The traditional contemporary music festival, which presents multiple big name bands on several stages and may last several days and nights, has something of an audience energy problem, or so claims Free Press Summer Fest co-founder Omar Afra. Afra feels disheartened by the structure of the average music festival where audience energy rises with each performance but then steadily dissolves at the end of a set, leaving people wandering from stage to stage “listlessly until they find the next act that goes on and brings the intensity back up.”
A year ago, Afra decided to defy those standard festival conventions by debuting a new kind of music multi-day event in Houston. Naming it after the cinematic technique to create night scenes when filming in the daylight, Day for Night integrated large art installations and immersive light and sound sculptures into the music programming.
While this type festival where music meets and embraces computational and digital art was not the first of its kind, it had rarely been done before in the United States.
“It was less of a question of why are we bringing them together as opposed to why were they ever disassociated?” said Omar Afra of this idea to merge music and art into one festival.
“Our mission has been to try to keep people as engaged as they walk from stage to stage as when they’re staring at their favorite band performing, and what a better way to keep them engaged and give them the ability to explore than with large scale art installations,” Afra explained.
Not so coincidently, the type of digital and media art Afra had in mind for this festival also had some of its roots in large-scale music concerts.
“A lot of the hardware and components that are used to create generative and computational art, light art, are hardware and technology that have existed in the concert world for years, said Afra, noting what happens when artists begin to work with this technology. “What computational art really is is using technology, light and lasers, that already existed, but using them in a mindful and artful manner.”
But why Houston? Why was the city such an ideal place to mount a radically new type of festival that lets the music and experimental and computational art inspire and compliment each other?
“We wanted to do an event on a national and international scale. First we asked ourselves that question and then we reversed it and asked: Why not Houston?” said Afra. He believes that as the most diverse city in the country, the fastest growing city, soon to be the third-largest city, Houston is naturally the perfect place for this type of concert and art festival. Houston also possesses one attribute that many other large U.S. metropolitans don’t have, the optimal climate for an indoor and outdoor winter music and art festival. Houston is “one of the very few cities in the country where you can have a festival of this size in December,” he says.
That idea to marry art and music seamlessly into one festival finally came to fruition in the first Day for Night held in December 2015 at the Silver Street Studios and the several surrounding blocks. The eclectic lineup with names like Kendrick Lamar, New Order and the Phillip Glass Ensemble brought Houstonians with diverse musical tastes out to the Washington Avenue area. The massive light and sound installations and interactive media art kept them engaged as they wandered the warehouses and streets between the performance stages.
Artist and computer programmer Zach Lieberman worked on two installations for Day for Night 2015, a work he helped create with his students at the School for Poetic Computation in New York and his own piece Reflection Studies. His Reflection Studies evolved from writing software to simulate rays of light bouncing off objects and eventually grew into an interactive projection where people could manipulate the objects and light that then became abstract and dynamic images projected on a warehouse’s outer walls.
“It was really exciting to see the art was not secondary but a main part of the festival,” said Lieberman of his Day for Night experience. “The way the art was integrated within the physical location, you would go from one venue to another and move through installations. In other festivals, usually you would see art in a separate tent or to the side, but to see it presented side by side and on equal footing, that was really exciting for us.”
On December 17 and 18, 2016, Day for Night returns, not at its inaugural place on Silver Street, but Downtown in the 1.5 million square feet of indoor and outdoor space at Post HTX, the former Barbara Jordan Post Office at 401 Franklin Street. The lineup of performers such as Aphex Twin, ODESZA, Butthole Surfers, Blonde Redhead and Björk will likely draw a national and perhaps even international crowd, but it’s the 15 individual and collective visual artists, including United Visual Artists (UVA), Björk Digital, Golan Levin, Tundra, Damien Echols, and NONOTAK, who might help to bring about a new global perception of Houston’s place in the art world.
Digital artist Alex Czertwertynski, who curated the first Day for Night visual artist lineup and returns as both artist and curator for the second, believes the move Downtown will help alleviate one unexpected problem they faced during the first Day for Night.
“The thing for us that was really beautiful last year was we saw how engaged the audience was. The audience was extremely interested in the work,” remembered Czetwertynski. People would not only interact with the work, they would “take it in for a long time.”
Czertwertynski noticed audiences weren’t in a rush to see everything and then get back to the nearest stage area for the next concert to begin; instead, they lingered and explored, which for him, “felt like a great testament to the interest of the Houston audience towards this kind of work.”
While the audiences’ meaningful reaction and interaction with the art work was a good problem to have, it did lead to some long lines for those installations confined to smaller spaces where only a few people could view the piece at a time.
Having become very familiar with what the former post office campus has to offer, Czertwertynski looks forward to seeing what his selected artists can do inside the raw, industrial space that Afra also describes as filled with “cavernous places to explore.”
“The one thing that we learned from last year is that we want to give people a lot of room to move around and to wander in this expansive space and take the art in, without being blocked by long lines,” said Czetwertynski.
He knew about the venue change before selecting the digital artists in the final lineup and looked for artists who would embrace creating installations in such spaces, believing that the architecture of the environment will contribute to the works’ final form.
“We ask artists to create a piece that is site specific,” said Czetwertynski. “The location is extremely important because we don’t want people to bring an installation that they’ve already shown. We want them to have an interaction to the space. What we feel is that the relationship between the architecture of the space and visual arts is that it’s like a conversation. And we want people to be engaged as they move across the venue from stage to stage. Everywhere they go there’s a surprise, an installation tucked away or that they’re walking towards or seeing from a distance.”
Houston Arts Alliance President and CEO, Jonathon Glus has been keeping a close eye on Day for Night for the festival’s potential impact on the local art community and how it might influence international views of Houston as an art town. He feels the move to the Franklin Street complex might be trend in the way Houstonians create and interact with art in the city, where we’ve taken to putting art in the strangest places and abandoned spaces.
“Part of being in this unbridled place, we don’t control zoning and design to the extend that other cities do, but that’s given us all these spaces that are really great to work with,” said Glus “As we become more and more dense, we’re going to have to think about the way we use spaces in different ways. The idea of doing it at the post office is fantastic for the very reason we’re asking about it. It’s like: what the hell? They’re putting it in the post office. That’s crazy, but that’s part of what’s going to be really unique about this.”
Lieberman’s most recent Houston installation, the interactive media piece más que la cara (more than the face), which is a part of the Art Blocks of Main Street Square, is installed in the windows of the parking garage that was once the Sakowitz department store, so the artist understands how art can thrive in unusual spaces.
Even before the festival begins, Afra confesses they’re doing some soul searching as to whether Day for Night will move every year to some new and surprising spot in the city in order to give attendees a chance to explore new terrain or if they’ll settle into a permanent place like the Franklin Street site. But no matter where Day for Night lands in years to come, Afra and Czetwertynski appear definitive on ensuring the festival will maintain a connection with Houston audiences and artists.
“Houston has a reputation as being an important art city just because of the quality of the museums and institutions that are there, but I think in general those institutions are known for more traditional art forms,” believes Czertwertynski. “I think Day for Night is becoming a sort of beacon for this new type of art, that’s in an emerging state, but it’s becoming more and more important. We hope Day for Night creates a global interest in this type of work and for Houston being a sort of center for it. And we’re already seeing that as people are coming from all over the world for the festival this year.”
Glus agrees that Day for Night could create ripples back and forth through Houston and bring us to a prominent place in the international art scene.
“Our global cultural brand is evolving right now. This festival is going to be one of those anchors that helps creates the brand we’re all collectively creating right now in Houston,” Glus maintains. “When you look at international festivals, this is new. So it isn’t just that there’s other cities that are doing this and we’re going to be able to do it. This is a brand new niche that we’re laying claim to, and that’s special.”
Glus didn’t have to look far to make a comparison to another familiar Houston art program and what it has done for international perceptions of Houston as an art city and how such an event can produce a ripple effect within an artistic community.
“FotoFest has positioned Houston within the global fine arts photography world,” Glus said. “What is the ripple effect? Well, you have the media that works in the world internationally. They know about Houston. They know about FotoFest. They come to the city they write about it. They go back to Tokyo and write about it. They go back to Mexico City they write about it. It impacts our universities. It impacts our collecting.”
Also mentioning Art Basel and its impact on the art scene, galleries, art institutions and individual artists in Miami, Glus went on to make some rosy predictions about Day for Night and Houston. “There are those benchmark events that take place in different cities that really mark the evolution of those cities. I really believe this festival is one of those things that will put us on the map internationally.”
Though changes probably won’t happen rapidly but Glus believes Day for Night has the potential to change how Houstonians looks at art and how the rest of the world views Houston art.
“It’s going to take a couple of festivals for it to find its place in the community, and we’ll start seeing how it does have an impact,” said Glus. “You’re going to see museums and galleries responding to this in a bigger way. You’re going to see collectors responding, and you’re totally going to see international media responding to this and that is going to impact the way that people think about Houston and the way that people travel to Houston.”
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