The Black Light District

Now Trending: EDM Sensory and Visual Culture, in Buffalo and Beyond

A line formed outside the entrance of Rapids Theatre in downtown Niagara Falls on a crisp night in early September. While the crowd appeared tame, everyone’s inner spirit animals were bursting through neon chests. Others adorned their necks with glow stick necklaces and bravely painted their faces with skull candy makeup, adapting the theme for the evening, “Dia de los Muertos.” Leaking through the doors of the theatre were the sounds of hypnotic trance and electronic dance music, and outside to taunt everyone was a hunchback zombie who craggily crooned us with his grotesque noises and charmingly ghoulish good looks. The all-inclusive, art, music, and live performance fashion extravaganza Glamour and Glow had arrived for its second year in Western New York.

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Nightlife visionary David Soko, worked with a team of over 60 models, aerialists, makeup artists, dancers, and local charitable organizations to turn the space at Rapids Theatre into a portal through which the world is experienced through fantasy. Through senses, not censorship. “One of the key factors to this event is that we have the option of bringing on a cookie cutter type of performance where I just travel with the same people, but what we want to do is promote local culture, local business, and local talent. It makes the show different every place we do it,” he says. David has travelled from coast to coast over the past few years, baring his visually stimulating canvas to the world. The Glamour and Glow production has hit cities like Miami, where it was a focal point of Florida Fashion Week last year, Columbus, Ohio, where guitar culture and alternative rock influences reigned supreme and sunny San Diego, where the show originated. Every participating entity in the show, from the designers to the DJ, is local. “When we’re working with (local) people, there’s much more of a respect factor in the community,” David says.

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EDM has, for the most part, grounded itself in self-made culture and community, and the genre’s commercialization over the last five years has helped mold it into its own brand of shared visual experience. From headlining music festivals like Coachella and Ultra to more transformative and spiritual connectors like Burning Man, EDM’s progressive evolution seems to be moving in an endless, reeling motion with no signs of stopping. A hybrid of all things expressive, EDM is a genre dependent on the creation and its creator. “VJs,” visual artists who work in projection, sculpture, and other visual forms, once thought to be the hidden and silent masters of their craft, are reaffirming their presences as virtuosos of sensory manipulation and testing the waters in as many ways as possible. “VJs see the world as a place to play, creating art on and off the screens. Most VJ acts do work with music, and this creates the framework on what we create a visual tapestry on,” said touring visual artist Jon Bonk, whose extensive body of work includes productions for Shpongle, Steve Aoki, and the Identity Festival. Jon is also the head and heart of the Together Boston VJ Competition, now in its second year. The competition celebrates the visual and technical, behind the scenes culture that the artists are engrossed by. “The event puts us in the forefront and allows the crowd to see not only every VJs different styles, but also helps push the medium forward by giving the VJs a promotional platform.”

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Visual artist Jon Bonk.

Different creative processes foster new styles, and in Jon’s opinion, the working process for many VJs has evolved from a setting up shop and drop approach to a more cerebral and instinctual process of artistic reimagining. “Venues, although they are starting to become more video friendly, usually need some serious hacking skills to install projection systems in the short timing we have. There is a saying for VJs, “First in, last out.” This is because we are always there much earlier setting up our own gear, and then at the end, breaking it down again. After all that, then I can start focusing on the actual visuals,” he reveals. “Most of the time we have no idea what the musical act will play, and only can go on what genre they are. House? Electro? Breaks? Then I know what to expect and run with. At that point it becomes a lesson in zen. I move with the music, predicting where it will go and setting up the video to intersect it as thoughtfully as I can.” The medium and its cultural propellers have come a long way. VJs are constantly pushing the limits of technology into far-reaching domains. There is always something bigger and better waiting on the horizon, according to Jon. “I just got back from traveling (and VJing) through Europe, and saw some amazing sights. It started with just VJs hauling projectors and screens, but now has evolved into giant projection mapped structures that are even interactive with the crowd. I think the newest trends will start to see interactive atmospheres for the crowd to play in, visuals that surround the audience, and truly starting to come off the screens.”

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Sometimes the most stunning visuals at an EDM festival or buried in the audience. Once I stepped through the doors of Rapids Theatre, I was illuminated by the crowd. Black light masks, black light body paint, glowing drinks, glowing hula hoops—no outside light and only darkness to experiment with–left everyone on the same playing field. This communal space welcomed bold self-expression, and individual identity relied on the feeling of shared identity. As the actual runway walks commenced, a shared spirit beamed from every corner. Alien couples took the stage together. A bevy of contemporary female dancers performed a sci-fi-inspired rendition of Katy Perry’s “ET,” and models, even on their solo walks, were feeding off the energy of the crowd’s reaction. These dramatic silhouettes—some created with the use of recycled materials, plastic, duct tape, and tribal body art—created visuals I can only assume evoke similar imagery like that of larger scale transhumanist-driven events like Burning Man and Tomorrowland. “We wanted to create an atmosphere, a feeling and stimulation of which you can exist your reality, leaving behind ordinary, day-to-day life and experience something different,” David said of the show’s Niagara Falls production.

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Neon Nancy EDM couture.

It is millennials who have grown up immersed in the music festival atmosphere that are finding new ways to reimagine the genre’s older music and fashion trends, which really aren’t that “old” at all. The popular spirit bear hood – that fluffy carnivorous creature resting atop a festival goer’s head, designed for cold nights and comfort, became a springboard for “glow fur,” and other furry creations. LED Light-up bras with built-in speaker systems, made popular by the online festival fashion line Neon Nancy, are becoming a fashion staple for mavens of rave culture. Someone searching the internet won’t find many fashion lines dedicated to creating concert wear, Lyndsey Merryman, Creative Director for Neon Nancy, who started the brand in 2011 and now sells all over the globe. “I knew it was a genre (of fashion) that no one was really touching at the moment, so I knew there was the space to be successful. It was kind of surprising at first with how fast it took off, but now I’m just excited to see where we can take it,” Lyndsey said. The designer attended her first music festival in 2005, Coachella, in high school, and from there, she attended Bonnaroo and became addicted to traveling to shows. When designing, Lyndsey draws from techno, mod, and eighties inspirations and uses EDM fashion and rave culture’s flexible fashion policy to open new doors. “(The brand) is starting to get into the festivals that are more transformative now,” she said. While festivals are what initially inspired Lyndsey to break out of a typical, avante garde runway mold of design, she says that many of Neon Nancy’s pieces, such as the neon shirts and fur vests, are street ready, and can just as easily be worn from day to day.

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Similarly, Evolution Division, a high end Cybergoth clothing company, is also seeing that the growing hybridity of rave subculture is creating an audience crossover. “I think it’s cool that electronic music is one of the only (genres) where the fans make their own fashion trends. At these music festivals almost every DJ is just some guy in a black or white t-shirt and jeans. I never see DJs that look like the fans do,” Steven said. “As far as Cybergoth trends making their way into the festival scene, it’s happening quickly too. We get a lot of festival goers looking for new outfits that find us on Instagram or something, have no idea what Cybergoth is but love what they see and get into it big time or adapt parts of it.” It could be said that without cultural proponents, no brand, underground or above, could really flourish. Without leading innovators helping to constantly reinvent the subculture or genre, it becomes stale. EDM, a lifestyle and a brand, seemed to make the transition from under to above ground seamlessly, all the while holding on to its original core message and sound. “When other scenes blow up and go more mainstream their product gets drastically watered down. However, I don’t feel that the core of the electronic music scene has sold out and went for radio play over just making music they want to make,” Steve said.

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Over 800 people packed Rapids Theatre that night for one of Western New York’s more explosive displays of community art, and most, if not all, stayed until the final moment. As the audience was sprayed with glitter, and as my chest thumped with each beat of electronic music, I couldn’t help but look around and admire the gleaming faces of those entranced by the multi-sensory spectacle before them. The crowd, all ages, all races, closed in on the runway, applauding the models as they took their final runway walk. The music faded into a pool of black light. A community came and conquered once more, and whispers of how to top this year’s glowing extravagance were already fluttering about. The countdown to next year’s performance had commenced.

To learn more about the Glamour and Glow fashion show, visit glamouringlow.com.

Written by Jessica Brant

Photos provided by David Soko, Jon Bonk, Lindsey Merryman, and the writer’s own

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