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Small mercies from Nuit Blanche

October 4, 2009


Braving some wet weather and the expectation of impending sleep deprivation, I ventured into the labyrinthine and damp Toronto streets to explore Nuit Blanche Saturday night.

Starting in the middle of the evening and turning home only as the sun rose slowly to reveal streets full of bleary eyed wanderers, my expectations (based on prior years) heading into the night ranged from utterly disappointing to — at best — pleasantly surprising.

As it turns out, I thought this year was by far the most articulate and cohesive the event has ever been. Pleasantly surprised would be quite an understatement indeed, but ultimately, something just felt a bit off for me.

The heart of the city buzzed with energy as a giant light display suspended between the towers of city hall spelled out giant four letter words. Illuminated below were the strange mix of drunken youth, clubland 905ers, hipster artists and random everyday GTA residents (the vast majority) that composed the Nuit Blanche crowd — itself a major reason the event is such a unique and communal experience.

DSC00443A steel cage wrestling match in the grimy bus terminal was filled with dozens of blindfolded professional wrestlers performing suplexes and bodyslams to an appreciative and confused crowd.

The financial district was completely closed off to vehicular traffic, turning the normally stodgy strip of Bay Street between Queen and Front into a literal carnival, replete with midway rides and greasy food. Staffed with downsized financial employees, the juxtaposition of a ride called “The Avalanche” parked in front of towering financial corporate headquarters created an atmosphere dripping with as much artistic irony as neon light.

In Liberty village, the continued gentrification of Toronto’s western neighbourhoods was at the forefront of Nuit Blanche — albeit not intentionally.

Amidst the bougie crowds soaking in installations at the Village mall and condominium presentation centre, one exhibition, entitled Take Shelter invited participants to bring canned food and cardboard boxes and make temporary shelters out of them in a supermarket parking lot.

What resulted was a giant pile of crushed, soggy cardboard boxes and mountains — literally mountains — of canned food wasted. My program informed me leftover cans would be donated to a food bank, but from a cursory glance most of the hundreds of items on display were either beaten open or simply damaged so badly there was no chance they were in shape to be donated.

This squandering of food and almost minstrelsy idea of building a cardboard shelter (pretending to be poor?) as art seemed like a slap in the face to our city’s homeless population — who strangely enough were not out in much number on the crowded streets last night.

If that was a slap however, the black eye came in the form of another installation right next door — a series of campfires around Liberty Village entitled Small Mercies:

FIRE AND SAUSAGE: Small Mercies is a social sculpture. It engages and arranges people. Participants congregate around a fire, a cooking station, clustered radially around food and fire. The form remains, enlarging and diminishing, a stable form centered around food and fire. All the complexity and richness and pathos of a social cluster, strangers and friends with some common purpose and focal point, a clustered audience before a spectacle and themselves a spectacle, figures joining and departing the cluster and flowing from one site to another.

Basically, upper middle class art-denizen wannabes (and I plead guilty as charged) huddled around free gourmet food receiving free cups and blankets with the word mercy embossed on them. At first i thought the reactionary aspect of the piece was intended for us to share these gifts with less fortunate individuals we might come across, but this concept is completely absent from the installation description quoted above.

This seemed to be nothing less than pretending to be disaster survivors, with Jamie Kennedy hot chocolate and free swag. The irony was entirely in its utter lack of irony.


As fun as the night was — including the awesome Apology Project where people in halloween compost bags form a red rover line and apologize to you as you walk by — the social justice implications of the night could not be shaken from my head.

As my upper middle class self held a microfleece blanket with mercy scrawled on it, I wondered how we as a community can afford to have a night where we close the city down and pretend to be poor survivors as interactive performance art when those resources could be used to help actual survivors on our streets, really in need of blankets, cups, food and shelter. Forgetting the mockery of the act, even the simple wastefulness is somewhat of a downer.

Perhaps that’s modern art, evolving with audience reaction. Or maybe its nothing more than me taking things too seriously, furrowing my brow and throwing rocks from my glass house.

All I know is that staggering home I couldn’t find anyone to give my blanket to, and so it’s now sitting in my room, a constant reminder of my morally ambiguous memories from the night that overwhelm all the interesting art, sights, sounds and other experiences.

Art can be hard to define. But I’d like to think sometimes life is a little more black and white.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 5, 2009 12:49 pm

    Hey word, thanks for this awesome write up. I think Nuit Blanche is a great idea, in as much as it gets people outside and amongst each other, but the lasting appeal of most installation art tends to miss me. It usually feels like a lot of cheap punchlines to me (a-ha! Monopoly in the Stock Exchange during a recession!), and sensory experiments that I think work best when fleshed out into actual theme park attractions. But what do I know, to each his/her own. The sense of community is nice, for sure, as are lights at night.


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