Talk About Things: Art On The Streets

We’re back! With our return, we’re introducing a new segment called Talk about Things. The segment will consist of an open and (hopefully!) engaging dialogue between the two of us. For our first Talk about Things, we continue to explore the way we interact with public spaces. Specifically, we’re looking into the ways art interacts with these spaces; we are exploring art as a communal event. We’re drawing from our experiences visiting art events such as Nuit Blanche in Toronto and Nightshift Placehacking Festival in Kitchener. Join us as we discuss the ways we interact with art when it becomes a public event.


Grace: The first time I considered art in an environment outside of a gallery or museum was fairly recently – in one of my fourth year classes at UWaterloo, Art and Culture, taught by Shana MacDonald. I was aware of events like Nuit Blanche, but having never attended before, I never took the time to consider how the space art is presented in affects not only the art, but filters the audience and influences the responses to it.

Jessica: The earliest interaction I remember with art is when I visited the outdoors artisan market with my family. I wasn’t sure how to interact with the art pieces, they felt closer to merchandise than anything else. I saw the art differently because it existed outside a gallery; I didn’t attend a gallery until much later in my life, and because of this I considered my interactions with art to be limited. Thinking about it now, I was seeing art on the streets quite often – from graffiti to street performers to public monuments.

Grace: I  grew up in a Calgarian suburbia, so I don’t even think I really saw that much graffiti or street performers. I’m sure I saw things, but they wouldn’t have been part of my environment.

Jessica: I definitely didn’t think of it as art at the time. I had very absolute ideas of what art was. My definition of art has expanded in the last few years. In particular, Shana’s class was a big force in challenging my rigid ideas about art. That class really nurtured my understanding of art and aesthetics, and we talked about the many ways in which art exists outside the canvas. The way artists can turn the environment into an integral part of an art piece is both intriguing and inspiring.

Grace: One thing I really liked was how when art is in a public place, it becomes accessible to people in the community. Apart from the odd installation, my first experience with public art on a large scale was at Nuit Blanche in October. I’d heard of the event before, but this was my first time attending. I know you’ve been before – how do you feel about it?

Jessica: It’s been a long since I attended Nuit Blanche. I had actually just started High School when I first went. The event was still in its infancy, and as resident of the suburban GTA, it provided an exciting opportunity to spend a night in the city with friends, without spending much money. For me, attending Nuit Blanche wasn’t about the art. It was about the promise of excitement and the opportunity to do something out of the norm. I had a blast. I remember art pieces that left me in shock and inspired, art pieces that made me feel like I was part of something larger. Mostly, the energy of the streets felt contagious. The night was painted in colour. Caffeinated, intoxicated, and curious people were at every corner. A lot of my fondest memories of it are from art pieces that called for  audience participation. My all-time favourite memory involved chatting up zombies for some massive zombie scene that was being filmed that night. Year after year, I did lose the same spark I initially felt. I don’t blame the art for this, but rather external factors like terrible weather and the bad reputation that the event gained for becoming a breeding ground for drunks teens.  As a first timer, what did you think?

Grace: Your first year there sounds like it was incredible! I’m sorry your other experiences there were a bit anti-climactic moving forward. Was the year you went the first time it was hosted in Toronto? I wonder what changed – do you think it was just the featured artists, or were the sponsors or curators driving the content? Like I said, this was my first time going to Nuit Blanche! Over the last 6 years, I kept hearing about this event from my friends who had been. Mostly, it sounded like a huge, artsy block party downtown Toronto (where I desperately wanted and still want to be all the time), and I wanted in. Going there after hearing so much about it and doing so much planning was gratifying, but I wasn’t impacted by the art as much as I thought I would be. More than once, my perception of a piece or performance from the abstract was vastly different from the actual piece or performance and what it communicated to me.

Jessica: I’m almost certain I went the first year, but I was a very passive attendee. I wasn’t very critical about the artworks, the curations, or the event as a whole. To be honest, I doesn’t feel like much has changed. It still feels very true to its roots. I think Nuit Blanche suffers a lot from people having grandiose expectations. It’s an amazing, and unique event regardless, but I feel like people always expect more from it. They want the art to be closer, more legible, less crowded. Reflecting on my past experience, I always felt overwhelmed by the event. I think you have to be really devoted to experiencing the art to truly know Nuit Blanche.

Grace: And I think when we decided to go, we really were devoted to experiencing the art. One of the things that really drove the night for us was the amount of planning we put into it. I think we both wanted to maximize our time and visit the installations we thought would be the most impactful. When we compared our lists of the top 10 pieces we wanted to see, so many of them overlapped, which really made me feel like we were focused on exploring similar themes. I think if it weren’t for you, I might not have done as much planning for the night. Have you planned that extensively other times you’ve been? How did this year compare?

Jessica: Planning felt really important to me. I knew that we wouldn’t get through every piece because of long lines and timing, but taking ownership of the experience definitely helped. I had never planned ahead beforehand. This is going to sound a little obvious, but it was intensely helpful. It made Nuit Blanche feel more like a choose-your-own-adventure game. It felt like it was up to us to find interesting pieces, instead of expecting the universe to lead me to them like I had in the past. I think we were also able to be more critical of the event as a whole due to our planning.

Grace: I appreciated having a game plan going in. It helped focus us, but it definitely also helped us cut down on those moments when we ask each other where we want to go next whilst peering at a crinkled map in a cold, dimly lit street. I was particularly interested in seeing the government funded pieces – I read that Nuit Blanche lost Scotiabank as a major corporate sponsor this year, and heard the government-funded pieces were supposed to be really amazing.  Since you’ve been before, what, if any differences did you notice?

Jessica: It felt like a layer of capitalism was removed merely by dropping the “Scotiabank” part from the title. But there were still pieces sponsored by corporations, like Ocean, which was sponsored by H&M. I don’t think corporations being involved is terrible, although their involvement does make me more critical of a piece. I actually like corporations going beyond straight business and thinking about the cultural and communal impact they can have. I am weary of these collaborations because I’m never sure whose vision I’m seeing. Still, I acknowledge that it’s sponsorships that allow events like this to run at the level they do. I’m not surprised that the government-funded pieces were amazing, I was blown away by OBLIVION and the way it turned Nathan Phillips Square into the heart of the event. Each piece was visually striking, and the massive crowds surrounding the pieces made them feel even grander. The city of Toronto and Ontario tourism must love the way Nuit Blanche puts Toronto on the map, culturally.  And how it ties Toronto to the art world. On that note, I enjoyed how much of the city it showcased, there were art pieces by Harbourfront, Bloor, College, and Kensington Market, in addition to the downtown core. It felt really community-oriented and representative of Toronto.

Grace: Yeah, the community really seemed like it turned out for the night! I anticipated it being busy, but sometimes I was shocked at how long the lines to see a piece were, or how much foot traffic there was in usually residential neighbourhoods. Like you said, the art highlighted different parts of the city – between the foot traffic and the unexpected pieces around every corner, Toronto felt like it had been transformed into an art playground just for the night. Pieces like Vertigo Sea opened and altered the vibes of corporate buildings; Rebecca Belmore’s New Projectreclaimed public spaces. Nuit Blanche specifically states that its mission is to transform spaces; do you feel like they achieved their purpose?

Jessica: I liked the use of space, a lot of the art pieces felt very at home in the public spaces in which they were featured. They added warmth to certain spaces, and repurposed buildings beautifully. In this aspect, Nuit Blanche is almost like a Doors Open event, it opens up places with which many people have no interaction. It felt like we were exploring a city, and even though it’s one I call home – for that night it was dressed up. It forced me to rediscover some parts I already knew, reconsider others I’d never venture towards, and in this way it made the city the main attraction – the main art piece. Facing the Sky actually pushed people outside of the city by inviting them to look out into Lake Ontario and the open sky. I think they achieved their purpose just by choosing this space to host their pieces. What do you think about the pop-up aspect of Nuit Blanche? For me, one of the most exciting aspects about this event is that it’s so short lived. The city comes alive for a night, and that has a real pull.

Grace: The temporal aspect of pop-up art actually had me thinking about how installations and pieces become more similar to performance art. The exhibits at Nuit Blanche were not only temporal, but many of them needed an audience to be complete as an art experience. Literature vs. Traffic was a beautiful installation that required active participation to fulfill its mandate: to eventually recycle itself by allowing anyone to take a book in the last few hours of the night. My roommate loved that piece, and brought home a book that her grandma used to read to her when she was little. I’d say the installation successfully appropriated that space, and gently invited people to transform the site by participating in it. Pieces can also fail when they can’t speak to their audience, rendering themselves illegible. You know which piece I think failed? Everyone Thinks The Same Thought.

Jessica: Yeah, I was really excited for that one, but Everyone Thinks The Same Thought looked more like an American Apparel commercial to me than anything else. I couldn’t get into it, though it was beautiful to look at. The participatory pieces are my favourite because they make it easier to interact with the piece beyond a surface level. It really makes it clear that art does not have to be rigid, and that everyone can be an author. Participatory public art feels like an invitation to add a layer of meaning to an art piece, and this makes the experience very memorable. The collaborative aspect adds on to the accessible nature of street art. It feels so much more welcoming. I think for art to be successful outside the gallery, it shouldn’t only transform a space, but it should invite audiences to interact with it – even if it’s just laying down and staring at strips of fabrics as if stargazing, as visitors did with Ocean, or immersing yourself into the visuals displayed on three giant screens as with Vertigo Sea.

Grace: You’re right about the collaborative aspect making the art more accessible. Further to accessibility, even though Nuit Blanche isn’t perfect, it does a lot to make itself open to not only local people in the community, but to people coming from out of town. I guess it’s a little discouraging to see such long lines sometimes – I know we decided to skip some of the pieces we had planned to see because of how long the wait to get in would have been. At the same time though, isn’t the accessibility the main reason to display art in public spaces?

Jessica: Nuit Blanche is not without flaws. Most spaces seemed accessible to all bodies, although this doesn’t seem to be a requirement for all pieces – and it should be. Nuit Blanche does do a good job at connecting people with art. The fact that it’s a free event held mostly outdoors draws many that might otherwise not be able to interact with art pieces. It’s also great to see how many young people it brings out. I know a lot of them are not there for the art, moreso for the spectacle, but it still fosters a closer relationship to art with a lot of people that may not have this experience without events of this nature. We’ve spoken a lot about Nuit Blanche, and that’s mainly because of its scale, but how do you think Kitchener’s NightShift compares?

Grace: This was also my first year going to NightShift, which is marketed as a placehacking festival; a kind of celebration of urban exploration. It seems to have a far different mandate than Nuit Blanche does – it aims to invite participation and community building through pop-up art and performance. My absolute favourite piece of the night was calledReconstruction, by Mobile Art Studio. Located right outside of Kitchener City Hall, volunteers used overhead projectors and images of familiar spots in Kitchener and Waterloo to invite participants to draw up city blocks and reimagine them with changes they wanted to see – fantastic or not. Being able to see recognizable city blocks really drew me in. The volunteers who were part of the piece wore orange visibility vests and called out”shift changes” where they turned around the drawing boards to project new images and allow people to add new things to their cityscapes. They also encouraged participants to use social media to share their experiences – take a look at @mobileartstudio on Instagram to see some pictures!

Jessica: I really wish I had been able to join you at NightShift. It sounds so amazing! The direct focus on community building really stands out as an opportunity for art to positively impact public spaces, and make locals feel a sense of pride and increased interest in their home. I’ve seen pictures of Reconstruction on Instagram and it look very interactive. Why do you think there is so much emphasis to use social media? Do you think it’s a means of growing the festival? Or is it more about expanding the event beyond to city and into another space?

Grace: I had a really good time looking at the art at NightShift! I know that Nuit Blanche and NightShift have different goals, and the emphasis on sharing an experience and participating in my own community added meaning to the whole event for me. It’s obviously a smaller scale event in a smaller city, and it draws a primarily local crowd that is eager to get involved. I didn’t get to see all of the pieces that night, but the ones I saw weren’t heady and alienating by any means – one of the local stores had a “collage party” set up inside of it, and it was full of people gathered around tables and making mini-collages out of magazines and scrapbooking paper. As to the use of social media, I can speculate. With a strong emphasis on community building, I’d think that NightShift is content in Kitchener Waterloo. If it were to expand, I’d see it becoming multiplying into small events based in other communities, rather than sprawl over multiple cities. The social media aspect seems to be more about being able to share the art experience through the participant’s lens.

Jessica: That sounds so lovely. I think crafts is one of the most accessible forms of art, and to bring it outside opens up an opportunity for amazing collaborations and human interaction.  NightShift is similar to Nuit Blanche in that it is also hosted outdoors and boasts its accessibility. Did you feel like this was executed well?

Grace: I feel like NightShift was just as accessible as Nuit Blanche, if not more! Again, it was a free event held outdoors and in public buildings.Things were located near enough to each other that it was easy to navigate, even if you weren’t very familiar with the area. With smaller crowds, I never had to choose to skip something because the line was too long. I like that the event was not only accessible physically, but it drew different people in. Maybe it’s the difference in location, but I noticed that the age demographic of the audience wasn’t limited to young people. I’d say it was very well executed! Accessible art is art that belongs to everyone.

Jessica: I absolutely agree. Art on the streets is a good way to incite interest in art and the community all at once. It’s a wonderful means of building community and getting a glimpse of the amazing work of local artists. It brings attention to public spaces and the ways in which they are used, and allows us to reimagine the ways they could be used. It refocuses the place where art belongs, and makes a point of showing that art belongs anywhere.

Grace: Art is such a beautiful way to translate shared experiences into an aesthetic experience, and when those experiences are filtered to only reach people who have access to transportation or money or free time, pre-existing divides within communities will only continue to fracture apart. Going to NightShift was such a warming experience for me – I left feeling elated and inspired. That’s what I think a quality art experience can do to you!

We want to hear from you! What’s been your experience with art in public places? Have you ever been to an outdoor art festival? Tweet us at @PivotalVoices and let us know what you think!

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