I stood in front of the Freemasons’ building on Barrington Street, staring into the giant eyes. It was October 2008, and larger-than-life video projections of blinking, twitching eyeballs filled the giant windows. Passersby stopped and stared back, mesmerized by the sense that some crazy, irritated life form inhabited the building.
It was Halifax’s first-ever Nocturne: Art at Night festival, and the jittery eyeballs were an installation piece called Detect, Observe, Find, Discover, Notice, Spy, Sight by Scott Saunders and Nikolai Gauer.
It seemed cool, given that this was, after all, Halifax. There we were, in the middle of a celebration of art—accessible, radical and every kind in between. That first Nocturne offered a previously unheard-of opportunity for anyone with an interest (plus a few bewildered downtown drinkers who happened to stumble upon the event) to experience the kind of communal glee that is usually reserved for hockey fans and concertgoers. Sort of a Hockey Night for the Rest of Us.
This month brings the seventh annual incarnation of Nocturne, which echoes the Nuit Blanche and White Night art festivals that take place all over the world, in cities that include Paris, Brussels, Rome and Melbourne. From 6 p.m. to midnight on October 18, Halifax will open its collective mind (and streets, sidewalks and buildings) to the pop-up art installations, gallery shows and performances that comprise Nocturne.
Who doesn’t want to live in a city where you might experience something entirely unexpected (in a whimsical, eye-opening way) on an evening stroll downtown?
Nocturne brings people with a sense of curiosity about art out onto the streets together. It strengthens the sense that arts and culture are valuable and essential elements of life in this city. And it drives home the point that Halifax is about more than heritage and development squabbles.
Plus there are tangible benefits that come from enjoying art. A 2011 Norwegian study found that “participation in receptive and creative cultural activities was significantly associated with good health, good satisfaction with life, low anxiety and depression scores in both genders.”
If you’re more concerned with economic benefits, a group of Canadian corporate high-rollers called Business for the Arts compiled a 2008 report which showed that the arts can have “a significant economic impact on local communities” through tourism and other indirect economic activity, and that “cities that have successfully included the arts and culture as part of their revitalization strategies have improved quality of life and community engagement,” in addition to “regeneration of undervalued/underutilized urban real estate.” So, not only do you get to see giant eyeballs, but also the value of your house goes up.
Lorraine Plourde, chair of the board for Nocturne, sees both economic and less-tangible benefits. “We bring thousands of people into the downtown over the course of six hours, which has great economic impact, but also it really brings the people together in a positive way.”
She points out that festival organizers try to make the festival and the art itself accessible for all. That means making the venues physically accessible as much as possible, and making the art…well, not too far out there.
“We would like the arts to be part of everybody’s life, and sometimes there are a lot of barriers to accessing contemporary art, as opposed to other types of art like music or movies,” she says. “We strive to have projects that people who are less familiar with the arts can enjoy, as well as those who are more used to seeing art.”
Plourde notes that Nocturne gives Haligonians a no-pressure opportunity to visit art galleries and other venues that they might otherwise feel intimidated to visit. “You can go to Nocturne, and if you like what you see, that can be the trigger that gets you to start interacting and enjoying the arts every day.”
Of course, a logistically complex event like Nocturne doesn’t just happen in a vacuum. Nocturne has struggled to get funding from HRM in the past. Grants from all three levels of government (including $43,000 from HRM’s Marketing Levy Special Events Reserve) fund this year’s event.
That money comes with no guarantee of continuity, which means that the festival has to re-apply each year, making it difficult to plan and staff the event. “Right now we are very much volunteer led, managed and delivered, so it is a lot of responsibility to put on the shoulders of volunteers,” says Plourde. “For me, it is a full-time job on top of my full time job, and it is for other board members. So it’s hard to find people who are dedicated and who care enough to put in so many hours.”
Despite those challenges, Plourde sees the upside of all the hard work. “Every year we are thrilled to see the wonderful creativity and the work that artists produce here in Halifax and in the region,” she says. “It makes me very confident in our community and in Halifax’s future.”
Find details of this year’s event at nocturnehalifax.ca