The “Creative City” has become a common byword in today’s increasingly globalized world. Metropolitan centres the world over are mobilizing their cultural resources in a bid to brand themselves as global “cultural” cities, with hopes that this strategy will have a positive impact on the local economy and strengthen peoples sense of place and civic identity. During the headlong rush to position culture as a resource in urban regeneration, there has been an unprecedented focus on cities as sites of intense cultural activity in the belief that the attendant creative quotient will translate into economic benefits. Yet the focus on culture, as mobilized through urban cultural policy, also has important implications for the public realm and urban citizenship. This fervent attention to culture offers avenues of possibility for the civic-minded since the articulation of culture is never a finished project nor is it a closed system. Instead, it is a constantly contested realm, which makes it an ideal staging ground for speaking about the people, spaces, and institutions that constitute a city.
While each city is unique, strategies for culture-led urban regeneration have some notably similar characteristics, typically ones involving heavy investment in cultural infrastructure along with the creation of a myriad of festivals as place-making tactics. According to Guy Julier, the revaluation of the built environment through investment in the physical infrastructure of the urban milieu can be understood as a “hard-branding” strategy for city place-marketing, while the widespread “festivalization” of cities suggests a “soft-branding” tactic that is characterized by “a looser system” with a “broader palette of options” used to present “the more nuanced aspects of [a city’s] aesthetic dimension.” Toronto’s current cultural renaissance reflects both hard-branding and soft-branding as the city’s flagship cultural institutions are being made over and urban spaces are transformed throughout the year by various festivals and their attendant publics.
One of the most well-attended urban festivals is Toronto’s Nuit Blanche, the annual 12-hour, dusk-to-dawn celebration of contemporary art that boasts an estimated attendance ranging from 425,000 in its inaugural year of 2006; to 800,000 in 2007; and approaching 1,000,000 in 2008. Nuit Blanche is an interesting phenomenon because it is a perfect example of how an urban festival can be used to placebrand the Creative City, while also enriching and strengthening the city’s public realm. As a unique event staged in public space, the festival creates a site where the dominant narratives of Toronto’s Creative City can be enacted and performed, but also where such ideologies can be unframed by socially minded artists and curators. Nuit Blanche makes available space for the re-framing of public discourse around issues not currently in the public consciousness. Rather than operating as merely a placebranding strategy, it also functions as a highly visible mode of public address that can be catalytic in engaging urban citizens to conceive of their city as a shared task and to participate actively in the evolution of the Creative City.
According to Charles Landry and Franco Bianchini, the Creative City idea was formulated as an urban response to the structural changes wrought by neoliberal economic globalization. It was broad in scope and aimed to foreground “the importance of creative responses to urban problems, be they in traffic management, business development, greening the city, integrating ethnic communities, regenerating run-down housing estates or enlivening city centres.” To them, the concept represented a new epistemology of the city and was meant to stimulate new modes of thought and knowledge on coping with the difficulties of contemporary urban living. In 2003, Toronto implemented a Culture Plan for the Creative City: City of Toronto to strategically mobilize its cultural resources and aid in its own Creative City renaissance.
“This plan, however, has not been without controversy. Much of the criticism is centred around its foregrounding of the importance of Richard Florida’s “creative class” as a fundamental reason for mobilizing Toronto’s cultural resources as an economic expedient. Put bluntly, the plan assessed the city’s existing cultural resources and argued for greater investment in cultural and heritage amenities in order to attract members of the creative class as a key component of future prosperity. Explicitly referencing Florida’s Rise of the Creative Class (2002), the executive summary states:
The Culture Plan recognizes that great cities of
the world are all Creative Cities whose citizens
work with ideas, are intensely mobile and insist
on a high quality of life wherever they choose
to live. Such cities, and their citizens, have an
overwhelming impact on the economies of
their countries and compete with one another
directly for trade, for investment and, most of
all, for talent.
The Culture Plan consistently reiterates a valorization of members of the creative class as the ideal citizens of Toronto. But while it points to the importance of attracting and retaining the “best and brightest” through strategic uses of culture, and the creation of various amenities to accommodate their diverse lifestyles, there are other sections of the population the plan ignores altogether. These individuals, who are not “intensely mobile” and who would likely settle for simply a decent and dignified quality of life, include many immigrants and members of the increasingly marginalized working class, who often have low-paying service industry jobs, as well as the poor and the homeless. While it is true that Toronto’s civic culture has evolved over the years as a result of immigration–which has created a very diverse public culture–diversity is not necessarily a de facto indicator of a healthy public sphere. In fact, the reality is that a multicultural city, with so many different perspectives and histories, requires a strong and, above all, inclusive public realm in order to translate and negotiate between the particular worldviews of the multitudes–especially those individuals not officially accounted for yet demanding to be heard–so that they may also coalesce with the larger project of the evolving city.
Yet what are the implications for the social life of the city when the Creative City framework is oriented primarily around economic factors and potentially disenfranchises those residents who do not fall within that framework? This question is an especially urgent one for Toronto as the narrative of its cultural transformation continues to unfold. As cultural theorist Malcolm Miles notes, “[w]ithin the wider question of what constitutes a city and for whose well-being it is produced, are questions of public space, urban design, and the articulation of the public realm.” For Toronto, one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world, the answer is making space hospitable for a polyphony of voices to sound within it. However, an important question remains: to what extent does a Culture Plan that focuses so myopically on one ideal type of citizen actually make room for the multitudes?
Indeed, the predilections of the creative class are not encouraging for the socially minded. As Florida explains, “[w]hile to a certain extent participants [of] (focus groups and interviews) acknowledge the importance of community, they did not want it to be invasive, or to prevent them from pursuing their own lives. Rather, they desired what I have termed ‘quasi-anonymity.'” It remains unclear at this juncture whether a city of quasi-anonymous individuals, who are first and foremost interested in pursuing their personal life projects, bodes well or ill for the city and its inhabitants. Ultimately, what it comes down to is whether the city is populated with fragmented and self-serving individuals or a community of citizens mindful of the common good.
If Florida’s creative class is indeed the future of Toronto as a Creative City, then it heralds a vision of a city fraught with social uncertainty–one where cultural capital waxes as social capital wanes. But as sociologist Zygmunt Bauman reminds us, a city is “a common good which cannot be reduced to the aggregate of individual purposes and as a shared task which cannot be exhausted by a multitude of individual pursuits … which is (and is bound to remain) longer and richer than the fullest list of individual concerns and cravings.”
Bauman’s discussion of the city as a public good and as “shared task” is distinctly at odds with the inclinations of Florida’s creative class, which is made up of individuals primarily concerned with the pursuit of their own lives. Bauman further points out: “The ‘citizen’ is a person inclined to seek his or her own welfare through the well-being of the city–while the individual tends to be lukewarm, skeptical or wary about ‘common cause’, ‘common good’, ‘good society’ or ‘just society.'” In a multicultural city like Toronto, with diverse constituents who have come from all corners of the world, it is the “citizen” who is urgently needed, not lukewarm individuals.
Indeed, Florida cautions, “[we] need to develop a clearer picture of where the new creative society is taking us–so we can decide if we want to go there.” So, is the so-called new creative society one that is yet to come? Or is it simply a linguistic gloss applied to the individualized consumer society in which we already live ? Such questions are precisely the ones that need to be debated in the public realm, especially in contemporary times when disparities between those with wealth and power and those without increases daily, and the divisions between the upper and middle classes and the poor and homeless “underclass” are physically inscribed on the city through the distribution of space. Ultimately, what must be addressed in the present context is whether or not the Creative City can also be an “ethical city.” And to that end, whether or not cultural forms such as Toronto’s Nuit Blanche can engage diverse publics in a meaningful discourse about contemporary urban living since the possibility of an “ethical city” depends, in the final instance, at least according to Bauman, on the types of subjectivities produced in relation to the kind of culture that is articulated in society. As such, the ethical city can only come to be as a form of praxis, informed by the values circulated in the cultural realm and manifest in one’s ability to take responsibility for and live for others.
Yet the fate of the Creative City is by no means signed and sealed, but as Toronto’s Culture Plan signifies, there is a particular direction in which it is heading. Whereas this plan can be seen to interpellate an ideal citizenry who will make the Creative City attractive to global capital, it also illustrates that subject and society are mutually constitutive. This illustration is a reminder that individuals mindful of the common good can act to shape the culture and society in which they live. From this perspective, the realm of culture in general, and a festival like Toronto’s Nuit Blanche in particular, can be a platform for the constant articulation and re-articulation of the social.
Festivals, as large-scale public culture initiatives, should not be dismissed as simply spectacular but innocuous events. As manifestations of a particular place, festivals are not merely public relations strategies but rather function as a discursive framework through which one can begin to apprehend and speak about the kind of place the city is, and the kind of place it is becoming. This added value in turn points to the possibilities for conceiving of the city as a public good where, according to Hannah Arendt, “[t]he polls, properly speaking, is not the city-state in its physical location; it is the organization of the people as it arises out of acting and speaking together, and its time-space lies between people living together for this purpose” Although urban festivals are often administered by city officials in response to the imperatives of an overarching urban cultural policy, festivals like Nuit Blanche can be sites where power over the symbolic ecology of the city can be challenged and devolved downwards to the diverse publics that are formed by the event.
Indeed, a close engagement with the construction of the urban environment is precisely what the event’s organizers had in mind, for as the official Nuit Blanche 2008 press kit “backgrounder” states:
At its core, Nuit Blanche is a 12-hour event
with a mandate to make contemporary art
accessible to large audiences, while inspiring
dialogue and engaging the public to examine
its significance and impact on public space.
Nuit Blanche is both a ‘high’ art event and
a free populous [sic] event that encourages
celebration and community engagement.
From sunset to sunrise city spaces and
neighbourhoods are transformed into
temporary exhibitions. Unusual or forbidden
spaces become sites of contemporary art open
for all-night discovery and rediscovery.
While the celebratory aspect of Nuit Blanche is without question, claims to inspire dialogue and engage the public to examine contemporary art’s impact on public space suggests that beyond bringing “high” art to the masses there is an underlying social good that is to be achieved.
Nuit Blanche then–beyond its obvious utility as a sort of annual “coming out” party for branding Toronto as a “Creative City”–with its talk of dialogue, community engagement and public space, is an ideal platform for the maintenance of the public sphere. As a model that has proven its efficacy in forming publics who largely attend with a degree of open-mindedness (after all, it is never certain what will be presented–and indeed, what constitutes “art” is itself open to debate) this particular festival holds important implications for urban citizenship. While it may be reasonable for one to dismiss the above publicity statement as pure rhetoric and expected marketing jingoism, to do so would ultimately amount to a missed opportunity for Torontonians to take an active role in shaping their urban futures.
As a public festival staged in part with public money, and in full with city resources, the statement is nothing less than an invitation, if not a challenge, to collectively experience, envision, and participate in the process of Toronto’s becoming a Creative City. Because urban festivals are highly visible, and can only be staged successfully with the participation and co-presence of strangers, they constitute a significant mode of public address, that is, according to urban geographer Kurt Iveson, “oriented towards the public sphere,” where particular messages are (un)intentionally circulated to broad publics.
Thus, while festivals can be used to highlight the dynamism and diversity of a particular place for the purposes of city place-branding, they can also function as a space/time frame where citizens can address each other as a means to other ends. In this way, will it be possible to move beyond the hype of Nuit Blanche and to shift the festival decisively from publicity toward the public realm as actively engaged and engaging, both politically and creatively.
While it can be argued that Nuit Blanche, as a massive one-night-a-year event, is more appropriately understood as a symbol of Toronto’s aesthetic excess, such an argument would be guilty of over-simplification. Conversely, the idea that a contemporary art festival can aid in reinvigorating the public sphere may appear idealistic and over-determined. Yet when contemporary art is produced in the context of an urban festival, with the spaces of the city as the site of its presentation, the works created enter the realm of contemporary public art.
The qualification of contemporary public art is significant, for as philosopher Hilde Hein observes, “[w]hile … all art is to some degree public, public art merits its name in virtue of the fact that the creation of a public is its point of departure. Public art presupposes the public sphere and produces a public in relation to that concept. Unlike popular or mass art, it does not assume a preexistent generic audience to be entertained or instructed but sets out to forge a specific public by means of an aesthetic inter action.” In this way, Nuit Blanche is first and foremost a festival about the public sphere. At one level, it mobilizes publics who are motivated and intentional in their actions (e.g., attending a contemporary art festival), while on another, the content of the festival presents a myriad of individual artworks that address the viewers as active participants.
Like other international art festivals, Nuit Blanche relies on curators to program its content. Because each year’s curators will ultimately decide on the overarching theme of their respective zones, and which artists will be shown within them, it can be stated without hyperbole that in this instance the curator has significant power over the symbolic ecology of the Creative City. Indeed, in a 1998 article entitled “The Curator’s Moment” art critic and curator Michael Brenson boldly declared that “the era of the curator has begun.” This pronouncement was made in recognition of the explosion of international biennales and triennales of contemporary art, and what the author saw as a common concern among international curators to understand and be able to “articulate the ability of art to touch and mobilize people and encourage debates about spirituality, creativity, identity, and the nation.”
Brenson goes on to suggest that “[t]he texture and tone of the curator’s voice, the voices it welcomes or excludes, and the shape of the conversation it sets in motion are essential to the texture and perception of contemporary art.” By extension, when contemporary art is presented in the public realm, as is the case with Nuit Blanche, there is a responsibility to shape the conversation not only in regard to the “perception of contemporary art,” but also in relation to the present condition of the public sphere.
The ideal role for the curator, then, would be as a public intellectual who presents works of social significance that are, to borrow a term from Grant Kester, “semantically available” rather than bringing “high” art to the masses. Indeed, this may be the most important curatorial task, since the relation between “elite culture” and “popular culture” is an issue that remains unresolved and is possibly exacerbated by the conflation of “high art” and populism that is evident in the rhetoric of Nuit Blanche. Yet this could be a productive tension and, as suggested by an interview with Jacques Ranciere printed in Artforum, it could be “an occasion to reflect on the kinship or distance between two notions of popularity: one tied to the idea of serving a popular cause and the other tied to the idea of satisfying a broad public.” This would entail curators recognizing that there is an ethico-political dimension to the urban festival and public art, and further requiring a degree of risk-taking in how their exhibitions engage with publics beyond the dominant narratives of the Creative City.
To take risks in the presentation of art that is indicative of a commitment to society would utilize as its departure point Hein’s observation that “[p]ublic art … is inescapably ethical because of its social reference. It necessarily overflows into the world.” This overflow of potential meaning into the world comes with certain responsibilities, for when art is inserted into the public realm there is not only an ethical dimension that needs to be recognized, but also a political dimension that must be addressed.
Although it can be argued that public art is not inherently political, following Miles, “public art inevitably operates in the public realm and a lack of critical engagement with the construction of that realm leads by default to affirmation of the dominant ideology.” Further, if one operates under the assumption that public art is “inescapably ethical” then this means a necessary engagement with politics, rather than an abdication of political responsibility.
While it might be suggested that festivals are merely cultural events, and not political ones, one must recall that culture and politics are not mutually exclusive and that there is significant overlap. Culture, as the manifestation of the social, involves the mediation of multiple perspectives and histories, which include experiences of otherness and oppression. As such, culture is inherently related to ideology and consequently to power and domination. Therefore it is not a realm separate from the political, rather it is precisely the place where political struggle is enacted. Moreover, in the context of Nuit Blanche and the Creative City, the productive tensions created by critical artists can serve to open up areas of inquiry about what it means to live in the present of Toronto’s cultural renaissance.
Alfred Cramerotti suggests that the distinct space/time of the urban festival is particularly useful as a means to construct relations and pose socially significant questions, “as if the space/time frame was temporarily occupied with issues not at stake in other times and spaces.” Put another way, Nuit Blanche is a particular time where space is redistributed and reorganized, where issues that might not find an audience in another space/time can be inserted into the public realm. Thus, the urban festival, as a mode of public address, becomes the locus of an “art of the possible” in the collective visioning of Toronto as a Creative City.
Yet the kinds of risks taken–whether formally in how the work is presented, or conceptually with regards to what ideas are conveyed–ultimately depend on the personal politics of the artists and curators. Recognizing that there is an inescapably ethico-political dimension to the works presented can be the difference between Nuit Blanche as a public spectacle and Nuit Blanche as a critical art project in the service of Toronto’s diverse publics.
To advocate for public art that foregrounds an ethico-political approach does not mean that the art presented must be antagonistic, heavy-handed or radically didactic. However, the work should not shy away from polemics, and should engage in a critical questioning of the artist/viewer relationship, especially since Ranciere suggests that “spectatorship is not the passivity that has to be turned into activity. It is our normal situation. We learn and teach, we act and know as spectators who link what they see with what they have seen and told, done and dreamt. There is no privileged medium as there is no privileged starting point. There are everywhere starting points and knot points from which we learn something new.” Approaching the production of art with the explicit intention of communicating with the viewer (versus an approach that celebrates art for art’s sake and elevates it into a realm that transcends society), and presupposing a nearuniversal capacity for understanding, enlivens and fortifies the public realm.
Although Nuit Blanche is experienced as a 12-hour festival, more realistically it is the culmination of a year’s hard work and is itself an ongoing process. If the festival is going to be a socially significant event, it must become the object of a sustained critical dialogue. As critical art practitioner Suzanne Lacy posits, “[if] art making is meaning-making in its deepest sense, then art criticism is the description and pursuit of that meaning. Meaning will be found not simply within the aesthetics of physical form. Process, relationship, the positioning of the work relative to popular culture, the artists’ beliefs and values–even, perhaps, the very way an artist lives life–all might be considered in an expanded inquiry.” As it stands now, it is strange that an event of this scale, and which has so much potential, is met with relative critical silence in its aftermath.
A core mandate of Nuit Blanche is to bring contemporary art to the masses, but its execution is itself meaningless if there is no sense of significance attached to the experience, beyond simply having been involved in a festive escapade. Rather to achieve this mandate properly requires that the attending publics are able to apprehend and understand what the artists are doing within the broader societal context that informs the making and the doing. While the Nuit Blanche producers have taken steps to help viewers understand what is being publicly presented to them–through the use of volunteer docents and short descriptions of each artwork in the festival programme–it would be useful nonetheless to elevate the discourse to another level through a critical reflection on the event and the works produced. While it is possible to take what is presented as contemporary “art” at face value, it is also true that “art” is as much constituted by discourse. It is through a critical questioning and debate about what was exhibited and possible interpretations that will ultimately strengthen the public sphere.
Urban art festivals and contemporary art that is committed to society would be akin to what Bauman asserts is the primary and urgent task of sociology, the essence of which “is not closure, but opening; not the selection of human possibilities worth pursuing, but preventing them from being foreclosed, forfeited or simply lost from view. [And] to enlarge and to keep the width of that part of the human world which is subject to incessant discursive scrutiny and so keep it saved from ossification.”
Nuit Blanche is uniquely poised to answer Bauman’s call to sociology. As a space of temporary rupture, the festival allows for the bringing to light of issues that would otherwise not have a space to be seen and heard. Of course, this illumination presupposes a critical engagement with the event on the part of curators, artists and the public alike. However, because the festival presents contemporary art (rather than something more specific like one would find at a pop music festival, for example), there are multiple access points through which to communicate with broad publics. Thus, a diversity of art practices and viewpoints converge with a diversity of publics, who are provisionally formed by the event, and are relatively open to a chance encounter and the active construction of meaning.
Because Toronto’s cultural renaissance is a work in progress, it is in a continual process of negotiation with various stakeholders who are constantly positioning and repositioning themselves within the broader paradigm of the Creative City. To recognize that the tale of the city is still unfolding is to regain a sense of agency and be able to act as a shaper of one’s urban future. It is easy to get caught up in the hype and rhetoric of the Creative City, especially if one does not necessarily self-identify as “creative” And, in this way, it is even easier to regard the evolution of Toronto as someone else’s project. Yet the practice of culture is ultimately nonexclusive, and, as such, the focus on culture is an opportunity for all Torontonians to recognize that they have a role to play in the shaping of the city.
In regard to the Creative City, and the question of whether it can also be an “ethical city” a city is not ethical simply because one wishes it was. Nor will the staging of an art festival make the ethical manifest itself. But what a society-committed festival like Nuit Blanche can do is bring individuals together as provisional publics, in the spirit of experimentation and openness, to participate in and produce a vision of Toronto that is indicative of the diversity of the urban milieu.
Currently, Nuit Blanche sits uneasily on the cusp of cultural instrumentalism–in the service of city place-marketing and policy-driven initiatives that have applied Richard Florida’s creative class concept as a core component of Toronto’s “Creative City” framework–and precariously as a site of potential agency. However, the legacy of Nuit Blanche is as yet unwritten. Ethically and politically minded Toronto artists, curators and engaged citizens thus have a large role to play in unframing and reframing the discourse of the Creative City. Because Nuit Blanche is a specific mode of public address that is efficacious at forming provisional publics, it also represents an opportunity to stage alternative visions of the Creative City that foreground the “ethical city” or “just society” as its central concern. Toronto’s Nuit Blanche, as a mobilizer of publics who are motivated and intentional in their actions, can be the space/time where a Creative City is enacted, but also the catalyst where the imperatives of the “ethical city” can emerge and reverberate beyond this annual sleepless night.