Current Events

Can Day For Night Overcome Its Growing Pains?

Day For Night festival, for all of its ambition and acclaim, still has some growing to do.

Even as early as the sparsely attended Friday preview night, logistical errors emerged. Viewing slots for the hotly anticipated Björk Digital installation were limited, the standby line stretching hopelessly to Shoplifter's Ghostbeast. As the festival progressed, lines snaked everywhere: for art, for drinks and for bathrooms. Entry to United Visual Artists' captivating Musica Universalis installation took more than an hour. Some vendors, like Sticky's Chicken, ran out of food. 

Those who waited in one of these many lines might have periodically noticed the unsettling smell of raw sewage. An ill-smelling stream of it would eventually drain out onto the lot next to the large bubble lounge. As upwards of 25,000 guests descended upon the building's midcentury bathrooms on Saturday, sinks stopped, air dryers broke and puddles of dubious origin grew on the floors. Most seasoned festival attendees are accustomed to some degrees of grime, but the proximity of the precarious bathrooms to the art installations added a unique ick factor to this one.

In a phone interview, festival co-creator Omar Afra said that many of these issues had not been anticipated. According to him, the sewage problem resulted from the relative disuse of the building in the previous year. After a long period of dormancy, such a flood of usage "stirred the pot" (to use his colorful phrasing) of the city sewage line beneath the property. As for the problems with other long lines, he chalked them up as being a positive symptom of interest in the festival. 

But Afra also asserts that Houston city politics "hamstrung" his team, leading to many of the disappointments attendees reported. "The specter of Oakland definitely permeated the political environment surrounding this event," Afra says, referring to the deadly December 2 fire in an Oakland warehouse. He argued that the anxiety over the tragic EDM concert led to added restrictions, precluding Day For Night from adding more food trucks or setting up VIP areas close to stages. The Red Stage, which featured most of the festival's headlining acts, was initially slotted to be placed behind the venue (where the Yellow Stage was placed). However, because of the width of the Red Stage and the production requirements, it was moved forward closer to Franklin Street, where there was room for fire exits on each side. This limited visibility of the Yellow Stage, to those meandering around the festival, unfortunately limited the visibility of many local bands.

Afra said he understood and appreciated the goals of the Houston Fire Marshal, the Mayor's Office and other relevant city departments, "but when 26 people die at a rave in a warehouse, and and two weeks later you throw a rave in a warehouse, the rules get super, super rigid." Both the Fire Marshal and the Mayor's Office could not be reached for comment on the changes made to the safety plan after December 2.

Logistical challenges weren't the only source of complaints from Day For Night attendees; many took umbrage at the festival's headlining act, Björk. VIP ticket holders who were promised a meet-and-greet with the artist complained that the event never materialized; many characterized the package, which cost upwards of $700, as a scam. General-admission attendees also expressed dissatisfaction with Björk's DJ set, nonplussed by its experimental aesthetic and the fact that the artist was almost entirely obscured from view. Afra unequivocally supported Björk's artistic choices. "We book artists to give them space to do what they want to do, not what we want them to do," he says. "If Björk wants to obfuscate her face with a mask and plants, then we give Björk the ability to do that." He also chastised those who were dismissive of the set. "If you want to see Björk's face, you can get on Google Image search any time you want."

"Festivals are like making pancakes," Afra said, "the first one's a turd, and they get better from there." Day For Night is far from a turd (though at times it may have smelled like one); its goal to unify light and sound is visionary, and other festivals should be paying attention to it. Further, the fact that no major injuries or fatalities were reported at an event that requires people to wander around a concrete building in the dark is worth reporting. But as Day For Night expands its scope and scale, it can't forget the bread-and-butter operational concerns that form the structural framework of a successful festival.
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Katie Sullivan is a sometimes writer for the Houston Press.