“Halifax’s Nocturne Versus (?) the Spectacle of Neoliberal Civics” appears in PUBLIC

Richard Kroeker, Eye Level (2002), public intervention. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

My article “Halifax’s Nocturne Versus (?) the Spectacle of Neoliberal Civics” has appeared in issue 45 of the journal Public: Art, Culture, Ideas, a special issue dedicated to the question of ‘Art and Civic Spectacle‘, edited by Jim Drobnick and Jennfer Fisher.

This article maps out some of the politics that surround Halifax’s annual (almost) all-night art festival Nocturne by examining it’s 2010 manifestation.  Tracing a line down Barrington  Street, Halifax’s downtown business corridor, the article asks us to think again before celebrating the supposed return of the “public” that this event promises.  For one, this article asks us to historicize and contextualize public space and public events in light of legacies of colonialism, racism, exploitation and gentrification.  For another, it asks us to consider whom events like these serve and what might be at stake in the ‘civic spectacle’ in terms of contemporary urban social and political issues, including political corruption, corporate profiteering and, more generally, a culture of privatized neoliberalism.  Within this context, I argue, one-night art festivals like Nocturne or Toronto’s Buit Blanche, with their feel-good vibe and corporate sponsors, offer a window onto new possibilities, but from within an architecture of power that otherwise goes unspoken and unacknowledged the other 364 nights of the year.

From the article:

The theme of whiteness is what, I believe, gives events like Nocturne and Nuit Blanche their titillating edge: they are spectacles of the intervention of civility (the civilizing force of art) into darkness, into the night. Here in Halifax, the night is a haunted time. In the mid-eighteenth century, moonlight raids by the dispossessed Mi’kmaq threatened to reduce the nascent settlement of Halifax to a military outpost, with civil society (merchants, missionaries, labourers) fleeing the dangerous colony. Later, the Maroons, Jamaican freedom fighters against slavery (inspired by the Haitian revolution), were exiled by the British to the forests east of Halifax’s sister-city of Dartmouth, where white locals applied their creativity to spinning narratives about strange nocturnal rituals, dark orgies, and witchcraft.  More recently, news of night-time group attacks (“swarmings”) presumed to be by black youth in the city’s North End have awakened suburban panic and prompted increased police budgets. So when the largely white “creative class” of Halifax “takes back” the downtown streets and tames the darkness with the en-light-ening force of art, one cannot help but recall the sorts of inherited cultural and colonial projects.


Inevitably one has to ask: “If not Nocturne, then what?” But it is less a problem with the event itself and more a problem with its borders, its confinement to one night a year. One aspect of the “we” that Nocturne seeks to call into being is a city where the values that animate Nocturne (experimentation, freedom, creativity, sociality, possibility) animate the fabric of everyday life in ways that go well beyond restoring the older liberal (white and patriarchal) public sphere and its attendant notion of civics. This utopia is withheld by interlocking systems of economics, political, historical and social power that rule the other 364 nights every year, which are steeped civic space and time, and which everyone inhabits, perpetuates, and challenges. Relegated to an annual singularity, sponsored, celebrated or merely tolerated by the very forces which otherwise dominate everyday life, events like Nocturne risk becoming spectacles of neoliberal civics: tamed and com- modified occurrences that risk relying on, reinforcing, and reifying the prevailing systemic apparatus even when they contain (and “contain” may be the most accurate word) brilliant or trenchant critiques of those very social, cultural, political, and economic forces.


Levelling a critique of Nocturne is not a dismissal of the civic spectacle or its potentials and pleasures. There are plenty of phenomenal, critical works on offer amidst the spectacle, and the event itself affords a unique opportunity for politicization and possibility. This critique is, however, a rude interruption in the unproblematized euphoria for the ostensible resurrection of the public sphere that the event is held to represent. Contextualizing civic spectacles both historically and in terms of neoliberal civics illuminates the challenges that critical culture workers (artists, teachers, curators, activists, critics, etc.) must contend with if they are to make such events transformative.

To be clear, in developing this compassionate critique of Nocturne, I am identifying the civic spectacle as a manifestation of systemic, cultural, and economic forces beyond the control of any individual. I suspect the vast majority of the organizers, volunteers and participants in the spectacle would decry neoliberalism, gentrification and the instrumentalization of the arts. Yet our moment of global capitalism runs on the fumes of people’s good intentions and, like a prior moments of capitalism, can survive (and, indeed, thrive) within the most dissonant of contradictions. As such, Nocturne is a site of both hard and soft contestation. For instance, while the official rhetoric of the program guides and promotional materials stresses a celebration of the local arts community, the vision of the municipal government embraces the more fashionable and economically-driven “creative economy” approach. But this is nothing new: the arts have always occupied a space of contestation and ambivalence because their value can never be entirely determined. In a system that seeks to melt all social, cultural, and aesthetic values into the universal equivalence of money, this contestation and ambivalence has become politicized as never before.