By Julianna Perkins
Sometimes, art can be boring. It hangs on walls in people’s homes, rusts away in city squares, or sits in imposing galleries. We’ve been told that “good art” lives only in expensive institutions, that “good art” is only for looking, not interacting and most devastatingly, we’ve been led to believe that “good art” is usually old, unrelatable and often white.
But the art world is changing, and for the past 11 years downtown Toronto has been shaken up by the chaotic and diverse contemporary art event that is Nuit Blanche.
Nuit Blanche is one of Toronto’s most popular annual art festivals. The free event features the works of hundreds of national and international artists, taking over downtown Toronto. By embedding art into the structure of the city, Nuit Blanche offers citizens the opportunity to explore art on their own terms in a less conventional setting.
According to the City of Paris’ website, the first ever Nuit Blanche took place in Paris, France in 2002, with the intent to “reclaim the city” and allow people to “discover, by night, at a bend in a street, in an unusual place or in a prestigious building, art.” Nuit Blanche events now take place in about 31 cities all over the world, with Toronto hosting its first in 2006.
Fall asleep and you might miss it though, as this unusual celebration runs all night long, from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., once a year. Nuit Blanche features everything from installation pieces to video projections to performance artwork and aims to change the way we interact with art.
The event’s message seems to have connected with the city. An Ipsos Reid survey found that last year’s festival saw an estimated attendance of over one million people, with 205,000 people coming to Toronto from out of town just for the event.
Since then, the event has done nothing but grow. It focuses on remaining accessible to all, and most importantly, representing a diverse array of art and artists.
Maria Hupfield, 42, is a curating artist currently working out of Brooklyn, N.Y. She was born in Parry Sound and is a member of the Anishinaabe Nation from Wasauksing First Nation, Ont. As one of this year’s four Nuit Blanche curators, she has commissioned five artists from all over Canada to create an exhibition titled Life on Neebahgeezis; A Luminous Engagement.
“I was so ready when they asked me to put together a proposal, because there are so many fantastic artists who are ready to do something like this and haven’t had the opportunity,” said Hupfield. There’s always a new exhibition to see in New York City where she works, she said, and this was an opportunity to get things rolling back home.
Many of the artists Hupfield commissioned are Indigenous, and she believes Nuit Blanche to be a perfect platform for their work because just as there are many different nations comprised of different experiences, so will Nuit Blanche’s audience have different experiences of the event depending on where they are and what they see.
Hupfield’s exhibition will take over the financial district and will include pieces that Hupfield said are meant to challenge the “power dynamic,” like video projections by Marianne Nicolson on the Old City Hall clock tower and a performance piece/live intervention by Cherish Violet Blood at the Campbell House Museum. Even though she is the curator, Hupfield said that in the end, “the artists decide how much they want to share.”
While some Nuit Blanche exhibitions like Life on Neebahgeezis; A Luminous Engagement may be huge, taking up whole districts of the city, they can also be very, very tiny.
Glory Hole Gallery, located in the basement of Glad Day Bookshop, a prominent Toronto book store focusing on LGBTQ+ titles, will run the exhibit X, Y, & Zed, a miniature gallery comprised of eight 12 inch by 12 inch by 8 inch boxes showcasing the miniature works of different artists.
Emily Peltier and Sean MacPherson, co-curators and co-owners of Glory Hole Gallery, said they challenged the artists to “present to audiences their thoughts on what gender expression means today, and what it looks like for them in the future.” X, Y, & Zed is all about exploring topics like visibility, aesthetics, expression, and freedom in relation to gender. They say the exhibit will “showcase works by LGBTQ2S+ artists, and also make visible the experiences and lives of those within this community.”
Nuit Blanche breaks away from the traditional art experience, not only through its dedication to being a platform for diverse artists, but also by focusing on connecting people with their city and creating new dialogue between art, artists and audience.
The festival works well to “activate and animate an otherwise neglected space,” said Mark Francis, an installation artist-architect whose pieces focus on the very same principal.
Francis’ work Laneway Canopy: Public Living Space was featured in last year’s Nuit Blanche. He said the experience worked as a good personal launchpad to bigger things and that he appreciated the event’s “accessibility and lack of pretension surrounding art, making it a truly communal and festive experience rather than an intimidating gallery experience.”
The community vibe is definitely echoed in the event’s sheer turn-out. But with so many people comes certain issues, like overcrowding, transportation and drunkenness. Is it always a problem though? Zahra Saleki, an Iranian-Canadian photographer and visual artist, says no.
Saleki, whose installation Girl Talk was shown in last year’s event in the warehouse space at 401 Richmond, said that it is that type of energy that differentiates Nuit Blanche from other art events.
“When people come see the art at Nuit Blanche, they’re not quiet. A lot of them are drunk, they’re crazy, they’re young, they’re teenagers, and they really experience the art,” said Saleki. “They want to touch it. I never tell people not to touch it.”
Saleki believes that the festival’s atmosphere allows people to be more comfortable with themselves and therefore more open to fully experiencing the art, even if it does mean that many pieces have to be watched throughout the night.
The works featured at this year’s Nuit Blanche will follow the theme of "Many Possible Futures,” a theme some are saying is a nod to the vulnerability of our time, with many international crises surrounding war, race, migration, diplomacy, equality and government taking place all over the world.
“We’re at such a heightened moment of consciousness where so much is going on,” said Hupfield. “Things are really in your face, there’s no hiding.”
Nuit Blanche Toronto will take place on Sept. 30, 2017 from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. with major exhibitions displayed at Queen’s Park, Nathan Phillips Square and 401 Richmond, however pieces will be spread throughout the city.
Nuit Blanche gives Torontonians the opportunity to experience art in an inclusive, judgement-free and accessible environment. Whether your goal is to track down as many pieces as possible or just explore and find new works as you go, this free festival is worth your time. Maybe you’ll discover a new favourite artist, or maybe you’ll just have a nice night out of the house.
There will be partial road closures downtown on Queen Street West, Bay Street and Queen's Park Crescent for the event to make access easier for pedestrians. Additionally, the subway’s Line 1 (Yonge-University) will operate all night from Downsview to Finch stations and Line 2 (Bloor-Danforth) will operate all night from Kipling to Kennedy stations.