Nuit Blanche Toronto goes virtual to change how people see art and public space

Written by Noor Bhangu, Ryerson University. Photo credit Noor, Author Provided. Originally published in The Conversation.

Artist Joi T. Arcand explains ‘Never Surrender,’ ‘translates a …1980s Canadian pop song into the Cree language and recontextualiz[es] the lyrics as an anthem of Indigenous sovereignty.’ Here, the image layered over a photo of a Winnipeg sidewalk.

In streets and kitchens across Canada, viewers and participants can interact with virtual public art to be reminded of diverse histories and communities. This is through Nuit In Your Neighbourhood, a new virtual component of Toronto’s ongoing Nuit Blanche festival, which runs until Oct. 12.

Nehiyaw text-based artist Joi T. Arcand’s artwork celebrates just this when she writes “Never Surrender” in Cree syllabics to honour her own heritage and efforts of solidarity-building between Indigenous communities.

The neon words are delivered to viewers’ spaces in three dimensions through virtual reality and augmented reality technologies. Viewers visit the Nuit in Your Neighbourhood site on a smartphone or tablet, click on avatars of the images, and then can use their device to photograph artists’ works wherever they direct their cameras (some versions of devices may require users to download an app).

Nuit Blanche’s artistic director, Julie Nagam, brings an approach to curating art that focuses on coalition-building through dialogues and collaboration. I am a research assistant to Nagam working on Nuit Blanche programming and I research Islamic art histories and transcultural curatorial practices.

Both the COVID-19 pandemic and recent debates around public heritage and public monuments shape how Nuit Blanche Toronto is seeking to remap cities. The festival features artists who imagine different futures for BIPOC communities that have been marginalized, and whose work realizes a more liveable present through remapping what an urban space and a community can be.

Re-visioning community & public space

Now, when many people globally are facing another COVID-19 lockdown and the unknowns of stepping into yet another pandemic month, it would be a cliché to state that most of us are exhausted. Many of us are feeling disconnected from what we might have once called community and connection. Both social distancing measures imposed at the outbreak of COVID-19 and vigilant transformations of shared public spaces seen in the removal of colonial monuments have led some people to announce the end of public spaces.

Our societies are reckoning with the fact that public spaces marked by these monuments are not accessible or desirable for everybody.

While we’re witnessing the end of a public space as we know it, it is certainly not the end of its possibilities. A recent panel discussion, “Thinking Through Public Space in the Time of COVID,” was part of Nuit Talks, a series of in-depth conversations with Nuit Blanche artists, scholars and curators. During the discussion, Mazyar Mortazavi, board chair for The Bentway, a public art space and park located under Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway, said: “Grief is the first step for recovery.”

There are infinite possibilities for how viewers might engage with Nuit in Your Neighbourhood artworks, from the safety of their own homes or walking through public space.

Nuit in Your Neighbourhood

A common thread that ties together the commissioned works in Nuit in Your Neighbourhood is the artists’ engagement with virtual technologies to critically elevate marginalized histories. Such practices are also seen where Indigenous artists, curatorsand writers make and imagine space in art exhibitions and in contemporary arts commentary.

Nagam has approached decolonial curating through similar gestures of affirmation and presence. Alongside curator Jaimie Isaac, Nagam curated the groundbreaking exhibition, “INSURGENCE/RESURGENCE” at the Winnipeg Art Gallery in 2017 that created opportunities for a young cohort of artists and BIPOC communities in the city. To this day, it has been the largest exhibition on contemporary Indigenous art in the country.

Space making

With Nuit in Your Neighbourhood images, a person might interact with artists’ images in their domestic or shared public space.

Consider When The Fam Lose Faith, Hold Them Up, by Toronto-based photographic artist Yung Yemi. Viewers could choose to mark the distance gained through Black Lives Matter protests against colonial monuments by photographing the disgraced statue of Egerton Ryerson in Toronto with this image layered overtop.

Yung Yemi, ‘When The Fam Lose Faith, Hold Them Up’ (2020). Photo credit: (Yung Yemi), Author provided.

In the digital medium, the artist’s depicted Afro-futurist figures can travel and establish their own relations, and are both ephemeral and fluid. They bring into reality what Toronto’s own philosopher and communications theorist Marshall McLuhan prophesized: “The medium is the message.”

Another artist whose work invites people to mark space is video and performance artist Rah Eleh’s #Bluegirl. This work is an immersive video that considers self-immolation practicesinvolving young women in the Middle East and Persian-speakingnations in Central Asia.

In #Bluegirl, Eleh visualizes alternatives of survival for these figures that massage out the possibilities of not only the present, but the cosmic past and future.

Detail from Rah Eleh’s ‘#Bluegirl’ (2020). Photo credit: (Rah Eleh), Author Provided.

Memories of origins

Maureen Gruben’s Kagisaaluq visualizes cultural traditions to demonstrate their vitality and survival. Kagisaaluq presents a “fox stretcher,” an Inuvialuit tool to stretch and preserve animal skins carved by Gruben’s father to help the family and community thrive in the Arctic. In reproducing this, Kagisaaluq feels as if it reorders space and time to honour traditional forms of survival and knowledge.

Maureen Gruben, ‘Kagisaaluq’ (2020). Photo Credit: (Maureen Gruben), Author provided.

Artist Chun Hua Catherine Dong has discussed the idea that tradition needs to be expanded. Skin Deep is the artist’s most recent exploration in an ongoing series, where faces are wrapped by different Chinese silk fabrics.

Dong has noted she is not only challenging patterns of sexism in China, but also the “othering” of Chinese Canadian subjects through racism in Canada.

When explored in its augmented reality construction, threads in the form of a fluttering butterfly start to lift from the face. For me, this signals a slow but enduring deconstruction of tradition.

Solidarity across cultures, peoples

Nagam’s prioritization of BIPOC artists living in diverse cultural conditions generates solidarities across diverse cultures and peoples. From an esthetic perspective, what is of lasting remembrance is an encounter between the artwork and audience.

Chun Hua Catherine Dong’s image ‘Skin Deep,’ is layered over an image of a fence in the author’s backyard, Sept 28, 2020. Photo Credit: (Chun Hua Catherine Dong), Author Provided.

In the expanded universe of augmented reality and virtual reality, the artworks engender what curator and artist Amalia Mesa-Bains has referred to as “inter-ethnic intimacy,” borne out of exchange.

Within processes of play and exploration, audience members are invited to understand and feel the different layers and propositions of how space is made. When we are longing for the rush of the Nuit crowd, we are, instead, offered deep connections with other people and other communities, where multiplicity is the work.