Art for Our Sake

From the now defunct DESIGN 21: Social Design Network, an online community that explored the connection between design and society. It was a joint venture between UNESCO and Felissimo. I was the resident blogger.

It’s popular today to talk about the power of design, and the responsibility of design, and its potential to spur social innovation. This post, for a change, gives design a time-out and calls upon the transformative power of art.

I do so because I’ve recently come from a free 12-hour contemporary art party in Toronto called Nuit Blanche. It was the second annual, inspired by the Parisian precedent, and it succeeded in bringing out hordes of people from sunset to sunrise: young, old, goth, punk, scenesters, rockers, tourists, locals. I’ve never seen anything quite like it!

The downtown core was divided into three zones. Each carried a theme. The themes were brought to life through more than 190 site-specific exhibitions, independent projects and resident galleries whose doors remained open long-after-hours. (Mass transit and local bars adapted too, extending the hours of their service.) All in the name of art.


I set out to photograph my journey through the zones (from B to A to C – just because it worked out that way), with comfortable shoes, layered clothing, and plenty of water. After five-and-a-half hours of powering through performance art, video projections and interactive installations, I was invigorated, but realized my goal to see it all was overly ambitious. (Some of my friends knew better and selected only a few stops, staying long enough at each to more deeply appreciate the effects). Consequently, my third zone experience was tempered, as my tired feet gave way, and comfortable hotel bed beckoned. So I missed out on the pom-pom exchange, chocolate stag in the park, and 34-meter-long locust installation by Noburu Tsubaki and Hishashi Muroi. Drat! But what I was able to stick around long enough for was plenty rousing. Some highlights:

  • Noite de São Joãó (Night of St. John), by Brazilian installation artist Laura Belém, who imported a tropical street festival along one of Toronto’s ritzy shopping corridors;
  • Ground Loop Alibi, by superstar DVJ Charles Kriel, who mixed sound while projecting imagery onto the Royal Ontario Museum’s Michael Lee-Chin’s crystal;
  • Watcher, by multimedia artist Millie Chen, who choreographed 10 video vignettes inside three separate residences, which appeared as silhouettes across colorfully-lit windows;
  • ThunderEgg Alley, by po-mo artist Swintak, who turned an alleyway dumpster into a high-end micro hotel and spa for the night;
  • Everybody Loves You 2, by Japanese artist Daisuke Takeya, who invited 100 people to declare their love to the camera as neutrally as possible;
  • Midnight Mirage, by Vessna Perunovitch, who served Serbian food to an audience of 12;
  • City Glow, by Chiho Aoshima, who created a mesmerizing anime-inspired film of anthropomorphized urban life;
  • Incursion 43:38:36.19 N / 79:25:19.89 W°, by Craig Walsh, who installed a storefront video to outstanding effect: a window became a prehistoric aquarium, drip by drip; and
  • Magical World, by Johanna Billing, who filmed children at a cultural center outside Zagreb, Croatia, rehearsing the lyrics of the same-titled song.
  • And that’s just the short list of art I came to love at first sight. Some made me laugh. Some made me cry. Yet, beyond the art, there was something else clamoring to get my attention. Something that felt a lot like social innovation. Although some of the works on display were clearly “art for art’s sake” the cumulative effect of the exhibitions was transformational.

    Each of the thousands of us in attendance was at once observing the art and making the art. Alone, or with friends, knowing or unknowing, we became one giant art beat. Nuit Blanche succeeded because its effect was more powerful than the sum of its parts. Together, we shared a social slice of time. As individuals, we left positively changed.

    Art is not dead, folks. It’s as important as ever. As imperative as design. For, if design is about coming up with the right answers to our shared problems today, art is about raising the right questions and motivating us to celebrate colorfully, loudly, and all through the night.



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