With the end of summer, the number of things to enjoy outdoors in Toronto gets shorter. But there’s one event that can get thousands of families, hipsters and jaded urbanites out into the city streets every October. It’s called Nuit Blanche, or White Night, and it took place this past Saturday evening.
If you’re new to White Night, it’s a one-night celebration of art that sees installations erected in locations across the city. They’re open from dusk to dawn: to take part, you get an event map and just walk the streets, viewing the ones that catch your fancy. Since fall weather usually arrives around the same date, it kind of feels like Halloween for adults.
My friend Linda and I have a standing date to do Nuit Blanche every year. And on a chilly and windy October night, we set out once again to see a collection of displays that ranged from quirky to explosive — and in one case, even smelly.
To warm up, we visited the gazebo in our downtown neighbourhood park, for an exhibit called The East Side Story. The centrepiece was a huge “story book” spread out on the floor, containing the thoughts of school kids on their east-end neighborhoods. They were asked what they liked about them, and what they’d like to see in the future. Ice cream shops and candy stores were popular choices.
Heading west into the business district, we found a life-size projection of a huge pine tree on the side of a bank building. It was called Lost Giants, and aside from being beautiful, it had a poignant message: these trees were twice the height of mature pines today.
Around the corner was another projection, this time a video of some urban destruction – or was it urban renewal – projected on the vintage building that houses the Design Exchange. This was by an artist named JR, who was given the nod to do a whole series of installations this year.
And to see more of JR’s work, we needed only walk up to city hall, where he had created a huge project called Inside Out. Arriving, we found people’s faces displayed across huge, illuminated letters spelling “Toronto”, left over from the recent Pan Am Games celebrations.
Climbing the ramp to the city hall terrace, we saw another side of the project, called Face to Face: hundreds of people had lined up to get their photos taken in a giant photo booth, then had them printed poster-size and added to a huge, circular collage in the centre of the square.
There was also a little performance art, with a hula hooper doing tricks with an amazing illuminated hoop. The video doesn’t catch all the patterns it made as it whirled through the air, but it’s still pretty spectacular.
On the way out of the square, there was a kind of artistic lesson in local government, called There is No Away. People trooped through an open pathway lined with bale after bale of garbage: crushed pop cans, milk jugs, plastic bags, cardboard. It was all arranged for visual effect, but also to show that everything we use has another life after we throw it away. A poignant message – and a bit pungent, too.
On to the TIFF Lightbox, the headquarters of the Toronto International Film Festival, where people played an old-school video game on the wall, using “high fives, fist pounds and elbow bumps”. We also caught a fascinating film loop shot on Baffin Island, in the Canadian arctic: a team of artists created paintings on an ice face that revealed itself slowly and then disappeared as the tide raised and lowered the floating sea ice every 12 hours.
There was a lot more going on in the downtown streets, but this year a lot of the action was down by the waterfront, to the street we call Queen’s Quay. So fighting my way through gale-like winds, I made a midnight visit to see the street blocked by a huge pile of logs, with a passageway through the middle.
This was Beaufort 11: The Cleaving, described as a barricade made from “the detritus of a city remaking itself”. I’m not sure how much of the city’s detritus consists of firewood, but the location of the exhibit was fitting: right next to a construction site, in a former industrial area undergoing a wholesale redevelopment.
But I’d come to Queen’s Quay to see another exhibit, called Beaufort 4: Lava Field No. 2. It was described as a “geomorphically accurate lava field” generated by a coke-fired cupola. And there it was, looking like a cross between a smokestack and a blast furnace, spewing out some of the 15 tons of molten rock it was supposed to produce.
The furnace gave off a fierce glow in the night, spurting out bright sparks, and the stream of lava crept across the ground like a black snake, with the molten rock shining through here and there. Not quite Mount Vesuvius, but worth the walk, even if it was hard to keep from getting blown over.
White Night seemed a bit quiet this year, after the wall-to-wall crowds we saw on Queen Street last year. But we later learned a crowd of White Nighters had a scuffle with police at Yonge-Dundas Square, the city’s main downtown gathering place. Then, the news that Scotiabank, the event’s main sponsor, had pulled out after this year.
I don’t know what repercussions will follow, but it’s likely next year’s White Night will have a different look. Still, it’s always been a shape-shifting event, so even if it’s a bit smaller or more regulated, we’ll likely go once again. Even on a nasty fall night, it’s a unique chance to explore the city, finding little delights in places that are transformed into showpieces for one night. Heck, even the CN Tower puts on its party dress.