Nuit Blanche 2020: How do you throw an all-night contemporary art thing in a pandemic?

Toronto's going totally virtual. Other cities are sticking with IRL events. Either way, it's a gamble.

Toronto's going totally virtual. Other cities are sticking with IRL events. Either way, it's a gamble

"Forever Bicycles" by Ai Wei Wei at Nuit Blanche Toronto, 2013. The annual art event is going completely digital for its 2020 edition. (Nuit Blanche Toronto)

There'll be no mob of a million-plus revellers roaring through the streets from sundown to sunrise. No super-sized artworks swallowing City Hall or Yonge-Dundas Square or Scarborough Town Centre. In fact, there'll be no physical projects at all. But Nuit Blanche Toronto is happening this year, and it's going 100 per cent virtual for 2020.

Organizers first announced that digital-first decision in the summer, but the schedule was only revealed this week. Starting October 3 at 7 p.m., audiences can experience five different "streams" of Nuit Blanche programming, all accessed for free through the festival website. 

Included in that offering: podcasts about the curatorial themes, a video series of art talks, archival highlights from past events

For something more playful, there's Nuit In Your Neighbourhood, a selection of 21 digital artworks. Three are designed to be viewed in VR, while the majority are augmented-reality treats — digital sculptures, basically, that can be seen through your screen of choice. Drop 3D works by Yung Yemi or Joi Arcand or Scott Benesiinaabandan in your backyard, living room — anywhere, really. There's no app required, and the entire thing can be experienced through the Nuit Blanche site.

Wondering what the AR projects will look like? Here's a screenshot of Chun Hua Catherine Dong's piece, Skin Deep. (Dr. Julie Nagam)

Special to the launch night itself, there'll be a 12-hour livestream (Nuit Live) hosted on the Nuit Blanche website: a sort of one-night-only TV station playing a mix of original video-art projects, plus DJ sets and samples from the other programming streams. And should you miss something, all content will be made available through October 12. (That goes for all the program streams, actually.)

Of course, nothing will look or feel anything like the Nuit Blanches that came before it. But according to artistic director Dr. Julie Nagam, Nuit Blanche had to do something, even if that something was radically different. 

The Nuit must go on

"I would say a lot of people's feedback, even internally, was like, 'Why don't you just cancel it?'" says Nagam. "Of course we could have cancelled, like many things. But I also think that the world now has been accepting that this is our new stage of life and we kind of have to move differently."

Making those moves, however, required a complete overhaul of the 2020 program. By March, when the state of emergency was first declared, 2020's Nuit Blanche projects had already been commissioned. But pushing ahead with those plans would be too risky, Nagan decided, even with the proverbial curtain call several months away.

"Walk Among Worlds" by Maximo Gonzalez appeared at Scarborough Town Centre for Nuit Blanche Toronto 2018. (Courtesy of Nuit Blanche Toronto)

After consulting with the artists, some projects were deferred to 2021, which shares the same curatorial theme as the 2020 edition ("The Space Between Us"). Others were adapted for a stay-at-home format. (In an alternate timeline, Nagan says this piece — Mana Moana — would have been projected onto a water screen; now, it's an interactive website.) And some were always meant to be augmented-reality experiences. (See works by Chun Hua Catherine Dong, Kereama Taepa and Johnson Witehira.)

"[Nuit Blanche Toronto] is the largest public exhibition in North America. It draws over a million people to come out," says Nagam. (More than 1.2 million attended the 2018 edition, according to the city.) "Not only does it put Toronto on the map in terms of being a cultural leader, but it also is an opportunity for us to lead the way, nationally and internationally, of being able to shift into a kind of virtual realm."

The risks and rewards of going IRL

Of course, Nuit Blanche Toronto isn't the only "art at night" festival that's been forced into an extreme makeover. But others haven't embraced digital so completely — sometimes to their peril.

Just last week, Nuit Blanche Winnipeg was abruptly cancelled. Originally scheduled for September 26, the event focused on a slate of physical projects, with various distancing and sanitation measures in effect. But in light of Manitoba's rising COVID counts, organizers called it off, announcing the news on social media the day before go-time. (According to that statement, programming will now be spread over a month, though event details remain TBA.)

Drive-through art. As seen at Art Night Regina, a car pulls up to watch a projection of "Isol8" by ygretz. (Courtesy of Nuit Blanche Regina)

Nuit Blanche Regina had better luck with their IRL concept: a drive-through art exhibition that lit up the city's Warehouse District on August 29. 

Michelle Harazny, Nuit Blanche Regina's artistic director, says her team was inspired by the sudden popularity of all things drive-in, including Immersive Van Gogh, that "Gogh by car" light show in Toronto. 

Drivers were led through the route by a volunteer (on a blinged-out bike), and given three minutes at each of the event's eight project locations. At times, the line stretched four blocks long, says Harazny. While visitors waited their turn, they could tune in to a special DJ set, broadcast live over the FM dial.  

Some 250 vehicles passed through, according to Harazny. She says approximately 800 people attended last year's walk-able version. Still, she counts the experiment as a success, even if it won't necessarily be repeated. "We will only do a drive-through again if it's not safe for people to be outside," says Harazny, but the experience has given her team fresh ideas for future editions. Formerly a downtown-only event, they're now open to new locations, and she says they're keen on pursuing the guided-tour model even further.

A hybrid model in Halifax

Nocturne, Halifax's art-at-night festival, and the largest of its kind in the Atlantic region, has chosen a hybrid model for its pandemic experiment, programming an equal mix of virtual and physical projects which will be presented from October 12-17.

Usually a one-night event, Nocturne's extended its schedule in the interest of public safety, says executive director Lindsay Ann Cory. In theory, if people have more time to catch a projection or outdoor dance performance, they won't flock to a site en masse. 

Compared to other regions, COVID-related cancellation probably poses less of a risk for Nocturne. As of writing, Nova Scotia has only two active cases of COVID-19. But since April, when organizers decided to reinvent their format, they've been running through all disaster scenarios. 

"We have a Plan B, C, D, E, F," says Cory, and artists contributing physical projects have been asked to prepare online versions of their work, just in case. A year without Nocturne, she says, was not an option.

"We never had a thought that we would cancel," says Cory. "It really was a funding question." A non-profit organization, they're largely backed by government grants, which are tied to specific projects or programming, she explains. "To push it to next year, we really felt that we were going to run the risk of having to give back what we had already collected from the government. [...] So it was really about, 'What can we do?'"

This photo was definitely taken pre-COVID. Festival-goers flock to see "Sky Blue Pink" by Ursula Handleigh at the 2017 edition of Nocturne in Halifax. (Topher & Rae Studios/Courtesy of Nocturne)

Nocturne's 2020 program is roughly half the size of last year's edition, with 47 projects split between real-life attractions and online offerings.

"People really do look forward to Nocturne. There's a sense that people get a chance to take back their city," says Cory. So scaling back the IRL portion does feel a bit like a loss, she says. "But also, I think we really try to think about what we could gain in this. And part of that was, 'OK, well, we can obviously gain more eyeballs on what we do because it's going to be virtual.' People will see what we're doing even if they don't live here." 

'It's a gigantic experiment'

In Toronto, Nagam echoes the sentiment. On Nuit Blanche night, the artistic director probably won't be in the city at all, but at home with her family in Manitoba, where she's an associate professor at the University of Winnipeg. But she can still experience everything.

"I'm hoping that we have a really nice national and international dialogue," says Nagam, noting this year's contributing artists hail from Australia, New Zealand, the U.S. and all over Canada. "One of the artists [Maureen Gruben] is from Tuktoyaktuk. And it's incredible to think about those cross conversations that could be happening — that there could be people in Maureen's community, that are up in Tuk, that are playing with those AR/VR works." 

Here's another screenshot of a Nuit in Your Neighbourhood project, Joi Arcand's "Never Surrender." (Dr. Julie Nagam)

AR pieces, like Gruben's, might be the closest substitute for the sort of whizz-pow surprise of discovering a Nuit Blanche installation on your street corner. "It's trying to invoke that same feeling that you get at Nuit Blanche when you see work in public," says Nagam, talking about the Nuit in Your Neighbourhood program.

But of course, the whole 2020 format is a completely different — and unproven — thing. "It's a gigantic experiment," Nagam says of this at-home Nuit Blanche. "And when you break new ground, you just don't know what the outcome is going to be."


Leah Collins

Senior Writer

Since 2015, Leah Collins has been senior writer at CBC Arts, covering Canadian visual art and digital culture in addition to producing CBC Arts’ weekly newsletter (Hi, Art!), which was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in 2021. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's journalism school (formerly Ryerson), Leah covered music and celebrity for Postmedia before arriving at CBC.

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