Seeking a white night (and avoiding a dark day) in Toronto

I’m back from a slight blogging respite; the last two weeks have been whirlwindy! This time last week, I was on my way back from Canada after Saturday’s nocturnal wanderings at Nuit Blanche, billed as an annual chance to “experience Toronto transformed by artists” from “6:59 pm to sunrise.” For the past three nuits blanches, I’ve awoken to 3am phone calls from my partner, M, narrating street installations of color and light, with strains in the background of electric sound, or opera, and hanging up has felt like letting some little magical portal fall closed. My expectations, then, were high for our first chance to go together; at the same time, they were vague, the imagining of an energetic blur of color, light, sound. And as such, they were absolutely met.

This year, Nuit Blanche included over 130 projects sprouting from corners and squares throughout the city; buildings and streets became both art and museum, actor and stage. It would have been difficult to predict and plot which sites most merited a visit, and impossible to see them all, so our path was a bit more organic; we used Yonge Street as a spine and wandered from King up to Wellesley. While the projects varied in individual potency—for some, the primary source of magic was surely their setting in the cold midnight city—the overall effect of migrating from light source to sound-and-light source was one of profound and somehow invigorating disorientation. Many of the installations were interactive, reintroducing us to the city by altering our interchange with it.

My first true sense of this effect was the “Soon” installation, which artists Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard explained as “a materialization, a frozen moment between the before and after. Something above Commerce Court is watching us and an inexplicable encounter unfolds.” As spotlights from a building top scanned the courtyard, filling with people and smoke and nervous, toneless music, we stood dazed. But one couple began to run, chased by the light, and then another, and then people stepped to the rim of the central fountain, their arms outstretched as if in some extraterrestrial gesture. It was unclear whether they were hired to take part in the spectacle or simply responding as they saw others respond, and that was part of the intrigue.
“The Way Up is the Way Down,” by Dennis Hale and Mike Sharpe, was described as “an enigmatic, floating, flashing amber beacon” intended to “transform public space and the meaning of civic engagement.” When we dialed a given number from M’s mobile, this glowing pendulum shook and rang like the possessed dial of a rotary phone suspended above Bay Street and King Street West, then shrank back to silence—the call unanswered, no message left.

“Intensity” by John Notten began with a queue outside a tent, and the enigmatic separation of tall people from short as we were directed through openings. Inside, we were submerged beneath low-hanging cloth; we felt our way along this makeshift ceiling until a hole emerged overhead. Coming up for air, M and I found ourselves in a pocket of space, a little dome of translucent fabric; through it we saw, in a communal, laughing realization with everyone else inside, that our heads were housed in miniature tents pitched on a lit stretch of turf. As the project description explained, “while you may think you’re entering the presentation centre for a new, luxury condominium development, you will find yourself in the middle of a seemingly endless tent city. Occupancy is fleeting, for within minutes you will be evicted.” Indeed, as soon as we had regained our bearings in this strange tent world, a disembodied voice instructed us to leave the premises immediately; we ducked back down, and out, to readjust to the open night.

Nearby in the Bay and Adelaide Center Courtyard, we stood in another line for “FLUXe,” the Scotiabank-sponsored “immersive art experience” that would let us “digitally transform the urban landscape.” At our turn, M and I were given a Blackberry tablet and instructed to select from nine artists whose strokes we could use to draw on the screen. We first chose Nanami Cowdroy, and our fingertips released a stream of etched cranes that were projected on the side of the building in front of us. (We were later able to access our chef d’œuvre online; see below!) City and color and light converged, literally beneath our hands.

our masterpiece

On a significant side note…That this flurry of cultural activity could bring hundreds of thousands of people to shun sleep and huddle in the streets, seemed ironic when four days earlier, Toronto’s City Council had considered the closures of several (unidentified) city-run museums based on low attendance—though, thankfully, voted to postpone them. While the potential cuts will soon be reconsidered, this reprieve allows time to rally the cultural troops and reflect on how to safeguard Toronto’s arts and heritage. The city cannot assume from any quantitative data that its cultural sites lack relevance, or that its citizens lack interest; it should take any numerical declines as simply signs that it should express and foster more pride and delight in its own resources. Nuit Blanche showed in no uncertain terms that energy and curiosity abound in Toronto; when people are beckoned to engage directly with the arts and the built environment, they will do so from 6:59pm to sunrise and leave wanting more.

Happy Jacobs Day: Fifty years of Death and Life

Dick Loek/Toronto Star

I am back from my sojourn in Toronto to begin a second year of classes in New York City. In 1968, Jane Jacobs, one of the great matriarchs of historic preservation, traveled in the opposite direction (though probably not on a Greyhound bus), moving her family from NYC’s Greenwich Village to Toronto’s Annex out of objection to the Vietnam War. Built on the revolutionary urban development ideas she developed in NYC, her work in Toronto continued to break ground for the rest of her life. She became a Canadian citizen, was inducted into the Order of Canada, and remained in the same house on Albany Avenue until her death in 2006. On today’s date twenty years ago, in honor of the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of Jane’s pivotal book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the city of Toronto declared “Jacobs Day.”

It seems fitting, then, to acknowledge her legacy there. We are awfully proud of her here in NYC, especially in my field, and perhaps forget that we share that pride with another city, one of which she herself was proud: in 1969, she said, “As a relatively recent transplant from New York, I am frequently asked whether I find Toronto sufficiently exciting. I find it almost too exciting. The suspense is scary. Here is the most hopeful and healthy city in North America, still unmangled, still with options.” (See Barry Wellman’s “Jane Jacobs, the Torontonian”) Of course, her impact on modern urban planning reaches beyond these two cities; wherever we fight for the human vitality of our neighborhoods, every day can be Jacobs Day!

Barnhopping: Ontario vernacular

North of Toronto, along the southwest coast of Lake Simcoe, the roads dip through farmland and yellow fields to stop, unexpectedly, at rocky shoreline. As we wandered around the countryside in search of hidden bits of lake, my lovely and patiently obliging partner pulled the car to the shoulder in front of every old barn we passed — some with flaking wooden planks, some green with ivy — so I could snap phone photos of these quiet bearers of Ontario’s history. Here are a few of them:





Dear Signage: the brass tacks of bronze plaques

Recently, my mom and aunt introduced me to a remarkable website called Dear Photograph. You may have already seen this microblog, which has gone viral in the less than three months since it was started by Taylor Jones, a 21-year-old from Kitchener, Ontario. Featuring a daily selection from viewers’ submissions, it is a collection based on the premise of revisiting the site of an old photograph and shooting it again, with the picture held up against its now-modern setting. The product—a past moment superimposed on the present—expands the physical limits of the original photo and the temporal limits of experiencing the place.

This concept reminded me of a preservation project I had heard about, one of the winning entries of a 2003 competition called Marking Places that Matter. According to NYC’s Place Matters, the offshoot of City Lore and the Municipal Art Society that sponsored the competition, “The challenge was to create simple, relatively low-cost strategies that would go beyond the traditional bronze plaque for marking and describing places around the city.” In David Provan’s “Historic Overlay” proposal, one of eight winners, he designed viewing stations for significant places where visitors could see an old photograph of a site alongside an empty frame, replicating the borders of the photo to outline their present view. In Provan’s words, “By using archival photographs ‘overlaid’ upon a site, a viewer would have the opportunity to compare and contrast their present moment and location with those of a distant yesterday.”

I will admit to a teary first reaction to Dear Photograph, and although I am known to be a bit of a sap, it seems to have resonated with many people in this way. The site’s popularity suggests that Provan’s comparable signage premise holds a lot of promise, and it supports several generalizations: people love comparisons, they especially love juxtaposition (not just we English majors who obsess over it in papers), and ultimately, they appreciate connection. To me, connections—of people to history via places, and to places via awareness of the past—are the brass tacks of signage. The power of Dear Photograph and “Historic Overlay” lies in their allowing us, in the spirit of the Tralfamadorians, to view the past and present of a place at once.