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Inside the first festival of the future: Day for Night 2017

The city of Houston needed a win this year. Between the devastation of Hurricane Harvey and the less-publicized Tax Day flood, the fourth-largest city in the United States had a rough 2017. Happily, Day for Night’s third year was more than a win – it was a celebration of the best and weirdest of the city, along with international artists and musicians to reflect the spirit and culture of the strong music & art scene there.

Day for Night is unique because of two intertwined factors: the venue and the respect they show to the light & art installations found within. The two outdoor main stages are pretty run-of-the-mill festival fare, but the rest of the fest happens inside the now-defunct Barbara Jordan Post Office building, which is better described as a sprawling warehouse. Left mostly dark, the building housed two indoor stages on the ground floor, several bars & VIP areas, and an entire second floor dedicated to art installations with a particular focus on light, sound, and interactivity.

Light Leaks installation by Kyle McDonald + Jonas Jongejan. Photo by Kyle McDonald.

While art installations are nothing new to festivals, they often feel like an afterthought, something to entertain audiences on their way from stage to stage. Day for Night blows others away on the sheer scale and thought put towards them. You could easily spend an entire day exploring and experiencing the pieces, a fact underscored by the full queues for the bigger names in the visual lineup, including Ryoji Ikeda, Mathewe Schriber, and Ryoichi Kurokawa. But despite the quick-moving lines, the massive interior space meant that even though the festival seemed very well-attended, crowds rarely became an issue. You could move quickly and easily from installation to installation, spending as much time with the interactive pieces as you’d like without feeling rushed or pressured by a horde of people behind you. Clever partitioning meant that the immersive experiences, often involving detailed sound design in addition to bright and moving lights, never interfered with each other or prioritized one over another.

None of this is to diminish the incredible music lineup, drawing names across the spectrum. The eclectic mix appealed to all music fans with bigger names such as Nine Inch Nails, Cardi B, and Justice rightfully attracting many. But, like I said, this was also a celebration of the weird, and the more experimental performances from artists such as Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Jlin, and Shabazz Palaces were not only welcomed, but met with eager and raucous crowds and applause. Other big name Texas festivals like Austin City Limits or, elsewhere in the US, Pitchfork Festival struggle to draw so many stellar fringe artists. North Carolina’s Moogfest might be a closer comparison, but even that festival lacks the visual component and comes at a higher price-tag.

Justice at Day for Night 2017. Photo by Nick L. for Festival Snobs

Musical highlights included a powerful homecoming performance from the Houston-born Solange, who stunned the audience on Sunday with towering onstage sculptures, appearances from the TSU marching band, and a dynamic, heartfelt performance drawing largely from her masterful A Seat At The Table album. Closing out that night was the incomparable Thom Yorke, whose ensemble (including longtime producer Nigel Godrich) ripped through a 90-minute set filled with selections from The Eraser & Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, as well as songs from his Atoms For Peace project. Electronic acts Demdike Stare, Mount Kimbie, and the aforementioned Jlin explored brutal and heady terrains, and the more dance-centric Jamie XX, Roni Size, DJ Tennis, and Nina Kravitz had crowds tearing up the floor. Back on the main stage, Russian ex-pats Pussy Riot powered through a set that engaged the huge crowd despite being mostly in their native tongue, and Justice had every person in the crowd losing their mind with perhaps the best stage production of the weekend.

Day for Night 2017 is the best festival experience I’ve had in years. There are always things to improve: the layout of the Blue Stage meant most of the audience had limited view of both the stage and the visuals, especially important as it housed most of the electronic artists. Vegetarian and vegan food options were limited, and better signage for restrooms scattered within the building could have improved lines. But the staff was helpful and friendly, audience spirits remained high all weekend despite heavy rains on Saturday night, and there was a true sense of brotherhood and appreciation for how special the festival was.

Telestron installation by VT Pro. Photo by Randall Pugh.

On Sunday, I met a festival-goer who had lost her apartment & many of her belongings in the hurricane, which meant she had to leave a job she loved for a higher paying retail job to help offset the losses. Shortly before Thom Yorke, I asked if the festival was a way of her giving a middle finger to 2017. She laughed and said, “No, this festival is a way to celebrate what I love. That I’m gonna be – that Houston’s gonna be – just fine.” Then we hugged and turned to watch our musical idol take the stage.