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At Day for Night Festival, a Surreal World of Light Provides Respite from the Music

In a modernist complex in downtown Houston, artists transform the dark corners and rooms into a light-filled cluster of art.

Michael Fullman, “Bardo” at Houston’s Day for Night Festival 2016 (all photos and GIF by the author for Hyperallergic)

HOUSTON — For over 50 years, postal workers scuttled through the concrete building once known as Houston’s Barbara Jordan Post Office; but with last year’s closure of those mail operations arrived an opportunity to breathe new life into the hulking, modernist edifice. Now a multipurpose space saved from demolition, the structure last weekend blinked with colorful lights for its first function: Day for Night, an annual music and arts festival anchored right in the city. Although it just turned two, it is already establishing itself within the crowded sphere of its kind as a small but highly considered event, contained to not overwhelm but still offering plenty to impress.

AV&C and Houze, “Phases” at Houston’s Day for Night Festival 2016

Part of why Day for Night stands out stems from its organizers’ strong efforts to give visual artists both equal and distinct footing to the musical lineup — the main draw for most attendees (Aphex Twin, Run the Jewels, and Blood Orange were among this year’s roster). Aside from one stage, all musical performances occurred outdoors while two floors of the former post office became the vast, open setting for curator Alex Czetwertynski’s selection of projects to overtake. The space is an empty warehouse, and organizers kept it dark and fog-filled, with pretty much only the art serving as light sources; the resulting mood edged on dystopian, introducing an unexpected, almost sinister thrill to what could have simply been a big warehouse rave.

The artworks fill main hallways but also side rooms, inviting exploration of the historic building. Day for Night, is, of course, fundamentally a party, so all the art was light-based and highly sensory. But while a number did follow the obvious route and cater to a drug-addled crowd (a frenzied mirror-and-light show begged for selfies; colorful projections floating above cushions was a space to chill or trip), many were impressive technical feats that contributed to the ominous setting, together creating a wholly different experience from the typical concert experience outdoors.

A popular light installation at Houston’s Day for Night Festival 2016

Whether intended or not, Michael Fullman (of VT Pro Design), for instance, presented a lightshow that evoked many current conversations about surveillance. “Bardo” consisted of dozens of stage lights that tracked attendees on a dance floor-like stage; at its weakest moments, the lights bounced around to loud music so the space simply resembled an enclosed party, but when they moved slowly in careful, deliberate paths to focus on individuals, the beams recalled eerie search lights, inescapable in that space. Standing in them, you feel vulnerable and exposed as everyone around you holds up a phone to snap photos.

The art installations of Day for Night 2016 took over Houston’s former Barbara Jordan Post Office
TUNDRA, “Outlines” at Houston’s Day for Night Festival 2016

I encountered a similar sense of entrapment at “Outlines,” another beam-heavy installation by St. Petersburg collective TUNDRA. About 400 lasers shot to the ceiling from the ground, turning on and off to sync with a thunderous soundscape and form a shocking, endlessly shifting grid of red light. A viewing platform sandwiched viewers between the menacing lines so from afar, people appeared as part of the installation, trapped in a futuristic, self-controlling prison. This was a darker echo of the cage-like setting near the building’s main entrance by Icelandic artist Shoplifter, which overtook a small space bordered by chainlink fence. “Ghost Beast” arose from her signature medium of hair, here technicolored and appearing alive from abstract projections covering the textured strands. Intermingled with ripped up fence, the cottony masses seemed like a monster slowly consuming the building, reminding in playful form of the structural demolition that was once its near-certain fate. Nearby, an excavator parked in the darkness, still crusted with dirt, seemed to quietly celebrate this escape. It was installed by Czetwertynski, who had masked its cold metal with the inviting cushion of white pillows. In this surrealist form, the vehicle served as an absurd canvas for another series of colorful projections, like a relic of a not-so-distant past in need now of new purpose in our world of digital constructions.

Shoplifter, “Ghost Beast” at Houston’s Day for Night Festival 2016
Alex Czetwertynski, “Blurware” at Houston’s Day for Night Festival 2016

Where truly breathtaking beauty shone amid all this looming darkness was in a long room transformed into the universe. A row of spheres each surrounded by small, swirling orbs of light extended its length in a neat row, recalling planets dancing together, in precise synchronization, to a deep, ambient soundscape. The series of endless eclipses, designed by United Visual Artists (UVA), was hypnotic, drawing you deeper into meditation the longer you remained. But this otherwordly ballet was slightly eerie, too, suggesting human ability to restage nature’s most wondrous mysteries.

United Visual Artists, “Musica Universalis” at Houston’s Day for Night Festival 2016

People were so curious to experience UVA’s “Musica Universalis” that it constantly witnessed a long, static line outside its entrance even though musical performances outside offered other entertainment. This was not the only Rain Room-like queue at Day for Night: the festival also hosted Björk Digital, a five-room installation offering a series of virtual reality music videos featuring the Icelandic artist. The entire experience amounts to roughly 80 minutes, if you linger in the final rooms where you have the option to play with an app or watch videos for as long as you desired. This, to me, seemed incredibly demanding for a two-day festival — I personally asked to leave after two rooms, feeling antsy — yet hundreds of attendees waited patiently to enter. One man I spoke with said he had spent the entire day in line — missing all of the day’s musical acts. There was a clear appetite for this particular technology, one that is especially uncanny when you consider that some people are actually waiting in line to see — or are seeing — Björk Digital while Björk IRL is DJing on stage in the next room. These lines exemplified Day for Night’s success in bringing art to the general public, in drawing out the curiosity of people who may not necessarily seek out art experiences. Every installation also arrived with wall text (some very extensive) to provide context for those wanting to learn more.

People waiting online to see Björk Digital with Shoplifter’s “Ghost Beast” in the background at Houston’s Day for Night Festival 2016

Such order in the foggy, dimly lit darkness introduced yet another strange layer to an event where you expect chaos to reign — particularly when you invite thousands upon thousands of young adults to run around an old building with drinks and joints in hand. Yet, even when you went outdoors, the dreamlike atmosphere of the interior never quite faded; the entire complex felt very much like its own contained world, the only place alive in downtown Houston, where many businesses were shut down for the weekend. The building itself breathed with energy: aside from lights pulsating across its gridded walls, one of its sides became the canvas for Chicago artist Ezra Miller, who projected colorful, ever-shifting animations on it that corresponded to the live music from the nearby stage.

When I observed them at one point, they resembled a blanket of clouds, painterly due to the building’s subtle texture. The swirling lights stood out against the darkening sky next to the city’s own rows of electric squares, but they were far more arresting. The pastel forms recalled an Impressionist’s handiwork; and in that moment, I nearly forgot the colors had come from code. Miller’s mural showcased the potential range of Day for Night’s future exhibitions, asserting that even traditional aesthetics may shine bright here.

Ezra Miller, “Stream” at Houston’s Day for Night Festival 2016
Damien Echols, “Sigil Room” at Houston’s Day for Night Festival 2016
Damien Echols, “Sigil Room” at Houston’s Day for Night Festival 2016
Alex Czetwertynski, “Blurware” at Houston’s Day for Night Festival 2016
AV&C and Houze, “Phases” at Houston’s Day for Night Festival 2016
Michael Fullman, “Bardo” at Houston’s Day for Night Festival 2016
TUNDRA, “Outlines” at Houston’s Day for Night Festival 2016
Golan Levin, “Ghost Pole Propagator” at Houston’s Day for Night Festival 2016

Day for Night took place on December 17 and 18 at the former Barbara Jordan Post Office (701 Franklin Street) in Houston, Texas.

Editor’s note: The author’s travel expenses and accommodations in Houston were paid for by Day for Night.

Correction: This post originally misstated the name of the post office where for Day for Night took place. It has been fixed.

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