Cities

Coming Together: A Nuit Blanche Retrospective


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A few weeks ago I had a chance to take in a good portion of Scotiabank Nuit Blanche in Toronto. According to their site, the recent signature event is an 'all-night celebration of contemporary art'. I had a chance to be a take in the first "wet-event" last year, and 2007 was quite a step up in scale and ambition.

Art was found everywhere the organizers said it would be. I commend the artists, organizers, and volunteers for a job well done. There has been quite a bit written about the pieces and the artists in the press, and for that reason it won't be the focus of my entry. Instead, I would like to talk about the spectator interaction.

I have lived in Toronto in the past. Since I am originally from a town, and not a large city, my sense is that people in many major cities adopt a guise. They walk around and seem to not be bothered by pollution, traffic, noise, or other people. With the Nuit Blanche, though the stage was the same, the atmosphere was different, and people were reacting. They seemed to be observing everything.

From 7:03pm until sunrise, hordes of people were out walking the streets, standing, laughing, criticizing, applauding and talking with one another.

The conversation sound-bytes I heard ranged from politics and energy to what the meaning of a particular installation was. They also included discussions of the traffic, and how distances walked were actually so much shorter than they had imagined (and how glad they were they chose not to drive). These are conversations that people may have with their friends from time to time. But these conversations were not all with acquaintances.

When I asked other people what they had been to, and where I should head next, almost all of them said the old subway station at Bay. If they hadn't been, they were planning on going.

From what I was told, in the early days of the subway, the Toronto Transit Commission had experimented with a different design. Subways used to interline from Bloor down to Union. This design was abandoned due to complications with scheduling, and the potential for one "dead-train" to stop the whole system. For the interlining to work it required two platforms at Bay; one upper and one lower. After a few months in 1966, the system was abandoned and the lower station was boarded up.

Like quite a few people who walked down the second-stairs to the lower station, I had seen it before. I had first spotted the mysterious station from the front car of a westbound train; but nothing as intimate as what we were about to experience.

When we arrived down on the lower platform it was, indeed, another platform. A run-down train platform, that was jammed with people.

Some tiles were cracked and ceiling panels were missing. The artists involved with this installation had set speakers emitting different frequency sounds all around the platform. They also had speakers in the cars, keeping people off the tracks. It gave you this kind of uneasy feeling, exploring a space within your city that was secret and something you should be lucky to have seen. The station shook and rattled when the all-night TTC trains arrived overhead. It was well done.

People seem to like public transportation (at least rail transportation), and on that night they were taking pictures of each other in something a bit more than an old subway station. Pictures that they will showing, and stories that they will be telling others, for at least a little while longer.

I would like to thank the organizers, artists and volunteers, again. Thank them for more than an art-celebration. They created a catalyst for people to get together and interact; not only with the art installations and pieces, but also with one another. Giving Torontonians and guests, like myself, a chance to explore the city with one another, see things a little differently, and enjoy one another's company, at least for one evening.

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