Everything is bigger in Texas.
Day For Night is no exception. As we noted prior to the 2016 festival weekend, there’s a big music festival problem. However, with its large-scale combination of “sound” and “light” lineups, Culture Trip made the trip down to the Barbara Jordan Post Office on the edge of downtown Houston to see if it truly is the future of the music festival.
Arguably Day For Night’s crown jewel on the visual end — we’ll get to Björk Digital in a moment — the UK-based collective United Visual Artists’ installation Musica Universalis was tucked in a corner of the post office’s second level, one of the only attractions positioned in its own room.
There wasn’t a moment when a line of daunting size wasn’t queued up in anticipation of finally seeing what was hidden behind the veil.
Inside was darkness, broken only by a row of approximately eight spheres, each with a small light and speaker arranged like satellites, rotating around the spheres in 15-minute cycles. The vestiges of some empyrean galaxy, its haunting presence was further amplified by its isolation from the rest of the festival’s noise pollution — no one spoke a word once they entered this cosmic cavern. In tune with the Pythagorean theory of the Harmony of the Spheres, the churning vesper of the orbits, tapping different frequencies as the motors changed speeds, in combination with the in-sync-out-of-sync phases of the spheres was anesthetic; it was as close to a physical interpretation of Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” as I’d ever experienced, and in that moment everyone in the room was and wasn’t.
The most polarizing piece at Day For Night, Björk Digital demonstrated once again that the Icelandic artist is permanently on the cutting edge of technology in music. Featuring four virtual reality stations, as well as a chance to play with her Biophilia app and a music video retrospective, which took you to places like the green hills and caves of Iceland, inside of Björk’s mouth, and places altogether unreal. We have yet to see any other artist dive into virtual reality on such a level, and yet there seemed to be something missing in Björk Digital, possibly an effect of the technology’s current infancy. The installation also drew a line much longer than UVA’s, many attendees waiting for hours while the festival continued around them, some of them never even getting in.
Working out of St. Petersburg, Russia, collaborative artist collective Tundra’s Outlines was easily my most visited installation, probably because it made me feel like I was Obi-Wan Kenobi facing the laser gates in the Plasma Refinery Complex on Naboo in Phantom Menace. And to be fair, the install was quite menacing itself. Throughout its operation, Outlines’ laser beams circuited through many different states, from a grid that jumped from row to row, as if it were about to slice you into pieces, to hellfire raindrops and utter chaos. It’s sound environment did little to calm the nerves, marked by a devilish, static-filled snarl that was occasionally broken by sudden explosions and mechanical shrieks.
Shoplifter’s, Icelandic artists Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir, Ghostbeast, composed largely of human- and synthetic hair, looked like the type of thing Russel Brand tells you to stroke when you’re too high on drugs — surely there were a few people in such a state present — and that Diddy covers the outside of his house with to make it look like a werewolf.
Damien Echols’ Crimson Lotus was an abridged examination of how Magick helped Echols survive 18 years on death row for a crime he did not commit; Michael Fullman’s Bardo was the festival’s most fun and interactive piece that probed the physicality of light; and AV&C + Houzé’s Phases examined the boundaries between projection and the physical.
In terms of its musical lineup, Day For Night wasn’t just the last on the festival roster of 2016, it was one of the year’s best and most diverse. There were EDM headliners like Odesza and Kaskade, hip hop heavyweights like Run The Jewels and Travis Scott, and pop standouts like Banks and Blood Orange. There were soul captains like Thundercats and Kamasi Washington; indie favorites like Tyco and Little Dragon; and rising electronic acts like SURVIVE and Sophie. And to top it all off, they booked both influential legends Björk and Apex Twin.
The first evening peaked in what might be the most surreal moment I have ever experienced at any festival or concert. Most of Saturday had been a humid, 80-something-degree affair, and when Run The Jewels took the stage that evening, they made it clear that this was not their preferred weather, slightly nonplussed by the dense throng that had amassed to watch them sweat on stage.
As El-P and Killer Mike started the fifth song of their set, “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck),” a cold front hit Houston (something like a 45-degree drop in temperature would occur overnight), heavy bursts of wind torpedoing across the pavement to raucous cheers from the crowd. If it seemed like Run The Jewels had made a pact with Aeolus (Greek god of wind) to mitigate their diaphoresis, they also must have called upon Zeus, because as soon they started performing “Sea Legs,” taken from their first album, two songs later it began to pour.
While a chunk of the crowd fled stage left to the post office’s overhang, the majority regrouped together for the remainder of the set, Killer Mike and El-P’s energy matching the increasing intensity of the storm. And as the duo completed their encore, “Talk To Me,” off the best-Christmas-gift-ever RTJ3, the deluge came to a decided halt. Coincidence? Probably, but even coincidences can be divine.
Apex Twin, performing live in the U.S. for the first time in eight years, had taken the main stage at the same time as Run The Jewels, with an extra hour tacked on, and while I missed the first half, it’s clear that everyone in attendance experienced a similarly celestial rainfall. As expected, Apex Twin’s set moved with the swagger of Speed, but instead of Keanu Reeves, Sandra Bullock, and a runaway bus, there were spasmodic synths, the most radical bass tones, the occasional peppering of breakbeats, and an unparalleled light show, featuring the kind of high-powered lasers that you’re convinced can be seen from any point on Earth.
The rest of the weekend’s music lineup didn’t disappoint either. During her first of two DJ sets, Björk opened up the festival pre-party with a performance that started with bird and nature noises before moving into bone-rattling production from around the globe. The Soulection crew threw a massive party for the late-night lingerers on Saturday, mixing in jam after jam that spanned decades, and the number of people on stage growing to what seemed like 50 by the end of their run. Travis Scott brought Sunday evening to an unforgettable close, going off on one of the security guards for removing a microphone from one of his fan’s hands after Scott had just handed it to the fan.
Only being the festival’s second year, there were some growing pains that Day For Night endured throughout the weekend. During the Friday pre-party, a number of the visual artists were still completing their installations, the whole thing feeling (maybe appropriately so) like a soft opening. The bathroom sinks lost running water at some point during the course of the weekend, there weren’t enough food vendors to feed attendees in a timely manner, and the fire marshals presented a number of complications. The media room lost power several times and was out of action for hours at a time because of meals being hosted in the adjacent space, and the festival’s media staff really struggled to manage the weight of the weekend. But again, these are just growing pains, and therefore easily solvable.
The truth is, there’s nothing out there like Day For Night. You will see massive art pieces at festivals like Coachella, but they are more props than immersive installations. Festivals like FORM Arcosanti (Arizona), Mutek (Montreal and Mexico City), and Sonar (Barcelona) are presenting similar approaches on different scales. But with a massive indoor-outdoor space like the 1.5 million square foot abandoned Barbara Jordan Post Office and a top-tier music lineup, huge crowds are drawn to an unprecedented lineup of visual artists leading the field in terms of technology that probably wouldn’t have otherwise known or cared, and it’s this kind of immersion that matters the most.
In the end, there will always be music festivals whose main purpose is to provide a summer escape, following the longstanding Woodstock model. However, to call Day For Night a music festival would be incorrect. Yes, it incorporates much of what a music festival is composed of, but it is more of an evolutionary jump; a new breed of artistic celebration.
Day For Night isn’t the music festival of the future. Day For Night is the festival of the future.
Check out the other parts of this four-part video series on the 2016 Day For Night festival: