Artful Blogger

SHOCK + AWE: New curator for Ottawa’s first Nuit Blanche offers some hints, rules, and opinions to get us in the mood for the big art crawl

By Paul Gessell

Definitely expect to party in some art-filled parking garage in the Byward Market. Don’t (please) arrive drunk. Definitely expect to see the best art Ottawa can offer in both indoor and outdoor venues. Don’t count on flashy projects best left to Cirque du Soleil.

Stefan St-Laurent. Photo by Justin Wonnacott.

These are just some of the musings of Stefan St. Laurent, newly appointed guest curator for Ottawa’s first Nuit Blanche scheduled for Sept. 22. Before, St. Laurent was curator at SAW Gallery for eight years and brought to Ottawa some of the most talked-about art in the city during that period.

Remember the paintings done by animals? The machine that digests food and spews out feces-like waste? The cherished collection from the Museum of Bad Art? St. Laurent definitely knows how to get us talking.

In the following interview with The Artful Blogger, St. Laurent discusses his evolving plans to make Nuit Blanche successful

Q. What does the curator of Nuit Blanche actually do?

A. Most Nuit Blanche events around the world invite guest curators to develop a general theme for commissioned and open-call projects, allowing for a more focused, cohesive event. Nuit Blanche Toronto invited the very respected Ottawa-based curator Candice Hopkins to co-curate its last edition. The irony of Toronto turning to Ottawa for curatorial assistance is not lost on me! It is definitely evidence of how recognized and established the cultural scene in Ottawa is right now, something to be supported adequately (by this I mean proportional funding; Ottawa is still way below the national average).

As the guest curator, my wish is not to intervene on proposed exhibitions by independent galleries and curators. I will simply provide a flexible theme and direction for them to work with. Some public galleries will curate and mount their own exhibitions while others may ask me to suggest artists and projects for their space or for off-site presentations. Many new galleries have expressed interest in participating now, including the Ottawa Art Gallery, Galerie SAW Gallery, AxeNéo-7, Available Light Screening Collective — a good sign that most professional and emerging art groups and galleries will be coming on board, which would be the largest collective project the Ottawa art scene has ever seen. Some galleries will be encouraged to do off-site projects in the ByWard Market or other close-by sites so that the gallery-hopping circuit is not overextended.

We want to provide pertinent content for as many people as possible, which means we will need to actively promote our activities to the many communities that make our region so unique and vibrant. This can only be done by ensuring culturally diverse programming, something that has inspired much of my past curatorial work. Even though I can’t divulge the theme of Nuit Blanche until February, I can say that it will be a celebration of life and the human creative spirit, devoid of cynicism and pretentiousness, all too annoyingly present in the art world today!

As the guest curator, my main duties will include developing a theme that excites the imagination of both artists and visitors. I will commission and oversee five larger-scale art works from local, national and international artists, and will write content for grants and an essay for the event. I will also assist in finding many new partners and artists in the Ottawa-Gatineau art world to allow us to showcase the incredible breadth and scope of our regional art scene.

Q. Have you attended a Nuit Blanche in other cities? If so, what were the kinds of things you saw that Ottawa should emulate and, conversely, should avoid?

A. I have only attended Nuit Blanches in Montreal, but have gotten many in-depth reports from my artist friends about Toronto Nuit Blanche’s past incarnations. I am definitely a strong supporter of audience development initiatives such as the Nuit Blanche phenomenon, making art accessible to tens of thousands of visitors who don’t typically spend their leisure time in museums or galleries, yet I am apprehensive about certain aspects of Nuit Blanche events that have taken place, especially in larger cities. Nuit Blanche Ottawa is already in close contact with Nuit Blanche Montréal and Nuit Blanche Paris which are providing us with great information, recommendations and support.

Allowing bars to open until 4 a.m. sounds pretty cool. However, many cultural workers in T.O. will tell you candidly that by 2 a.m. people are so plastered, they walk into your gallery and throw their empty beer bottles anywhere, or worse, ignore or even destroy actual works of art. Focusing too much on late drinking has a definite downside. I’m not a prude by any stretch of the imagination (as many know), but I do think that in order to have meaningful connections with art and artists, you can’t be pissed drunk. We would be initiating a dysfunctional relationship right from the get-go. The focus should be on art and artists, not binge drinking until the wee hours. There will be, however, designated areas for drinking, and we will collaborate with local bars and venues to showcase some of the projects, and even try to have last call extended an hour or two. The business community absolutely needs to get something out of Nuit Blanche. If not, why else would they want us to overtake their neighbourhoods? Apart from making more sales and higher bar profits, business owners get to meet new people and potential clients, they may even present art in their space for the first time.

A few meetings have already taken place to hear what the art community wants from Nuit Blanche Ottawa — most have expressed a strong desire to assure that Nuit Blanche Ottawa develops its own identity and mission, to be markedly different than other NB events. Emulating Nuit Blanche events that take place in cities with millions of people is unrealistic for Ottawa. We will not have 500,000 people descending on our streets, so it should not be the expectation. Instead, we hope to build an event that is singular, sustainable, and regionally specific, and watch it grow from there.

Spreading things out too much is also something we hope to avoid. If there are too many destinations and sites, people tend to congregate to a single site instead of traveling across the city to see everything. The goal would be to allow visitors to see everything if they wish to do so.

Q. Are there some unusual outdoor venues in Ottawa you could envisage as good homes for Nuit Blanche art?

A. Even though we are really at the early stages of programming, it is great news that the National Capital Commission has already become a partner, and is receptive to us using many of the outdoor plazas and parks in the ByWard Market and Parliament areas. The larger commissioned works will be programmed in these public spaces, and independent artists can also apply to intervene wherever they want in the Market or Hintonburg, as long as proper permissions are obtained on their behalf ahead of time, and that their projects are related to the theme.

My hope is not only to occupy various areas in the city, but to also take over an entire parking garage in the Market, which will become the nerve centre of Nuit Blanche. It will be a space where artists can exhibit on multiple levels, with a rooftop social hub where everyone congregates by the end of the evening for a continuous stream of VJing, DJing, performances, and celebration.

Q. Visitors to Nuit Blanche sites on Sept. 22 will be looking for things to make them go “wow.” What are kinds of art events, with considerable wow factor, that you would like to see brought here?

A. Personally, I think it is detrimental to our mission and purpose to make the public think that good art has to be spectacular with wow factors. In fact, most professional artists will tell you they hate this kind of sensationalism that is now expected of them, the definite downside to the Nuit Blanche phenomenon. I don’t think it is necessary or productive to encourage artists to conceive projects that mimic Disney, Cirque du Soleil, Hollywood, or Broadway. It gives a skewed vision of what visual artists are actually making and doing today. I agree that some works of art can be spectacular and life-changing, but more personal and intimate works can garner the same effects. My goal is to show visitors the incredible breadth and diversity of the visual, media and performance arts being produced now, in film, video, interdisciplinary work, performance, public interventions, street art, community arts, etc…

Q. During your days curating exhibitions at SAW Gallery, you brought several highly unusual exhibitions to Ottawa, including one on feces-themed art, another involving art created by animals and, of course, a memorable performance piece in which a man pierced and bloodied his body repeatedly. Should these be considered the harbingers of the kind of art you hope to secure for Nuit Blanche?

A. During my eight years at SAW Gallery, I have organized and curated many unorthodox exhibitions. Some local media outlets have tended to concentrate on the more radical exhibitions we have presented, but I am always quick to retort that over the past decade, SAW has consistently organized critically and publicly acclaimed exhibitions, such as Bodies in Trouble (a photography exhibition exploring the human plight to survive on the planet), Beat Nation: Hip Hop as an Indigenous Culture, and Oil Spill: New Painting in Ontario. The gallery now attracts over 35,000 visitors annually, making it the most well-attended artist-run centre in the country. This indicates to me that people are just naturally curious about art, and are looking to be challenged on some level. What makes art especially fulfilling is its capacity to show you the world through different lenses, to change your views of others and of yourself, and to excite the human creative spirit that binds us all.

Curating is all about the context, and I would of course not invite an artist to bleed his HIV-positive blood in a performance at Nuit Blanche Ottawa. It wouldn’t have the same impact as its inclusion in our international exhibition Radical Drag: Transformative Performance, about queer identities, gender and representation. I have been guest curator for many international art events, such as the Baie-Saint-Paul International Symposium of Contemporary Art in 2010 and 2011, which has given me great insight on how to organize large cultural events for audiences that are not necessarily well-acquainted with contemporary art.

My dream would be to have hundreds of volunteers on-site providing context and information to roaming visitors, holding clipboards with everyone’s bios, CVs, contact information, locations, and to distribute the brochure and map. When Nuit Blanche is over, we hope arts organizations and artists feel its effect all year round, getting new audiences, patrons, volunteers, and supporters. Our primary goal is to serve and support artists and visitors the best way we can so that tangible relationships are forged between them.

Q. How will you decide whether Nuit Blanche is a success?

A. Things will certainly be quantified in numbers (visitors, funding, artists, and partners), but personally, I would rather use qualitative measures to evaluate its success: visitor-artist interaction, hosting, quality of projects presented, learning opportunities, participation, mood, accessibility, etc. This could be done by having volunteers incite visitors to fill out short surveys or something of that nature. Social media will play an important role in this edition, as we will offer many ways in which visitors can share, interact, and obtain up-to-the-minute information during the actual event.

We would like this Nuit Blanche to be completely interactive. For example, I will encourage some artists to produce collaborative works, community-driven projects, immersive installations, or participatory performances, making the event more experiential, and less disconnected.

To be a really successful Nuit Blanche event, the City of Ottawa will have to partner with us in a big way, like all other municipalities have done to host a NB event. It can’t just provide a few thousand dollars and expect Nuit Blanche to attract a million people with spectacular installations. The city will need to provide very essential resources such as funding, policing, licensing, street closures, permits, tenting, and publicity — and do so in a way that does not bog us down with red tape. The team is far too small to spend all its human resources being shuffled from one department to the next. It will take real will from the City of Ottawa staff to assure its success. The NCC is already enthusiastically involved. We now have a new mayor and council at the city that finally seem to understand the great economic benefits of culture in Ottawa, so there is a perfect condition for Ottawa to finally host its first official Nuit Blanche.

Anyone interested in participating or partnering with Nuit Blanche Ottawa is encouraged to consult the new website www.nuitblancheottawa.ca or to sign up to the Nuit Blanche Ottawa events page on Facebook.

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