A large, illuminated billboard designed by Yoko Ono dangled over the southeast corner of Toronto's Lamport Stadium broadcasting a potent message: "Imagine Peace." Erin McCutcheon was trying to, but it wasn't coming easily.
"I saw a fight underneath it," says the 35-year-old independent artist and designer, unsure whether the irony was funny or simply disheartening.
The installation was one of hundreds in the 2008 edition of Nuit Blanche, Toronto's free all-night "contemporary art thing," which has proven popular through its first four years despite an annual chorus of voices that can't abide its mob mentality.
"I love the art and the fact that it makes it more accessible to people who may not be exposed to art every day," Ms. McCutcheon says. "The thing I don't like about it is how it's become not so much about the art but more a huge party. There's so much drinking over the past two years."
Ms. McCutcheon's frustrations, from liquored-up hooligans to overcrowded streets, have been echoed by many online and in print but, really, can they be the Toronto event's undoing? The same challenges are faced by Nuit Blanche events around the world - in Paris, Brussels, Madrid, Amsterdam, and Bucharest, for example - yet the events remain a community-building success story, offering access to an art world many might otherwise never see.
How to move several thousands to multiple millions of revellers through the dead of night is an annual conundrum for virtually every arm of the loose international Nuit Blanche consortium, which has grappled for years with ways of managing lineups and making exhibits navigable without setting them so close they feel claustrophobic.
A textbook example is Paris, considered by many to be the progenitor of the Nuit Blanche phenomenon, which is approaching its ninth year and draws up to two million people - "It is the flagship to which we all aspire," says Julian Sleath, Toronto's programming manager.
Each year, Paris nominates a new artistic director to give the event "new energy," says Christophe Girard, the deputy mayor of Paris responsible for culture. And this year's choice, Martin Bethenod, has bravely chosen density as a theme, arranging exhibits no more than 100 metres apart to keep things intimate. Mr. Girard concedes overcrowding is a worry, but hopes visitors will keep moving if they know the next attraction is just up ahead.
The title of one of Toronto's exhibition zones this year, Should I Stay or Should I Go, seems a propos.
"Primarily, it was a very direct, immediate response to people's frustrations around Nuit Blanche and its success. So, lineups: What do you do? Should I stay or should I go?" says Christof Migone, the zone's curator.
"I really wanted to play with the tension between mobility and gridlock," he explains. "[Nuit Blanche's]great success is its downfall. The more people you have, the less you're able to navigate through them."
Indeed, "flow" and "fluidity" are favourite buzzwords among the world's organizers when discussing Nuit Blanche crowd control.
Transportation is always key. Belgian co-ordinator Natalie Thiry says Brussels makes its buses free and encourages cycling, even offering bike parking. Madrid has traditionally extended its subway hours but this year, thanks to budget cuts, Spanish planners cannot extend transit, leaving them gambling that the exhibits can keep patrons fixated until 6 a.m., when the metro system comes alive again.
"Most of the activities take place in the centre of the city, which is closed to traffic, and therefore most are a walkable distance," says Madrid co-ordinator Pablo Berastegui. "The problem arrives when they want to return home: Almost a third of the people live outside Madrid."
In an effort to emphasize the underground as a means of bypassing crowded streets, exhibits in Toronto this year will flank the subway stops along Yonge and Bloor Streets and University Avenue. The city will also sell a special 24-hour transit pass and keep segments of the TTC running all night, and will make a long stretch of Yonge Street pedestrian-only.
Over the years, other complaints have found little traction. Noise got some Belgian residents' backs up, but Ms. Thiry says advance notification has largely headed those voices off. And while Mr. Girard recalled carping when the Paris program included music in 2005 and 2006 - something Toronto will showcase in spades this year - he thinks "actually, it's a very silent night, more about contemplation."
"But you could have groups of young kids, you know, who enjoy drinking. Well, it's only once a year," Mr. Girard says.
All organizers agree the peculiar social atmosphere of a Nuit Blanche overshadows its quirks and snags: "There is that kind of feverishness that happens, of being awake at night amongst other people. One loses a little bit of rationality," Mr. Migone says. And the sheer size of the early-morning hordes thrills many: Like Toronto, Madrid reports one million visitors; Belgium estimates they get 100,000; even Latvia's comparatively small capital Riga draws about 45,000 attendees, though accurate attendance figures are difficult to gather.
Meanwhile, Toronto's Nuit Blanche event has emerged as North America's standard-bearer, entering its fifth year with nearly 500 participating artists, apparently stable city backing and sponsorships, and by far the largest attendance among continental cities taking up the trend, such as Atlanta and Miami.
Last year, Ms. McCutcheon aborted her Nuit Blanche excursion early "after I probably saw four fights in a small radius," and says the sheer size of the crowds has made it harder to have accidental encounters with the art. Nevertheless, for all her reservations, the event still holds a certain magnetism over her.
"Yeah, I'll go out again," she says. "I'm there to support the art."