AN INTERVIEW WITH DAY FOR NIGHT’S OMAR AFRA
Catherine Gonzalez, Communications + Outreach Coordinator
One of my favorite things about my job, and Houston for that matter, is the accessibility to hear—and speak—to local arts leaders.
Last April, my Houston Arts Alliance (HAA) colleagues and I attended the University of Houston Center for Social Engagement’s Leadership in the Arts Summit. I remember arriving feeling incredibly eager to attend the Creative Entrepreneurs: Building the New New panel session because I wanted to hear how local leaders had successfully organized and managed each of their creative enterprises. The panel was strong, consisting of local artist Robert Hodge, CORE Design Studio’s Fiona McGettigan, Alley Theatre’s Dean Gladden, Times Square Alliance’s Sherry Dobbin and Free Press Houston’s Omar Afra (founder of both Free Press Summer Fest and Day for Night). I was particularly interested in what Afra had to contribute to the conversation because he had recently debuted his new, experimental festival featuring world-renowned musicians and digital art installations. Having attended the first Day for Night and been blown away with its bravado, I remember asking Afra one question: “When's the next one?”
You may have already seen their intangible circular logo around the city while in line at your favorite coffee shop, local grocery store, taking the METRORail, at a yoga studio, or at a stop light. It’s Day for Night, taking place next week, Friday - Sunday, December 16 - 18, and it’s spreading like wildfire.
With all of the buzz around town, I had to learn more about the motivation behind the festival. I sat down with Afra to find out how he got to this place and what's next for him. Read our conversation below.
Catherine: As we all know, you founded Free Press Summer Festival (FPSF). Tell us about the motivation for starting Day for Night. How did you come up with it? What else were you looking for in festival event production? Why was Houston needing this? Were there any gaps you were trying to fill?
Omar: Day for Night was largely rooted in my past experience in the music industry, where I found the formula, template and process for festivals, hadn’t changed since Woodstock. Something happened—at some point the visual arts were disassociated from the musical experience. For example, in the different psych scenes of the 1960s, the art, whether that be the posters designed or the visuals behind the band, were a part of the entire experience. I don’t think we are reinventing the wheel, all we are doing is reintroducing and correcting visuality in the musical experience on a larger scale. I think doing work “because the city needs it” is a self-defeating creed and somewhat a distraction. We constantly had great visual ideas with our previous festival, FPSF, and our partners never really were listening to us. On a spreadsheet they couldn’t quantify why our ideas made sense. You can get lost when things get too formulaic and the art gets lost in the spreadsheet.
Omar: Ultimately Day for Night is a receptacle of ideas that we have had over the last decade that we couldn’t bring to fruition, you know, as insiders in the music world. We had to take a step out and approach this as outsiders. I think that is where we got to the unique place where we are now. In the second year, people are now saying “this is great, I love it, and what is it?” We want people to go to the event and still ask, “But what is it?” I think in five years if people are going to say things like, “wow, these guys are like Bonnaroo or Coachella," then we have failed.
Catherine: I grew up in Austin and have gone to Austin City Limits so many times and I feel like this type of management and concert experience is somewhat finished. There is somewhat of a paradigm shift in the way we embrace music and Day for Night is leading it.
Omar: There is nothing new under the sun. Every generation will think they invented rock n’ roll. People have been having multi-media parties for a hundred years now, so there is nothing new with what we are doing … yet, ours is on a larger scale. There is a level of scarcity on the music side that hasn’t been done before. We are creating once-in-a-lifetime moments. You won’t see Aphex Twin in this context probably ever.
Catherine: And I think it is interesting that you put that unique experience at the same time as two really strong local acts. How are we supposed to choose?
Omar: Here is how: Aphex Twin is two hours. That is inextricably tied to the "hyper-localism" narrative we are discussing here, which is becoming poisonous. That is coming from the person who started and pushed for that. For example: You wake up every day and look yourself in the mirror and to move ahead you tell yourself “Hey, I can do this, I am beautiful.” You can only do that for so long. Eventually you stop believing it and you start acting like you are in the end zone and you don’t need to come out and say “I’m beautiful” because people know it. At same point you have to get past that, it is just a stage. Hyper-localism is good if it is a transitory period. Hyper-localism is bad if that is where you stay. Open yourself to doors, go further and manifest yourself in different actions. Those local acts are great because they are great, it isn’t like we are constantly saying “these are my friends from Houston and that is why I am going to support them.” We chose people from all around the world, some we know and some we don’t know. I think the message is that Houston is a part of this great international ecosystem of great art and music, so why wouldn’t it be included? Not like, “Hey let’s shine a spotlight on Houston because people don’t know about our city.” We did that a decade ago. Let’s move forward.
Catherine: How did you execute the idea? Did you hire a curator? Who did you collaborate with?
Omar: I collaborated with the creative director of FPSF, Kiffer Keegan, an old buddy of mine from Houston, who eventually moved to New York and took off really quickly in the world of film, animation and brand design. Suddenly he is doing animation for Comedy Central, then rebrands Comedy Central, starts a firm and is a part of the iPhone 6 launch and does Oliver Stone movies. He is this cool guy and he helped me rebrand FPSF in 2012. Our dialogue was this receptacle of discarded ideas. We thought, “Okay we have this giant tent at FPSF, why don’t we make it dark, project images all over the walls and make it interactive with the participants there.” At the end of the day, that costs a good fortune to produce a tent like that. It was always shot down. The notion was, “How does this make us money?” That is short-sided. It doesn’t make us money today. Well maybe in ten years, people say “I go to this thing because they push the envelope and they expose us to the greatest in art and technology.” That was the running narrative. When I got out of FPSF, the first thing I said to Kiffer was “Okay let’s do it our way now, how it should be. Let’s take this festival model and get beyond this archaic ‘I watch a band in a field’ model.” Which is still great! I mean if you look back at the nature of what a “festival” was 5,000 years ago, it wasn’t a series of concerts. It was music, art and dance and all of these things merging in simultaneity. If you look at Austin City Limits Music Festival, it is a series of concerts in a field all lined up back to back.
Catherine: And your visual arts curator was ….
Omar: Alex Czetwertynski, out of Brooklyn, New York.
Catherine: You are bridging visual art and music, or as Day for Night calls it light and sound. Do you see this trend anywhere else in the country? And I guess when I say these things out loud, I realize that through my research on the selected artists, they have all debuted their own work independently of the festival. So better question: Do you see this type of festival experience anywhere else in the country?
Omar: Haha, no.
Catherine: I mean, duh. (Laughs)
Catherine: What would you like the role of local artists to be with your festival?
Omar: Let me think of a very diplomatic answer to that. I think that local artists …
Catherine: I mean you have some of them hired on your staff. Of course, not everyone in the festival workforce (producers, organizers, installers) is an artist. Are they both?
Omar: Some are both. Local artists are definitely involved here. I think tying back to this hyper-localism needing to be a transitory process. A lot of these artists, who happen to be in our geography, we have to see them beyond the scope of the local cat. I think creating a space for these artists, beyond “you’re a local guy, and you’re an afterthought,” does great things for the local artists. It is a paradox. If you create a space for the local artists and combine it with the artists from France, Japan and Russia we have coming, then I think that is the biggest thing we can do for them. We shouldn’t regulate them to a secondary role as a local artist.
Catherine: And I guess I mean this along the lines of recognizing that local artists become inspired by your festival and want to learn how to create digital art. Does Day for Night have any plans to educate those artists?
Omar: Yeah, I think we’ve recognized that as we grow and a lot of local artists get inspired by what we do, then sure. I will say that we have discussed year-round interaction and dialogue with those artists. Of course, it takes a year to plan this festival anyways. We would like to bring those artists to the table. We have the tools, the talent, the size and diversity in this city to accelerate in any medium, whether that is generative art, computational art, light art, or anything that we can delve into. Who is on site at the festival is a totally different story. We got two-thirds of our sales are from out of market. It is bananas.
Catherine: Speaking of who is attending the festival, a substantial amount of your sales are out of the city, what kind of people are coming? Any celebrities?
Omar: Yes, there are celebrities coming. I can’t say who but there will be interesting faces there, especially at the Friday night party. A lot of people are coming to see this because the scale is monumentally different. I think there is something like 775 different cities from all around the world coming. At the end of October, 70% of our sales were outside of Houston.
Catherine: I think that says so much about the city’s tourism. You are putting Houston on the international map. It’s innovative.
Catherine: Do you know what creative placemaking is? We have so many buzzwords in our industry. Day for Night is a great case study for creative placemaking.
Omar: I generally understand. To me, this thing had a pure birth outside of any notion of academia. The most authentic powerful sentiment is when people actually look me in the eyes, their eyebrows raise and say “this is going to be so great.” It’s the most powerful thing in the world. It’s primitive. Those simplistic, guttural, bone marrow responses are what we need. Not a dress down. Moving outside of academia and governmental, sometimes art isn’t good for the community.
Catherine: It’s disruptive.
Omar: That is another one of those words! “Be disruptive.” Like I said before, we are trying to approach this as outsiders in the music industry. We are moving away from music industry tropes and processes. Same for the art side. We don’t want to be isolated to separate worlds. We want to be this synergistic, amalgamation of the two. To be able to defy the mores of each. They already are in contrast with each other. You have to live outside of it.
Catherine: I think that is why it is interesting. There wasn’t any implied strategy into making this.
Omar: No, no. I think often times that is born out of … groups can get together and say, “We want the symptom of urban development.” But you can’t look at an urban development and say I want to have a fever. You have to get strep first. This metaphor is all over the place. I am sorry. The point is (the real notions that are you touching on) with strategic urbanism, civic development, are real things … but they are symptoms. They are not an end goal. So urban development is a symptom of synergy between art, music and capital communities. People with money, who will give a knucklehead like me a chance, are willing to step to the plate. Not public dollars. Those people will see you get to the promise land and make this idea everything you wish it was. I’m not a billionaire. At our last festival there was a low amount of corporate integration. That was by design. I think that urban growth and revitalization is a symptom of those people in the creative communities and people with money living next to each other. In Houston as opposed to other cities, you have for instance, Montrose. It is a renter’s community adjacent to one of the richest areas in town, adjacent to the Museum District. It is lumped in one pocket, where creatives, organizers, gallery culture, venues and people in coffee shops all are next to each other. But in other cities, if you want to live next to the Museum District you have to have real coin.
Catherine: It seems Free Press Houston loves to go big, just like our city. What’s next for Day for Night?
Omar: We are moving to other cities. We are looking at other models, and I think Day for Night should be malleable enough so it doesn’t have to be “we have a festival in this city and a festival in this city.” You know, maybe Day for Night Los Angeles is a four-day festival in a warehouse. Day for Night New York is one night and there is only one installation. Maybe Day for Night is a 300 person event in Austin. It should be modular not malleable, with the concurrent theme of marrying art and music also with transforming spaces.
Catherine: Also think about your business…
Omar: I’m at a point in my life that business is different. Every nickel from selling FPSF went into Day for Night. If I made double the amount I have made or if I made half the amount that I made, my life isn’t going to change. It is going to be what it is going to be. I want to do what I love. I did it the other way, where I tried to make the most money in the shortest amount of time and it was gross, I hated it. I did it against my better judgement. And now, much to my detriment I am putting this thing on because I want to make something beautiful for the city that I love. The paradox is that maybe this idea has more legs. All I need to do is see a site and dream it.
Catherine: What do you hope attendees take away from the festival?
Omar: I hope they take away something tangible. Technology is a big part of these kinds of art installations. Not only do we hope that people have a great time, but also we want them to leave being inspired and look at their everyday tools differently. What we are using to create these structures, there are bits and pieces around us every day. There are elements that you can take things and make them into beauty.
Catherine: Last question, do you prefer day or night?
Omar: (Smiles) When I feel most alive is first thing in the morning. I feel like I am highly in tuned with everything in the morning. What about you?