Culture  Get outside of the gallery

Nuit Blanche street festival brings together artists and audiences

When I arrived at Avenue Mont-Royal last weekend for Nuit Blanche sur Tableau Noir, a street festival showcasing local artists, I was greeted by the Hulk holding a rubber duck. The avenue was painted with such movie poster parodies, including dustbusters in sexy maid outfits, to fit the street festival’s cinema theme. The annual festival, held in August this year instead of the usual June, is the project of Odace Evénéments, a Montreal company that puts on arts and culture events in an urban setting.

This year’s Nuit Blanche featured standard street festival staples of workshops, dancing, music performances, and a never-ending flea market. Walking down the avenue, there were sights to see in all directions: to my right was a group of jokester breakdancers with a paraplegic teammate, who during their off time played the Pokémon theme song and pretended to “catch” random festival-goers with mimed Pokéballs. To my left, children crowded together to have their faces painted with beautiful butterfly and floral designs. Transparent trucks featured surreal yoga routines, an unsettling blend of performance and advertising due to the lack of a fourth wall between performer and audience. Smiling salsa dancers encouraged us to join them in their workshop as we walked by, while the main stage featured the generic and muddy beats of DJ Claire. More obvious than Nuit Blanche’s cinema theme was its commercialism – shoe vendors lined the sidewalks, seemingly half of the attraction for festival-goers.

This was, however, only the surface of the festival. Nuit Blanche is all about art and culture, and hot dogs and burgers are only a by-product. Moving past the seemingly never-ending sea of shoes, I discovered the rows of independent artists that make up the festival’s core. Combatting the stereotype that art ‘worth buying’ is found in galleries, each of these artists displayed their innovative and intriguing works along the avenue.

Claude Lapierre, for example, specializes in street photography and documentaries. His major themes include people’s ways of life and unpolished urbanity. His usual photo-taking process is spur of the moment, he told me while showing me a photo of a New Yorker holding an ornate picture frame on the street. “I don’t know this guy,” says Lapierre. “It took ten seconds. So, you know, it’s quick.” His photos, which feature car wheels, birdcages, and fallen shopping carts, contain an element of awkwardness and peculiarity, which stems from a lack of symmetry and sheen. This contradiction between discarded objects and today’s sleek and refined urban living makes for captivating art. Eager to welcome art enthusiasts into his world, the friendly Lapierre keeps his prices relatively low, considering that all of his images are printed on photographic paper instead of with an inkjet printer.

After I spoke with Lapierre, a notably unorthodox art form caught my eye: street concrete and garbage encased in clear, rectangular prisms. The artist Jean-Paul Labelle is deeply influenced by the stress of urbanity, and decided to quite literally recuperate the imprints of stress, in object form, that circulate in the streets. He collects asphalt, pipes, car parts, and gloves, glues the pieces together, and then submerges his sculpture into resin. These moulds could not be more relevant to a street festival, he said, remarking on the fact that his art is the reverse of Nuit Blanche’s theme: instead of painting on the street, he takes the street out of the ground and turns it into art.

After a healthy dose of cold colours from Labelle’s art, I began to search for warmer pieces – and soon came across the paintings of Félix Girard, which bring to mind the artistic board game Dixit. Girard’s work emphasizes bright colours, drawing influence from childhood day dreams. He tackles many different kinds of images and subjects, from anthropomorphic mushrooms to happy musicians playing in an ensemble. The two elements that truly unite his works are his drawing style and his colour palette, which favours autumn colours in particular. “I have a story in my head for each painting, but I want the people to see what they want, too,” he said.

Opposite to Girard was graphic designer Geneviève Le Guerrier-Aubry, who told me that story has never had any importance in her art. She begins with a blank sheet of paper on which she glues one real butterfly or dragonfly. Then, the insect becomes her inspiration, determining the atmosphere and the colour palette. She creates abstract shapes around it, using a combination of pastels, acrylic paint, and construction paper, the atmosphere evoking flight, instability, and gravity. Once finished, she scans the images to properly conserve them and then cleans up the sides of the page, so that a white void surrounds her expanded shape.

Each of these diverse artists arrived at the same conclusion when asked about the value of Nuit Blanche: they relish the chance to talk to curious observers and allow their personal artist’s touch to seep in as they discuss their work. The artists are happy to connect with festival-goers – that’s why they came, grateful for this chance to display themselves and their crafts (and the sales don’t hurt either). Opportunities to see accessible art, not to mention converse with the artists, are not commonplace. Nuit Blanche brings artists and attendees together at a personal level, chatting casually or listening attentively to each other’s thoughts on the work at hand. People go to Nuit Blanche to connect with the art, without glass and ‘do not touch’ signs in the way.

In the end, there was no theme, cinematic or otherwise, that tied the street festival together – it was simply an amalgamation of its various booths. While talking to spectators like myself, however, I realized that street festivals don’t need to be curated like a gallery. The commercialism or lacklustre acts that might have hurt a more formal cultural event could not detract from the power of a street festival where everyone – artists, businesses, and spectators – feeds off of each other’s energy. Without the interaction between artist and viewer, galleries can only imitate the depth that Nuit Blanche sur Tableau Noir adds to its art, by situating it within a community.