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At center stage in Toronto—Buffalo

Photos by Elizabeth Licata

As a concept, Nuit Blanche has both inherent greatness and inherent impossibility. The idea of a city exploding with contemporary art from sunset until sunrise is a brilliant one. In practice, the model is complex and occasionally problematic. Human beings are what they are, and not all of us are up to acting like appreciative art audiences from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.

That’s one of the reasons—other than simple exhaustion—that I did not see the entire twelve hours of Saturday’s extravaganza in Toronto. But I did see five hours worth of it, and I can only hope that the thousands of others we saw roaming Queen, Spadina, Nathan Phillips Square, and other downtown locations were half as happy.

It’s rare that a municipality takes contemporary art so seriously that it devotes a few square miles of street space to it, not to mention gives it a multimillion dollar budget. We don’t have that kind of civic devotion to the avant garde in Buffalo. Not yet. But—thanks to former Albright-Knox curator Heather Pesanti—Buffalo artists were major players at Nuit Blanche, and I’m happy to say they did us proud.

In a bravura act of faith, ambition, and sheer chutzpah, Shasti O’Leary Soudant envisioned a project that takes interactive art as far as it can be taken. Her team of hilariously outfitted “carriers” (see top photo) roamed far and wide to mark attendees with reactive ink, as well as pass along kits so that the marked could spread the “infection” in their turn. At midnight all converged in a glowing, blacklit mass in Nathan Phillips Square, as O’Leary Soudant—shimmering from head to toe—proclaimed from the stage.

The Square was also where Kyle Butler and his helpers (including Buffalo-based sculptor Scott Bye) carried out a series of additions and demolitions in a set of loosely constructed “rooms” near the entrance to the square. Butler kept audience members interested as he painted, arranged, hammered, and smashed the various elements of his installation. It would have been easy enough for this accomplished artist to create a spectacle and leave it there for the masses—as many in Nuit Blanche did—but, like O’Leary Soudant, he paid it forward and took the audience with him. There was no way of knowing what motivated Butler’s actions, but that added to the intrigue. I noticed that while attendees were able to walk away from many installations after a few minutes, Butler, who maintained an air of quiet intensity throughout, was able to hold their attention longer.

Tony Conrad at the controls of his performance (with Jennifer Walshe)

Other artists within Pesanti’s section, which was organized around performance, included Tony Conrad and Jennifer Walshe, who performed an opera behind projections; Bingyi, who created another operatic performance as well as a large painting; and Critical Art Ensemble, a group with strong ties to Buffalo. Pesanti’s artists deserve special mention in my view—they had to envision, create, and then carry out artworks that would unfold over time, a long period of time—and which needed constant attention. Although I enjoyed many other Nuit Blanche installations, most of them did not require more than one visit.

David Brooks’ Gap Ecology with Cherry Pickers and Palms was among the best of the  spectacles—an impressive metaphor about the disconnect between the natural world and the built environment and the ways in which we desperately contrive to reunite them.

Another popular and magnificently simple installation was Walk Among Worlds, an environment made out of 7,000 inflated and lit beach ball globes. Artist Maximo Gonzales created a beautiful glowing garden, with the globes arching overhead. Attendees wandered among the globes rather quietly, a contemplative pause in the increasingly raucous evening.

Dress Rehearsal, by Tor Lukasik-Foss

It may not be possible to have a Nuit Blanche in Buffalo, at least on the scale that the generous government and corporate funding in Toronto made possible. But we can hope that the ambition and vision demonstrated by Buffalo’s Nuit Blanche participants can morph into similar big impact projects in Western New York, by these artists and by others.

To learn more about Nuit Blanche and about the many, many projects not mentioned here, visit the website. There is a PDF guidebook that describes everything under the “need to know” menu item.

P.S. My hotel—the Eaton Chelsea—had an interesting installation by Henry Enchin, who created a mashup of archival and contemporary views of Toronto; I can easily see this appealing to Buffalo historic architecture geeks.

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