It’s been a minute! I hope your fall has been going well. 🍁 I’ve been busy starting the masters full-time at NSCAD. I wanted to share a little thing I wrote for one of my classes, Art in Public Places (hence the citations!):
A couple weekends ago, I attended Halifax’s art at night festival Nocturne for the first time. Along the lines of Nuit Blanche in Paris and Toronto, the city streets open to public art and activations. I’d previously experienced Nuit Blanche in Toronto a few times. My first experience in 2012 was quite impactful — there’s quite a few pieces that I still remember, probably one of my first interactions with ‘new media’ artwork and the concept of temporary public artwork. But in more recent years I hadn’t bothered to go — I began to associate it with huge crowds and waiting in line, more of a party in the streets and less about experiencing artwork. I was interested in Halifax’s take on it, but not expecting much, to be honest. However, our evening turned out to be a delightful journey — across the north end to downtown’s waterfront, over to Dartmouth and back — and we stayed out later than planned! But I think the most successful ‘piece’ was actually the first one we encountered, which really set the tone for the rest of our experiences.
Our first stop was at Wonder’neath, an artist-run community studio which was hosting The Wayfinding Care Project, organized by Melissa Marr, Heather Wilkinson and Leesa Hamilton. The project is a “participatory delivery service”(1), tasking festival-goers with a care package and a mission to deliver it to their assigned artist, who was exhibiting somewhere in the city that night. The headquarters of the operation were busy: a board with a schedule of times and post-its of artists’ locations and contact information were laid out, large vats of butternut squash soup keeping warm, bins of flags and hangers full of sashes, with more kits waiting to be made. Weeks before, volunteers had silkscreened, sewn, and assembled all the accessories for our uniforms (a branded, reflective sash and felt flags) and the care package (a bag containing a jar of soup in an insulated wrap, a metal spoon, recipe card, a card with a message of encouragement, and even a cloth napkin). We were talked through the process, suited up in our uniforms, given our mission and interviewed, before leaving.
Immediately, it felt important and urgent to deliver this care package. We couldn’t wimp out now and go home early — we had a responsibility to get this sustenance to our artist-in-need! It wasn’t just the promise we had made, or that we had a name (Amber of Encouragement Garden) to find, but the care and labour that had already gone into the items: the uniforms, while playful and a bit silly, had been made by hand on volunteer’s time, and the package itself was more than that — it was a gift.
The Wayfinding Care Project aims to “invite Nocturne audiences into a dialogue about artist care, reciprocity, and taking an intentional route through the event,” so that one “might make a personal connection with an artist or project along the way”(1). I feel they were successful in this, and I also think this was the artwork that best exemplified Nocturne’s mission to “use art as a catalyst for connection” (2).
Before us delivery-people took off on our quests, we were interviewed briefly via Instagram (3) about why we had chosen to deliver that night. “It sounded like a good time,” many said, and “we love getting involved in the local art community”. Participants seemed to be overwhelmingly local: some parents and kids that regularly attend Wonder’neath’s workshops, others that had volunteered earlier in making the uniforms, a couple young people that had just moved to the city and wanted to explore and meet the arts community. Many people shared that it was “a nice way to be a part of Nocturne’’ and that”it’s nice to be able to bring something special to those who are sharing their work and art with us”. Later, I watched people dodge artists present at their site in order to engage with the posted plaque’s description, rather than engage in conversation with a person. In contrast, Wayfinding Care organized an interaction — at least, a brief opportunity for one — between artist and attendee.
While it lacked the spectacle that the festival seemed to prioritize (notably it was a ‘spotlight project’, non-juried and funded privately, presumably from Wonder’neath’s own Canada Council grant money), The Wayfinding Care Project was one of Nocturne’s more successful community-specific, new genre public art projects, as defined by Miwon Kwon:
“New genre public artists seek to engage (nonart) issues in the hearts and minds of the ‘average man on the street’ or ‘real people’ outside the art world. In doing so, they seek to empower the audience by directly involving them in the making of the art work, either as subjects or, better, as producers themselves. By extending the hitherto specialized privilege of art-making and art appreciation to a larger number and broader range of people… new genre public artists hope to make art more familiar and accessible”(3)
We found Amber on one of the wharfs, bouncing between ends of a small, dark shelter, fielding questions about the Encouragement Garden in a peppy voice. She seemed enthusiastic, though a bit harried, but lit up when receiving the delivery. The Garden was a dozen or so felt flowers, each with a clothes pin holding a folded note from a stranger. You had to write one in order to pick one; the one I picked read, “you’re doing better than you think <3” I cringe at these kinds of things nowadays, something about the triteness of platitudes and clichés feel useless, and I struggled to come up with something ‘nice’ to write. But even in the care package we were delivering there was a message, too, itself a gesture of kindness.
Wonder’neath’s own mission, to “prioritize art making that allows artists to be visible and develop meaningful relationships… [to foster] a sense of belonging, and problem solving through the arts.” (5) When I talked to another artist, Lauren Runion, she told me about all the work and struggle it took to erect their installation earlier that day. Then they had to attend to it for the evening, and finally take it down after midnight. Lauren said their soup delivery was a major high point in the night for them.
When I visited their installation close to midnight, the park was quiet save for the Nocturne attendees. The location, Grand Parade, has been occupied by numerous tents of houseless people since I arrived here; I felt as if I was encroaching upon their space, and the result was an odd mix of public-turned-private. Imagining the delivery of soup to the artists in the park that night, I wonder, who gets to receive these gestures of care? Whose presence is reaffirmed as belonging? And when it’s artists supporting artists participating in a federally/provincially/municipally/privately-funded public art festival… why is this an art piece?
Since writing this I’ve learned a bit more about new genre public art, and read another text (which I liked quite a bit!) that proposes a structure for critiquing it. I’ve included the links here, if you’re interested in reading them. 🤓 The experience raised questions for me that I’m still thinking about, and though I don’t think I quite captured or solved them, I hope it maybe makes you think about your own experiences at these large public-art festivals. Let me know, if so!
All the best, Katherine
nocturne | ˈnäktərn | noun 1. Music a short composition of a romantic or dreamy character suggestive of night, typically for piano.
- Art a picture of a night scene. ORIGIN mid 19th century: French, from Latin nocturnus ‘of the night’.