On Skype, Cathy Byrd speaks with London-based curator Helena Reckitt about the artists she selected to participate in Nuit Blanche, Toronto, 2012. Projects in Once More With Feeling, Helena’s curatorial zone, will animate notions of repetition, remaking, renewal and revolt. The annual art event that brings a million people out onto the streets of the city from dusk to dawn takes place this Saturday, 29 September.
Sound Editor: Leo Madriz | Images courtesy Helena Reckitt | Sound Notes, in order of appearance: Katie Paterson, Hadley+Maxwell, Susan Stenger
CATHY BYRD: Tonight, I’m speaking with Helena Reckitt about her curatorial project for Nuit Blanche in Toronto. Nuit Blanche is an all night art event that animates the cities in which it is held from dusk to dawn. It originated in 2002 in Paris and it has travelled to many cities since then. Helena is curator of Zone C at Nuit Blanche on Saturday, September 29th this year. Her zone is titled Once More With Feeling. She is working with a number of artists that she believes embody, or their works embody, this concept. Helena, you’ve stated that, for you, the project explores the desire to repeat and remake, evoking circuits of renewal as well as movements of revolt. I’m wondering—why do you think this theme is one that’s important to explore?
HELENA RECKITT: Part of the idea behind the theme Once More With Feeling is that I have seen quite a few Nuit Blanches in Toronto. It has been going since 2006, and it started off as a real experiment, nobody knew whether it was going to work. It took off extraordinarily, and has really taken the city by storm—about a million people come out to Nuit Blanche, which is about one in four people who live in Toronto. But there is also a sense of the events reaching a certain repetitiveness, and perhaps a certain ennui has entered in. So when I was asked to put together one of the zones, that was a part of my interest: how do we do this again, with feeling? How do we put the sentiment back into it, put the emotion back into it? I’m also fascinated by what a communal event of this nature opens up. What does it mean to go to an event like this, a big art event, where you are seeing art with hundreds and hundreds of other people? How does that make you feel, both as part of the group, and perhaps also as not part of the group at all? And it’s a 12 hour event, it begins at 6:59 in the evening and it ends at 6:59 in the morning, so there’s a sense of the minutes passing, the hours passing, the night passing, and the cycles of a night. An art project like this can feel very different at 7 pm, when moms and dads are taking their kids around, than at 5 am when people are exhausted, stoned, drunk, cold. So I was thinking of the sort of looping repetitive nature of the event. That is quite compelling to me.
CB: And which of the projects that you are presenting literally revolve, repeat, or feedback?
HR: In some ways, almost all of them. I chose the theme because I thought it was an open enough brief, I didn’t want to be scrabbling around looking for art that illustrated a specific theme. My initial idea was that all the pieces would involve sound, so the repetitive nature of music, the refrain, made this idea of repetition very easy. At a certain point, I decided that making it all about sound was a bit limiting, in terms of forcing me to just work with certain artists. I also started to think about the logistics of an event with almost a million people, and realized subtle sound works might get a bit lost. So I dropped that as an insistence. But I kept the idea of the refrain and the loop, and when I was looking at works, I would ask: does it in some way have a looping structure? It’s going to be repeated for 12 hours. My biggest project is by the Trisha Brown Dance Company, a fabulous, iconoclastic choreographer who came up in the mid-sixties. This is a work from 1968 which hasn’t been shown very often and I was attracted to it partly because it is a very spectacular work. The façade of a building is covered with dancers who make their way across the sheer face of the building. This is spectacular but it’s also unspectacular because their movements are quite everyday. So it is not Cirque du Soleil; it’s almost anti-Cirque du Soleil. It’s very understated. That will be repeated by successive waves of dancers throughout the night. There are some works that revolve in a much more sort of literal way, an artist that you remember from Atlanta, Dan Walsh. He goes by the artist name of JD Walsh. He is animating an underpass with video projections which turn everyday architectural motifs into a record player, or a cymbal, or a trumpet. So it becomes a visual as well as audio orchestra. A lot of the works have this sense of a haunting, things that come back to us. One of the pieces, which is a few years old now but I just couldn’t resist putting it in, is a piece by the Scottish artist Katie Paterson. It’s called Earth-Moon-Earth (Moonlight Sonata Reflected from the Surface of the Moon). I’ve installed it in this stunning nineteenth-century theater space, a very elegant theater. When you go in, you see a player piano just playing itself, and what you think you’re hearing is “Moonlight Sonata,” but something is a little bit off. There will be a wall-text to explain that Katie worked with amateur radio enthusiasts to bounce a recording of “Moonlight Sonata” that’s been translated into Morse code off of the Moon and then record what was bounced back. They then transcribe that into a scroll that is played by this automatic piano. So, it’s sort of “Moonlight Sonata,” but not, because it is missing certain notes. As Katie puts it, a set of notes has been trapped on the surface of the moon or lost on its way back to Earth, so there’s this very evocative idea that sounds never die, but just reverberate around the universe. This is similar to a concept that Marconi, the inventor of the radio, put forward.
CB: Which of the artists that you selected, engaged specifically with sound, has created what you would call a haunting or hallucinatory effect?
HR: Probably the most clear example of that is a piece by a couple of artists who live in Berlin, originally from Vancouver. They work together and call themselves Hadley+Maxwell. They have a piece about the “cultural haunting” of Kurt Cobain. Their piece is called Smells Like Spirit, and it’s actually installed in the loading dock of the same theatre that I just mentioned that Katie Paterson has her piece in. As you approach the loading dock, there are roadies hanging around, there is a trailer, there is obviously some kind of concert either being loaded in or loaded out, and from inside the theatre, you can hear a band rehearsing, and the sound of one of Kurt Cobain’s last concerts. But, they’ve also done a much more complicated soundtrack to go with that where you hear Cobain, but you also hear the crowd. It’s really thinking about the role of the crowd in both propelling Cobain and Nirvana to superstardom, but also ultimately in his opting out and not being able to cope with that degree of adulation and that degree of pressure. It’s about how his voice, his image, him as a sort of classic, romantic male artist, haunts us, and the haunting idea that we might have contributed to his self-annihilation.
CB: Are there works that have a positive take, in terms of the body’s memory with music, that would make you want to dance or make you feel good?
HR: Absolutely, absolutely. I was very keen that there was an exhilarating element to my zone because I do think Nuit Blanche is about this communal experience and catharsis through communal experience. So one of the very fun pieces is called Body Xerox, and it’s by a couple of artists who live in Berlin called Yngve Holen and Simon Denny. Body Xerox is a disco—they don’t even call it an art club, they just call it a party. There will be DJs and it’s in a tent and you go in and there’s dry ice and loud music and people having an ecstatic time of it, but instead of disco lights we have Xerox machines. People obviously are creating their own light show through the Xerox machine. They are photocopying themselves, they are photocopying bits of their bodies. Paper is piling up and chaos is ensuing, and I like this idea. Nuit Blanche always teeters on chaos and I partly wanted to court some chaos and revel in it!
CB: That is going to be wild!
HR: [laughs] We have technicians on hand! It’s a lovely piece. One of the things that is quite challenging as a curator of Nuit Blanche is that, in addition to the pieces you choose or commission, you’re also asked to select from an open call, which can be a bit random. Fortunately, one of the open call pieces that was submitted was perfect for my zone. It’s called Young Prayer and it’s by a young artist in Nova Scotia called William Robinson. The piece is an electric guitar installed in a church which constantly is lowered and then smashes to the ground and makes these crazy sounds and it taps you into Jimi Hendrix, the origins of rock and roll, and ecstatic religious experiences. It’s the kind of stuff that Dan Graham wrote about when he wrote about Patti Smith and altered states. That’s a piece that I was really thrilled to come across through the open calls, and we’ve got a lovely church for that. In my zone, there are very few works that you just stand and look at. Most of them you connect to on a very sensory level because that to me is what Nuit Blanche is about. One of the pieces that also involves music, and I really think is beautiful for this project, is by a sound artist called Susan Stenger who is from Buffalo and has worked with John Cage and her work is very Cage-y and it’s called Full Circle. We are installing it in a bandstand, and it will surround the visitor with speakers. You’ll be enveloped in these waves of sound which are based on various musical and temporal systems at play, and there will be swelling and receding sounds, and you experience it on a very bodily level. Although I didn’t commission the piece. It was in a festival in Newcastle, [England]. It’s a 12 hour cycle and it takes you through 12 hours with a very different quality. So, to me, that was just a no brainer, and I was thrilled to be able to do that.
CB: So, this is a project that actually marks the time that’s passing. I attended Nuit Blanche in Toronto a few years back and I really appreciated the arc of energy in that 12 hours…seeking out energy in the wee hours of the morning, and not necessarily finding it.
HR: I am not really a big night owl. For me, going to Nuit Blanche has always been a very frustrating experience because I know there is really good work out there, but there is so much work. There is the curated stuff, but there’s also the open calls and the independent projects, and then everyone and their mother puts something on in their front yard. You have this sense of overwhelming, because there are over 3,000 artists this year. That’s about 2,800 too many in my opinion. You can’t deny the sort of exhaustion of Nuit Blanche and that struggle of Nuit Blanche. So, some of the works do riff on that. Through open call, I found a very fun piece by a couple of Toronto-based artists, Julian Higuerey Núñez and Adam Svec, that’s called Nuit Blanche Survey and Critical Race. The two artists have a race with each other to go and see all the pieces, tweet about them, and do a podcast about them, and their comments will be broadcast in a central location. Who can make it back to the finish line having crossed off all the projects is the aim of the piece.
CB: That sounds totally insane! It doesn’t sound like anything I would choose to do, but I appreciate that they’re going to do it for us.
HR: Another artist is making a piece around the idea of queuing, because as you may recall, queuing is probably an inevitable part of Nuit Blanche. As I was thinking about my pieces, I didn’t want anything that would require somebody standing for an hour in a queue, to then go into a gallery or a church or an office and see something for five minutes. To me, that’s really unfair on the viewer as well as on the artist. So, artist Oliver Husain has made a piece called Moth Maze and it’s a piece about a queue system. It’s a film, a very lovely poetic film, that was filmed in a lamp factory, but it takes you through a labyrinth and that labyrinth queue structure was repeated in a sculptural device that he has set up for where you actually see the film. So you can only see the film by queuing. This is sort of making a positive out of the negative with this work.
CB: Which of the projects creates what you call “a sense of time outside time?”
HR: I would say the piece I mentioned earlier, Full Circle. It creates a sense of time inside your body where you feel connected to something bigger than yourself and bigger than the place you are in by this swelling, the sense of a force of sound and then sound withdrawn. There is also another piece from the open call by a group called the Kirtan Collective, and essentially it’s a group improvisation, a music and dance communal piece. There’s drumming, dancing, clapping, and they’re making video projections from the ambient heat that comes from the crowd. There’s a
sense of being lost in…well, lost in a group.
CB: I guess in the media saturation that is contemporary art in general, the world in general, the most surprising media that these artists work with might be the Xerox machine?
HR: Maybe. The Xerox machine is sort of anachronistic, isn’t it? Now that we all have scanners and phones that do Instagram, who needs a Xerox machine? I would also say that perhaps slightly anachronistic is that two of the pieces involve pianos. There’s the piece by Katie Paterson, Earth-Moon-Earth, but there’s also a work with two artists, Ruth Ewan and Maeve Brennan. Maeve is a very skilled pianist with terrible stage fright, to the point that often she can’t perform in public. The piece involves her going to try to play a piece of music, which she may actually fail to do. It’s a piece about the pressure on the performer, on the artist. There’s the pressure of a 12 hour event at Nuit Blanche, and maybe one option is for the performer to say, “No, I am not going to do it, I am not going to play the game,” which connects back to Kurt Cobain’s idea of opting out. The audience would be seated. They would wait for her to play or not. It’s a staged event, and it could be a staged event of playing, it could be marvelous playing, it could be faulty playing, or it could be no playing. I will tell you, this is the piece that the Nuit Blanche people are most worried about. The whole idea is to produce spectacle, something for people to ooh and aah over, but part of me wanted to change that up a little bit.
CB: I see! That’s why you wrote that you chose to embrace “the potential of mistakes.”
HR: Yes, likely! [laughs] I was just covering my ass with that.
CB: I like that [laughs]. Tell me now about the relationship of your idea to the Mayan end of days that’s prophesied for December 21st. How does this come into play?
HR: It’s again working with the idea of repetition because, of course, “the end of days” has been prophesized ever since there have been days. Frank Kermode wrote about “the sense of an ending” in every era. Every era sees itself as an era in crisis, and there is always somebody who says the apocalypse is nigh. To be honest, when I set up this zone, I wasn’t really thinking about the Mayan end of days, but there are two pieces where the artists are really interested in that. So Dave Dyment, an artist in Toronto, is making a piece called The Day After, Tomorrow, and he is sampling end of the world footage from 200 disaster movies which play on this massive bank of monitors.
CB: That’s a cheerful piece! I bet it will be fun. There is some vintage film, right?
HR: He has identified every disaster film and he says he is: “representing pretty much every land-based disaster film ever made, I don’t want viruses as they are non-visual.” So he has created these sort of arbitrary criteria, and I think the fun will be going, “oh god, I know that movie!” There will be iconic movies, but then there will be completely forgotten, rubbish B-movies.
CB: What do you hope to be remembered about Zone C?
HR: I don’t actually think that the viewers really give a damn which zone they are in. There’s a curatorial kind of fantasy where people are so attuned to your vision, but I hope that people can get lost in this zone. What I don’t want is people zipping around and crossing off—“oh I’ve seen that, seen that.” I hope that there is something about the experience of being out in the middle of the night with a load of other people, many of whom probably wouldn’t be looking at contemporary art normally, in the middle of the city. I hope something happens to them that wouldn’t happen to them in their everyday. What more could you ask for as a curator? That’s a very exciting prospect!