The Art of Nuit Blanche
- You are a part of it; indulge yourself.
- No one knows what’s good, only what has buzz.
- The bigger the group, the less you’ll see (and that’s okay).
- Preparation helps.
- Don’t go downtown until at least midnight.
You are a part of it. Enjoy yourself.
Every year I hear people say that this is the worst year yet, and that nothing was really worth seeing, and etc. The general idea is that one can be disappointed by Nuit Blanche because of the expectation to be moved being confronted by things that did not do so.
Anyone who worked with Hillary and I on Way-Station (North Migration) and subsequently the St. James Circus probably knows that Nuit Blanche exhibits work best when they engage the audience. Involve them, invest in them, let them invest. In the end though, not every piece is made better by participation and interaction. However, as an audience we do have the power to become involved, invest ourselves, and become invested.
This isn’t possible for every piece - but the expectation that every work has the responsibility to at least attempt to inspire you is a flawed one. When an artist releases their work, they lose ownership of one of the most important parts of it - interpretation. That becomes our responsibility, to find meaning in what may seem meaningless. The artists and the audience are not two of the most important parts of Nuit Blanche (or you know, art), they are together the most important thing.
Jokes about pretentious self-appointed art critics aside - fuck it! Be pretentious! Laugh a mockingly deep Harvard laugh as you dissect the subtle messages of gender equality through the lens of an athletic male as a dozen mascot costumes fight each other in a football field. It doesn’t have to be real, or true, or even correct. It’s about actively looking for meaning in something that may be meaningless.
That’s art. That’s life.
You are an inextricable part of Nuit Blanche, and you have to find your good time. It’s not going to be given to you.
No one knows what’s good, only what has buzz.
A lot of the reactions I get when asking my friends if they plan to go to Nuit Blanche are, “Do you know anything particularly good happening?”
That’s a big cause of that feeling of disappointment I mentioned earlier. The expectation that because something has buzz or sounds interesting that it will be interesting. Art is strange and wonderful and (imho) intensely personal. What touches me may seem incredibly inane and mediocre to you. The idea that our goal is to pick out only the best exhibits from the bad is predicated on the flawed foundation that labels like good and bad apply. They don’t.
An example: the huge pool of vodka in Commerce Court back in 2009. It got a full half page in the Nuit Blanche guide, it was listed in almost every list of Must See, and it was interesting - it started dialogues about cultural acceptance of waste, or indulgence, or whatever. You can tell I was very ambivalent about it. I thought it was super lame and left after like, two minutes.
That same year in Parkdale, at 5:00am in the morning, stoned out of my mind and drunker than an Asian drinking whisky, I walked through a cobblestone alley in Parkdale that had been covered coloured coconut shavings, manipulated Zen garden style into something resembling a tapestry. In the end, someone just threw some food colouring in some bulk store coconut and scattered it onto the ground (not to undermine the artist in any way).
I don’t think it was even listed in the guide. Someone just did it. But walking through that alleyway brought back memories of my mom and grandmother peeling the insides of coconuts by hand and letting me play with the shells. The colours on the ground reminded me of my grandmother’s shawls (cut up sheets, really…). It made me remember and feel something.
The point is, you won’t know what’s going to be good. You’ll know it when you see it. And if that sounds a bit too much like my first point, let me clarify:
Nuit Blanche is about involving people who don’t go to galleries, aren’t involved in art communities to be able to enjoy it regardless. And a huge part of the quote unquote “art world” is sifting through a thousand pieces, walking through the entire museum to find one thing that speaks to you and makes you stand in wonder that a portrait of a dead woman can enthrall you for half an hour.
For me personally, my best experiences of attending Nuit Blanche are when I try to see everything. Take it all in, be conscious of time - but take my time when my heart tells me to. Because no one can tell you what is good, most of the time you’ll know it when you see it. And that’s why it’s important to cultivate a mindset of exploratory adventurousness, because wonder may come in the wee hours when you take a left instead of a right. Those small discoveries have the potential to pierce you. Don’t rob yourself of that opportunity by going to see what everyone else is seeing - you are not everyone else. You are you.
Don’t think of Nuit Blanche as a collection of installations with an audience of hundreds of thousands. Nuit Blanche is the exhibit. It’s a celebration of art and autumn, of art and artists. The entire city is the installation. The audience is you.
The bigger the group, the slower you’ll move.
Now for the practical advice. Thanks for reading this far. This is all logistics stuff.
There is such a thing as too many people. Now, that’s only true if you want to see as many things as possible - it’s totally legit to just wan to to go out, get drunk with your friends and make fun of a giant blue butthole in the Eaton Centre.
But expect it. The more people there are, the more time lost for bathroom breaks, grabbing a “quick bite” at a food truck with a 20 person line. Even bumping into friends may become frustrating. Even more so when one person really wants to go on the potato sack Super Slide when no one else wants to, but everyone waits for Anthony anyway.
That’s a lot of time lost, and if that’s okay with you great! But don’t expect your group of a dozen people to make it even through one and a half zones.
I always associate Nuit Blanche with my art-partner @HillaryPredko (follow her on twitter! Make her use it!) because 1. two of the best nights/summers in my life are the Nuit Blanche exhibits we did together and 2. we’ve gotten into the tradition of packing up our adventure bags, getting on our bikes and racing 50km+ across the city to see as much as we can, bumping into friends and improvising routes as we see fit but always ready to flee back into the night, the two of us, unhindered by any social obligation except to see as much as possible.
It also helps that Hillary and I have intensely different tastes, and always able to articulate ourselves in vibrant discussion. Most importantly, Hillary calls bullshit on me constantly. That is why I adore her - she inspires authenticity. Sometimes there is no subtle message about gender equality through the eyes of an athletic male in the fighting mascots exhibit. Cue mockingly deep Harvard laughter.
For those who don’t want to bike, the TTC offers a special all night pass for $10. Either way, you’ll be doing a lot of walking from one exhibit to the other, and getting from one zone to the other. It helps if you have a general idea of the geography of Nuit Blanche.
The city is divided into zones, and I’m going into details here, but figure out where you’re starting - and make that starting point at the extreme end of zone. If you’re starting in Parkdale, start at the west end of it, walk east/north and suddenly you’re at the border of another zone.
Don’t start downtown, go west, then go east. I guarantee you you won’t even get out of downtown. Which leads into my next point.
DON’T GO DOWNTOWN UNTIL AT LEAST MIDNIGHT.
Seriously. Look at this!
The time you’ll spend waiting in lines to see things will take about as long as exploring a non-Downtown zone first. Stay away from City Hall, the Financial District, Yonge-Dundas Sq, etc. Those exhibits are worth seeing! But by midnight - or even better, 4 in the morning, as a last stop - these crowds will have dispersed, but there are still hundreds of people to make it feel lively. By 6am it’s almost abandoned, and you can walk through the open door that has replaced that hour and a half long line.
So that’s it! That’s my take on Nuit Blanche. This is also the first “piece” I’ve written I’ve felt comfortable publishing, so any feed back is greatly appreciated. You can shoot me an email at anth (dot) swan (at) gmail (dot com, or tweet me @swanthonyswan!
Also, I totally lied. I used spell check.
One last optional thing: Pack well.
Notebook with pen, bike helmet, adventure kit (swiss army knife, maglite, zigzags, moisturizer, antihistamines, antinauseants, tylenol, bandaids, chapstick, lighter, matches, capo, etc), tissues, cigarettes, gum, zippo, watch, bike lock, flash of Jim Beam Bourbon, tuna pasta salad, eighteen tofu and mushroom spring rolls, honey and cinnamon roasted almonds, soy sauce, 2 litres of water in hydration pack.