Storms and Lights at Day for Night 2017

St. Vincent, Nine Inch Nails, and Pussy Riot rock under gray Houston skies.

Once again, Day for Night is occupying a post office property in Downtown Houston. The looming concrete building contains most of the digital art elements of the festival, as well as the smaller indoor stages, while the Red and Green main stages are outdoors in the parking lot. It’s a cold, gray day in Houston to start, and the costumes and outfits of the attendees clearly reflect this. There are fur and leather jackets, fishnets and a rainbow of hair colors.

The Red Stage can be heard from blocks away. Perfume Genius (a.k.a. Mike Hadreas), is currently playing. He is a slight figure, undulating with rhythmic energy in a thin, shimmering, sweater. His vibrant vocals have a glamorous sheen and he is backed by a wall of rock sound and a show of lights.

Following Perfume Genius on the Red stage is the feminist punk collective, Pussy Riot. One of the group’s leaders, Nadya Tolokonnikova, spoke earlier as part the series of talks that opened the festival. Today, Pussy Riot is on the stage wearing their signature balaclavas.

The dramatic outfits of Pussy Riot change as they expose and costume themselves throughout the show. Their movements include choreography, but maintain a discord that matches their sound. They sing with disapproval of governments, and police as well as Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.

Nadya preludes one of the songs with the statement, “Because of this song, we spent years in prison,” in reference to the group’s 2012 conviction of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” The performance gains energy and cohesiveness as the show goes on. They return briefly for a bow after the conclusion, a radiantly cohesive force of charisma.

The energized crowd disperses to explore the farther reaches of the festival. The concrete tower of the post office building beckons with a series of bright lights and the ever-present artificial fog that gives form to beams of light used in many of the exhibits.

“Light Leaks,” by Kyle McDonald and Jonas Jongejan, has drawn a particularly mellow crowd. This piece includes a number of mirror-covered spheres suspended from the ceiling by a net. People stand and stare though some have chosen to lie on the ground to view the display.

“Light Leaks” / photo by Daniel Cavazos

Another crowd favorite is Mexico City–based Cocolab’s “Outside.” In this piece, beams of light are cast between a circle of pillars as heavy fog emanates and science fiction alien sounds buzz in the background.  The lights and sound increase in intensity as the performance continues. A circle of people watch entranced.

The calmer art exhibits are a sharp distinction from the high-octane performance of headliner Nine Inch Nails. A large crowd has gathered despite the 100 percent chance of rain that is predicted. Trent Reznor launches a staunchly solid-rock performance. He gallivants and postures with swagger and deftness to be expected as lights flash to cast projections of their shadows on the wall.  

The rain begins in earnest, but the band rocks on. Their song “Closer” draws a predictably strong response from the crowd, but as the rain begins to fall in heavy sheets, eventually things have to shut down.

Nine Inch Nails / photo by Daniel Cavazos

The second day boasts a better weather forecast. Under a calm, gray sky, En Vogue is playing on the Green Stage. They are endlessly, effortlessly, charismatic as the audience is enraptured with their vocal runs and impeccably-coordinated dance moves. Their stage setup is simple and their performance shines with straightforward presentation.

In the post office, the art show continues. One of the attendees loudly declares “I love old post offices,” as she walks through the mysterious halls. One exhibit that makes particular use of the eerie qualities of the building is “The New Sublime” by James Clar.  A projection of lights describes it as “A city permanently drowned in oil but it shines above it all.”

A projection creates the illusion of a city covered in oil. This is done with a rotating cylinder containing a viscous liquid and a 3D printed city.  A light casts the disconcerting vision to the wall. Also disconcerting, are the four aquarium tanks sitting on top of barrels that say “Survival Supplies.” The tanks contain what appears to be dead crabs. Attendees speculate about the crabs’ fate. The projected city tumbles on, eternally overwhelmed by its own destruction.

En Vogue / photo by Daniel Cavazos

A contrast to “The New Sublime” is Ekene Ijeoma’s particularly humane “Deconstructed Anthems”. For most of the festival, the work consisted of a lone player piano that “transforms the Star-Spangled Banner into a social barometer which responds to the state of the mass incarceration.” As the song is repeated, notes are removed to represent the gradual disappearance of people into the prison system. The piano is surrounded by clear panels illuminated by flashing lights.

In the early evening on Sunday, a full band has joined the piano. The eerie disappearing-anthem effect is magnified by the human performers who accomplish the technical feat of playing a song with more silence than sound. Their timing is impeccably perfect and the result is striking.

St. Vincent / photo by Daniel Cavazos

 Outside the post office building the air is a pleasantly crisp, cool, breeze. A large crowd has accumulated for Texas-native St. Vincent. She is on her knees in pink, thigh-high stilettos shredding on her signature guitar. On occasion, she steps down from her platform and puts down her guitar to perform an intimate ballad like “Happy Birthday, Johnny” in a voice that is resolute and vulnerable. A series of videos are projected behind her, ranging from odd art films with phones made of cake to a sky of projected stars.

The post office will remain open till the end of the festival. People wander back into the building. It is a refuge from the cold. The lights of art beckon them. There may still be more to see. They will have strange dreams tonight, after their adventures at Day for Night. FL

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