There is a fringe at the edge of most cities – a liminal space between populous and empty, well-travelled and eerie, manicured and wild. Sometimes these non-places form near the core, but more often than not, they are leftovers from another time completely, before the city swelled to envelop them.
Winnipeg is not without its fringe, and Stephen Juba Park (despite recent developments) remains one of them. Bordering this space, the Red River runs thick with history and tragedy, sacred spaces tainted by contemporary fears. And yet, like any fringe, places like these fill a vital role in the ecosystem of civic life. Unassuming and truly public, parks of this nature are utilized by day for commuting and leisure activities, and haunted at night by the shadowy presence of fringe dwellers, emerging inversely to the setting of the sun. And while it’s easy to ignore the fringe, it is perhaps the most real space in the city, the most raw and honest and untamed.
For Nuit Blanche Winnipeg, we presented both CLOUD and The Deep Dark, together for the first time. In conversation with one another, these two works proposed an antithetical understanding of night time, speaking to our ongoing fascination with the complex interspace between light + dark, collective + individual, wonder + fear, spectacular + intimate.
For her part, CLOUD glowed like a beacon, placed at the Forks National Historic Site, designated to celebrate the ancient importance of the connection point between the Assiniboine and Red Rivers. Situated in a beautiful, manicured plaza between the Human Rights Museum and Esplanade Riel Pedestrian Bridge, the Forks is, for all intents and purposes, a safe outdoor space, clearly lit and well populated any hour of day or night.
Conversely, when it came to selecting an appropriate site for The Deep Dark, we wanted a rawer, darker, quieter, more natural space, preferably removed a degree from the hubbub of downtown. We chose a quiet strip in Stephen Juba Park, separated from car traffic and streetlights by a long, tall retaining wall. We were told that the space is sketchy at night, and some Winnipeggers might not visit the artwork because of its location. We walked the stretch of dirt path several nights before Nuit Blanche, and it was like stepping into soft blackness. Along the river’s edge, blurry forms moved in the dark. The space was frightening. It was beautiful. It was perfect.
The Deep Dark speaks in different sites to different concerns, centering around our human relationship with darkness. In city spaces, people fear the dark for different reasons than one might in the wild. We installed The Deep Dark in Stephen Juba Park as a tribute to the relationship between metropolis and darkness, as an acknowledgement of the intertwined reality of those fears that are imaginary, psychological, and abstract, and those that are solid, tactile, and dangerous.
For viewers, The Deep Dark became a necessary threshold, a space charting the passage between hesitancy and empowerment. While the work literally blinds you as you move through each gateway (a physical effect of night blindness, also called nyctopia), within the context of Nuit Blanche, viewers were able to make an intuitive connection between the darkness and themselves, drawing new connotations for the site.
Part of the magic of events like Nuit Blanche is the transformative effect that night time has on city spaces, especially when combined with contemporary art. When we walked through The Deep Dark in Winnipeg, even we were surprised by the effect the installation had on the space.
Perhaps because Nuit Blanche was so busy, or because each gateway of The Deep Dark became a glowing social space, the little dirt path in Stephen Juba Park felt transformed. It was still dark, yes, but there was a self-awareness of that darkness. To us, for the first time in our brief experience with the space, it felt benign and welcoming – long, long into the night. Viewers explored every facet of the installation, moving both directions, pausing to take photographs and allow the LED doorframes to blind them.
As we walked back to our hotel at 4:30 in the morning, we remarked to each other that, despite the fact that no one else was around, the space felt safe. We should have turned off the installation and packed it safely away into our travel van. Instead, we made the decision to leave the artwork turned on, glowing mysteriously against the solitude of night. We thought this could be a beautiful surprise for some wandering insomniac. At very least, we hoped the lights would help early morning commuters avoid accidently riding their bikes into the frames or some similar incident. We slept peacefully, and didn’t return to tear down The Deep Dark until early the following afternoon. As it turned out, all of this was a mistake.
Real transformations take time. They are social and cultural in nature, yes, and temporary interjections (like Nuit Blanche) contribute powerfully to these vital shifts. But we realize now that we experienced a moment of naivety when we decided to leave The Deep Dark glowing feebly into the darkness that mild October morning. When we returned to take down the installation, each and every last strip of carefully hand-cut, painstakingly soldered LEDs had been inexpertly ripped from their frames, and several gates had been trashed. To add insult to injury, the delicate LEDs were probably broken when they were removed, rendering them absolutely useless to whoever stole them – sticky ribbons of cloudy plastic.
This is the nature of public space. It comes with very real rewards and more real consequences. Don’t get me wrong, while we were bummed out that The Deep Dark was trashed, we experienced a distinct epiphany as we packed up what remains of The Deep Dark on that beautiful, sunny, fall afternoon. The Deep Dark’s effect on a small slice of the city of Winnipeg was only temporary. The sketchy, realness of the space had re-asserted itself, answering the challenge of our interruption to the darkness. Ultimately, cities are elastic – if we hope to bend the fringe, it takes time, investment, nurturing, and ongoing care. One night is only the beginning.
Strangely, this is comforting. The Deep Dark will be repaired for its next stop at Luminocity in Kamloops (Oct 28 – Nov 5, 2016), but through this work, our understanding of darkness continues to evolve. The beautiful and strange fringe of downtown Winnipeg remains, a flickering underglow beneath her cool exterior. And while that city will continue to develop, grow, and change, we hope that some of its spaces will always be owned most profoundly by the night itself.
Warm thanks to the Nuit Blanche Winnipeg team (Alex, Melissa, Robbie, Monica, Eric, and many others), all our volunteers, our amazing install assistants Bruce and Kurt, The Forks staff and support team (ready to help in a pinch!), and special thanks to Steven and the brilliant team from Gerdau who built our most beautifully welded base to date – literally supporting the arts.