Nuit Blanche

The international network of all-night arts festivals attracts an audience beyond the white cube.

Wouldn’t it be great if more people cared about art? That is a question that many of us have asked for years. Thanks to events like Nuit Blanche, we have an answer: yes.

MTLenLumiere

Nuit Blanche, is an all-night arts festival where museums, galleries, and institutions are open free of charge, and where installations, performances and fun activities occur in various parts of a city. Though the first so-called ‘Nuit Blanche’, French for white night, was held in Paris in 2002, the concept began in 1989 in Nantes. Now, over 30 cities worldwide, from Copenhagen to Singapore, and from La Paz to Melbourne, have embraced the festival.

MTLenLumiere

Though it started as an arts festival, it has really become a fun night out on the town. A mélange of art, food, entertainment, and games. Some see Nuit Blanches as having little value to the artistic community. Can it still be considered an arts festival where people engage with the work or has it really become a street party mixed with art?

The key to experiencing a Nuit Blanche is to accept that you will not see everything. My first experience with the Nuit Blanche brand was in Toronto in 2007. I remember trying to see 20 to 30 sites, but failing to do so. Not that it was impossible to see that much, because many sites were within walking distance of each other. What made it difficult, and what continues to be a challenge for many, is the number of people on the streets and the line-ups. More than a million people attend that festival, leaving some to wonder if Toronto’s Nuit Blanche has become a victim of its own success.

a-lady-flies-over-the-crowd - Giovanni Capriotti-Montreal Gazette

I have experienced the festival for nine years, mostly in Montreal and Toronto. Recently on February 27th , I attended Montreal’s Nuit Blanche, which is part of a larger two week festival called Montréal en Lumière. This year, there were over 200 free activities enjoyed by over 325,000 people. Considering February nights in Montreal tend to be very cold, the fact that over a quarter of a million people roamed the streets is quite an accomplishment. And the fact that the pubs are open late helps too.

This year’s edition, as usual, had art displayed throughout the underground city, street concerts, university students showcasing their projects, locations to try virtual reality, comedy, snowboarding down an inclined street, food tasting and a zipline.

Yellow Umbrella

I began my Nuit Blanche journey in the underground city, a network of tunnels, concourses, malls, and food courts, all connected by métro, that allow Montrealers to navigate downtown without stepping outside.  When I approached The Yellow Umbrella? An unfinished Conversation, there were about a dozen young women wearing surgical masks, holding yellow umbrellas, while hugging each other. The performance art by visual artist Chun Hua Catherine Dong, explores how situational behaviours influence our perception of social political movements. In the context of a festival, the performance seemed light hearted, but in the context of a more politicised public demonstration, it could be seen as a powerful symbol of critique.

Secretary's nightmare

Sculptor, Jean Brillant’s Secretary’s nightmare, was the next work that caught my attention, because it looked like it was about to topple over. Meant to appear scary and unpleasant, the work consisted of several steel file cabinets placed on top of each other. This sculpture caused people to reflect on their own expectations about art, and whether they felt comfortable engaging with such danger. I couldn’t believe that this collection of steel cabinets was stable, so I took a few steps back, lest somebody else bump into a portion of the sculpture, sending a cabinet down on me. From afar, the towering work still seemed unsettling, yet many people remained curious.

Secretary's nightmare

A safer, but just as provocative work, was a photography collection called Monuments by French photographer, Mathieu Bernard-Reymond. Two-dimensional economic graphs were turned into three-dimensional structural forms, superimposed on landscapes. The graphs which carried economic significance related to stock charts and financial markets, provide actionable information to the business world. And yet, as pieces of architecture in a natural landscape, can mean anything else, once they lose their original meaning.

Monuments

Monuments

Technical analysis: Japanese Candlesticks from the Monument series

Technical analysis: Japanese Candlesticks from the Monument series

S&P Return Less Bond Yield from the Monument series

S&P Return Less Bond Yield from the Monument series

Interest income comparison 4% - 8% from the Monument series

Interest income comparison 4% – 8% from the Monument series

Demographic Development Sweden 1970-2050- From the Monument series

Demographic Development Sweden 1970-2050- From the Monument series

The most anticipated work for me was a video installation by Jonathan Schipper called Invisible Sphere. The work consisted of 215 small monitors and 215 cameras, where each camera opposes the monitor it feeds. When people walk on the other side of the sphere you can see them walking on screen even if you can’t see them in person.

Invisible Sphere

Invisible Sphere

Invisible Sphere

Once outside in the winter night, with hundreds of thousands of people, I noticed once again, that Nuit Blanche is just as much about having a great time as it is about the art. I moved shoulder to shoulder through the crowded streets, as people on zip-lines flew by overheard. On one side of the zip-lines was a ferris wheel in the middle of the street, while on the other side, grown adults came down from an elevated plaza into the street in a massive snow slide. This is the winter festival part of the event, which Nuit Blanche Montreal is a part of.

While some were having physical fun, others were trying out wines and virtual reality. On another street, revellers were jumping to the sounds from a DJ, while others looked at a photo exhibition of Shenzhen.

Crowded streets

Main Outdoor site

The critique of the Nuit Blanche brand in many cities is that it’s not really an arts festival and artists receive little to no pay for displaying their work. Both arguments are justified. However, I still believe that it’s a valuable event for the public. Not everyone gets art nor cares, and some may need activities considered not quite art to feel entertained. That’s fine. If not for Nuit Blanche, many people would never get a change to see these artists and events such as these give them a sample. It’s an out of the white cube experience, where artists reach an audience outside of a gallery.

For a list of global Nuit Blanche events, see here.

Words: Phil Roberts


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