was also art), I queued up not knowing what to expect as the front lawn of the historic house was covered in steel pine cone sculptures (including the source of the fire). Wandering through the house, there was absolutely nothing of interest to see. The planted works on the wall upstairs did nothing to engage with the history of the house, which I can only surmise is a relic from the city's early days now preserved for school children and tourists alike. You would think a show held there would be somehow connected to civic history, but instead there were pine cones and I stood in line to see them.

Miss Chief Eagle Testickle
Right across the street, canned music was being blasted and enough temporary white towers were set up in Nathan Phillips Square that one would think there was a concert, but it was in fact the Daniel Lanois Later That Night At The Drive-In that projected original video works by Canadian icons like Neil Young onto different surfaces throughout the square. Along the pool surfaces, lying on makeshift platforms, and staring up into the sky, the idea is to expand a collective experience--which admittedly, sounds great, but the average flow of passerbyers didn't last past a single song. There was something innately disappointing about watching and listening to prerecorded musicians echoing through a fairly transient space. Nothing can stand in for the presence and energy of live performance, especially since this festival really calls on viewers to physically wander through the city. A big part of my excitement was to see the city through the lens of Nuit Blanche, but the dearth of reciprocating engagement by artists with the public and public architecture this year was really surprising.

There were a few that tried to engage the public, and even fewer who succeeded. I'll applaud the effort of Kent Monkman and Gisèle Gordon's attempt to engage the crowd with a pulsating performance as the ever glamorous Miss Chief Eagle Testickle. In the performance I caught, the sizable crowd did not want to feel the rhythms of Iskootāo, which according to the free programme means "fire" and "woman's heart" in Cree. The mob was far more interested in snapping photographs of a man in thigh high boots, making loud obnoxious comments about it, and wanting, if not needing to be entertained by it.

I'm skipping over a lot of mediocre and pathetic projects as my protestations with unengaging efforts and disrespectful artists/audiences were threads throughout the night. At some point, I had to go see the re-enactment of Marina Abramovic and Ulay's Imponderabilia, but didn't make it onto campus until well after midnight. By then, the drunks downstairs and outside were fully in their element, and the aggression inside to "see" naked people was almost laughable. The aggression was not just from the audience, but also from the security and handlers, who moved people through the live art experience like an airport security check. While the original performance was shut down by the police after 45 minutes, the performance today (and recently at MoMA) required the presence of active security, which not only completely changes the energy between the performers and the audience, but really could be understood as a whole new work about the police state and our seeming need to be policed. Needless to say, it was heavily controlled provocation, and I walked away feeling awful about the whole thing.

Another notable live piece, The Endless Pace, by Davide Balula and choreographed by Biba Bell, saw 60 dancers sit in a circle in Commerce Court and mimic the mechanical workings of a clock through movement based on the second, minute, and hour hands. While the work itself is interesting for one hour tops, the endurance through the bitter cold wind made the work almost sadistic to watch, as an overhead live feed could be viewed from inside of the adjacent office building while through the windows below the projection you could watch the dance and theatre students viciously shivering and eagerly waiting for the second hand to come around again.

By three in the morning, after wandering through endless blocked off streets filled with restless drunks stumbling aimlessly from one glowing project to another, pausing to take photographs of anything and everything that could barely be categorized as art, I came upon An Te Liu’s Ennui Blanc again and no longer minded the irony of people pausing to take photographs of it. Seeing it in the day time, it was just a simple white neon sign sitting atop the storefronts on Queen St W. But by night, the sign read more like a beacon of enlightenment against the black sky, a truism that serves as a warning and, lo and behold, as an actual art intervention.


Markowsky said...

OUCH!!! Great review Amy! I've never been to a Nuit Blanche in Toronto, Montreal, Paris, or wherever else they hold them these days, but I'm skeptical nevertheless. I'm all for getting art out there into the public sphere and engaging people, but is this really the way? People just end up experiencing art as entertainment, or as decoration for a street party.

I guess I wonder what the real purpose is: to exhibit art and to share art with people, or part of a commercial real estate scheme/civic boosterism campaign to show off the city. Personally I feel that the artists who participate are just being paid lip service by people who have no interest in art whatsoever, and everyone else seems to drunk or busy partying to care or notice.

Amy Fung said...

hey m, don't get me wrong, I think there are artists and curators affiliated with NB who care and who do try, but on that scale, everything is diluted down to surface spectacle.

I love crowds, but I hate disneyland. especially drunk disneyland. I knew the night was over when I watched a girl puke her guts out in front of the ROM.

Earl Miller said...

Hi Amy - as the curator of a parallel exhibition titled Out of Site, which included the Ennui Blanc piece, you mention near the end, I appreciate your take on the night. My similar sentiments are what motivated me to include Ennui Blanc.

Markowsky said...

I just saw some photos posted on FB about Nuit Blanche. A friend of mine Jennifer West did some (or all?) the video projections for the Daniel Lanois installation, and she has photos of him performing live. So apparently at least some part of it wasn't pre-recorded...

Amy Fung said...

Leah Sandals gives a very thorough reading from a seasoned perspective. super interesting questions at the end.

Christine Irving said...

Thank you for reviewing NB Amy. It looks like you did not make it to Liberty Village which hosted Flux and Fire. Unfortunately neither did half of the participants as it was out of the way and only had a few pieces. Of those who did come to find us or stumbled across us, we seemed to have warmed their night.

Being a long time participant and recent large scale artist at Burning Man, my one recommendation is that the curatorial process be open to submissions from all over.

I would also like to see a focus on education of participants and more interactive art that engages the public.

Here are a few links to videos and photos of our piece. My favorites are photos of children as they loved controlling large poofs of fire.

Unfortunately this form of art in not inexpensive so unless we get sponsors or engaged as an exhibit with a budget, we will not be able to provide large interactive (keep you warm) fire art for future Nuit Blanche events.

As for the platform, I ran out of time adding sculptural touches as I just came back from Burning Man with a 60' diameter sculpture that shot 30' flames and needed 5-20 people to work together and interact with the piece. I completed Flux and Fire in two weeks immediately upon return from Burning Man.