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Day for Night’s radical reboot of the art and music festival

Light installations helped transform an abandoned Houston post office last weekend

“Outlines” by Tundra, a light installation made from a grid of 400 lasers
“Outlines” by Tundra, a light installation made from a grid of 400 lasers
Theo Civitello

Videos below include images with strobes and flashing lights.

If you were looking for eye candy at the Day for Night festival in Houston last weekend, they weren’t hard to find. At the two-day music and art experience, held inside and around the blocky, abandoned 1.5 million-square-foot Barbara Jordan Post Office near downtown, the 20,000-strong crowd represented the eclectic, uniformly excellent music lineup organizers had created.

The genre mishmash hopped from the powerful, political hip-hop of Run the Jewels to Kamasi Washington’s space jazz to an array of DJs, indie rock acts, and two of electronic music’s most enigmatic figures: Bjork (subject of a massive virtual reality display) and Aphex Twin (performing in the United States for the first time in eight years). During the course of the weekend-long party, just in its second year, I saw EDM fans providing DIY light shows and costumed characters aplenty. A dude from Austin drinking craft beer and dressed as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle offered great directions.

“Musica Universalis,”  a site-specific art piece by United Visual Artists
“Musica Universalis,” a site-specific art piece by United Visual Artists
Ismael Quintanilla

But for an hour on Sunday afternoon, I was happy to ignore the commotion, and sat transfixed by the waxing and waning of a miniature solar system. I was inside “Musica Universalis,” a massive site-specific display created by London-based collective United Visual Artists. A seemingly simplistic row of eight “planets,” each orbited by a color-changing light, with patterns informed by actual NASA data, this installation was a revelation, a chance to sit down in a darkened warehouse and watch the cosmic ballet play out. The moon can be pretty, but a row of eight half-moons twirling in sequence is transfixing.

A video posted by Patrick Sisson (@psiss) on

The interplay of light, space, and ambient soundtrack—and almost complete silence from the audience—was enveloping, like watching the night sky free from lampposts and high-rises. As orbits sped up and slowed down, the light changed from white to blue to red, creating beautiful horizon lines and images that seemed more likely to come from a deep space satellite than a Texas warehouse.

It was, in short, a moment that captured my full attention; any work of art that can accomplish that feat in today’s mobile, media-saturated environment, much less at a music festival, is noteworthy.

Moments like this—and there were many, since the fest included 16 site-specific installations—made Day for Night much more than a music festival beholden to the food trucks, bands, and beer paradigm. Don’t get me wrong, it was wildly successful in terms of music; bouncing between four stages all weekend, I sampled the slinky, soulful R&B of Blood Orange and watched Aphex Twin descend into a wonky, wonderful fury of breakbeats and lasers during a set interrupted by a sudden rainstorm.

But by moving beyond light and art as compliments to the music and placing them centerstage, the two-story venue, which even featured visuals and digital video broadcast on its facades, elevated the festival into a bigger experiment with light and site-specific artwork. The typical warehouse setting for a large dance party became home to a thrilling exploration of light, sound, and space.

Perhaps the most refreshing surprise was that the experience with top billing—the much-hyped Bjork Digital, a series of VR videos and interactive experiences focused on the Icelandic artist that attracted hours-long lines—fell flat, with poor execution and somewhat bland use of the technology that seemed notable more for her involvement than anything else. Not to worry—other installations and light shows more than picked up the slack.

“Phases,” a sculptural environment created with robotic mirrors by AV&C + Houze
“Phases,” a sculptural environment created with robotic mirrors by AV&C + Houze
Roger Ho

A video posted by Patrick Sisson (@psiss) on

In addition to the stellar piece by United Visual Artists, other installations deftly utilized the unique space, a dark, dimly lit abandoned building, to create sequences and spectacles that unfolded over time. It’s 2016, so everything was constantly photographed and recorded through the lens of a smartphone. But rather than prove a distraction, it became part of the experience; the striking installations, which worked in slow, deliberate patterns, forced spectators to analyze, watch, and pay attention in ways that paintings and other visual mediums did not. Certainly, the festival setting meant plenty of spectators were likely under the influence as they watched deft arrangements of flashing lights. But it would be insulting to consider that the point of the show. By commanding viewers to pay attention due to the primitive visceral power of light, this was art that fit perfectly within our shortened modern attention spans.

The scale of the works, and ample space for reflection, made many of the pieces feel engrossing, like the entire setup was the platonic idea of a ‘90s rave (with much higher production values). St. Petersburg, Russia, collective Tundra set up a massive grid of 400 red light for “Outlines,” which occasionally resembled the kind of high-tech, highly visible security system found in modern heist movies, but because of its intermittent flickers and patterns, and thunderous soundtrack, resembled a laser light storm.

The transfixing “Phases,” a sculptural environment created with robotic mirrors by AV&C + Houze, asked the audience to sit in a circle around a triangular system of mirrors that moved in a tightly choreographed program with projectors, creating a glitchy series of flashes and patterns that felt like being sent through a grocery store scanner. Michael Fullan’s “Bardo,” two walls of light projectors that created arching patterns that moved like spider legs, attracted massive crowds, forming bold patterns of criss-crossed light beams that resembled something from the Thorncrown Chapel.

NONOTAK performing live at Day for Night
NONOTAK performing live at Day for Night
Julian Basjel

One of the audio and visual highlights of the weekend were the evening shows by NONOTAK, the duo of Noemi Schipfer and Takami Nakamoto. The pair’s festival installation, “Highline,” a row of fluorescent lights and mirrors, created a wall of light that recalled a beautifully programmed LED clock. They outdid themselves with a pair of live performances set in front of crisscrossing pieces of fabric, which reflected a series of angular light projections. The other installations all threw off a slightly cold beauty, due to the interaction of code, digital recordings, and light machines. NONOTAK’s light show, created on laptops in front of a crowd, added an extra visceral punch, as the two laptop artists stood amid a whirlwind of minimalist patterns and projections. Like many DJs and electronic music artists, they did little more than nod their heads, and aggressively punch keys. But it was hard to focus on that with dancing walls of light pulsing nearby.

A video posted by Claudia Chagui (@clauchagui) on

This was the festival’s second year, and the growing pains were evident all around. Crowds had expanded, leading to cramped entryways, wayfinding was poor, and questions posed to security staff and volunteers were often met with shrugs and little information.

But in a festival landscape where every time slot seemed jam-packed to maximize crowd shifting and stage switching, and a digital media world where FOMO is feature, not a bug, Day for Night and its thrilling installations made me turn off, drop the phone, and simply stare in awe. In the midst of a crowded and energetic event, I found time to pause and take it all in, and simply appreciate the work unfolding in front of me.