The warehouse space and surrounding parking lot of the soon-to-be-renovated Barbara Jordan Post Office in downtown Houston served as the site for the second annual Day For Night Festival, held on Saturday & Sunday, December 17th &18th. Featuring four stages programed with eclectic performers and over a dozen large-scale contemporary art installations, the 1.5 million square feet indoor/outdoor event is transforming how we think about the festival experience. This is no Austin City Limits (QRO festival recap), but rather a sophisticated spectacle focused on music and art with a capital A – a peek into the future of what festivals may become.
Now in its second year, the concept for Day For Night Fest was more easily understood by 2016 festivalgoers as a warehouse party meets contemporary gallery exhibition. The big draws on the music side for the weekend were Björk and Aphex Twin, two individuals who helped define the musical avant-garde scene of the 1990s. On the art side, room-sized sculptural and light-based installations dominated the second floor of the building and anchored several areas of the first floor. The abandoned warehouse was a bit on the creepy side – some said it felt like a scene from a Blade film or a Breaking Bad episode, while others appreciated the network of industrial pipes, conduits, and light fixtures for their sculptural nature. The space even had a bomb shelter with a series of tunnels under the building, quite a unique environment for a festival.
Those fortunate to get access to the VIP pre-party on Friday, December 16th previewed the work with a lot more breathing room, except for Björk Digital, a five room Virtual Reality (VR) experience on the first floor that suffered from a lack of capacity due to limited space and availability of VR headsets – a challenge that impacts a lot of museums incorporating these types of interactives. Appointments were required to access the 80-minute series of VR videos featuring Björk singing in different configurations, and many people waited hours on standby that evening and following days to catch a glimpse of one of the most touted aspects of the festival.
The experience was nothing short of amazing — Björk’s digital avatar sang to viewers as they were transported to the black sands of Iceland, a world of flowing energy, and one of the most notable scenes, inside of Björk’s mouth as she crooned. Combined with Björk’s DJ set of ambient and experimental beats, it was clear that she was most interested in sharing her work as an artist rather than as a singer. Those expecting to hear her mainstream songs were sorely disappointed.
Day One of Day For Night started in typical cloudy and humid Houston fashion – the artistic and atmospheric climates of the city are the reasons why this festival could exist in the first place. True to local roots, Saturday kicked off with Welcome to Houston, a nod to the legendary hip-hop artists Slim Thug, Bun B, and Mike Jones, who put H-town on the musical map.
Tobacco’s performance early in the day on the Blue Stage with vocoder, synths, and backing drummer characterized the type of musical acts that would dominate the line-up, complex, experimental, and captivating. Lower Dens hit the adjacent outdoor Green Stage as the sun was dipping with a more traditional line-up of guitars and rhythm. Meanwhile, outside at the main Red Stage, up and coming diva Banks and her backup singers got bodies moving with her alternative pop despite obvious lip-syncing.
Back at the Green Stage, The Jesus & Mary Chain turned their amps up to eleven as they blasted the crowd with noise rock that had ears ringing all the way to the courtyard about 200 yards away as they closed out with fan favorite “Just Like Honey” from 1985’s Psychocandy. Blood Orange, the stage name of the multi-talented, R&B singer/songwriter Devonte Hynes, took the Green Stage next and dazzled the crowd with his dance moves, guitar licks, and piano playing.
Like most festivals, Day For Night did have its share of schedule conflicts – pairing the dreamy indie electronica of ODESZA at the main Red Stage within minutes of Tycho inside on the Blue Stage was one of them. San Francisco-based artist Tycho, Scott Hansen, fit the spirit of the festival as both producer and graphic artist whose atmospheric sounds and minimalist visuals of clouds and sunsets complemented the sun/moon branding of the fest. Hansen’s mellower sounds were a nice contrast to some of the noisier elements of the day.
Following Tycho on the Blue Stage was an icon on the level of Philip Glass from last year’s festival, film director, screenwriter, and composer and master of horror, John Carpenter. His dark and brooding sounds, such as the theme from Halloween, captured the eerie feeling of some of the abandoned warehouse’s dark stairwells and corridors.
Headlining Day One was one of the most anticipated performances of the festival. Notable as his first U.S. performance since Coachella in 2008, Richard D. James, a.k.a. Aphex Twin, took the Red Stage around 10pm as the crowd was peaking with anticipation. Obscured by a walled booth, the audience couldn’t see the performer and some doubted that he was even present except for his face on the large screen. Beginning with a slow rumble of ambient rhythms, the cacophony grew as the weather started getting worse.
An anticipated cold front that had held back for most of the day blew 30 mile an hour gusts bringing the temperature down from the 70s to the 50s in a matter of minutes followed by rain. Many were scrambling to get inside the warehouse as outdoor sculptures literally started blowing away in the wind gusts. After a sweaty day, many in the audience let out hoots and screams as raised their arms in the air to cool down. As the temperature dropped, Soulection provided a nice respite on the inside Blue Stage, giving festivalgoers chill vibes as they danced the rest of the night away on geometric patterned carpet like that found on last year’s outside stage.
The cold front that swept into downtown Houston late on Saturday night kept the temperatures hovering around the 40s for most of Sunday moving the visibly smaller crowd inside the warehouse to view the artworks. As festivalgoers made their way to the front lobby they were confronted by a large caged area housing Ghostbeast by New York-based artist Shoplifter. Described as “a hibernating, pulsating, rumbling hair creature… in the spirit of an Icelandic myth,” the sculpture’s white hair extensions drooped down to the floor from wire supports while multi-colored lights activated it with various patterns. Viewers sat inside the sculpture, laid on top of it, and one person even buried their face and body into it as they groped the fuzzy locks of hair.
AV&C + HOUZÉ were returning artists from last year’s festival. Their work, Phases, on the other side of the warehouse from Ghostbeast, was a rotating triangular mirrored sculpture attached to trusses above that reflected beams of light on to the ground, walls, and viewers. With the thick smoke that accompanied many of the installations, the lighting of this piece took on a milky almost tangible appearance. Adjacent to Phases was a small backhoe loader sculpture by another returning artist Alex Czetwertynski. Titled Blurware, the construction equipment was padded with what looked like white pillows that served as a projection screen for a kaleidoscope of colored lights featuring natural elements such as grass growing in high speed.
Besides Björk Digital, which still had a queue wrapping around the walls, Michael Fullman of VT Pro’s piece Bardo was the biggest spectacle of the first floor. His light art piece consisted of a gridded space filled with dozens of spotlights pulsing and beaming lights from the ceiling and walls. As viewers walked through the space the beams began a choreography that was playful, yet vertiginous.
Day Two of Day For Night had a line-up that appealed to fans of a few other Texas festivals that eschew the mainstream in favor of more complex sounds, namely Levitation (QRO recap), Sound on Sound (QRO recap), and Fun Fun Fun (QRO recap). On the Green Stage, Los Angeles-based singer and multi-instrumentalist Ariel Pink’s lo-fi pop brought out an early crowd. Dressed in Santa Claus hats, Pink and his band’s more accessible poppy sounds eased concertgoers into the final day.
Arguably the hardest sounding band on the entire schedule, Lightning Bolt followed on the Green Stage driving the energy of the crowd to a frenzied level. The Rhode Island duo’s sound of high energy drumming over distorted bass lines had fans swirling into a mosh pit in front of the stage with one eager fan crowd surfing inside of a cardboard trash box. Sadly, bad weather forced a flight cancellation for Blonde Redhead, which sent the crowd scrambling to other stages.
While most of the artworks where placed inside the festival for maximum effect, there were a few light works that took advantage of the sides of the building’s exterior. Stream by Ezra Miller made use of the post office’s exposed brick – the light projection flowed like a cloudy haze of rainbow watercolors over its surface. Similarly, a low relief white sculpture near the Yellow Stage called Hybris by Robert Seidel, that looked like an oversized blob of thick drippy paint, shifted and morphed as warm and cool lighting washed over it. Golan Levin’s Ghost Pole Propagator fell a little flat as what looked like stick people moved across the south side of the post office building – an acquaintance quipped that it had more in common with a screensaver than something worth pondering for more than a few seconds.
The other side of the post office held the much smaller and narrower Yellow Stage, which featured more eclectic and local acts. Those not familiar with Anklepants were in for a surprise when making their way to the Yellow Stage during Blonde Redhead’s cancelled slot. The persona of Reecard Farche, Ankelpants is heavy on the weird side of the musical performances this weekend – Farche was outfitted in court jester garb with a full flesh-colored facemask that looked like a scrotum with a mechanical penis protruding from his nose. Accompanied by a backing DJ, the distorted electronic sounds where at times danceable and other times jarring.
Meanwhile, the second floor of the festival featured some of the largest light and sculptural installations of the event. It even hosted a work by returning artists NONOTAK, an electronic-based musical performance on Sunday that took advantage of two large screens blasted with floodlights. What looked like a scene out of Mission Impossible, Outlines by Russian artists Tundra was an audio-visual installation made up of gridded red laser beams pulsating from the ceiling and columns accompanied by a jarring soundtrack of bass-heavy dark ambient noise.
Judging by the long lines, the most popular and exclusive installation on the second floor was London-based collective United Visual Artists’ work Musica Universalis, a project they had been planning for years, but had not yet realized until the festival. Consisting of about a dozen white spheres surrounded by small orbiting objects with spotlights on one side and audio speakers on the other, the experience was reminiscent of a planetarium with various choreographed moon-like eclipses. Two sculptural installations with white neon-like tubes, Crimson Lotus by Damien Echols and Highline by NONOTAK rounded out the works on the top floor.
A fan favorite of Austin’s Psych Fest 2014 (QRO recap) when they were touring in support of their album Mess (QRO review), Liars, art students turned musicians, drew a large crowd inside for their early evening set at Day For Night. Dressed in signature gnarled and dripping yarn beanie, frontman Aussie Andrew pumped up the crowd as revelers danced to their unique mix of drum machine beats layered with synths, guitars, and drums. Highlights of their performance were “Pro Anti Anti”, “Vox Tuned D.E.D.”, and “Mask Maker” from Mess.
Sharing critical acclaim with Aphex Twin in the 1990s for their complementary sounds, Squarepusher’s inclusion on the well-curated line-up made a lot of sense. Wearing a dark hood and what appeared to be a fencing mask, Squarepusher brought multi-layered experimental electronica with a touch of progressive jazz and drum and bass elements to a shivering crowd. Backed by Las Vegas-worthy lighting that made the main Red Stage an artwork itself, Squarepusher blasted the crowd with several songs from 2015’s Damogen Furies, including “Stor Eiglass” and “Baltang Arg”.
Those who didn’t make it to Björk’s DJ set on Friday night began jockeying for position on the inside Blue Stage to see her performance while others braved the cold on the Green Stage for Unknown Mortal Orchestra. Björk’s set on Sunday followed her Friday performance closely. She sat over her laptop dead center of the stage while surrounded by a forest of large leafy plants and shrubs as she worked through angular and ambient electronic material. Dressed in a mesh mask ornamented in biomorphic glowing strings reminiscent of a deep-sea creature and obscured in nearly complete darkness, Björk swayed and fist pumped as she progressed through her performance in front of one of the largest crowds at the Blue Stage.
Returning from a long hiatus, Texas’s own psychedelic punk rockers Butthole Surfers were another highly anticipated act. Delayed by more than 20 minutes due to lead singer Gibby Haynes unsatisfied with the sound, they finally got their show going with “100 Million People Dead”, a deep cut from 1984’s International P.E.A.C.E Benefit Compilation, and “Hey” from their self-titled debut album from 1983. Not speaking much except for pointing at the crowd and saying hi to people he knew, Haynes got a chuckle from some as he said the word, “microdose,” before ripping into tracks from nearly ten albums of their discography.
If the acts on Sunday were like eating vegetables, Kaskade’s closing performance on the Red Stage was like eating candy. His set was a grand finale of multisensory explosions, with blinding strobes of laser beams, stage-sized clouds of smoke, and confetti cannon that coated the crowd in the front and back in a mountain of paper streamers. Not just any EDM DJ, Kaskade’s performances are known for their high production value, selling out stadium-sized venues and headlining music festivals for years. The crowd was hungry for a good dance party and Kaskade delivered with his brand of progressive and deep house, including the crowd favorite “I Remember” from the 2014 album of the same name. As people exited the festival after his set, permanent grins graced their faces as their souls were lifted by a weekend of amazing music and stimulating visuals. As festivals with formulaic branding and predictable acts continue to grow, Day For Night felt like the future and we were all happy to get a glimpse of it.
-words: Alex Freeman
-photos: Jessica Alexander & Alex Freeman