TORONTO – As dusk approached Saturday, the vast concrete expanse of Nathan Phillips Square here began to flood with the first of hundreds of thousands of revelers drawn by the work of a contingent of Buffalo artists.
Thanks to former Albright-Knox Art Gallery curator Heather Pesanti and her exhibition “Performance Anxiety,” Buffalo artists took on a starring role during this year’s Nuit Blanche, an all-night, city-sprawling art festival that was expected to draw more than a million people to Toronto’s streets throughout the evening. The festival, now in its eighth year, is a showcase for local and international talent that transforms Toronto’s streetscape into one heaving, pulsing outdoor art gallery.
And if the outlying installations and exhibitions were the veins and arteries of this ambitious undertaking, Buffalo artists and their alternately challenging and hilarious work at the epicenter of the festival were its beating heart.
Early in the evening in front of a stage at the northeast end of the square, in the shadow of Toronto City Hall, there were groups of two or three people dressed in fake Hazmat suits and carrying gigantic metal helmets painted a retina-burning shade of Day-Glo orange. They were assembled to listen to Buffalo artist Shasti O’Leary Soudant shout out a series of instructions for her performance “HALFLIFE.”
“A half-life is a terrible thing. Connection and contact is what leads to a full life,” Soudant said from the stage, standing inside an enormous metal polygon visible from several blocks away and sporting spiked hair dyed platinum and covered with invisible ink that shone fiercely in the black light.
“We are attempting this evening to eradicate fear with silliness. That is your mission tonight. Spread the antidote to fear. Spread connection. Take selfies, man.”
And on this, the night of a thousand selfies, they did just that, blowing up Instagram feeds across Southern Ontario and beyond.
Dozens of Soudant’s minions then set off into the city in teams of two, dabbing the hands and faces of people on the street with invisible ink and instructing them to report back at midnight for “quarantine and cure.” Despite a recent scare about a Toronto patient who tested negative for the Ebola virus on Friday, Torontonians seemed more than willing to participate.
Huge groups of curious art-seekers surrounded Soudant’s so-called “agents” as they dipped cotton swabs into beakers of invisible ink, dotted people’s hands and faces and declared them infected. (One “agent” even tested a dog.) Many of them would report back at midnight to be bathed in blacklight in one big communal convocation aimed at getting people to put down their iPhones and close their Facebook feeds.
Not all of the Buffalo-based artists’ works were so tongue-in-cheek.
Elsewhere in the square, the famed Buffalo artist and composer Tony Conrad sat at a keyboard behind a series of billowing white sheets, playing the soundtrack to a shadow opera called “The Signing,” along with co-composer Jennifer Walshe. A teenage audience member performed his own impromptu dance in front of the stage, prompting a friend to shout, “Not interpretive enough!”
Beneath one of the square’s brutalist walkways, Buffalo artist Kyle Butler took a pry bar to a wall he had built days, if not hours, earlier as part of his exhausting, all-night performance, “Phrases toward rephrase.” The piece, divided into 12 episodes, would see Butler alternately constructing and demolishing a series of drywall structures, occasionally pulling out objects like rolled-up pieces of sod. Though it wasn’t immediately apparent during his first performance, Butler’s piece was meant to comment on and illuminate the unseen currents of power that course through our built environment.
The proximity of Toronto’s City Hall, the place where the city’s embattled Mayor Rob Ford reports to work, made Butler’s work seem even more relevant and poignant.
In the square’s central pool and fountain, two enormous white tanks had been installed, the work of a Buffalo-based group of artists who identified themselves for Nuit Blanche as the “CanAmerican Energy Arts Team.” That team was, in fact, the acclaimed Critical Arts Ensemble, among whose members is the Buffalo-based artist and professor Steve Kurtz, the victim of an ill-conceived government prosecution from 2004 to 2008.
A brightly colored video, complete with Orwellian voice-over that served as a perfect send-up of ads for BP or natural gas that now jam the airwaves, played to a rapt audience. Behind the tanks were a dozen enormous barrels full of brown food coloring, evidently meant to simulate an enormous oil spill later in the evening – the details of which had been kept under wraps in order to achieve maximum surprise.
A group of people transfixed by the video, but with no idea that a simulated oil spill was approaching, speculated correctly that it had something to do with the Keystone XL pipeline.
Few of the throngs who flooded Nathan Phillips Square on Saturday had any idea that most of the performances they’d come to witness were Buffalo-based. Nor, when asked, did any of them seem to care. From a pair of Spanish tourists in line for Soudant’s exhibition to teenage party-seekers to people taking a night off from TV, they had all just come to soak in the vibe.
That’s the great beauty of Nuit Blanche and the arts-conscious city that hosts it. It’s an acknowledgement of citizens’ innate curiosity, a huge vote of confidence in their intelligence and an unparalleled stage for talented international artists to show off their skills.
And just like Soudant’s eye-catching helmets, you could see Heather Pesanti’s smile from across the square. Pesanti, now a curator at The Contemporary Austin (Texas) under former Albright-Knox director Louis Grachos, said she was thrilled to finally be witnessing what’s been in the planning stages for so long.
“It feels incredible. I’m so happy. I’ve been working on this for two and a half years,” she said. “I am walking around with a grin on my face, because I can’t believe it’s all happening.”