The Day for Night festival is still in its infancy. This is not the festival for tried and true; they are trying to find the mavericks on the fringes of music, technology, and definition. The plan was to combine eclectic, world-class musicians with immersive art installations. In only their second year, they’ve brought in Björk, Aphex Twin, ODESZA, Run the Jewels, Travis Scott, and a bevy of serious contenders—nothing short of impressive.
Produced by Free Press Houston and Work-Order, this year’s festival took over the former Barbara Jordan Post Office, a cavernous 16-acre complex in Houston’s downtown business district. With three outdoor stages and one inside, the music was ever present. Inside, the sprawling, abandoned warehouse was filled with light-based art installations by the likes of United Visual Artists, NONOTAK, Golan Levin, and a five-room virtual reality immersive by Björk. Wandering through the dim, seemingly never-ending catacombs, it was clear that Day for Night was making every attempt to set itself apart from the average festival.
The opening-night preview party was a quick look at the weekend to come. The entertainment was highlighted by two deejay sets created by musicians known better for their live work, Björk and Win Butler of Arcade Fire fame who performed under the name DJ Windows 98. The crowd was attentive but appeared to be at a loss for how to process the paradigm shift. With only a few thousand present, the hulking building felt desolate, allowing plenty of room to take in the art with as much space and time as needed. Michael Fullman’s “Bardo” was a crowd favorite, consisting of a twenty-foot-cubed niche of synchronized stage lights. Sometimes pulsing to music and
sometimes tracking movement of the entering observer, the piece brought into question the role of Big Brother and the omniscient onlooker. The exhibit, like most of the installations, quickly devolved into a sea of selfie-seeking partygoers. Upstairs, it was difficult to get a glimpse of NONOTAK’s “Highline” without being impeded by a scourge of self-obsessed posers. Perhaps the wall of angled mirrors repeating to infinity—reminiscent of the dressing-room mirrors of retail stores of old—were too much for this generation to handle. One standout from the second floor was TUNDRA’s “Outlines,” a huge installation made up of hundreds of red lasers shooting floor to ceiling, wall to wall, creating a Mission Impossible-style environment. It pulsated and flashed to the ominous soundtrack of rumbling and clashing, a background that accompanied many of this year’s pieces.
Saturday night saw the official kickoff of Day for Night. The crowd swelled to over twenty-thousand, and all four stages were in constant rotation. As with most modern festivals, the multiple stages signified the need to pick your battles. Leaving Aphex Twin’s first U.S. appearance in a decade to catch the fast-rising Run the Jewels performance at the opposite side of the campus was heartbreaking. But as it was, it required a walk past ODESZA’s brilliant electronic set featuring live brass and drums on an oversized stage full of cutting-edge LED panels and light boxes; next to find Blood Orange belting a synthed-out vocal harmony feast on the second stage; and then to find Tycho playing a beautiful set of down-tempo, synth-backed, live instrumentation inside on the Blue Stage. Aphex Twin, hiding behind a wall of LEDs, cranked out his trademark, frenetic set of glitched-out grooves. On the neighboring Green Stage, Killer Mike and El-P put on one of my favorite sets, pulling from both albums and adding a splash of new material. The banter between them made it obvious they were enjoying themselves.
Complaining about the Texas heat quickly turned to fleeing a bizarre turn of weather as a wall of wind dropped the temperature twenty degrees in a matter of minutes. The ensuing rain kept Houston in a rare thirty-degree test of festival-going resolve.
With so much playing at one time, a virtual shuffled mix of favorite bands all performing their hits live, it was difficult to settle into any one of them. I found myself watching the clock to make sure I didn’t miss something, only ensuring that I never really got anything. Is this the new ADHD-riddled choice for entertainment? Must we have all options available only to complain that we didn’t get what we wanted in the end?
Sunday night saw more difficult decisions. My night became a blurred stream of Anklepants’s dark electronic set, the new-breed jazz of Kamasi Washington, Wu-Tang Clan front man RZA backed by full band Stone Mecca, the dizzying pace of Squarepusher, a triumphant return of ’90s alt-legends Butthole Surfers, which landed into the massive drop of Kaskade’s crowd-pleasing dance set, recently crowned by Forbes as the eighth-highest paid deejay of 2016. Look into those numbers if you’d like to rethink your life decisions.
With a festival of this scope, combined with enough patrons to constitute a small city, the party took on a life of its own. The reactions to Day for Night were as diverse as, well, day and night. While some wandered the light installations in complete amazement, others stood in line for more than six hours to catch a glimpse of Björk’s virtual experience, only to be informed that it was closed. Some didn’t seem to mind the two-hour line in the food truck corral, but many VIP ticket holders felt let down by what they were promised and what they found upon arrival. Scheduled events, artist meet-and-greets, and VIP areas were not to be found. Locating anyone in charge was equally impossible.
Inside, there was plenty of space for the massive crowd to explore, but the bottlenecks became quickly apparent. With Oakland on everyone’s mind, my backup plan was ever hatching. The abandoned warehouse vibe falls short when the utilities are not able to keep up with the sanitary needs of such a crowd. The plan was ambitious to say the least. Not without its missteps, Day for Night promises to work through “a lot of challenges and kinks” for next year. The level of talent displayed and the decision to go their own way is undeniable and appealing. I am curious to see what will come next year for Day for Night.