Canadian artist Christine Irving began combining technology with jets of fire with her independent entry in last year’s Nuit Blanche, Flux & Fire, which won the 2010 People’s Choice Award.

As Toronto’s all night contemporary art event rolls out on Saturday night, she’s back with a new project, The Heart Machine.

And once again, it shoots fire, this time into the air over a parking lot at 640 Bay St. To make it work, Nuit Blanche participants have to touch the machinery in just the right way at one of 20 glowing hand stations around the machine.

"You know you’re doing it right because it will turn red, to symbolize blood pushing through the arteries," Irving told CBC News.

The name The Heart Machine is taken from the Fritz Lang movie Metropolis, in which a giant pulsing machine drives the city. Like Lang’s machine, Irving’s both pulses and creates a sonic pulse. She’s already displayed it at Burning Man, the event in the Nevada desert that excels in radical self-expression.

Figure it out

"We really didn’t give anyone instructions — they had to figure it out on their own," she said. "Out of nowhere, someone would come running in out of the darkness, play with the machine, throw their hands up in the air when they got it to work and then run off into the darkness again."  

Irving’s project is backed by a group of 25 technicians and builders who helped create the interactive elements and will change them throughout the evening. It also has $40,000 of equipment to meet Ontario safety standards.

At Nuit Blanche, The Heart Machine experience is unlikely to be a solo one – the event which turns Toronto streets over to more than 130 art projects is wildly popular, with more than one million people on the streets the last two years.

Three curators – Candice Hopkins, Nicholas Brown and Shirley Madill – have commissioned projects, but dozens of independent artists are also set up around the city.


Richard Purdy's L'echo-l'eau recreates a log run. (Richard Purdy/Nuit Blanche)

Hopkins, who is curatorial resident in indigenous art at Ottawa’s National Gallery of Canada, sought out artists who could recreate historical moments from Canadian history in their works.

"I wanted work that would potentially help the audience to see the city differently and bring out parts of Canada’s history that aren’t necessarily well-known," she said.

Historic moments

 Among those historic moments are a log run, to be recreated by artist Richard Purdy, and a soundscape by Halifax artist Eleanor King that conjures up the rivers that once ran underneath the city.

Inside Victoria Chapel is another soundscape — Radiophonic Territory (Nocturne) — which translates the words of confessions delivered by actors into music delivered over a complex web of rope that acts like a gigantic string instrument.

"Each of [the actors] is invited to go inside the confession booth and the sound of their confession is translated into radio waves which operates the rope. Inside the church you hear the sound as a hum — it creates a beautiful kind of choral hum," she said. The work, by Southwestern American collective Postcommodity, is about reconciliation, she added.

Meanwhile Canadian artist Germaine Koh will be conjuring geological history by pushing a large rock down Yonge St. and Angel Nevarez and Valerie Tevere of New York will be leading a karaoke of protest songs.

"One of the great potentials of Nuit Blanche is that there doesn’t seem to be any of the hesitancy that happens in a museum where people are not sure what to think about a work. People step up, get involved and have an opinion," Hopkins said.

Picture-taking robots


Paparazzi Bots by American artist Ken Rinaldo chase people for their pictures. (Joana Abriel/Nuit Blanche)

Many of the works, like Ken Rinaldo’s Paparazzi Bots, make reference to pop culture phenomena. Rinaldo has designed and built his robots to give everyone his or her 15 minutes of fame. The robots approach people on the red carpet and take their picture, the picture appearing briefly on a big screen overhead. Rinaldo said he is fascinated by the reaction people have to the camera.

"If the robot is standing in front and confronting them with a camera, almost instantly what people do is smile," he said. "The robot responds to the shape of the smile…As a rule they like a very symmetrical face and a symmetrical smile."

Rinaldo's Paparazzi Bots have already had a run in Vancouver at the Winter Olympics, but a new installation at Yonge Dundas Square involves another of his robotic inventions — soft robots covered in hair who react to body heat. They'll also be taking pictures, but the pictures transform into tunes so that each person captured creates his or her own music.

Toronto's Nuit Blanche is on from sunset Saturday night until dawn on Sunday throughout the city.



  • An earlier version of this story incorrectly described Germaine Koh as a German artist. She is Canadian.
    Oct 03, 2011 8:37 AM ET