My friend Morry and I reached Nathan Phillips Square after sunset, long after several hundred had scattered themselves in front of Toronto’s City Hall. Somewhere among the curious and cold was Daniel Lanois. We could hear him; we could even see him projected in a dozen different places – on screens where no screens had been before, even in the reflecting pool. There was no obvious stage, but eventually we found a ramp leading up to a platform on which a few dozen had congregated. They were peering down into a pit. We did the same – and there he was, at the controls of an audio-video installation. And there he would remain until sunrise. And half the fun was finding him.
Lanois’ all-nighter was one of the hyped attractions of this year’s Nuit Blanche, an all-night free art festival held in early October at dozens of venues in and around downtown Toronto. Over the course of five years, my feelings have swung from amazement to irritation and back again. I’ve been bemused and bored. I’ve been caught up in curious crowds, and I’ve loathed the drunken hordes.
The first year was a delight. I knew nothing about Nuit Blanche. There had been some chatter about it, but it was largely word-of-mouth that drew a few hundred thousand night-owls into the streets – looking to be inspired. The high point for me was an outdoor fog installation in a leafy stretch of the University of Toronto, where I and dozens of others walked – sightless – on a meandering path drenched in fog. All other senses were heightened – the bumps of the earth beneath us, the sounds of chatter around us. Behind me, a guy telling everyone within earshot how the mushrooms he’d taken were just then kicking in.
I’ve never managed to last beyond three in the morning, and in the second year, the high point came at about 2 a.m. Exhausted, my friends and I ducked into the Music Faculty of the university, plunked ourselves down in the auditorium, and were treated to the quiet and cool sounds of a live jazz ensemble.
The following year, in front of an old downtown building known for its galleries and studio space, a small crowd had gathered for a guided tour of the building. We joined. Ten minutes into the tour, it dawned on me that this was no ordinary tour. We were, in fact, part of a performance piece – the tour guide a performance artist leading us, her audience, up and down staircases, into hidden rooms, basements and rooftop gardens. Like a general leading troops into battle, she marched on, regaling us with stories. I would have followed her anywhere.
Last year should have been the best. I knew the city inside out. I knew which areas promised inspiration. I had visiting guests and was anxious to show off the city. But the crowds from previous years had suddenly mutated into hordes. And where the leafy university area and fascinatingly dodgy outer edges of downtown had been the focus of the earlier years, now the downtown commercial strip and the financial district had suddenly become the focal point. And we were swept up, and let down, by the masses.
This year was a targeted approach. One glance at the throngs on Yonge Street, and we made for the infinitely more interesting strains of Daniel Lanois at City Hall. Curious crowds over partying hordes.
Then it was on to the newly-opened film centre, Toronto’s year-round cinematheque. In one small screening room, a handful of us filed past the empty audience seats, to the edge of the stage, where we sat, looking out into the seats. Above the seats, suspended from what appeared to be clotheslines, were sheets of varying sizes and suspended at varying heights. On each, a different looped segment of Fellini’s 8½ played. Apparently curated by Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan, Fellini’s fragments were hypnotic.
You create your own Nuit Blanche. With so many venues, inside and out, in so many neighbourhoods, you chart your own course. And with a bit of timing and luck, moments of inspiration might just be around the next corner.
Image credit: City of Toronto