May we suggest

Reviews / October 21, 2010

Nocturne: A Return to the Gardens

The entrance to "A Year in the Making" at Halifax Public Gardens during Nocturne 2010 / photo Michelle Doucette Design & Photography

Halifax may be the ideal-sized city for a nighttime arts festival: with over 100 exhibitions, performances and projects—mostly concentrated downtown—you can cover a lot of Nocturne ground before midnight without feeling overwhelmed, crowd-crazy or like you’re wasting time transiting from zone to zone (though Nocturne’s live music and singalongs on the ferry do make public transit a joy for that one evening).

The first two years of Nocturne felt dominated by large-scale video projections, but 2010’s event seemed a little more balanced, with artists taking risks with performance-based pieces and interactions with the public—elevating the level of spectacle, but not too much (that’s just not Halifax’s style). Although zones were marked with anchor projects, there were no big-name silver rabbits to distract, though I was very disappointed to learn that there wasn’t a performance by Miss Chief Eagle Testickle at the opening of Kent Monkman’s show at Saint Mary’s University Art Gallery.

Eryn Foster’s Kardio-Karaoke!!! was one of the most popular spots of the night, and hopefully it’s the genesis of a hot new fitness trend. Recruiting popular host Laurie the Guy, Foster turned the YMCA’s cardio room into a sweaty karaoke lounge. Singers hopped on a stationary bike, facing an audience moving on treadmills and bikes. The event almost certainly attracted people who have never stepped onto a elliptical trainer before. For the last couple of years Foster’s interdisciplinary practice has focused on long-distance walking pilgrimages: she’s hiked the perimeter of Prince Edward Island and from Halifax to Sackville, New Brunswick. While walking is often a solitary activity, Foster has previously explored the social side of movement by setting up virtual-pilgrimage machines—a treadmill including a phone with which to talk to her while she’s on the road. But now, Kardio-Karaoke!!! could turn Foster into the Richard Simmons of the Canadian art world.

Lisa Lipton’s curated Window Ballet played to her strengths as a collaborator, a multidisciplinary artist and a musician. Lipton recruited about 20 dancers, musicians and artists for a theatrical piece watched through various windows of a north-end house, where she used live music, dance, text messages and sculpture to create a loose, colourful narrative of a woman unlucky in love. Voyeuristic audiences moved around the home and a backyard shed, mesmerized by the scenes, which were performed like an indie rock opera. Unfortunately, visibility was difficult at points (a parked car in the laneway took up ideal viewing space). With larger crowds, it was difficult to see all of the vignettes, and 40 minutes may be too long to sustain attention for a one-night festival. I’d love to see Lipton remount Window Ballet on its own when it can receive the spotlight it deserves.

Downtown Barrington Street, with its row of sad papered-up windows and closed storefronts, always comes to life during Nocturne. There’s an overwhelming sense of giddy excitement when the street is filled with people, and the more successful projects here have tended to respond to public-space issues. Alison Creba has been running City Mail, a free alternative mail service (she hand-makes mailboxes and delivers inner-city post by bicycle) since May. For Nocturne, Creba opened up a post office in an empty storefront, where she sorted and organized mail, including postcards provided for the occasion. In this way, Creba played on the nostalgia of letter-writing, the excitement of receiving a package and Haligonians’ memories of a vibrant downtown core. The results felt bittersweet.

It would have been easy to miss Waterfall, tucked inconspicuously against a wall with soft-drink vending machines in the Halifax ferry terminal. Sculptor Kim Morgan—bringing in David Clark, David Ogborn and Rachelle Viader Knowles—was originally commissioned by the Canadian Wildlife Federation to create this vending-video sculpture for the Winter Olympics. When one pressed a button, a video of a glass of water, a coffee machine, etc., played and then fell down, revealing a waterfall flowing behind it—an elegant but effective call for conservation.

Perhaps the most talked-about project going into Nocturne was “A Year in the Making,” the first contemporary art exhibition ever to take place inside Halifax’s lovely public gardens, which are protected heavily by the city (the park is closed at night and for half the year). Curator Scott Saunders (who’s been blessed with ambition and persistence) and Nocturne organizers negotiated use of the park with the municipality, securing it just weeks before the event.

The city compromised by letting Saunders and 12 other artists use a small portion of the park, which actually worked in their favour. The dark, closed-in area felt cozy and intimate, but still wild. Gurgling audio from Eleanor King’s radio-transmitted Freshwater Brook mixed with Michael Fernandes’ animal audio stations, which were part biological classification and part Aesop’s Fables, marked only with simple signs. Together, the audio became a surreal backdrop for the tiny nocturnal objects that whirled in flashes of colour around the ponds thanks to Adam Kelly, Stephen Kelly, Samuel St. Aubin and Sofian Audry. Video, including Saunders’ own close-ups of native Nova Scotian insects, was wisely kept to the outer perimeter of the park gates, allowing for an immersive, imaginative experience in the dark until almost midnight, when the rain started falling softly.