Once a year, for the twelve hours between sunset and sunrise, key streets in downtown Toronto shut down, and a series of artistic visions transform the urban landscape into a dream- (or nightmare-) scape of sometimes banal, occasionally extraordinary and oft-haunting projections. This is Nuit Blanche, a street art festival.

Museum for the End of the World. Photo by Kathryn Anthony.

We look forward to it, but with each passing year, it has become more crowded, more chaotic and more clogged by lineups and the annoyances of having to navigate the thickly seething masses (which I generally find exhausting), many of whom are in various stages of intoxication.

So, this year, we decided to try something different. We set our alarms early and got downtown by about 3 am. The empty streets, many littered with detritus that spoke of now-absent hordes, and the late night urban hum, occasionally punctuated by drunken shouts or loud conversations, had an appropriately surreal, post-apocalypse feel, as we wandered through the sparse, somewhat disappointing exhibits along Bloor, before finally reaching the denser core of works around City Hall, down between Dundas and Queen.

Obsolescence–White Dwarf 2012 by An Te Liu; photo by Kathryn Anthony

There was an intriguing unity to the works on display in the City Hall area–a Museum for the End of the World, assembled in the underground parking lot under Nathan Phillip’s Square, with sections like Obsolescence, Rapture, and so on. The empty parking lot was host to a series of eerie pieces. In the section depicting a post-Rapture world, lonely items, like push lawn mowers, shopping carts and children’s toys, with piles of empty clothing belonging to the items’ Raptured owners, posed under spotlights, beside a series of dysfunctional, silent tableaus featuring those who had been left behind: glaze-eyed students moving around disarrayed classrooms; a demented, punk Santa attempting to cajole a grim and despairing couple into looking at their gifts, while they ignore him amid the ruins of a Christmas Morning; and so on.

A metaphorical White Dwarf–evocative of the Death Star–consisting of items representing obsolete technologies that were once used in households and have now been discarded. Now calcified, it is spinning ever-more slowly on its axis–one of the items in the Obsolescence section of the Museum.

In other areas: a Douglas Copland piece with typically pithy and insightful one-liners; a TARDIS-like entity of sound and light that presents a fusion of the organic and electronic; a modern archeological find discovered abandoned in the same underground parking lot, consisting of a trailer lined with notes and jottings about disasters, chernobyl and the end of the world, stacked with lead-wrapped cans of food for consumption after the fallout. These, and several other exhibits we passed through were wonderful and memorable.

Still, overall Nuit Blanche was a bit disappointing this year–smaller (less funding because of tough economic times, perhaps?), with more exhibits that felt ad hoc and thrown together (in contrast to previous years’ often breathtaking, integrated, multi-hour performances, this year the Royal Conservatory just had a number of performers doing pieces that may well have just been part of their standard repertoire–nice enough, but not what I’ve come to associate with Nuit Blanche). Other sites as well featured fairly standard exhibits or recital-like, improvisatory pieces. It may be that we made a mistake in starting at Bloor–so we didn’t get to see as many of the more densely-packed exhibit areas that might have featured more of the creative visions I so love and find so very inspiring. But, the few that we did manage to catch–many of which we stumbled upon in the final hour of the event, as the full moon-adorned sky began to grow light and the exhibits wound down to a close–were wonderful in their scope, vision and in the kinds of reflections and inner journeys they inspired. I can hardly wait till next year!