Monday, October 13, 2008

Nuit Blanche

Stereoscope. This was actually the last thing we saw. More about it later.

This is my third Nuit Blanche festival, and this year I decided to wander a little further from home and check out what was going on downtown. Ironically, it turns out the the best stuff, unlike previous years, was all close to home. At least that's what I heard.

So Zone A, curated by Gordon Hatt, "includes 15 installations that explore feelings of belonging and alienation in an ephemeral and playful manner." And with that in mind, I bring you:

Waterfall! A giant waterall next to a building! But wait, let's look a little, is it really...plastic water bottles and lighting?

There was a nice alchemy to this piece. It did indeed look like a waterfall from a distance. But as you got closer, and you did something like, deliberately use your flash while snapping a photo, the conceit is revealed:

For many, the alchemy was too much. There were steps leading down to the waterfall, and one could have even gone behind it. I wondered why no one had thought of this. This is conceptual art, and intention is everything, nicht war?

Anyway, my son thought about it. He went down, and he started to kick the crushed plastic water bottles around. Some people on the other side of the waterfall began to freak out. They began to freak out because the massive pile of crushed water bottles meant to represent the plunge pool, you know, the frothy mass at the bottom of a waterfall, was being disturbed. They screamed at him to stop touching the exhibit. Perhaps they feared he would drown.

I laughed and let him do it a little while longer, and I thought to myself "People think that this is art".


I am not a nominalist when it comes to what is or isn't art. Calling something art and going from there is easier than consigning everything that doesn't have an elaborate gilded frame around it to the "not art" flames. However, something I began to notice at Nuit Blanche this year was the effect of people's long relationship with art as a feature of institutions, that is, art as a specific mode of presentation.

We have a lot of public art in Toronto, and usually, no one seems to have an issue with touching it. My suspicion about is that this is because no one looks or cares about public art. However, at Nuit Blanche, the sacredness of art reigns.

As many noted, downtown Toronto was turned into an art gallery. Yet, as most know from the ominous and omnipresent security guards at most public art galleries, this means that the art is, in some sense, off limits. It is to be looked at, to be admired, to be honoured.

What my son experienced in kicking those crushed water bottles was the conflict between an aestheticized existence and a bureaucratic approach to the experience of art.

I suspect the artist wouldn't have minded what my son was doing, indeed, if they didn't want people touching it, why let them near it like that? And yet, as we were leaving the exhibit, a small child passed us with her dad, and asked, can I touch the waterfall?

The father said, "I don't think so, honey."

I replied, "Yes you can."


Just up the street, near my office, was this:

My son loved this, mainly because his favourite word in the world is "la Lune". It is, I am rather sad to say, one of the only French words he knows, but it's something, right? This was Time-Piece.

It was kind of hypnotic, and pretty to boot. The photos actually make it look much more space-like, the projector becoming a star that doesn't exist, peeking out from behind the nearly disappeared moon.

My favourite piece that night was this:

It was a video of someone driving along the Toronto's hated Gardiner Expressway. It confirms my own prejudices about the road, which is that it provides a stunning view of the city, and is a kind of sacrificial lamb in our city's civic culture.

If we kill this road, then the decision to erect a gazillion condos along the waterfront will be expiated, and even better, when the waterfront still sucks we can mourn those lazy summer afternoon drives along the Gardiner, where Toronto felt a piece with the Metropolis. It was art in the Marxist tradition. Benjamin would have been proud.


In the middle of Eaton Centre, one found a giant balloon.

From below, it reminds one of a lit colon...


After all this, oh, and the alley of Massey hall outfitted with an office roof, we headed toward City Hall for what was the most spectacular work of Nuit Blanche - Stereoscope.

My son was tired, and hungry, so we sat down for a hot dog in front of city call to watch Stereoscope. Again with the scrims, this time with lights behind them, set up to do the public's bidding through the magic of interactivity. So here people were allowed to "touch" , that is, manipulate the lights, albeit in a very controlled fashion. You could play pong, on City Hall.

So as we drew near, I began to look (long?) for the most infamous work of art in the city's history, The Archer by Henry Moore. Of course, no one was paying any attention to it, what with the light show and dance music.

It sat there, lonely, unlit, forgotten. I'm not kidding when I say that no one remembered it, on this night, the all-night art happening. Thousands of people around, and no one noticed the work that divided this city, toppled a mayor, and was erected only through the work of a private fundraising campaign.

This work changed Toronto's relationship with modern art, and seeing Moore's forlorn sculpture, next to the light show, it occurred to me that the light show behind me was not art.

Oh my God.

The thought appeared rather suddenly, but there it was. In the presence of Art, this elemental force, Moore's studied work, the Pong dance show was pure entertainment, pure event without the corollary of experience.

Stereoscope and so much of what saw last night was art as a teenager, wanting desperately to be liked instead of respected, and willing to do anything to get that attention. It struck me that Stereoscope would be the perfect vehicle for advertising. (Let's see how that plays out)

Stereoscope is the complete triumph of postmodernism over modernism. It's a work that allows our remarkably self-absorbed culture remain just so.

You can be a star for 15 seconds while everyone watches you play space invaders. You can decry Stehpen Harper's arts cuts because you were at Nuit Blanche and were overwhelmed by technology and spectacle. It fulfills all the fantasies that art can also be entertaining.

As art, however, it was utterly sterile.

The Archer ruined Nuit Blanche for me, because it reminded me that there's a history of art, and that Stereoscope, and a lot of other modern art, has no place in it. I wonder if it hasn't pretty much ruined Queen Street and so much of the other art we're all supposedly fighting for right now.

Context is everything, and I wonder now if I am ready to kick at the waterfall.

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