Nuit Blanche 2014: How to See the Art Through All Those People
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Nuit Blanche 2014: How to See the Art Through All Those People

Two programmers of Nuit Blanche talk about the real reason millions of people take to the street—the art.

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This year, 43 commissioned projects, 82 independent projects, and 5 projects made in collaboration with sponsors—that’s 130 in total for anyone who’s counting—will be unleashed across Toronto for the ninth annual Scotiabank Nuit Blanche. (Want to see the best ones? Check out our guide here.) Just so you know, they will be there, even if you can’t see them through the million-plus people walking (and sometimes careening) through the streets.

Those who experienced the first edition in 2006 may remember a slight drizzle, quiet groups with mittens and coffee, and a more or less silent atmosphere. But over the past few years, Nuit Blanche has exploded, and the focus has shifted from the spectacle of the art to the spectacle of the crowd. It’s easy to forget about the sheer effort, time, and brain power it takes to make 130 pieces of art happen for a lifespan of 12 hours (and longer for some). So Torontoist spoke to two people responsible for that element of the evening, Jenn Goodwin (programming supervisor at Nuit Blanche) and Julian Sleath (programming manager at the City of Toronto, special events) on how they’re keeping the art of Nuit Blanche from getting lost in the crowd.

Torontoist: Tell us about what you do in your jobs.

Julian Sleath: I’m program manager for the sector that produces cultural events for the economic development sector, and our team puts together between 8 to 10 major events for the City of Toronto each year. These range from Doors Open Toronto to 21 summer concerts, Canada Day of course, Nuit Blanche, and the Cavalcade of Lights—so, a mix of large-scale and quite intimate events that are all free to the public. Jenn and I particularly specialize in programming, so that’s booking performers, speakers, and other elements like that.

Jenn Goodwin: I’m one of the co-lead programmers with Scotiabank Nuit Banche, and I’ve been with Nuit Blanche since early 2005, when we started to think about it. I’m a liaison between the curators and the artists, and I work with both of them to develop their vision and their projects and see them through to completion.

And what does being that liaison entail? On-the-ground logistics, or more artistic guidance?

JS: It’s a mixture of the two. We do spend quite a lot of time onsite when the artists arrive, helping to facilitate the building, the communication—and this year especially because there are a lot of performers—the prior rehearsals. Some of my colleagues are assigned a curator to work with, and part of that job is managing the flow, the incoming artists, the accommodations, the local extra people involved in that casting, so there are multiple levels of support in facilitating those artists as we get closer to the event. And it’s the first year we’ve had an artist-in-residence, so that’s another level of communication and development and work with an artist to facilitate the project really from beginning to end.

JG: [It’s] exciting, because, as we know, for an artist to create work it takes support, it takes money, it takes a team of people, and especially with this piece, it’s quite complicated. It’s called HOLOSCENES by Lars Jan, and it involves a one-person aquarium and a large hydraulic tank that can basically fill or empty the container in a minute. So the performers do these everyday tasks and have to adapt as the tank fills up. Conceptually, Lars is looking at adapting our relationship to water. And we’ve had them onsite rehearsing at the Roundhouse Park.

Do you have an idea of how many hours go into each art installation that’s part of Nuit Blanche?

JS: It completely depends on the project. Some of them, we’ve been talking about for the better part of two years—sometimes even more than two years. We’re thankful for those artists and their collaborators who put in many, many undocumented hours into the creation of their work.

How does it feel to know that these pieces have a life of only 12 hours over one night?

JS: We’re changing it up a little bit: last year we piloted a project that let 10 pieces have a life beyond the night. This year, we are extending 10 projects again for those who want to see them in another context or in the daylight, so you’ll be welcome to revisit those 10 projects for the week following Nuit Blanche … But for some of the artists we work with, it’s actually liberating to only have the work last for 12 hours, so they don’t have to sit on this adroit column for the next 200 years. So giving them those 12 hours can actually be something very exciting for them to play with.

JG: On the other side, SuttonBeresCuller literally pulled up into Nathan Phillips Square driving a sculpture [Big Top Grand Stand] behind them all the way from Seattle. And we’ve commissioned it, but we also know that after Nuit Blanche it’s going to MASS MoCA, where the curator Denise Markonish has already reserved a spot for it—so it’s really exciting for us to know when an artist’s work can continue on afterwards, and we can be a kind of catalyst for that, or we can be a stop in the road for them.

So as Nuit Blanche becomes more and more important as an art event and attracts bigger and bigger names, do you worry that its resulting popularity can take the attention away from the art? How has the change in attendance affected the night, in your opinion?

JS: We’re absolutely delighted that it has become a major celebration in Toronto, and there are some challenges that come with managing and navigating an audience’s enjoyment of the evening. But our team here, right from 2006, we always created projects in a wide variety of locations with a wide variety of artists, and there some projects that are more appropriate for large-scale sittings, such as Ai Weiwei’s Forever Bicycles last year. But we also are mindful to create quite intimate experiences. You know, when not accompanied by a lot of screaming people, they can be quite surprising and in unexpected locations, so you think, “Is that something from Nuit Blanche, or is it something else? Did I walk past that the other day?” So we like playing with that scale and locations.

JG: And tone—we’ve been talking a lot about tone. Brandy Leary, she’s a circus artist, but she’s really pushing the boundaries of her work, and though there will be 50 performers, 16 at a time, it won’t be the typical things you see aerialists do. It’s a very quiet piece. It’s visually substantive, but quiet, and you need to be kind of reverent of it in the room. We’re actually encouraging that tone, that people need to take their time with the work a bit more. We want them to even lie down and stay with the work a bit more, instead of just passing through, taking a shot, and leaving. Though that’s welcome too—that’s the time we live in.

How can you force people to slow down, in that case?

JS: I don’t think you can force people, but you can encourage a tone of reverence like Jenn said. In the past, we’ve used Brookfield Place and the kind of cathedral-like space, and just by passing through and being around the architecture changes the approach. So we consider every location very carefully … to find the most precise and enabling location to suit a particular artist’s work.

JG: More specifically, we’ve started letting people know wait times so they can make their own choices about whether to wait. We’re communicating with our volunteers about wait times. And we can manage the space to an extent—if we want the audience to be quiet during a piece, we will ask them to be quiet. And in addition, we also have art guides, so we have art students or those who are deeply immersed in the art community, and we link them with the artist so that if anyone has questions they can speak to them on behalf of the artist. So we’re creating a conversation and dialogue and hopefully getting a bit more depth out of what they’re seeing.

In the very first year, did you have any expectation Nuit Blanche would get this reaction, or eventually grow to this size?

JG: We definitely went through the process, wondering if Toronto would even be interested in something like this. Would it work? Would it be accepted? The first year, we were lucky enough to have someone who worked on the original Nuit Blanche in Paris come and volunteer with us for a year, and I remember at one point in the night us looking at each other and going, “I think this is going well …” It was pouring rain and, as we found out later, about 400,000 people came out. It was a really magical feeling on the street. And it was supposed to be a one-time event, but after the success of the first event, we thought that people were really hungry to have that conversation about contemporary art in Toronto, and ready for it. And so it continued, and here we are. 2015 will be our tenth edition.

It’s obviously still going strong, but do you think it’s still a hunger for contemporary art that’s fuelling it? Or is it something else?

JG: I think it’s still there—I really do. But at the same time, our success is also our challenge. Managing the crowds, and finding different levels of engagement with the art, finding a depth within that. But if you listen to the people on the street, a lot of them are really talking about contemporary art and really there for the artwork. It doesn’t mean they aren’t there for the celebration and the feeling of being out all night. But we’re also really trying to cultivate this conversation with our Nuit Talks, which is going on year five now, and we’re giving the artists chances to talk about their work—which a lot of them are very anxious to do. And we’ve started to do online videos interviewing the curators and artists, so as we grow, we’re making sure we do that in order that the conversation doesn’t fall away with all the crowds.

This interview has been edited and condensed.