La Nuit Blanche

By Miriam Ahmad-Gawel

Though it was a windy, rainy, and chilly night in Ottawa on September 21st, pockets of the city and Gatineau were lit up bright and lively for the celebration of Ottawa-Gatineau’s second Nuit Blanche. Inspired by similar festivals in other cities, Ottawa’s La Nuit Blanche brings together local and national artists along with their work for an all-night extravaganza. Artists come and set up their works on the street, in museums, or in shops, and viewers come flocking. Though it’s only the second Nuit Blanche Ottawa has held, the public has been enthusiastic about the arts night, and more artists participated this year than last.

The idea for a dusk ‘till dawn arts festival has been around for a while, originally simply called “White Night Festivals,” and first celebrated in St. Petersburg, Russia. They were held typically near the summer solstice, when the days are longest, hence the name “White Nights”, due to the midnight sun during the Russian summer. Artists and performers came from all across the country to St. Petersburg to display their talents for the public all night long. The first White Night festival to be celebrated outside Russia was in 2001, when the French adopted the concept and famously held their first “Nuit Blanche” in Paris.

Thus, the PM to AM festival of arts was established, and subsequently spread throughout Europe’s art capitals, eventually reaching North America and New York, Montreal, Toronto, and other major cities. Though they’re not all held on the same night or share the same themes, La Nuit Blanche has become an international art phenomenon, with performers and artists working internationally in festivals all around the world. Though Ottawa isn’t exactly avant-garde when it comes to artistic or cultural innovation, the initiation of our own Nuit Blanche is valuable and definitely effective. The inaugural event, mid-September 2012, saw around 30,000 audience members and approximately 160 contributing artists, from 6pm to 4am.

This year, the festival was held primarily in downtown Ottawa, which included sites in the Byward Market, on Sparks Street and Rideau, on Wellington West, and in downtown Gatineau, with some installations roaming in between. A popular venue was the Ottawa School of Art, which had each of its floors and rooms filled with wildly different and creative pieces. One room held a collaborative piece, where the artists, Jess Aylsworth and Jon Booth, hung translucent sheets of fabric from the ceiling, and using a projector played films of scenic places in Ottawa at different angles onto the sheets. This created a nostalgic, quiet setting, as their aim was to create a network of past and present moments of a life moving through the city. Another installation, on the edge of the Byward Market, was by Ottawa-based artist Christopher Griffin, who put an old souped-up Chevy Nova under a tent and some strobe lights, then invited the public to take a chunk of clay, make whatever they wanted out of it, and put it wherever they wanted onto the car, turning it all into one giant sculpture.

It’s celebrations like this that will help Ottawa establish itself as more than just the capital of Canada, but rather a player in the development of the international artistic and cultural world. With this newfound tradition, Ottawa can showcase the work of local artists as part of a larger community that is constantly thriving and growing, for the betterment of society and development of cultures and traditions in this place we call home.