THIS TRADE–CUM–BANKING MEGALOPOLIS just hasn’t been the same since the Brexit blowtorch caught aflame last year. Boiling blisters of social unrest last burst in the 2011 London riots, and had been temporarily covered by courtly Band-Aids. How surprised should we really be to find that the wounds wrought by inequality, racism, isolationism, and xenophobia still fester? The slate and chalk hills feel like all that’s left holding this country together as the continuous surge of violent attacks and gut-wrenching tragedies like Grenfell Tower make it hard to believe in a society based on faith and trust.
But then, on the first Saturday of July, a swarm of sprightly pixies appeared with barefaced ambitions to cut the haze, bringing temporary revelry to the public under the banner of Art Night.
“We modeled it after Nuit Blanche in Paris,” admitted cofounder Ksenia Zemtsova during Thursday’s private preview of Jake and Dinos Chapman’s video installation The Misshapeness of Things to Come. Down in the darkened tunnels beneath London Dock, dainty ladies in stiletto heels grabbed G&Ts and disappeared to watch the three-channel video through a maze of vintage-clad mannequins with burnished eyes.
“They were blinded by the content,” explained Art Night curator Fatoş Üstek—an ominous beginning to a one-night festival of eleven large-scale projects and sixty associate events, all within a half-mile radius of the Whitechapel Gallery, this year’s partner institution.
Talk turned to the historic sites secured through whim, political savvy, and perseverance, particularly Ian Whittlesea’s guided meditation inside the Bascule Chamber of Tower Bridge, Lindsay Seer’s occultist video at the Masonic Temple hidden in the Andaz Hotel, and Melanie Manchot’s dance-school takeover of Exchange Square.
“The goal was to make visible what is already happening,” continued Üstek, which manifested most directly in Güneş Terkol’s project enlisting public-housing-estate residents living opposite the Whitechapel Gallery to collaborate on a politicized banner and mural in the neighborhood.
Later Üstek lamented the changing landscapes in the East End and foiled plans for a Brian Eno concert inside the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, the oldest manufacturing company in the UK, dating back 450 years. Sadly, mid-planning, the building was sold to an anonymous buyer for redevelopment—a tale so common that city dwellers have resorted to a default response: deep sighs of exasperated disbelief, shrugged shoulders, and a cursory change of topic.
Saturday night rolled up, and so did the audiences, en masse. Anticipatory queues wrapped in and around the main attractions for upward of two to three hours during peak times. Fortunately I was given an orange band that allowed for speedy boarding throughout the all-night experience. My first stop was the Dennis Severs House, where I bumped into the public art organization Art of the Underground’s curator Kiera Blakey, still recovering from late-night celebrations of their current project with Daniel Buren.
“Do you know about this place? It inspired Punchdrunk Theatre Company,” she whispered as we entered the silent, candlelit treasure hunt. The Chapman Brothers had hid three works inside the immersive model of a Huguenot family home decorated with prized antiques, including an eighteenth-century still-life painting, by the former owner, an eccentric Californian artist.
Circling back, I set my compass on the Benedict Drew performance at Whitechapel Gallery. The elaborate set, featuring psychedelic videos and illustrations, dictated the musician’s improvised experimental score. As I felt breathless, squashed among the crowds, and hopelessly sober, the trippy droning tones proved hard to connect with in the moment. But no matter, next up was Melanie Manchot’s open-air collective dance. Rounding the corner behind Liverpool Street Station, I bumped into the most delightful silver-haired ladies sitting on a window ledge, awaiting show time (their amorphic patterned bibs were a dead give away).
“I’m metal work, this is tapestry, and that’s graffiti over there,” explained the duo from the Green Candle Senior Dance Company workshop. The pure joy in their eyes was infectious.
Soon crowds settled on the steps and a motley gathering of local dance companies specializing in flamenco, swing, capoeira, Irish dance, interpretive dance, tango, Afro-Cuban, and even 1980s-style flash mobs took the stage, where they stayed for the rest of the evening offering workshops in rotation.
Looking out onto the stage again, I spotted Üstek bouncing around in a group dance. “You have to join!” she urged, but I had a few more destinations to tick off the list, including Anne Hardy’s Michael Clark–inspired bubblegum-pink multimedia installation littered with whip-its, beer cans, and magnetic tape, and Lawrence Lek’s VR project Playstation, which imagines a future society where the workplace becomes a playground.
Retreating to Exchange Square at 2 AM to see the remaining dancers, I wondered if it was time for Game Over. DJ and artist Carsten Nicolai, aka Alva Noto, was on deck at the Village Underground, but tickets had sold out weeks ago. Curator Eva Wilson came by and squatted down, saying, “I have a plus one. I used to work for Olaf Nicolai, his brother. We’re like family. He always puts me on the list. Wanna join?”
And off we went. Hard electronic rhythms booming through the cavernous club harkened to Berlin but the Nag Champa incense burning from the corner of the sound engineer’s table was more Ibiza. We danced until closing, saluted Carsten at the bar, drenched in sweat, and capped off the night.
First published on Artforum.com, July 6th, 2017.