September 29-30, 2007
By Stewart Byfield
Recently, my roommate and I have been discussing the convergence of disparate thought processes. The mosaic, the smorgasbord, the slurry, the enormous steaming brain stew. Everything goes in and hopefully something marvelous comes out the other end. That’s what Nuit Blanche was all about. Here’s what I saw, minus geographical context, proper tenses or even literary logic. We go down to U of T and see a pretty serious happening. Smoke is billowing out of the ground, and as we approach we discover that some jagged hunk of flashing metal is protruding from the lawn. The whole scene has been taped off and is being guarded by soldier types, paramedics, fire people and camera-toting media types wearing the appropriate garb for such vocations. A huge screen is broadcasting a news report about the landing as the most important discovery in human history and something about aliens.
A sign invites us to line up and experience the great INTERGALACTIC MIRACLE. Perhaps I haven’t accurately described the build-up to this punch line, but it took us a good while of walking around the wreckage before we actually figured out where to go next. We line up to enter the tent. Cynical ole’ me — I actually posit that it’s an elaborate ad for the new Halo game. However, I am still willing and ready to embrace the mystery. We are guided into the tent by a smirking young woman, and the gag comes out of the bag, as it were.
There, bathed in white light and surrounded by funereal wreaths, Hanukkah menorahs and bonsai trees, is E.T. (the extraterrestrial). Clad in Jesuit robes, he’s using his glowing finger to heal a passed-out Yoda, all Lazarus styles. The Jedi master is sprawled out on his back like an invalid over the lanky alien’s knees. The pair lie intimately together on a platform shaped like the Star of David. E.T.’s head is framed by a wheel displaying various contradictory religious symbols. And when the laughter comes…
We see bright lights and something of a lattice-work out in the neatly groomed fields of Queen’s Park. There is intense symphonic music, police radio garbles, screaming child noises, and general wacky sonic madness spewing out of five strategically placed speakers. But the lights and the scaffolding are there only to draw people in, as if they were moths. Once caught standing around in this blinding light, bombarded by conflicting aural impulses, one can read the sign that explains that you’ve been duped.
We’ve managed to draw and hold your attention just long enough. Now you are on display.
And sure enough I was.
The group expands. Having already read the sign, I have the pleasure of watching my friends waltz into its influence unawares. Tee hee hee. Kind of a lame post-modern gag, but I still enjoy watching people encounter it. Blinking, trying to figure it out, saying things like “I don’t get it” or “this is sooooo stupid,” or even “this is soooooo beautiful.” Then they see the sign and groan a little. Neat.
Now I’m sitting cross-legged in a tent surrounded by Christmas trees and people stringing beads onto fine plastic twine, and I’m challenging strangers to best me at the game of Operation. A couple ends up accepting and I lose on the first attempt for the bread box. He manages to remove the brain freeze with no problems. She gets the funny bone.
Then I’m watching a brilliant film about synchronized, balletic dancing backhoes. Then another about the day to day struggles of a family of French corpuscles, unaware that the human organism they occupy has died at the dinner table. Then one about a poor Jewish family that chances upon an anthropomorphic meat grinder that grants wishes. Would that I could stick around for the next one, but suddenly the group is on the move again.
We head out back onto Queen and there we find a great puppeteer who takes suggestions from the crowd and turns them into songs. I yell out “autonomy,” and without skipping a beat he’s off on a sonorous tangent about feeling lost in the city. Timely. Synchronous.
But perhaps not as synchronous as the labyrinthine trumpet forest in the field around the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. It’s a serpentine network of gleaming brass bells that sprout up out of a black platform. Arranged around them is a series of mouth pieces embedded in the press board surface. Folks have gathered around the display and are placing headphones, cell phones, their lips, whatever makes a noise onto the mouthpieces causing a huge, resonant cacophony of digital noises mingling in the air around us. I bust out my slide whistle and kneel on the platform placing the sound hole on one of the mouthpieces. It looks pretty ridiculous, me curled up on this installation trying to play along with two different trance songs, a cell phone ring, random farting noises and whatnot, but the attempt at least gets a few chuckles from the throng.
Then, it’s up a flight of stairs and into an artists’ living room. A very somber man is blocking the guests from entering his kitchen where one can see empty styrofoam take out boxes, dirty dishes and a few cans. My eyes wander to a large shadow box at waist height wherein we find tiny models of common household items made from paper, ridiculously detailed in their representations. A tiny coffee pot, parasol, car windshield wipers, an origami bilge pump, a broken tone arm, the skull of a toaster oven — all miniscule and perfectly rendered.
It is two in the morning and we’re getting a tad restless. Now we are a pentacle. Open stage on the street corner with two huge screens projecting the walkers-on-uppers out into the crowds. I line up to get my 30 seconds of exposure. The gentleman before me tries a little stand up but his voice is too small for the great outdoors and his words are sadly lost. I step up and bust out my slide whistle. A few quick bars of something in a minor key and then I throw up my hands and yell “yeah” in a full-on rock styling. Works every time. I get a chorus of “yeah’s” back at me and a few claps on the shoulders as I weave my way back to me tribe. And then it is immediately forgotten as someone is saying something foul on the mic; the crowd goes wild.
The last thing I see:
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This was a great night. There’s something beautiful about watching the curious pedestrian mass take over. I saw thousands of people from all walks of life blundering around with creamy eyes focused upwards. So much to take in and do. So many brief, unique, social interactions. Like onions and celery and carrots in a pot. The hot simmer of the great social mirepoix. From which all other dishes may come. Or maybe I’m just hungry.