HOUSTON — At Houston’s Day for Night festival, a handful of contemplative spaces broke up the hectic energy of the event, with Laurie Anderson’s perceptive performance and Ekene Ijeoma and Ryoichi Kurokawa’s mesmerizing art installations providing much-needed respite from the multi-stage event that welcomed tens of thousands of music and art fans. Anderson’s music and words acted as a poetic exploration of the stories we tell ourselves and the unreliable nature of human memory, while Ijeoma drew attention to the fallacies of the American dream, and Kurokawa provided a space that felt like the inside of a waterfall.
Anderson started out her set with a bad joke. A couple decides to get divorced at the age of 90, and when people ask why now, they answer: “We wanted to wait until the children died.” Interweaving humor and anecdotes throughout her tranquil, soulful electric violin playing, Anderson proved herself as both an extremely entertaining and equally profound performer. She talked of Henry David Thoreau and his false narratives of existing only with nature — he actually went into town for meals often and his mom sometimes did his laundry. She even told a few tall tales about herself, like how she supposedly broke her back as a child.
For her finale, Anderson said she’d always wanted to make her voice sound like a violin, and she discovered she could do this by taking a pillow speaker (the kind of thing you use to “do things like learn German in your sleep”) and putting it in her mouth. Rounding up the false memories, she told us about the first time she tried it, when the battery acid made the gadget stick to the roof of her mouth, and she went to the pharmacist — of all people — to get it removed. Anderson then actually did put the pillow speaker into her mouth, and it did sound a lot like a violin, much to the delight of her attentive audience.
Although Anderson only mentioned Trump outright a couple of times, this was all clearly a very creative way to dismantle the myths that pervade politics today. Anderson’s stories pointed to the ridiculous nature of attempting to create very specific myths out of false memories, and her tale of the pillow speaker leaking acid into her mouth even pointed to the dangers involved therein. Yet at the same time, her performance served as a reflection on the limits of human memory in general. “You get your story and you hold onto it,” she said, “and every time you tell it, you forget it more.”
While Anderson was weaving yarns of humans melding with technology, upstairs a jazz trio performed “The Star-Spangled Banner” in a glass-planed enclosure, that the artist explained, was meant to emulate a jail cell, with mirrored panels. The trio played the national anthem over and over again, and each time, more and more notes would mysteriously disappear, until eventually there was only silence. Commissioned specifically for the festival, Brooklyn-based artist Ekene Ijeoma’s “Deconstructed Anthems” drew on the themes of mass incarceration, racial inequality, and the false narratives of the so-called American dream.
Ijeoma taught himself to read music specifically for this project, so that he could remove notes from the anthem at the same rate as Americans being sent to prison, from the 1920s to today, while pulsating lights traced the passage of time with an uneven beat. When the jazz trio was present, people gathered around and sat on the floor around them to listen; when the musicians went on break, festival-goers roamed the glass box, watching the player piano perform the same, pre-programmed composition.
The project was presented with no background information, yet every time a note went mysteriously missing, you could clearly feel its absence. As the silences got longer and longer, they also felt more and more uncomfortable. Although surrounded by other people, I felt eerily alone in my own thoughts.
On the opposite side of the venue, you could hear Ryoichi Kurokawa’s “Octfalls” from several yards away, a giant rush of water getting louder and louder before stopping abruptly. Originally created for the 2011 Venice Biennale, the installation consisted of eight oblong hanging screens, each projecting the close-up sight and sound of a somewhat distorted waterfall. As festival-goers gathered in the central space between the circle of waterfalls, the images and sounds appeared and disappeared from various screens with a whoosh, culminating in an almost deafening static-like noise and a blinding light when the screens all turned on at the same time, before cutting off and slowly starting over again. With people gathered in the center of the waterfalls, it felt like a kind of ritual, everyone turning their heads to face the same screens as they erratically turned on and off.
Day for Night lacked an official theme, but topics from the Friday Summit’s talks on the intersections of art, technology, and politics interwove throughout the whole weekend. Anderson, Ijeoma, and Kurokawa’s performances and installations provided both profound and meditative atmospheres that transported people into another time and space through a creative use of technology, providing welcome (and welcoming) reflective spaces at an otherwise frenzied festival.
Day For Night took place December 15–17 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 partly subsidized by Day for Night.