Culture Days and White Nights

Here is a tale of two walks across Winnipeg.

Culture Days is a cross-Canada event celebrating local culture. Last weekend, Winnipeg’s cultural organizations, spanning all forms of creative expression – visual art, literature, dance, music – opened their doors to the public.

My culture day started Saturday morning at our front door and took me on a meandering path through Winnipeg’s West End, downtown and, finally, to the Exchange District. My guide, the official program for Culture Days Manitoba, provided the push pins for my mental map. I set off, on that balmy autumn morning, down the quiet residential streets north of busy Portage Avenue. My first stop was an enclave of artists’ studios, housed in an old multi-story industrial building at 618 Arlington Street. It’s an incongruous find, a towering monolith of brick poking above a strip of modest bungalows. Inside its usually locked doors is an entire neighbourhood of artists. A very comfortable, convivial space, its sandblasted wood beams and brick walls are decked out in antiques and building remnants. A place I would like to work if I didn’t have a studio at home.

My walk continued down Sargent Avenue, a lively amalgam of cultures – Portuguese, Aboriginal, Korean, Philippine, to name a few. The street itself is a work of art done in murals and cuisines. A Vietnamese Bánh Mi sandwich from Bánh Mi Go is quickly followed by an artfully prepared latte at Strong Badger Coffeehouse. It’s hard to navigate Sargent Avenue without dropping into every bakery, every restaurant, every small shop. Sargent is not part of the official Culture Days brochure but it is clearly a culture destination.

The tour continues to the University of Winnipeg. Inside its Centennial Hall, itself an iconic modern building, is Gallery 1C03, a white box of a room given additional dimension and shape with the sound landscape of Eleanor King and Adam Basanta.

I headed off to the nearby Winnipeg Art Gallery, no less an iconic structure, to take in its various shows. Then, on to the Exchange District.

In some respects, this should be the heart of Winnipeg’s creative community. In the 1970s, the area was a rough-and-ready collection of early 1900s warehouses, banks and hotels. Artists thrived in affordable studios enveloped in a world of hefty timber and brick. It was still possible to hear the creaks and groans of garment factory machinery through the floors. Back then, I had shared studios in the now long-gone McIntyre Block – a parking lot today – and the Bate Building. Outside, the historic brick facades waited for the rest of Winnipeg to discover their charm.

Recently, the district has undergone a Renaissance of sorts. Warehouses are being converted into condominiums. Upscale boutique shops populate the storefronts. Restaurants and bars are everywhere. The place boils over with street activity during jazz and fringe festivals. And on  culture days like this. But those artists who recognized the embedded culture in the Exchange’s architecture so many years ago, have largely been pushed into outlier areas such as 618 Arlington Avenue.

Yes, The Exchange is still a hotbed of culture. But it has to be organized and well financed to survive.

My culture day ends at Gurevich Fine Art. Berlin artist, Isabell Spengler, is there, presenting her experimental film, Two Days at the Falls. It’s the best experience of the day.

Night arrives early on these fall days. So does Nuit Blanche. This all-night exploration of art, culture, fun and mayhem is part of a worldwide movement. Gail and I first experienced Nuit Blanche – or White Night – in St. Petersburg, Russia. We had just flown in from Winnipeg, jet-lagged after a day of flying through many time zones. But the city was alive, the streets packed. So we took a midnight boat ride through the city’s canals and down the Neva River, taking in the nocturnal illumination of bridges and buildings.

Saturday’s White Night walk took me from The Exchange District, along the Red River, across to Saint Boniface and down Provencher Avenue to the former St. Boniface City Hall – now, in part, a cultural centre –  before retracing my steps back to The Exchange.

It was remarkable journey. A crowded Exchange District is not unusual during its annual festivals but to see a continuous, dense stream of people promenading through the dark was surprising.

There were several art installations along the route. Cloud by Caitlin Brown and Wayne Garrett was a definite crowd pleaser. But I was particularly taken with The Deep Dark, another installation by Brown and Garrett. It consisted of a series of door frame structures lined with intensely bright LED lights. The frames dotted the bank of the Red River between the Exchange and the Provencher Bridge. A river of pedestrians and cyclists walked the length of the trail, passing through the light portals as they progressed. It was a disorienting experience, the blinding light causing complete disorientation, just as the artists intended.

The installation area is a long strip of river bottom forest with the river at one side and a very high dike wall on the other. I often walk the rough dirt path during the day. It’s a pleasant escape in the middle of the city. But it is a walk with some inherent safety concerns. Due to the dike and the river, the only ways out are at the two ends. I have never had any problems on my many traverses through this no-man’s land but it would never occur to me to walk its length at night.

Yet, here I am. Here we are. A great many of us. Promenading, laughing, talking art. In complete darkness. In the woods. In Winnipeg’s “crime-ridden” downtown. Safe. Maybe not so surprising after all.




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