Another Nuit, Another Dawn
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Another Nuit, Another Dawn

After catching up on missed sleep, Torontoist contributors awoke on Sunday afternoon to find that the city's annual all-night free contemporary art event had reached a Nuit era.

Video by Miles Storey/Torontoist.

Good morning Toronto! Or afternoon? Evening? Wait, what day is it? Am I late for work?

We could still be feeling the effects of staying up all night, but even in our collective sleep-deprived haze, there seems to be clear consensus that this year’s Nuit Blanche was one of the best so far. From the layout of exhibits, to the tone of the installations themselves, to the TTC and other services available for intrepid art-goers, the downward spiral in funness has reversed. It seems that the organizers of the event took five years of our whines and gripes, and listened.

Once a “thing,” and then an “event,” it could be argued that Nuit Blanche should now be considered a free all-night contemporary art “festival.” That was the overwhelming atmosphere on the streets of Toronto Saturday night—fun, frivolity, and funnel cake abounded.

Undeniable was the feeling that Nuit Blanche had finally come into its own, and the same goes for the people taking part. After five years of drastic growth in attendance, Torontonians now know exactly the kind of beast they’re facing when they go out for Nuit Blanche. And with years of experience, we know how to go about it, too. Don’t like crowds? Stick to the fringes. All of your friends are singing Nirvana all night long? If that’s the entirety of your Nuit Blanche experience, so be it. Don’t want to wait in line for two hours to zipline across City Hall? Then don’t. And clap for those who have the determination to do so. Though we did, and will always, complain about the weather, the few moans we did hear were more reflective of the person’s state of mind than any organizational mistakes.

This year, Nuit Blanche went from a daunting and incomprehensible city-wide art exhibit to a city-wide party featuring lots of cool art and technology. Growing pains out of the way, we’re hoping that from now on Nuit Blanche can hold onto this newfound sense of identity.

Let Them Eat Funnel Cake

Hard at work at Portabello Burgers' truck stop in the Distillery District. At 8:35 p.m., the lineup was easily 100 feet long. Photo by Corbin Smith.

An all-night adventure around town requires stamina, and when that’s hard to come by (like in the early hours of the morning), people get grumpy. And the last thing that Nuit Blanche needs is a bunch of hangry Torontonians shuffling down the streets, scowling at the exhibits, having loud and public breakups, and killing the mood. It’s a mystery why this never happened before, but the food stalls strategically placed along Yonge Street in the core of the Zones seemed a natural, and necessary, addition. Typical fair foods like roasted corn, funnel cake, ice cream, and hot dogs had their place, but we were also thankful for more varied options like roti, souvlaki, and pad thai. Honestly, there was a better selection at Nuit Blanche than at most university residence cafeterias. Lines will follow the trucks of Food Truck Eats wherever they go, yes (they were at the Distillery District Saturday night), but Nuit Blanche proved that time is no boundary either. While wait times for most of the exhibits were manageable, the demand for a Gorilla Cheese sandwich created such buzz and raised anticipation so high that it could have been its own artistic statement on the gastronomic spectacle. Finally, the fact that more and more restaurants are keeping their doors open and their kitchens cooking late into the night is a sign that Nuit Blanche is truly becoming a city-wide event, celebrated not only by the people on the streets, but the iconic local businesses in the neighbourhoods involved. For some reason, the availability of food gave this year’s Nuit Blanche more legitimacy, and emphasized the festival-like atmosphere. Who knew street meat had so much power? (Carly Maga)

Take to The Wild West

One takeaway from Nuit Blanche—and this may be controversial—was that starting west was best. While some (including us) rightfully lament the early closing of Parkdale’s small-scale independent exhibitions, the experience of launching the evening with Queen West’s modest art trucks and whimsical displays—before moving east to close the affair with downtown’s comparatively grand showstoppers—proved prudent. What does this say about Nuit Blanche in terms of overall orchestration, you ask? One word: spacing. The reason Parkdale worked so well for priming early evening spirits this year is the same reason why a number of western exhibitors jumped ship hours early: its lack of proximity to everything else made for small crowds that only got thinner as the night progressed. While it was great to navigate intimate exhibitions without having to shove through crowds early in the evening, festival organizers would be wise to bridge the gap between western outliers and the other, more central, zones. At the very least, it’ll keep people coming. (Kelli Korducki)

Let It Entertain You

The Darcys, among many, many others, performed for a crowd that was still (amazingly) totally into “Smells Like Teen Spirit” after dozens of repetitions. Photo by Laura Godfrey

Every year, there seems to be a stream of complaints after Nuit Blanche that the lines are too long, exhibits are too far apart, or the art just seems underwhelming. And these things were sometimes true this year, but overall the festival really seemed to find its groove in 2011, thanks to more densely packed zones and some truly interactive, unabashedly entertaining exhibits. Case in point: the 144 non-stop performances of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” at the Underground, the Ride the Rocket streetcar simulator ride, and the night’s marquee event, Flightpath, which let people soar across Nathan Phillips Square, zipline-style, strapped to a giant pair of wings.

For Flightpath in particular, we applaud the spectacular vision of artists Usman Haque and Natalie Jeremijenko—who would have thought City Hall would approve such a daring installation? Think of the liability! But approve it they did, and when the elaborate scaffolding went up, it was an impressive sight to see Nuit Blanchers flying among the seagulls, surrounded by a light and fog spectacle.

Having said that, the installation was bogged down by some major technical difficulties. Around 8 p.m., after waiting in line for an hour, we were told that only one of six ziplines was working, and since we seemed to be going nowhere fast, we gave up our dreams of flight. We hope another big-concept marquee idea comes to Nuit Blanche next year, but in terms of execution, this one really dropped the ball (though luckily, that’s all it dropped). (Laura Godfrey)

The Magic Touch

Members of Gravity Wave play a short, one song set as people interact with their installation ObserverFX. Photo by Corbin Smith.

So long as you aren’t attempting to sell something at Nuit Blanche (we’re looking at you, Chevy Volt), a case can be made for nearly anything as art—even the drunken louse you saw knocking down traffic barriers can claim it’s performance art. The difference between that and good (or even great) art isn’t in the intention (because we’ve all seen boring and ineffective exhibits with elaborate artist’s notes), but in the execution. And the best exhibits we saw this year recognized that live interaction and performance made all the difference.

While there were many exhibits using innovative technology, the ones that stood out incorporated a human touch. For Lights Contacts (Zone B, #21) that was the whole point, as lights and sound oscillated as we drummed our fingers in a stranger’s palm; at Observer FX (Zone B, #31), while there were “toys” for the audience to play with—the giant infrared keyboard, the facial mimicry program—it was the creators’ explanations of the interactive features (and their occasional live music sets as Gravity Wave) that kept attendees in the exhibit (and the line-up going around the block).

More than in previous Nuit Blanches, the “human touch” manifested as actual humans performing for crowds. The Distillery District, which in previous years hasn’t ranked among our favourite locations, fared well with two different group exhibitions using performers. St. James Circus (Zone B, #19) had barkers, carnies, and outlandishly attired characters interacting with audiences; Futurism Today or NOT! (Zone B, #22) had companies like the Kadozuke Kollective interpreting Futurism through dance and movement.

Downtown, The Tie-Break (Zone C, #8) worked because of the “trappings” of the tennis recreation: the ballboys and girls, the colour commentator, the two creators themselves—these all came together to create a great spectacle. Ride The Rocket (Zone B, #11), an ingenious conversion of a street car into a thrill ride, was enhanced by the colourful narration by Torontoist Twitter favourite Pat Thornton (and the wisecracking streetcar drivers). And of course, there were the many musicians and singers who took part in A Brief History of Rebellion (Zone C, #24).

Most of our favourite exhibits worked as entertainment first and foremost. For a night like Nuit Blanche, that’s something to aspire to. These exhibits appealed to lots of people because they were entertaining, and used people as the focus of their statements. (Steve Fisher)

No Complaints…Almost

As Toronto’s celebration of Nuit Blanche has grown, so have the complaints. Much of the grumbling has been justified during the past few years: mediocre exhibits driven by impenetrable visions, poor transit planning, weak crowd control, venues shutting down early, and so on. While it’s inevitable that there would be duds amid this year’s festivities, the reactions we’ve heard so far from all-night-art-thing revellers indicate that those who took it in weren’t as grumpy as past attendees.

It helped that many of this year’s installations provided engaging, entertaining experiences. Artists put together projects with a sense of fun, whether it was an audience booing a John McEnroe impersonator, riding a streetcar into the belly of a raccoon, or unleashing their inner rock stars to the tune of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Pieces like The Free Shop encouraged discussion with the artists in a relaxed manner. Straightforward events like the collection of John Cage pieces presented with just musicians and an audience at the Gardiner Museum showed that the night’s offerings didn’t need to be overthought and overwrought in terms of execution.

This year’s Nuit Blanche also felt less physically claustrophobic. While there were moments where there were crushes of humanity, closed-off streets in the core generally seemed less crowded and easier to navigate. Improvements in transit service like extended bus service along King Street aided crosstown travel. Now if only some of the outlying exhibit areas necessitating transit would communicate to the world that they weren’t going to operate through the entire night… (Jamie Bradburn)

Introduction by Carly Maga.