By Kieona George
From dusk to dawn, Nuit Blanche illuminated Toronto’s streets with the theme of Many Possible Futures. A host of artists and activists amplified their voices through new formats, materials and technology, evoking the untold stories of history and bringing a new face to movements, people and places.
Social awareness ran thick through the veins of every exhibit; splendor manifested into political consciousness and left every observer with a message and a memory. Monument to the Century of Revolutions reflected on some of the revolutions of the 20th century.
“It’s important for the city to recognize that the people are suffering, and then to make it a space where people can talk about those things,” said Nato Thompson, curator of Century of Revolutions.
The Viminal Space dove headfirst into the decriminalization of sex workers, putting a human face on an industry that is so often reviled. More or Less allowed viewers to post a selfie with resistance to poverty from the past as a backdrop, allowing the viewer to become an indelible part of a campaign to increase homeless shelters in Toronto with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty.
Thompson talked about his Bolshevist inspirations, with 2017 marking the 100-year anniversary since the revolution in Russia. It took two years for Thompson to create and finalize the idea, and more seven months to produce Century of Revolutions, which was formed in collaboration with the Russian collective “Chto Delat” (in English: “what is to be done?”).
Thompson’s original idea was to to recreate the raid of the Winter Palace by having cast members invade City Hall, but for obvious reasons, the deal was rejected. Thompson decided to present the curations in old cargo shipping containers, painting them as vessels of cultural spirit rather than vessels of material export. His piece inverted perspective, challenged the western archetype of excess and radically engaged our deeply-held notions of poverty.
Century of Revolutions crafted its own city from Thompson’s creative and political vision. The exteriors of the shipping containers were denude of their own significance; many containers of them were masterfully interwoven in mosaics of revolutionary paraphernalia like banners that read “There are cracks in everything, that’s how the light gets through.”
Spoken word recitals, musical performances, and various other resonances filled the ears from every direction. Every sense was encumbered by the extraordinary voice that found its way into each element of the exhibit. “Revolution is already happening," Thompson said. "The real question I ask is how can we connect our struggles so that we can achieve social justice not only in Toronto but across the world." Another artist delivered a moving spoken word performance about gun violence and her family’s experiences. Faduma Mohamed, a third-year English student at the University of Toronto, merged her personal struggles with gun violence to a hopeful future at RISE Edutainment’s installation.
“The voices of anyone feeling like they don’t belong in Canada are the most important voices,” she said. Despite her harrowing stories, Mohamed emitted an tone of acceptance and hope, her spirit permeated in those who heard her." “This world has multiple ways of making us feel small, but we don’t need to feel small,” Mohamed said. “We are larger than life.”
In keeping with the theme of social revolution, the exhibit Taking to the Streets expressed the intersection of art and protest, and how art imitating life allows people to promote tangible change.
Curator Barbara Fischer said in her curatorial statement that the streets are the primordial for celebration and remembrance, making Nuit Blanche a fitting opportunity to highlight social justice.
“When there is no justice, the street becomes the place where we rally and throw our voice together in a show of force,” Fischer said. “Festival and protest meet in the street, and art is associated with both, remembering by way of images, words, whispered histories, or monuments, the points where anger and power clash.”
The exhibit included eight different projects. Holding Still/Holding Together, created by Annie MacDonell, was a performance that brought emphasis to the passivity of street protestors who offer little resistance when being subverted by police.
Horses was another one of Fischer’s installations, which featured a live group of horses, believe it or not. It took stock of the agitation that marks its own existence. It could be an homage to the understanding that strange times demand strange art, or it is situating the embodiments of visceral strength, power and wisdom in a place where these qualities are ironically lacking.
Indigenous representation at the event was showcased in Life on Neebahgeezis, curated by Maria Hupfield. It was an Anishinaabe interpretation of David Bowie’s song Life on Mars, using the surreal qualities of the night to make Native stories present and urgent. One of the projects, Serpent People, included a series of theatrical performances as well as sculptures to showcase Indigenous identity. According to the Nuit Blanche website, the project was constructed from “Anishinaabe Intelligence” and fashioned from the stories of The Black Sturgeon from Nippissing First Nation.
Participants from outside of Toronto may have been intrigued by the idea of an all-night event.
“If we have a night market where we’re from, it’s until 8 p.m.,” said first-year hospitality student Maya Donald-Hamblin who comes from Victoria, B.C.
The idea of staying out into the wee hours of the morning may offer a radical idea in on its own. Others weren’t aware of the purpose of the event entirely. Taye Robin, 18, thought that Nuit Blanche was an outdoor party, akin to a music festival or concert. His friend Devon Earle, 18, had previously been to Nuit Blanche and wanted him to discover it on his own. He said that the French name of the event draws people in with curiosity, and so it is something people have to plunge into without expectation.
The Netflix program Stranger Things had its own installation on Osgoode Lane called Red Forest. Due to the show’s popularity, waiting in the line for the exhibit would be a time-consuming and tedious task. In fact, some people spent most of their night simply waiting in the admission line.
Runnymede Collegiate student Shae Hayes said that she waited with her friends for two hours to walk through the show’s “Upside Down” imitation. The Upside Down is the fictitious alternate dimension in Stranger Things, filled with terrifying and alien creatures. At the end of the installation, there was a “plot twist” as the forest changed into the Twilight Drive-In from Netflix hit Riverdale. As a fan of the show, Hayes rated the exhibit highly.
Torontonian Julian Gannon said Nuit Blanche shows the city in a different context to those who attend. Nuit Blanche undoubtedly spoke to a carefully curated mix of hip and heart, without for a second sacrificing the enduring cultural identity of Toronto.
At its core, speaking truth seems to be what Nuit Blanche is about. Through the endless variety of art in all its forms — whether that is sculpture, paintings, projections, spoken word, or any other mode in the imagination — artists demand for their voices to be heard. The beauty of the night spoke to reflections and prospects for the future.
“I think that when people come here, they end up learning what they wouldn’t learn otherwise,” said first-year dance student Katia Puritch. “They come for the art, and the art has a message.”