Montreal Pulls an All-Nighter

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It has started to fade from memory, but I swear my sleep schedule is still screwed up. Two weeks ago, Montreal hosted its fourth annual Nuit Blanche, an all-night festival dedicated to arts and culture. Inspired by the original Nuit Blanche in Paris, Montreal has added its own wintry twist, combining it with the Montreal High Lights Festival, a week-long celebration of food, light and dance that seems like nothing more than an excuse to go out and party in the middle of winter.

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Street performers and the heated pod at the High Lights festival site.

The best way to start Nuit Blanche is to head to the festival site, in Old Montreal, which spills down Place Jacques Cartier and onto a quay jutting out into the harbour. This is a noctural fantasyland that stems more from the imagination of a tripped-out adult than that of a child. Amidst the sound of gently throbbing electronica, people slide down a giant block-long ice track. Greystone buildings are lit in alternating hues of pink and blue. Strange men in goggles and trenchcoats lurk around the site, stopping suddenly to light flares before escaping into some dark corner. Loto Quebec-sponsored dancers bob around in weirdly giggly lottery-ball costumes. Down by the water, people line up to enter a glowing orb in which people dance silently: the DJ’s music is transmitted through headphones.

I could go on about the festival site itself, which I think is a wonderfully imaginative use of space, dotted with open fires and heating stations to keep people warm. (I have to admit, though, the whole thing worked better when it took place at Place des Arts—the spaced-out colours and music interacted beautifully with the space-age Modernist architecture.) But the real fun of Nuit Blanche is how it encourages people to go out and participate in their city at a time of day and time of year when they would normally be at home. Not only are people welcomed into art galleries and cinemas in the middle of the night, they are travelling through snowy streets with big, convivial groups of friends and strangers.

On the night before this year’s Nuit Blanche, Montreal had its biggest storm of the winter, blanketing the city in a layer of snow that made the streets seem unusually cozy. So it was with great pleasure that I walked, friends in tow, feet frozen, on a packed, noisy Ste. Catherine Street at 3:30am. On one side, traffic was jammed. On the other, a group of middle-aged Latino men were having a snowball fight on the steps of Place des Arts. “De puta madre!” one exclaimed, laughing, when he was hit.

It’s always hard to choose Nuit Blanche activities. Should I go to the Darling Foundry at 2am to see the work of Concordia University’s fine arts students? To 1001 La Gauchetière at 3am for a combination skating rink/graffiti exhibition, if only to see graffiti writers decorate a Zamboni with their work? What about Place-des-Arts metro at 4am to witness breakdancers and hip hop performers take over the subway station?

Whatever I ultimately decide to do, I always make sure to visit Belgo Building, an former garment factory in the Fur District that is now filled with art galleries and studios. One room, sponsored by the University of Montreal’s student radio station, hosts experimental music of the random-beeps-and-nails-on-chalkboard variety. Last year, another gallery contained a dark nap room with soothing music and video footage of people sleeping. (It was well used.) This year, the Skol gallery was transformed into a dream room. Pushing past a clothesline, I saw a video projected on the far wall of a nymphet strumming a harp, a stream gurgling in the background. On the left, a cloud circled the summit of a plastic mountain into which people crawled to listen to a hypnotic self-help recording. On the right, live doves perched on a pair of artificial trees. Water spilled from a rain cloud into a wishing well.

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The Belgo Building’s art galleries and studios are open until 5am.

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Last year, artists created these pieces live in the Canadian Centre for Architecture.

One of my fondest Nuit Blanche memories was watching a “snowplow ballet” in a park near Place des Arts. Set to a strange, industrial soundtrack of remixed snowplow sounds, a trio of small sidewalk plows performed an elaborate routine, interacting with each other and with three dancers dressed entirely in white. It was astonishingly strange, to say the least—and it was on every hour from 11pm to 3am. At the 1am showing, there were families in the audience. The kids looked confused but happy.

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The snowplow ballet, set to a soundtrack of remixed snowplow sounds.

Normally, we would end the evening by heading to Camellia Sinensis, a Latin Quarter teahouse that gives away free chai until 7am, and then to the free breakfast in the atrium of the Desjardins Complex mall, for which a few thousand people line up each year. But this year, at 4am, we concluded our night by venturing to the Cinéma L’Amour on the Main to watch some short films. Cinéma L’Amour is Montreal’s last remaining porn house, operated since the 1960s by a Hungarian Jewish family. In its early days it was a vaudeville theatre. The interior is the essence of faded grandeur: balconies and a huge, vaulted ceiling marked by peeling paint. A sign on the wall warns of eviction if you are caught with your pants down. There was a funny smell in the air.

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As the sun rises, thousands wait for their turn at Nuit Blanche’s free breakfast.

This was cross-posted to the Spacing Wire.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Friday March 16 2007at 12:03 am , filed under Art and Design, Canada, Public Space, Society and Culture and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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