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Nuit Blanche: Magical moments amid the mayhem

Concentrated in a tighter geographical area, and built around key events, Saturday night's Nuit Blanche was a more concentrated focused event than in years past. With an estimated million people on the streets, the lineups were already hours deep by 10 p.m., the city lit by a full moon rising in a cloudless blue velvet sky.

In the mayhem, magical moments unfolded - sometimes literally, as in the Tarot-reading fair staged by the artist collective FASTWURMS in the waterfall court of the Sheraton Centre hotel which they transformed into a candle-lit mystical glade. (I'm in for some heavy weather, apparently, but the Princess card in my future looks promising.)

Down at the Calatrava-designed Brookfield Place galleria, the Witches' Cradles by the Centre for Tactical Magic were a big hit, with crowds standing in line throughout the night for the opportunity to be suspended in a state of sensory deprivation for 15, inducing visions. (I opted for hot sake at Ki instead.)

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Meanwhile, the Church of the Holy Trinity beside the Eaton Centre served as the lovely backdrop for Geoffrey Farmer's installation of stroboscopic hallucination-inducing "dream machines," modelled on experimental devices from the sixties. People sat around on little red cushions, their eyes closed in sincere, expectant contemplation. Compared to the big-budget ebullience in the Eaton Centre next door, where crowds assembled beneath Jeff Koons's giant inflatable rabbit, Farmer's project felt hushed and soulful, its low-budget charm refreshing. (The devices rotated atop reclaimed LP players.) His jerry-rigged banner reading "Destroy the Word" slipped seamlessly into the fabric of the little activist church, with its handmade banners in support of political activism, aboriginal rights and gay liberation. For one night only, radical Anglicanism held hands with Eastern meditation.

City halls old and new served as gathering places, altered by artists to extrude deeper meanings. On the steps of Old City Hall, Dave Clarke - recording engineer by day, performance artist by night - served as a kind of homespun non-seasonal Santa to the masses, entertaining delegations of curious passersby who lined up to ask him things like: "What's your favourite food?" (sushi), or "Are you really special?" ("Not really," he said) Aren't we all?

At new City Hall, Phoenix artist D. A. Therrien's 4 Letter Word Machine was suspended dramatically between the curving armature of the Viljo Revell designed towers, 65 metresabove the ground, the letters illuminated to a dazzling, Kleig-light brilliance. The severity of the typeface suggested Soviet austerity, lending an eerie, stylistically Dr. Strangelove vibe to the event as throngs of people gathered to decipher the oracle. (During our sojourn, the word shifted from FREE to FATE, eliciting a roar from the crowd.) At times, the letters devolved (whether intentionally or not) into meaningless ciphers, but the audience stood spellbound all the same. Stepping back, one could read the whole thing as a demonstration of our human search for shared meaning, community and connection. It's what cities are all about.

Cities are also for the amassing and distribution on capital, as Tom Dean's "hobo utopia" down in Liberty Village made manifest. Here, sausages, blankets, hot chocolate, warm wood fire and the comfort of great company and music were shared freely to all comers. I dimly recall drinking brandy out of a tin cup and singing Chattanooga Choo Choo to a tent full of complete strangers. It was that kind of night.

In the financial district, willing victims could ride the Giant Slide and Avalanche fairground rides in an event organized by Winnipegers Lorri Millan and Shawna Dempsey - an allegorical re-enactment of recent market instability that prompted screams of terror and exhilaration. Rebecca Belmore's performance Gone Indian was also about economic exchange, staged beneath the gold reflective towers of Royal Bank Plaza, just down the street. Here, Cree dancer Michael Greyeyes in full regalia performed a mesmerizing dance to a mix of traditional pow-wow music and hip hop in front of Belmore's souped-up pick-up truck, while Belmore flung freshly minted pennies in the air, creating glittering arcs of light against the dark sky. Alternately, Belmore kneeled and attempted to break a stone by smashing it, summoning images of traditional aboriginal women's work (like corn-grinding) gone extreme, but also calling up the memory of the land that lies captive beneath our surfaces of concrete.

Unscripted moments of synchronicity abounded: like the moment when Greyeyes danced face-to-face (one suspects unwittingly) in front of the Toronto filmmaker Atom Egoyan, who had taken his place anonymously in the front row of spectators. It was an encounter between two artists in the city, the one a maker of films that express the complexities of immigrant experience, heavy with the legacies of old Europe, the other an exemplar of Ontario's original inhabitants. At Nuit Blanche, they crossed paths, exchanging cultural pollen.

The word Toronto means "meeting place." Last night, the city lived up to its name.

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