I went out for Toronto’s Nuit Blanche again this year. Might be the last time. For those living in cities without a Nuit Blanche, it’s a sundown-to-sunrise event with a hundred art stations scattered throughout the city. The art varies from regular sculptures to performance pieces to outdoor and indoor movies projected onto irregular screens, with many of the works having light-related themes.
Mostly, though, Nuit Blanche seems to be a chance for teenagers to flood the city, smoke pot, and engage in low-level mischief. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! But in terms of showing off gloriously well-executed, thought provoking, or transcendent artwork, Nuit Blanche falls way flat.
The problem wasn’t that the works were bad. Among the well done exhibits was an oversized array of blinking space invaders, a collage of movie clips accompanied by dramatic music, and Laurent Gagnon’s wonderfully appealing rusty techno-obelisk. The French do love their phallic symbols, don’t they? Almost as much as the Americans or their tomb-robbing English forefathers.
To some extent the event is a victim of its own success. The huge crowds, which barely diminish even as the night wears on, make for long lines to see many of the exhibits, especially the more participatory ones. Combined with a highly disperse layout, plus a program guide and signage which encourage checklist touring, and the night can very easily become about consuming as much interesting art as possible. It’s Disneyland, with the animatronic actors from Mr. Toads Wild Ride replaced by live performance artists.
We consume art, of course, but art isn’t consumption. Art is experience. Consumption is the pedestrian cousin of art, bearing the same relationship to its experiential cousin as a carefully packaged vacation tour does to travel. Nuit Blanche is, above all else, a carefully packaged experience. All of the artwork was official, and clearly signed, the only rogue elements to slip through the cracks were a couple buskers trying to be heard over the din, and a living batman statue. Crowd members were tourists, not participants in the mode of festivals like Burning Man. At most they dressed up in oversized hats or a funky dresses as they traveled from one station to the next, documenting everything with cell phone photos and tweets.
Even the more thoughtful exhibits seemed to have their scope reduced and their environments setup to encourage quick-hit consumption. The fantastic movie collage, which was projected up and all the way around a giant funnel, looped through its content in just a couple minutes, hardly enticing the audience to spend much time lingering on the bare concrete floors to watch it.
The best exhibit I saw seemed to play with this very dynamic of art as bite-sized consumable. It featured a large translucent tent stocked with thousands of different “products,” each one really an empty shell of packaging stuffed with glowing LED lights. Customers could wander into the store and grab an ethereal-looking single-serve box of Rice Krispies, then have it attached to a bamboo rod to hold in front of them like a lantern. From both outside and in, the exhibit shone like a multicolor oasis of (literally) hallow consumerism, a thousand points of light waiting for their diaspora into the crowds, serving double-duty as souvenir trinkets which proved your entrance into the gift shop, and beacons to light your way to the next officially sanctioned, carefully produced event.