At 6:53 p.m. Saturday, in the first minutes of an all-night art festival expected to draw a million people to the streets of downtown Toronto, Buffalo artist Shasti O’Leary Soudant will step into an enormous, glowing sculpture of the HIV virus in Nathan Phillips Square and address the assembled throng.
As part of Soudant’s project, one of several ambitious performances by Buffalo-based artists featured at the epicenter of Toronto’s ninth annual Nuit Blanche festival, 100 participants will don white hazmat suits and metal helmets painted bright orange and illuminated with LEDs. Then they’ll set off into the city to “infect” festivalgoers by covering their bodies with dots of invisible ink.
At midnight, if all goes to plan, 10,000 or more dot-covered revelers will return to the square to be bathed in black light, whereupon their bodies, as Soudant put it, will “light up like Christmas.”
“We basically tried to rent every black light in Ontario,” Soudant said in a recent interview about her so-called “HALFLIFE” project, grinning at the prospect of a city square teeming with polka-dotted art lovers. “When everybody gathers at midnight, I’m going to have all my viruses come back, and we’re going to do a little convocation.”
Elsewhere in the square, as hundreds of thousands of visitors stream past, the Buffalo painter, sculptor and performance artist Kyle Butler will act out a series of 12 episodes exploring the human desire to construct and demolish, while University at Buffalo professor and acclaimed avant-garde filmmaker Tony Conrad and others will act out an elaborate shadow opera based on the Greek myth of Orpheus. Meanwhile, members of Buffalo-based art collective known as the CanAmerican Energy Arts Team will present a large-scale project, the specifics of which remain shrouded in mystery.
The Chinese artist Bingyi, formerly of Buffalo, will bathe Toronto City Hall and its surrounding plaza in intense green light as she and performers transform the rooftop of the iconic building “into a blossoming, breathing, bleeding and exploding painting.”
For so many artists with Buffalo connections to be featured on the festival’s most visible and popular stage, which last year hosted a stunning sculpture made from 3,144 bicycles by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, is unusual.
And it’s all thanks to former Albright-Knox Art Gallery curator Heather Pesanti, who left Buffalo for Austin, Texas, last year along with the gallery’s former director Louis Grachos. During her time in Buffalo, Pesanti became a champion of local artists whose work she felt deserved to be seen on the national stage.
When Nuit Blanche first approached her in 2011, while Pesanti was working on her most important Buffalo exhibition, “Wish You Were Here,” Western New York artists were at the top of her list. Her budget for the project, according to Nuit Blanche organizers, was a whopping $350,000, not including costs for security and event staff.
“There’s a side of me that’s pretty amazed that we’re allowed to do this,” Pesanti said during a recent interview from Austin, where she is a senior curator at The Contemporary Austin. “I’m interested in continuing to bring Buffalo artists, the ones I think are exceptional, out onto a broader stage.”
Pesanti’s “Performance Anxiety” is one of four themed exhibitions that will run throughout the evening in addition to hundreds of individual projects and satellite events. In addition to promoting Buffalo artists as a central element at Nuit Blanche since its founding in 2005, it is the first time the festival has featured a show dedicated entirely to performance art.
“Performance Anxiety” also will include pieces by Los Angeles-based artists Kathryn Andrews and Scott Benzel, Hamilton-based artist Tor Lukas-Foss, Brooklyn’s Michael Smith and the Toronto-based performance troupe Vertical City.
The festival’s inclusion of an all-performance program is an acknowledgement of the newfound popularity of the form, which began in the ’60s, gained traction in the ’70s and is now in the midst of its latest – but surely not last – resurgence. For Pesanti, the title of her show has a dual meaning, both as an exploration of the nervous feeling that accompanies any kind of performance and the way digital culture enables and encourages people to perform in nearly every moment of their daily lives.
“What is it about projecting into the public sphere these personal or private elements of ourselves that is so anxiety-provoking?” Pesanti said when asked to talk about the conceptual framework of her exhibition. On a broader level, she added, “I am constantly shocked at this whole Warholian culture. I mean we have every kind of reality TV show imaginable, including ones where you’re going on a date in the nude. It’s just like, how is this even possible? I think it’s a really interesting concept in today’s age of hyper self-projection on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter.”
Soudant visited last year’s Nuit Blanche to get a feel for the size and scope of the event and came away equal parts impressed and intimidated.
“The density is surprising. The amount of people was astounding. It was actually a little frightening,” she said. But she’s confident that her project, in part a critique of digital technology’s insidious effects on human connection, will draw plenty of attention.
Butler, who is best known for his deeply considered paintings and sculptures that tease out the threads of social control that run through architecture and urban design, is using the event as an opportunity to push his artistic boundaries. His performance is titled “Phrases toward rephrase,” which “derives theater from construction and deconstruction.”
“You don’t always get this opportunity to have these resources to put together a performance or an art piece,” Butler said, adding that the institutional nature of the event itself, which is sponsored by Scotiabank, comes up for some criticism in his piece. “What I did with that opportunity is a little bit of a critique, in terms of the financial factors involved in organizing Nuit Blanche.”
Conrad, along with Irish composer Jennifer Walshe, presents a new shadow opera called “The Signing,” performed behind a hanging scrim and exploring “the dramatic tension, both psychological and social, enacted in the signing of a document such as a loan form, a divorce, a recruitment form or a contract.”
The CanAmerican Energy Arts Team, which was listed in initial publicity materials but later removed from the program, ostensibly to help build up the mystery surrounding the group’s entry, will deliver a performance titled “Monument to North American Energy Security” featuring “a monumental sculpture, consisting of two large oil barrels connected by a pipeline, to represent Canadian-American energy independence.”
The festival, which takes place throughout downtown Toronto, officially starts at 6:53 p.m. Saturday and wraps up at 7:20 a.m. Sunday morning. A full schedule is online at scotiabanknuitblanche.ca.