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Ennui Blanche

Analysis: The Whitewashing of Dissent in Toronto Public Art

by Megan Kinch

At the AGO, Ai Weiwei presents his famous series of crappy photographs of himself giving the finger to different things such as Tiananmen Square, The White House, The Eiffel Tower and some art.  In his honour, I hereby present my own art project, Ennui Blanche. This is Ai Weiwei's “Forever Bicycles” installation at Toronto City Hall.
At the AGO, Ai Weiwei presents his famous series of crappy photographs of himself giving the finger to different things such as Tiananmen Square, The White House, The Eiffel Tower and some art. In his honour, I hereby present my own art project, Ennui Blanche. This is Ai Weiwei's “Forever Bicycles” installation at Toronto City Hall.
"Free land' in Simcoe Park. Basically digging a hole in a highly landscaped plot with no real dirt and giving out the soil. Fellow Nuit Blanche traveller. They called it "liberated soil". Liberated soil with a permit? But it turns out there might be more to this piece than I thought...
"Free land' in Simcoe Park. Basically digging a hole in a highly landscaped plot with no real dirt and giving out the soil. Fellow Nuit Blanche traveller. They called it "liberated soil". Liberated soil with a permit? But it turns out there might be more to this piece than I thought...
The CN Tower. Did you know that the local ASL sign for the CN tower is a middle finger with a forearm straight up and down?
The CN Tower. Did you know that the local ASL sign for the CN tower is a middle finger with a forearm straight up and down?
Ubiquitous Scotiabank Nuit Blanche Twitter feed advertisements. I'm already AT Nuit Blanche! I don't need ads for it. And, if I wanted to see what’s happening on Twitter I would look at my phone.
Ubiquitous Scotiabank Nuit Blanche Twitter feed advertisements. I'm already AT Nuit Blanche! I don't need ads for it. And, if I wanted to see what’s happening on Twitter I would look at my phone.
Toy protest at Toronto City Hall commemorating a Russian protest. Right where the giant Toronto Stop the Cuts anti-austerity budget protest occurred. Right by the doors where people were trapped where the cops were beating and pepper spraying people. I guess dissent is cool in Russia, let’s forget about Toronto dissent that happened AT THIS EXACT LOCATION.
Toy protest at Toronto City Hall commemorating a Russian protest. Right where the giant Toronto Stop the Cuts anti-austerity budget protest occurred. Right by the doors where people were trapped where the cops were beating and pepper spraying people. I guess dissent is cool in Russia, let’s forget about Toronto dissent that happened AT THIS EXACT LOCATION.
Cars driving around forever and not crashing but then crashing slightly. We can see enough cars almost crashing into each other and then crashing in the entire vicinity around Nuit Blanche where traffic is being managed horribly with fans from an entire Leafs game driving right into an art exhibition.
Cars driving around forever and not crashing but then crashing slightly. We can see enough cars almost crashing into each other and then crashing in the entire vicinity around Nuit Blanche where traffic is being managed horribly with fans from an entire Leafs game driving right into an art exhibition.
"Parade" themed ferris wheel installation thing. I myself am partial to the Renegade Parade, and it was populated by 15 year old raver kids and people dressed in bear costumes.
"Parade" themed ferris wheel installation thing. I myself am partial to the Renegade Parade, and it was populated by 15 year old raver kids and people dressed in bear costumes.
Blah blah blah "lecture" at OCAD, where a university is satirically taking on the university ...oh so meta.
Blah blah blah "lecture" at OCAD, where a university is satirically taking on the university ...oh so meta.

This year’s Nuit Blanche is a particular flavour of offensive that's hard to categorize. Unlike last year, where Zizek's talk on the Occupy movement had a vaguely dangerous flavour, this year’s exhibits remind us that dissent and repression are cool things that happen somewhere else, in some other country. Well, it reminded us of that when we could actually find any art. “Official” installations or performances were few and far between, and the informal spontaneous art pieces that used to appeared frequently were scarce compared to previous years. Drunk people trying to puke on your feet, however, were not. Nor were cars trying to drive over you since in a complete planning clusterfuck, an entire Leafs game full of suburban fans in cars had to find their way home through an art exhibit packed full of pedestrians. 

Several of the art pieces seemed designed to draw attention to repression of dissent in other countries. One exhibit showed tiny toys, a reflection of a protest in Russia where toys were placed as stand-ins for live protesters. This exhibit, interestingly enough, was placed directly inside the door to Toronto City Hall. I was reminded of the 2012 Stop the Cuts “Final Budget Showdown” protest, where some of my friends were trapped in between those exact doors as cops and security guards pepper sprayed and beat Toronto residents who were trying to stop social services from being gutted; and where less than two weeks ago OCAP protesters demanding that vacant houses be expropriated and turned into housing were beaten. Some of the toy protesters in the piece carried signs saying "Not good enough", as if protesting is just some kind of contextless whining. Meanwhile, the streets outside were filled with cops and packed with rowdy crowds of people snapping cell phone photos in a scene reminiscent of the G20 protests. Despite over 1000 protesters imprisoned in makeshift cells with inadequate food and water, there was no art referencing this major local event. Protest and repression of protest were represented as something that happens in (post) communist Russia, where Canada once again is preserved as a model where nothing ever happens. 

The exhibit "FREE LAND", by Maggie Groat, was particularly offensive to me that night, but there seems to be more too it than I thought. Located in Simcoe Park, it was a familiar location to me from the  2012 May Day / OccupyToronto protest in solidarity with Indigenous peoples affected by corporate mining.  This exhibit involved the artist shoveling out a hole in the overly landscaped grass covered hill, next to a banner reading "Free Land". Small paper bags of dirt were then given to Nuit Blanche goers who agreed to sign a statement of responsibility for the land and to do something with the so-called “liberated” soil. People were assured that the artist had received permission both from Nuit Blanche and the City of Toronto. A friend asked the artist’s assistant, who was handing out bags of dirt, if it was really their land to give away, and isn't this land belonging to Indigenous people and was it 'ours' to give out? She didn't really respond, and started talking to someone else. We read as a kind of privatization, with public land parceled out into tiny bags and given to individuals. I was surprised to read the official description of this art piece in the Nuit Blanche programme used the words "settler colonialism", but it didn't seem to relate to how I had interacted with the piece.  While I wrote this review, I read the abstract for the piece and gave the artists website a cursury look-over.  Twelve hours after I published it, a facebook friend of a friend mentioned that she knew Maggie and that she is Haudenosaunee. Which changes the interpretation of the piece completely. Or does it?  There are art works which could be extremely offensive if done by a white person that would not be so if done by a native person, but if there is no self-identification what does one make of that sort of work?

On the other hand, it is understandable why one might choose not to self identify as Indigenous at an event like Nuit Blanche, given the response to one unofficial art exhibit. In an art piece worthy of a dissent label, a bus shelter was re-purposed for an exhibit on residential schools by native activists. This political art piece acted as a kind of rupture from the rest of Nuit Blanche, provoking the crowd. Presumably intoxicated suit-wearing douchebags were unable to walk on by without singing "God Save the Queen" in a racist admitting of the Canadian colonial project. Some of the artists involved are actually facing criminal charges for similar art pieces performed in permitted settings. If Nuit Blanche can be taken as indicator of the art world, it seems to be passed its Indigenous solidarity fad and moved onto hipster camping as a theme (the marshmellow roasting/RV portion of Gather).

Gather, as well as many other projects, employed a kind of “Occupy” aesthetic  while getting the sanction and approval of Scotiabank and the city for the whole project. This kind of artistic endeavour without the risk of arrest is insulting to actual activist or artistic projects which claim the people's right to the city and do not apply for permits or ask permission. Occupy Gardens, for example, claims public land for community gardening while engaging in practices of indigenous solidarity and making the case for food sovereignty.  "Mass Arrivial", at the Whippersnapper gallery last month, examined racist narratives on immigration around the reception of mass arrivals of refugees in boats with a participatory street performance, as well as a media intervention, linking up the art world with cutting edge activist discourse. But projects which appear to be taking public space but actually get bank and official city sponsorship  which ride on the coattails of the kind of dangerous activist/artistic work that artists like Ai Weiwei do. They employ the appearance but not the reality of dissent, while co-opting the Chinese artist's work as a kind of self-aggrandizement of how many rights "we" have in Canada. Even Ai Weiwei's own work with cycling is very strange when sponsored by a city with a mayor who hates cyclists. Is Nuit Blanche? 

In the "Independent' official Nuit Blanche section there was a piece called "The Trappings of Power" by an Algonquin artist, Robin Tinney. The sculpture displayed treaties suspended in traditional animal traps, a comment on how treaties were used by the colonial powers. Unfortunately I missed this exhibit so I'll have to quote the abstract, which seems to exemplify what was missing from the rest of the night: 

"An assortment of suspended animal traps represent the calculated intent and tremendous power of both historical and modern Governments to ‘trap’ Aboriginal people as a means of controlling and exterminating them. Promises of money, rights, land, equality and self-government have proven to be very effective ‘bait’. 

Aboriginal claim to the land has been challenged by war, disease, enforced segregation, starvation, genocide by status and writ of law. Both Provincial and Federal Governments have a history of violating Treaties and Agreements. 

Curiously, modern Treaties and Agreements in Principle include a provision that protects the Governments from being held legally responsible for any past act or omission! They want absolution for all past sins, while actively working to continue the eradication of Aboriginals and their claims to the land. 

Not OK Canadians!"

As usual at Nuit Blanche, there was that whole "is it art" thing going on that made real events seem like performance pieces or something.  These included police arresting what appeared to be a young woman for failure to have a rear bike light, even though there was constant public drinking, urinating, marijuana smoking and traffic violations galore. While they were taking the time to arrest this person, there were several stabbings elsewhere downtown. This is especially interesting given the money that the City must have spent getting Ai Weiwei to install a giant bicycle sculpture at Toronto City Hall. Clearly, the problems that China is facing with over-development and car culture are also reflected here. Too bad the art exhibit refuses to engage in any kind of local context, history or geography. 

Sadly, this year while the art was mostly concentrated in the downtown core, it was thinly distributed and without concentrated art zones as in past it was possible to walk for long periods without realizing Nuit Blanche was going on. There were also far fewer improvised and unofficial art projects around than in previous years. There was far more art density at the last Pedestrian Sunday in Kensington Market and it even was combined with interesting music. The scarcity of art only made the public drinking and drug consumption a more central theme of the night, which was the occasion of the first fatal stabbing to occur at Nuit Blanche.


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Megan Kinch (Megan Kinch)
Toronto Ontario
Member since December 2009

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is a writer and editor with the Toronto Media Co-op.

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