June 2007

The Toronto Star ran a story (Luminato: Success or big disappointment?) this morning offering readers the chance to compare and contrast two opposing views with regard to the inaugural Luminato festival. I missed almost all of the festival, which is to say, I didn’t find it very visible. I’m on Christopher Hume’s side that it represented ‘A businessperson’s notion of a festival‘ but I take issue with his write up: a corporate critic’s notion of a critique. There is far more that can be said about the failure of Luminato, a failure which may not be so explicit simply because the business people involved don’t have the imagination to understand the measure of the disappointment.

Hume writes in his third paragraph, defending some of the work:

And who couldn’t help but love Xavier Veilhan’s enormous black balls hanging in the atrium of BCE Place? Or Max Streicher’s floating horses at Union Station? Not to mention Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s interactive light show that has been illuminating the night sky for days?

I take issue with that first sentence ‘.. who couldn’t love …?’ which is precisely the type of stock-phrase Orwell warned writers against sixty years ago. I raise my hand … I am the Dr. Who of that phrase, he who felt nothing for the works mentioned. I didn’t see the light show, but what did I miss that can’t be seen at the end of August during the CNE or during some other corporate promotion when they beam lights into the sky? I walked by BCE last week and saw the ‘big black balls’ (is there supposed to be a pun in there?) and yawned … like I haven’t seen that kind of thing a million times before. Newsflash: every Christmas you can see a giant dead tree at the TD complex and crap hanging from the ceiling at the Eaton Centre.

Last week in conversation I argued that given current law, in which corporations are considered people, it follows that corporations should have their own inhuman art events. The result is something like Luminato, a ten-day bore-fest while the fleshy people get an insomniac’s night at the cold end of September.

L’Oreal Luminato vs. Scotiabank Nuit Blanche

The most obvious initial criticism can be aimed at the names, and the requisite corporate sponsorship which makes it seem like the bank and the make-up company had something profound to contribute to culture. For centuries, arts festivals have amounted to ‘bread and circuses’ put on by the wealthy to keep the poor from rioting but (as both these festivals have shown) that is no longer necessary in the age of internet porn, video games, and the corporate video art of movies and television.

Nuit Blanche is a French import, and in Paris, the name means ‘white night’. Luminato is a made-up word which sounds Italian or Spanish, and obviously allusive of ‘light’. In English, both of these names just come off as pretentious. Consider that for the French, having a festival named in the common language suggests the integration of art with life, whereas, in English, having it come with a pretentious name suggests the separation of art from life. Apparently culture in Toronto, is something one ‘does’ it is not something that is ‘lived’. Further, the naming problem can equally be found in the awkward acronyms that are attached to the two other cultural events – TIAF and TAAFI. Are we stupid or something? Why can’t we have a simple English name for an art fair, one that indicates the lived experience of culture?

Having said this, I acknowledge the first steps that both festivals represent in moving toward such an integration … both attempts are steps forward in bringing this city a cultural experience.

But let us now consider what we might mean by that: a cultural experience? Is not the goal of both festivals to bring the city something of what Europe has been doing for centuries – cultural events born of a time when the wealthy needed their obvious circuses as much as the poor needed their non-technological entertainments? One thinks of the great weddings and performances, the type of theatrical productions linked to the Medici, and those that Leonardo da Vinci orchestrated for the Duke of Milan; in the sixteenth century, the mystery plays which helped inspire a young Shakespeare to write theatre which is now considered the paragon of English expression. To this day, there are street battles with rotten tomatoes, the running of bulls, and town-square horse-races and matadors … Europe knows something of communal culture, which survives because of human scale, it’s simplicity, it’s emotion, and it’s deep relationship to the past.

And so in this year, there are three examples of super-famous arts festivals happening in Europe: The Venice Biennial, Documenta, and Sculpture Projects in Munster, along with the annual events mentioned above.

Luminato? Nuit Blance? Compared to these we have a long way to go before we measure up. The works highlighted by Hume (there were horses at Union Station?) are examples for the type of redecoration which passes for public art today. I’m partially borrowing from Stephen Colbert’s famous critique of Christo’s ‘The Gates’ in which he mocked the orange curtains as ‘redecorating a bike path’ but it seems to me that the big black balls, the inflated horses, the London-blitz light show only serve to highlight our fear of beautiful environments which enable truly cultured lives, and of art that is made by human beings for human beings in small scale facilities and not former warehouse spaces.

Our society is cruel and appreciates violence, anger, and killing – in short, the inhumane. It’s made stars out of so many people who’s behavior is nothing short of reprehensible. It allows people like Harper, Bush and Blair to govern it. And it aligns culture with corporate sponsorship and thinks that ‘if it’s big it’s good’. Luminato was an arts festival by Boomers for Boomers – and so it brought Philip Glass and Leonard Cohen, Eric Idle and Gore Vidal to town. Given what I said earlier about insincere language, it could have accurately been called the Hasbeenato.

In the featurettes that comes with the Lord of the Rings DVDs, the production designers makes passing comments about how beautiful the sets were, and one designer stated he would have loved to have Bilbo Bagins’ study for himself. My question is, why is this the case? Why is it that we’ve reserved beautiful environments for fantasy films? Why couldn’t buddy build himself that same study if he was able to build it for the film? How is it that beautiful environments – and the culture that goes with it – has come to be seen as a guilty pleasure not for everyday life?

When I first noticed the CGI cityscapes being done for the last Star Trek series, I couldn’t help compare that ‘starchicteture’ with the actual starchitecture going up in my city. Daniel Liebskind’s so called ‘radical’ architecture seem extremely conservative when we consider what we could be building instead, inspired by those alien city-scapes.

This is the disconnect between art and life which needs to be bridged – the separation of imagination into something reserved for fantasy, and the other reserved for quotidian functionality. Liebskind and Gehry provide the example of how that does not need to be the case: the technology is there to build whatever our imagination comes up with. Why do we keep settling for boring things, and limit these starchitects to imagining the unimaginative?

The idea that greatness is expensive (funds are still be raised to pay for the ROM and the AGO) is absurd given how much money is wasted everyday. The decadence of our culture isn’t only in our vast consumption of resources, the improvishment of the 90% of the world so that we can live in a society that is disproportionally and grotesquely rich: it’s rather the squandering that takes place (which makes it seem so unjustifiable to our governments that they should introduce limits and attempt to redistribute resources – it’s easier to continue to be inefficient).

Our inefficient use of our unfairly achieved wealth is triply insulting since we aren’t building the Pyramids – some great wonder of the world which could be considered a universal cultural treasure. No, instead we’re getting The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Luminato, Michael Lee Chin Crystals, Frank Gehry boats, and cold nights at the end of September for people who can afford to give up a night’s sleep. Considering the money that is potentially available, couldn’t we do something better, something we deserve?

Perhaps though, this all proves that we deserve nothing. These arts festivals amounting to easily forgettable trivialities, in which imagination is not free to express itself when our culture’s true imagination is dictated by television and movies (eagerly paid for and economically self-supporting). This all proves that culturally we already have way more than we need.

If we were asked to give something up in order that people elsewhere have more, chances are we’d barely notice. I barely noticed Luminato, and if the money used for it had been used for some kind of human betterment, we’d be better off. Waterfront light shows, inflatable balloons, hasbeen concerts are worth sacrificing to social justice.

Further on Luminato

Today’s (12 June 2007) Star reports that ‘Luminato a big success, say organizer’. What is the measure of this success?

‘Attendance was estimated to be more than a million people over the course of the ten days, says festival co-founder David Pecaut. “As you may know we set out an objective originally of half a million, so we more than doubled what we hoped to do in this very first year,” Pecaut said.’

So what if a million people showed up if they all thought it sucked?

Cultural events cannot be measured through numbers. This adds further proof, as Christopher Hume pointed out yesterday, that Luminato functioned as ‘A Businessman’s Notion of a Festival’.

Cultural success should be measured in memories and wonder, which is too ephemeral for a spreadsheet, and too long term for quarterly results.

Document History
  1. Published to my blog on 11 & 12 June 2007
  2. Sept 2015: this version produced