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Nuit Blanche Toronto: How to Survive Your First All-Night Art Crawl

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Attending Nuit Blanche in Toronto is a rite of passage. Every year on October 1st (give or take a day), from sunset till sunrise (7 p.m. to 7 a.m.), revelers admire contemporary art from all over the world displayed in the streets of Downtown Toronto for free. 

Now, I am not an “art person,” but I’d like to be, so I jumped at the opportunity to hone my art appreciation skills in Toronto by twilight, wine glass in hand. (Actually, Ontario has pretty strict laws governing alcohol and I don’t even like wine so nix that part).

But it turns out I misunderstood this event from the start. You see, Nuit Blanche met every qualification on my Fancy Shmancy Event Checklist:

  • French name? ✔
  • Art? ✔
  • Do they do it in Paris? ✔

But, as you’ll discover below, I was wrong. Very wrong.


But First, Where Did This Start? And How the Heck Do You Pronounce “Nuit Blanche”??

Nuit Blanche is pronounced something like “Nwee Blawnsh” for my non-Francophone friends out there. The most popular Nuit Blanche, perhaps, is in Paris. But despite its French name, Nuit Blanche is said to have originated in St. Petersburg, Russia.

How to Prepare for Your First Nuit Blanche Toronto

Much like a marathoner carbo loads the night before she runs a race, a Nuit Blanch-er (yes, I just made that up) must diligently prepare for this all-night art crawl. Here are my expert tips:

1. Stay up really late the night before Nuit Blanche to try to adjust your Circadian rhythm.

It’s science.

2. Research the exhibits and their locations and map out your path.

These tools helped me plan my first Nuit Blanche:

Based primarily on the BlogTO guide, I decided that my “must-sees” were:

  1. Literature vs. Traffic – An interactive exhibit in which hundreds (thousands?) of used books were placed on the street with LED lights inside and pages opened to create a glowing river of books. At the end of the night, people were allowed to take the books home for free.From the Nuit Blanche Toronto website:“The donated books will become the conqueror of public space with traffic yielding to the modest power of the written words…In the end, the cars will return to occupy the street again, but for many, the books they bring home and the memory of the transformation will change their relationship with the street. In an age when printed books are rapidly disappearing and being replaced by electronic devices, this installation honours their enlightening power and celebrates the texture of the paper books.” 
  2. Scenes of Failure – This short animated film told the story of the artist’s nephew in Madrid who dreamed of moving to Toronto even though he knew no one there, didn’t speak English, and had never been to the city before. As you can probably guess by the exhibit’s name, things didn’t quite pan out.

Books and failure? Right on! Yes, I am easy to please. Everything else would just be icing on the cake.

3. Bring a portable cell phone battery charger.

Your phone will likely die if you pull the all-nighter, and there won’t be any outlets, so pack a portable cell phone charger.

4. Fully charge your cellphone and camera (if you bring one).

See #3.

5. Pack snacks and water.

The only thing worse than being stuck downtown, sleep deprived, and surrounded by art is being stuck downtown, sleep deprived, surrounded by art AND HANGRY. Bring snacks for you and your fellow Nuit Blanchers. To be fair, there are food trucks, particularly by City Hall, but I was so irritated and delirious during the event that I didn’t really feel like interacting with humans.

Nuit Blanche Toronto - Snacks and Gear to Prepare
The proper First Timer’s Nuit Blanche Toronto Survival Kit includes snacks, a Presto card, cash, cell phone, cell phone charger, umbrella, and water. ??

6. Take public transportation. Subways run all night during Nuit Blanche, and streetcars run all night every night!

Ah, gotta love the TTC, even if the streetcars are delayed and creaky and tokens are still a common form of payment despite it being 2017.

7. Get there early and leave early, or get there late and stay till it ends at 7 a.m.?

I can tell you that it will be MOST crowded at the start, say 7 p.m. to 1 a.m. I’d recommend going around 2 a.m. for fewer crowds; plus, you get to experience that mystical twilight hour where everything stops making sense and any art seems deep and meaningful sheerly because your brain can’t comprehend why you’re wandering around downtown at 4 a.m. and why there are so many flashing lights and ambient music.

The problem with Nuit Blanche is it requires one to get dressed up and go out, whereas I am accustomed to wearing sweatpants and staying in. Hours before I was set to begin my Nuit Blanche art crawl, I fired up the Italian stovetop espresso maker and laid out an assortment of gear and snacks to prepare for battle.

But the problem was the cat. Her name was Mocha. She was soft and purred a lot and sat on my lap. Could I really trade the warmth of this snuggle bunny for the cold streets of Toronto?

I hemmed and I hawed. I dragged and I stalled. In the end, I changed out of my sweatpants and left the cat at home.

Messy, Stream-of-Consciousness Notes From My First Nuit Blanche Toronto 2016

Below are the revised notes I took on my iPhone via talk-to-text in the Notes app as I walked around Nuit Blanche. It’s sort of like live-blogging the event, except six months after the fact. (Hey, better late than never!)

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    1:43 a.m.

    I walk the few steps to the 501 streetcar stop on Roncesvalles Avenue. I have never ridden the streetcar in Toronto. I can’t recall the last time I left the house after 1 a.m. Everything feels wrong.

    Shortly after arriving at the streetcar stop, I see a streetcar ambling down the road. I don’t know if this is the one I need, but I board it anyway. Perplexingly, the end of the line is just a few blocks down the street. I am nowhere near downtown.

    I get off and blindly board the 504 bus through the backdoors, despite an exiting passenger muttering, “This is the last stop.”

    “This is the last stop!” the driver yells at me, and I sheepishly begin to exit via the front doors.

    “This doesn’t go downtown?” I ask him.

    “If you tell me specifically where you need to go, I can help you,” he shoots back.

    “Uh…City Hall.”

    “Cross the road to that island over there and take the Queen car headed east.”

    He then smiles at me and says a little too loudly, “Bye, bella!” I am not sure how to feel.

    It’s almost 2 a.m. and I am running across a busy street to get to an island to get on a streetcar. It’s not too late to turn back…

    1:55 a.m.

    I board the 505 streetcar headed downtown. After two false starts, I really hope this is the right one. There are a few people onboard.

    2:05 a.m.

    I am still on the 505 streetcar.

    2:30 a.m.

    I am still on the streetcar, now at Bay and King. I’m getting car sick. And I need to pee. Nuit Blanche is off to a rough start.

    2:39 a.m.

    Finally reached Old City Hall. When I step off the streetcar, the night air is sticky and warm, especially for an October in Toronto. There are lots of people walking the streets, and a guy is busking with his guitar on the street in front of Old City Hall.

    Nuit Blanche Toronto - Old City Hall

    2:45 a.m.

    I am at the Pneuma art installation at the big Toronto fountain by City Hall. There is ambient music and changing colors. My wave of nausea is starting to settle as I get my bearings. Everyone is sitting watching like it’s a movie. The smell of pot wafts through the air. The music is making me sleepy…lulling me to sleep…must get out. I can feel the music vibrate in my chest.

    Nuit Blanche Toronto = Toronto sign lit up at night at City Hall

    3:01 a.m.

    I finally get to the Pièce De Résistance: Literature vs. Traffic

    Nuit Blanche Toronto - Literature vs. Traffic overhead shot

    I wade through the river of open books and hear whispers of “What the !#%* is this?” and snickers of “THIS is art?” but if you’re a fan of contemporary art, these are things you’re used to hearing.

    The musty smell of old books (intensified by the drizzling rain) fills the balmy night air as I wade through the river of literature. At first, I am afraid to touch them and even more so to step on them, but as I get farther down the stream, I find myself reaching down and turning over every cover.

    Nuit Blanche Toronto - Books in the street exhibit Literature vs. Traffic

    It’s not unlike being a child again, picking up seashells at the beach, turning them over in your hand to decide if they’re unique enough to keep.

    I find all sorts of books. Books on how to vacation in Florida for $30 a day; books on otolaryngology, religion, geography; I even find a book with a handwritten note on the inside, and I find it ironic that this birthday gift has wound up on a wet street in Toronto, to be picked up by strangers.

    Nuit Blanche Toronto - Birthday book

    I pick up a novel in French, a book of poetry by an unknown poet, a copy of Jane Eyre with the first 100 pages ripped out, a French-Canadian dictionary (I figure it would be a great souvenir), a hardcover version of O. Henry’s short stories, and a beautifully-bound copy of The Three Guardsmen by Alexandre Dumas.

    My bag is now weighed down by damp books, so I decide if I’m going to be out for four more hours, I’m going to have to lighten the load. I decide to keep only Jane Eyre, The Three Guardsmen, and O. Henry’s short stories (the French-Canadian dictionary, I decide, is a bit too “on the nose” to make a good souvenir).

    Nuit Blanche Toronto - Books in my bag
    Happiness is a bag of glowing books

    At the end of the street, two inebriated guys strut out in their muscle shirts onto the books yelling about how this is not, in fact, art.

    “Oops!” yells one man as he plows his feet into the books. “I just stepped on ART!”

    “Dude, it’s not art,” snorts the other. “It’s…” here, he stifles a chortle, “BOOKS!”

    They erupt into laughter.

    A little piece of me dies.

    Belle, I feel your pain.
    via GIPHY

    3:26 a.m.

    Okay, I just spent nearly an hour picking up old dirty books. Time to get a move on to some more art.

    3:46 a.m.

    There is a shortage of people and art by this hour. I wander closer to the Eaton Centre, and am blinded by the large H&M billboard that shines with the brightness of a thousand suns. I feel strangely awake now, as though my body is tricked into thinking it’s actually a sunny afternoon.

    Nuit Blanche Toronto - Eaton Centre
    Is that…the sun?? Oh, no, it’s just the Eaton Centre.

    3:55 a.m.

    Smooth jazz pours forth from a saxophone someone is playing on Yonge Street. Everyone is sleepy, delirious. A guy walks by me and tries to give me a high five. I ignore him. All I can do is smile and walk. So tired.

    4 a.m.

    The clock strikes four as I walk past Old City Hall. I am back to where I started. The same guy is still playing acoustic guitar in the middle of the closed road. Where is the art? Where am I? Why am I alone at 4 a.m. walking around a foreign city?

    4:16 a.m.

    I attempted to see the Scenes of Failure (Exhibit 10), but the building it was in was closed. I am now walking down a sketchy alley in the dark alone, questioning my recent decisions. I don’t need to see Scenes of Failure—I am a scene of failure.

    There is a street party in front of the Starbucks by the Campbell House Museum (out of which a long line snakes along the sidewalk). Whatever is inside the house cannot be worth an hour’s wait. Loud music blares, colorful lights flash, and I think I see people playing beer pong. But what about art? I decide I do not want to be a part of whatever is going on here. I turn and walk in the other direction.

    4:30 a.m.

    I see an exhibit at the Drake that is made entirely of plastic buckets. There is no line.

    Nuit Blanche Toronto - White Line at the Drake

    4:36 a.m.

    The sickeningly sweet smell of gasoline mixed with ice cream wafts from the ice cream truck parked in front of City Hall. I feel nauseated, lost.

    Nuit Blanche Toronto - Food trucks and ice cream

    4:41 a.m.

    I’m back at the books exhibit, my safe haven on this bewildering night.

    This is it?” some guy asks.

    “I thought it was cool!” his girlfriend replies.

    Humanity wearies me.

    5:30 a.m.

    Enough art. So tired. Want food. I stop by the only place that appears to be open at this hour: Denny’s.

    Nuit Blanche Toronto - Breakfast at Denny's
    The healthiest thing I could find on the Denny’s menu. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

    As I sit at a table in the packed diner, I overhear the waitress and some locals talking about how this year’s Nuit Blanche just wasn’t as good as the ones in previous years.

    “Now it’s just an excuse for people to get drunk,” someone says.

    6 a.m. 

    I board the subway at St. Patrick station to head to all-night Eucharistic Adoration going on at The Newman Centre on The University of Toronto Campus.

    7:15 a.m.

    Adoration ends, and I board the subway to head home to Roncesvalles. The sun is starting to rise.

    subway station

    7:40 a.m.

    When I get off the subway and walk home, I realize I may never again be awake this early in Toronto and have a camera on hand. I use this opportunity to wearily take photos of the empty streets.

    Nuit Blanche Toronto - Empty streets at around 8 a.m.

    7:52 a.m.

    HOME AT LAST! Mocha the cat runs up and greets me. Then we head to bed. I have survived my first Nuit Blanche.

    My Closing Thoughts on Nuit Blanche Toronto

    In the end, Nuit Blanche Toronto did not turn out to be the high-brow art festival I had romanticized in my head, but more of a mix between a frat party and an art gallery grand opening. A strange mix, sure, but when’s the last time you experienced something like that?

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    I have to hand it to the City of Toronto for importing this awesome idea from Europe and implementing it here for the past 10 or so years. Even after its major sponsor, ScotiaBank, dropped it, the city rallied together to bring it back in 2016. Understandably, it hit some snags, but I appreciate the effort.