Sensory overload: how immersive art took top billing at music festivals

From Coachella and Panorama to more boutique events, immersive artwork is becoming a crucial part of the lineup

With more musicians making repeat rounds on the festival circuit to recoup the losses from shrinking album sales, a singular experience can distinguish one music festival from a growing sea of others. This was abundantly clear to Omar Afra, who has owned and run the Houston music festival Free Press Summer Fest for nine years. Were glad that festivals have given a lot of bands social revenue, he told the Dallas Observer this month. That said, we dont want any of those bands that are playing every other festival. We want to create special moments that you wouldnt otherwise see.

Enter Day for Night, his new festival that closed its second installment last weekend. Day for Night actually offers a few different singular experiences in a single package: there was RZA and the Jesus and Mary Chain and a rare US appearance by Aphex Twin on huge indoor and outdoor stages, alongside the streaming, oozing, flashing beams of light of various digital art installations scattered through the darkness of a cavernous, abandoned mid-century post office a Berlin ravers dream, according to Day for Night co-founder and multimedia artist Alex Czetwertynski.

As curator of these art experiences, Czetwertynskis goal was to integrate art into the festival as a founding concept, not as an add-on, he says. Large-scale sculptural installations have already invaded the music festival grounds of Austins SXSW, New Yorks Panorama, and the grand desert spectacle of Coachella, which this year presented its largest artworks yet. (Festival art director Paul Clemente told the LA Times that he needs to push the limits of his epic art experience because pictures of Coachella end up to be the iconic images and memories people have from that year.)

But rather than objects in space, Czetwertynski sought works that better integrated into the festival scene, tapping artists and musicians that cross the digital line between audio and visual. Bjrk Digital was an obvious choice; the touring virtual reality exhibition immerses visitors in a series of alternate, Bjrk-designed realities scored by tracks from her blistering 2015 break-up album Vulnicura. Crescendoing from totally mundane music video concepts to actual surreal, semi-frightening 3D experiences, the six-piece series shows the artists growing mastery of this burgeoning technology.

Once donning those headache-inducing goggles stationed on a rotating stool, you first found yourself, nonplussed, on some peaceful distant shore with one Bjrk in front of you and, wow surprise, a second behind you! but by the fifth experience, after falling through cosmic quicksand and tumbling around inside Bjorks mouth, you find yourself cowering before a giant flaming avatar of the Icelandic singer that eventually (spoiler) passes through your body.

Bjork performs a DJ set during Day For Night 2016. Photograph: Santiago Felipe/Getty Images

Standing in painfully long lines for Bjrk Digital, many festival-goers had actually forgone seeing Bjrk human live on stage, shrouded in tropical plants for a critically panned DJ set she later defended on Facebook, validating Afras bet. Bands tour, one queueing 36-year-old from Austin told us, declining to give his name out of the shame of having waited six hours in line, but dont know when Ill see Bjrk Digital again. He had heard it was amazing.

On the second floor of the cavernous post office, there was also a 40-minute wait to pass a velvet curtain to view Musica Universalis, an arresting performative sculpture of solar systems and revolving lights by United Visual Artists, a London-based collective that both shows at art institutions such as the V&A and the Barbican, and designs the sets for musicians such as Massive Attack and James Blake.

Im not actually familiar with these artists, but I did see the piece on Instagram, and it looked really great, said Sarah Pendley, 30. Having already been in line for 15 minutes, she underscored the importance of social media in events like these as did the young lady dancing in the Snapchat glasses, or the selfies galore. With the abundance of spotlights, oozing rainbows, and reflective surfaces, the selfie opportunities were literally infinite: Paris-based multimedia duo Nonotak evoked 87-year-old Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama through their own version of the Infinity Room Shiro, a mise-en-abyme of angled mirrors illuminated by strobing bars of light.

Social media engagement has become a major component of public art and a consideration of how art experiences are created, according to Elena Soboleva, who leads Special Projects at the art-encyclopedic website Artsy, expounding upon the other reason for the rise of art at music festivals.

We had thought to perhaps discourage people from taking so many pictures, says Czetwertynski, but people just want to share what theyre experiencing, even if its unsharable. The great art world of Houston of course had already mastered the art of destination, one-off, immersive art experiences. Take, for example, the softly glowing James Turrell Skyspace on the campus of Rice University, or the Menil collections zen-inducing Rothko Chapel. The latters serene, skylit room of massive, exquisitely somber Rothko paintings, however, shows its behind the times. In the daylight hours before the festival began, the denim and leather jacket-clad, iPhone-wielding visitors were told time and again, No photos.

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