Learning to appreciate art

A country boy visits Nuit Blanche

In the basement of the Clementine, a motion graphic display crawls along the walls while synthwave tunes play.

Nobody in their right mind would call me cultured.

About 90 per cent of my clothes are bland T-shirts. I wear jeans even though I’m approaching my mid-20s. I look like an extra in a movie, a background actor.

I’ve met the majority of my friends through a shared love of geek and pop culture. After 20-plus years of being seeped in nerd culture, I started to hate it. It felt empty. Like eating junk food and a few moments after a terrible experience in the washroom, you don’t feel enriched. Nothing about my worldview has been challenged before.

Which is why I convinced two of my friends (who were probably not happy about bringing their cis white friend along on their date) to take me along for Nuit Blanche. 

For the first few hours at Nuit Blanche, I felt nothing.

I went to The Cube in the heart of the Exchange, where a few dozen miniature shops were set up to sell everything from jewelry to gluten-free candy bars. There was even a company that set up chairs to promote themselves. Bold, yes, but not art.

Last year, I remember stumbling into Nuit Blanche by accident. In front of The Cube was a large wood structure. It was a large set-up, with a headboard with the words “Achieve Maximum Sexual Pleasure” on it. There was a woman with a silver mask on, walking barefoot and playing with her hair, seemingly inviting people to join her. In front, there was a podium with a headset you could put on. No sound came out of it.

I didn’t feel anything then, but hell, at least that’s interesting. At least that’s something I can point to and say “that’s art.” I was disappointed. Was that really it? I didn’t feel anything. I didn’t get that rush of emotions or some sort of grand revelation.

I walked through an alleyway of balloons and lights. I made shadow puppets while a mime tried to invigorate me to get creative. But still, nothing. I felt empty.

I felt the same emptiness whenever I looked at any sort of art. Nothing spoke to me. At least, not in the way you see in movies and on TV. I’ve never looked at a piece of art or history and felt intrigued or invigorated. To me, it’s just a bunch of paint on a canvas or a collection of threads that look cool. Nothing has really ever lit a fire in my heart. I’ve never burst into tears at a piece of music. I so desperately wanted to feel something like that, something that completely shattered my perception of the world.

I felt like I was a failure. Maybe I just didn’t understand art. Maybe I just got nothing from it. It was too late for me to feel a spark. I started asking strangers, “What do you get out of this?”

“It’s a lot of fun to get out and see some cool stuff,” Stacy Voth says. She just finished dancing with a hundred other people to a live hip-hop dance class. 

“It brings the city together. It’s a chance to get out and have fun,” Eric Miller, who had just finished dancing as well, says.

Fun. Weren’t you supposed to feel inspired or invigorated? When did fun come into it?

A crowd performs in an impromptu hip hop dance class.

As I watched the hip-hop dance class begin again, I wondered if maybe I was going at this the wrong way. Maybe I was overthinking this whole art thing. I was trying to push for a narrative that just wasn’t there. I wasn’t getting anything from Nuit Blanche, because I was just squeezing everything I saw under a vice in hopes juice would fall out.

My friends and I decided to go to an installation at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet.

We walked into a room that was pitch black except for two strings of lights leading us in a line toward a post. The lights slowly lit up, first near the door, then slightly closer down the narrowing path and finally around the post. In the background, you could hear a woman interviewing an old man, who was slowly mumbling and forgetting the answers he just gave.

I teared up.

The lights were meant to reference someone with Alzheimer's or some other type of mental disability. While my family does not have a history of the disease, we do have a history of mental illness, one that was hidden from me until I was diagnosed with depression, anxiety and autism. My greatest fear is getting older, because I can’t stand the thought of my brain failing me any more than it already has.

That art installation seemed to open me up. I started to be more receptive. I allowed myself to feel something.

We watched a play that took up two floors of a building, allowing us to move around and experience different parts of the story wherever we went. Even though I could feel my feet dying slowly, I never wanted to leave. I loved trying to figure out what the play meant, and I couldn’t stop ranting to my friends about my interpretation of the story.

I will be going again next year, but I won’t search for some sort of thrill. I’ll just let the experiences happen and not try to force meaning out of it.

I was, in fact, overthinking the whole thing. Let’s just have some fun. 

A cloud made of lightbulbs offer audiences an interactive opportunity to turn on or turn off.

A sequence of light doors blind you slightly as you step through them.

Stone horses were set up on top of City Hall.

A mime encourages participants to move around while an ultrasound-like image of them is projected onto a sheet.

At a street party, audiences would walk through reflective streamers while hip hop music played.

Published in Volume 71, Number 6 of The Uniter (October 12, 2016)

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