Yes the lines were too long, the streets too crowded, and the TTC too packed. And it’s true that this year, like the years before, the event didn’t seem to live up to its hype and many of the works underwhelmed. But, like almost a million other Torontonions, I spent Saturday night and the early hours of Sunday morning scurrying around the city to experience Nuit Blanche. And I wouldn’t have considered doing anything else.
While all our inner art critics and inner urban planners likely have a laundry list of criticisms about Saturday night, there’s a lot about Nuit Blanche that warrants celebration. Hidden within its flaws there are important lessons for urbanism.
One of the best things about Nuit Blanche is the fact that throughout the night there were thousands of people milling around downtown Toronto. Pedestrians, by their sheer numbers, took over the city’s streets and sidewalks. This reminds us of what a city could be were built for pedestrians. I was struck by this at 2:30 in the morning when I rode my bike past City Hall and saw its benches packed with people. And they weren’t there just to look at D. A. Therrien’s 4-letter word machine. Most people were simply taking a break from the night’s activities. When else but on Nuit Blanche would every bench at Nathan Philips Square be full on chilly night at 2:30 in the morning?
Nuit Blanche gives us a glimpse of what a utopian Toronto might look like. A city where the streets are vibrant, where public space is well used and where pedestrians, rather than cars, rule the city.
It’s not just more people using city spaces that makes Nuit Blanche interesting; it’s the way those people interact with those spaces that’s significant. Public spaces, private spaces and all the grey spaces in between have the potential to be transformed. I spent most of Saturday night in Liberty Village (Zone C) — one of the areas that best demonstrates the transformative effect Nuit Blanche can have. Liberty Village is an area with many parking lots that is often fairly low in pedestrian traffic. But with the streets closed, the area full of exhibits and the dramatic increase in people, existing spaces took on a new life. Parking lots became sites of play and areas of social congregation. Tom Dean’s 10 scattered Fire and Sausage sites (which gave passers-by warm hot chocolate, sausages or blankets) served as focal points and meeting areas. It seemed perfectly natural that hundreds of people were hanging out in parking lots or warming themselves by a fire in the middle of Liberty Street.
This transformation happened throughout the city. Amusement rides on a car-free Bay Street or the transformation of a bus station into a wrestling arena show us how our everyday urban landscape can be used in entirely different ways.
Through Nuit Blanche we see that spaces in the city and their associated functions aren’t static. With ingenuity and energy we can transform our existing urban environments and the way we live in them.
But despite Nuit Blanche’s potential to open up urban space, Saturday night also served to reminded us of how strictly controlled those spaces can be. It’s frustrating that so many of the exhibits had lineups of over half an hour. I waited almost 40 minutes for a chance to crawl under Norico Sunayama’s huge red skirt. I can’t understand why, on a night that is expected to draw almost a million people, some of the most publicized projects could only accommodate about 10 people at a time. Furthermore, this type of exhibit seems to result in the increasing presence of security guards. Security is needed to protect the artists and their work but I wonder why four security guards were necessary to control the traffic flow into Maria Legault’s the Apology Project. Ironically, while Nuit Blanche has the power to allow Torontonians to assert their right to the city, its immense popularity means that it’s becoming increasingly securitized and controlled.
While the promise of the exhibitions may be the initial motivation to participate in Nuit Blanche, I’ve found that the art isn’t the whole reason I look forward to the night. What keeps me coming back is to see how, every first Saturday in October, our experience of the city, its spaces, and the way we relate to them can change.