Dancing Through the Elements at Day for Night

Houston's most innovative music and arts festival offers plenty of opportunities to get lost.

A crowd of people are standing in a line that snakes all around the blocked-off street. Some of them are wearing antlers and diaphanous dresses. This is, perhaps, an homage to Björk‘s elusive digital and physical presence at Day For Night, Houston’s preeminent music and arts festival. Others are wearing Santa hats and other holiday garb—a nice reminder that it’s actually December, though the weather is still balmy.

Houston is a city with a reputation for being home to the oil and gas industry for Texas and much of the country. This weekend, however, it’s showing its cultural side. Day for Night is in its second year and is advertised as an experiential fusion of immersive art installations with a standard music festival. The venue is a stern and stately concrete building that was once the Barbara Jordan Post Office. It’s full of strange lights, one-way staircases, dark hallways, and mysterious shadows, contributing to the particular character of the festival. Scattered signage lingering on the walls reminds the patron that this building used to be a very different place.

The outdoor stages are fairly standard festival fare. The Green Stage and Red Stage are in the concrete lot that surrounds the building. There’s a circle of food trucks, as tradition demands. Sound quality is fairly solid without too much bleeding between the stages.

But people seem to be magnetically drawn to the building that houses the art exhibits. There is a smoky darkness seeping through the building (a necessary part of many of the light-based installations) and the ambient hum blends with the individual sounds that feature in the exhibits.

Ghostbeast / photo by Daniel Cavazos

One of the first encounters for many is Ghostbeast, an arresting work by Shoplifter (Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir) that’s described as being “in the spirit of an Icelandic myth.” The installation, which is surrounded by a wireframe cage, is constructed from human and synthetic hair covering a wire frame that stretches organically over hanging wires. Shifting lights create an illusion of movement that resembles some great slumbering creature whose fur stirs in the drafts that seep through. Unsurprisingly, it’s become a very popular photo backdrop as people laugh and strike their poses in its midst.

On the second floor, another very popular exhibit is Tundra‘s mesmerizing Outlines, a series of red lasers spaced at even intervals. People are standing in awe, watching the work as it changes light and sound at no particular interval. The result is reminiscent of the laser alarm systems that spies outwit in blockbuster films. Intermittently there is a startling sound—a rattle and rumble, then a thunderclap accompanied by a burst of red light.

Leaving the warm cocoon of the installation-filled building provides a startling contrast. There are dancing stick figures of light cast on the building walls that help maintain a sense of wonder for the event. These figures are actually a work called Ghost Pole Propagator by Golan Levin. Rich smells emanate from the food trucks and the stages beckon.

Late on Friday night, a chill sweeps in. It was expected, but it arrives ahead of schedule, leaving many of the attendees ill-prepared. The rain falls right in the middle of a very well received set from Run the Jewels, who tempt fate with a fierce performance of “Sea Legs.” As the rich rhythm of their words calls for a defiance of idols, a bitter wind blows and a cold rain starts to fall. Having acquired their own sea legs, the Killer Mike and El-P keep playing. The audience is undeterred as well. Ponchos on, they dance away the cold. The crowd is packed to the end of the set and goes wild for the encore performance that follows a dramatic faux exit.

Outlines / photo by Daniel Cavazos

The second day of the festival is much colder, making the indoor installations especially popular with the audience. This is a good day to check out the much-anticipated Björk Digital exhibit. For those who didn’t sign up online beforehand, the wait is somewhere between five and eight hours, but even then entrance to the exhibit is no guarantee. A couple waiting in the line showed up two hours before the gates opened today and now, six hours later, are finally about to experience it.

Those who are fortunate enough to get in are led into a series of rooms equipped with virtual reality headsets. The first video is for “Stonemilker,” from last year’s Vulnicura, and is experienced using an Oculus Rift. Björk dances in a world of stone and waves. As the song goes on, she beckons and smiles, getting closer and closer. Her signature style—the trilled Rs and stretched vowels—are in surround sound through the headphones while she implores for a sense of connection. As she circles, the viewer spins along in a swivel chair to follow her dancing.

The journey continues through a cave for “Black Lake,” where Björk declares “I am bored of your apocalyptic obsessions” and dances through projections on the walls of a virtual cave. She wears a black dress that glimmers, then transforms into a fiery figure, reborn in a green field with new dance moves and a heavier rhythm.

Walking to the next station reveals that any cold chills experienced during these virtual realities were, in fact, actual realities. This exhibit is set in the receiving dock of the former post office, and cool air seeps under the doors and enhances the experience with a breeze.

The crowd at Day for Night / photo by Daniel Cavazos

The next set of videos is experienced with HTC’s Vive, a room-scale VR technology that simulates movement. A wand controller is part of the experience for “Notget,” also from Vulnicura. In the VR world, it takes the form of a ghostly hand composed of swirling lines. After following instructions to reach toward the “wound”—a shape of distinctly yonic configuration—the video continues with that visual theme. Björk sings about rebirth: “For in love we are immortal / Eternal, and safe from death.” The orchestra fades out at many points and is replaced by scratching and various other sounds.

“Family” follows and starts with voices only. The voices build in layers as Björk becomes a creature made from stone and ashes. Eventually, she is transformed into a lava monster. Her form grows and towers as she becomes some sort of giant sun-creature. This is an especially vivid use of the VR experience as the Vive manages to create a genuine sense of transforming scale and viewers are forced to crane their neck to gaze up at the giant figure.

Leaving the virtual world is always a bit disorienting—especially when the world that follows is filled with fog machines and flashing lights from the other exhibits. After the immersive experience of Björk Digital, it feels like a good time to go to the outside stages and get lost in the crowd. Of course, that’s its own form of immersion, too, and one that’s felt particularly good on such a cold weekend. It’s a nice reminder: dance the blood back into your extremities. Stay warm and keep moving. FL

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