Edit Blog Post
Published: February 6th 2014
Happy New Year!
The First Night projection show reaches its climax at midnight
New Year’s Eve traditionally involves going to parties, most with lots of alcohol.
In 1975, a group of Boston artists decided the holiday deserved something better than repetitive pop music, bad drinks, and a televised ball drop.
They founded First Night, a huge arts festival with performances and installations around the city and not a bar in sight.
It became a huge success and spread to cities across the country.
In 2008, the deep recession hit the non-profit that runs First Night hard.
Last June, they finally ran out of funds for good and closed, leaving a huge hole in the city’s cultural fabric.
Unwilling to let one of the region’s signature events disappear, the city of Boston took over organizing duties.
Unlike the previous group, who tended to emphasize high-brow performance groups and family friendly entertainers, city organizers brought in pop groups and members of the city’s burgeoning underground art scene.
The result was a wildly diverse selection of wonderful and weird artistry, possibly the best First Night ever.
NOTE: Photos of artwork appear courtesy of the artists involved. Please contact them for reproduction rights. First Night
contains so many events
that attending always requires painful tradeoffs.
With so much going on, even spread out over twelve plus hours people can only experience a fraction of what’s available.
I usually focus my schedule on the most desired events, and then build it out from there.
This year, most events were held at the Hynes Convention Center in the Back Bay, which at least reduced the overall travel time.
That produced a day of the following:
First Night Early Acts
Every young American goes through that rite of passage called the grade school holiday recital.
We learned a selection of Christmas songs, and then sang them as a group in front of a highly appreciative audience (this was guaranteed; nearly everyone there was related to someone in the class).
In high school, of course, most of us realized our talents lie in other places.
The Handel and Hayden youth chorus
is much like that, except that everyone involved can actually sing.
Handel and Hayden is one of Boston’s premier classical music groups.
They are well known for their performances of 18th
century and earlier works, including a
Drum central showcase
yearly performance of the Messiah.
The youth chorus is their high school apprentice program.
The students sang a wide collection of traditional Christmas music, both classical and folk tunes.
The concert finished with (of course) selections from the Messiah.
I give them some credit for not including the Hallelujah Chorus, which is replayed to the point of cliché this time of year.
Everyone sounded great.
Next up was a popular event called Drum Central.
It’s hosted by two community groups that explore drumming as a form of cultural celebration: IntaAfrika and Grooversity
The former celebrates the rhythms of West Africa while the latter focuses on Brazilian samba.
The performers were precise, loud, energetic, and fun.
In terms of audience impact, the latter takes the prize, with people dancing in their seats and on stage.
They finished with the famous samba beat Fanfarra (cabua-le-le) by Sergio Mendes, which will probably be ubiquitous next summer due to the World Cup.
From there, I wandered into an area that would likely have never existed under the old organizers, the Puppet Showplace Theater
Kids love puppet shows, of course,
Drum central showcase
so some have always existed at the festival.
This year, however, this troupe organized hours of performances, showcasing the art form in all its variations.
It’s practically a festival within the festival.
Simply wandering the corridors, I encountered two performers on stilts dressed as circus performers.
They held two pythons, which close up were seen to be wooden puppets.
They encouraged curious passerby to pet the snakes, and (for the brave), see what was inside them.
Nearby sat a performance called the crank box show.
It’s a long strip of paper between two rollers.
When turned, it shows an allegorical story as one long continuous painting.
There was a dragon, which was locked in combat, with a fire breathing monster, that turned out to be a giant horse.
The horse was entwined with a ghost, which passed mystical energy to a giant rabbit, that passed giant bugs, into a snake.
The story went on and on and on, all told through the scroll accompanied by live music.
Princeton Movement Theater
Next up was another kid-favorite act, the Princeton Movement Theater
It consists of two
Care to meet my snake, dear?
Good thing its only a puppet!
performers, who tell a series of stories in complete silence through mime.
As they pointed out at the end, all they really do is suggest through movement and facial expressions; the audiences’ imaginations fill in the rest.
And what amazing suggestions they were!
One story consisted of buying a fish.
The performer walked across the stage, then stopped and looked wide-eyed.
He then moved his hands and body up and down as though staring through a big window.
One (imaginary) door open later, he was now moving his hands as though they were passing the edges of boxes, even more wide eyed.
He walked to the side of the stage, looked like he was leaning on a counter, and then pantomimed pulling money out of his pocket.
Now he had his fish, holding it by the tail.
He wove back and forth as though the fish is alive and flopping.
Then, with a surprised expression, he moved his hands as though juggling, the fish was loose!
Surprise turned to shock looking on the floor, where the fish dropped.
He picked it up again, now filled with
A fish gets loose
A mime tries to hold onto a fish at Princeton Movement Theater
sadness at its death.
He put one hand to his lips and opened the other, dropping the fish back in the shop tank.
The audience (myself included) was in stitches.
Another story, also done by a single performer, was Awesomeman versus the Giant Inflatable Robot.
He stared on the left side of the stage with a manic grin on his face, moving his hands up and down as though operating a bicycle pump.
The performer then moved to the middle of the stage slumped over, slowly getting stiffer and taller, with a zombie look on his face, the robot.
He switched back to the corner with a manic grin and pointed to the right.
Moving back to the middle, he duly stiffly marched off and started stomping.
He then moved to the right with a panicked look.
His face brightened up, he drew an imaginary curtain around himself, and then emerged doing body builder poses, Awesomeman!
He stretched out his arms and legs as though flying.
A second later he went back to the stomping look, flicking something from his left arm.
Now that same performer
A very bad man pumps up his giant inflatable robot at Princeton Movement Theater
was in a jumble on the corner of the stage, where Awesomeman landed.
The performer did the flying pose again.
Back to the middle, he moved his leg up and down in a huge exaggerated motion, as though crushing something.
Moving back to the right, that something proved to be Awsomeman, crumpled on the floor under the incredible force of the robot.
He then got an idea.
He pantomimed pulled at something, followed by moving with outstretched his arms as though flying with it.
Awesomeman punctured the robot!
The performer fell over and slowly crumpled into a ball, followed by standing on the corner, soaking in the cheers of the crowd.
Keep in mind, this entire story was told by one person.
It has three characters, at two vastly different scales, yet we could follow it easily through every switch.
These were just two stories out of a half dozen, and all were hilarious.
Both performers’ talents were amazing and fun to watch.
This was one of the best performance acts at the festival.
After the performance, I wandered into the 3-D printing
Electric plasma art by Wayne Strattman at First Light
Many people are probably familiar with these machines, which can create objects out of plastic resin or metal powder from computer design files.
Most of them are aimed at the industrial part market and are quite expensive. The companies here
, on the other hand, make machines targeted at consumers.
All of them work by shining lasers through a liquid plastic resin; the plastic hardens where the lasers cross.
They had examples of what people have made, mostly intricate abstract art of one form or another.
The fine detail, about the width of a human hair, was impressive.
Next door held another section that would have never appeared under the old organizers, a group of visual artists called First Light
They made a wide range of light based artworks, many of them highly experimental.
The creativity on display can certainly feel raw, but much boundary pushing art feels this way initially.
Full disclosure: I know a number of the artists through Burning Man related events.
Visitors to science museums probably remember the plasma globe
, a glass sphere with glowing lines radiating from a central ball.
Live Kinetic Painting
Color changing artwork by Liz Manicatide at First Light
They are electrically charged gas.
Mesmer Dreams by Wayne Strattman
was an incredibly sophisticated version of that principle, a long tube containing an inner tube lit yellow.
A single glowing line twisted between the two tubes like a snake, ever changing.
Strattman is one of the premier artists working in this format, and once built some of these effects for Star Trek.
Another work was Live Kinetic Painting by Liz Manicatide
Paint has colors because it reflects different wavelengths of light.
What happens when colored light falls on a painting?
It changes colors, sometimes in unexpected ways!
A large canvas sat in front of a long strip of color LEDS.
Audience members used a controller to change the color of the LEDs, which changed the colors of the painting behind them.
The actual painting was one of the surreal fantasies so common in Burning Man artwork.
Yet another artwork, this time projection based, was RubixPru.
A series of cloth cubes were stacked on top of each other from floor to ceiling.
Colored graphic work was then projected on the cloth, creating a reasonable facsimile of
A projection art building at First Light
the Prudential Tower next to the convention center.
First Light had performance art to go with the interactive work.
For example, every year Burning Man attracts people that like to dance with hula-hoops.
The choreography is incredibly intricate, putting the stuff people remember from grade school playgrounds to shame.
Hula-hoops lit by LEDs now exist, and people performed with them
They danced in front of a large projection screen showing abstract art, which distracted from the show to a certain extent.
First Light sat near a giant light up wall that from a distance appeared to be a big video screen showing abstract patterns.
Close up, it became a collage of ever changing colored LEDs.
When people walked in front of it, the bright light produced amazing shadow effects.
The artwork was Tensor, one of the Boston area’s earliest Burning Man projects.
In the desert, it can cast shadows for over a mile!
Here, it drew a big crowd including a few people I met at Burning Man.
I loved seeing it again.
People silhouetted against Tensor by Andrew Bessen at First Light
First Night Grand Procession
By this time of the day, night had fallen, so it was time to claim a spot for one of the festival highlights, the Grand Procession parade
Waiting for it is one of the few spots I have a long stretch of uninterrupted time, so I paused to buy dinner first.
It came from a food court, and was about as interesting as that implies.
The food was still much better than what the Convention Center vendors had on offer (and cheaper too!)
The standout was desert, from a sandwich franchise called Cheese Boy.
They make a sandwich of melted chocolate and cheese
Viewing the parade requires preparation, and this year needed more than most due to bitter cold.
I brought a wool hat, which I put on under my New Year’s party hat.
I had gloves with enough dexterity to still operate the camera.
A heavy coat completed the ensemble.
My fingers got cold and numb from the metal camera, otherwise it worked well.
The parade draws a crowd, so viewing spots should be chosen carefully.
Giant puppets celebrate the Light of the Sun
The obvious hazard is getting stuck in the back of people.
The less obvious, but more important, hazard is not being able to get through the crowd to whatever comes next.
Fireworks follow the parade, and those in the wrong spot can’t hope to see them.
I personally like Boylston Street near Berkeley, which is far enough from the major gathering spots that it fills up late.
It’s also within hearing range of Arlington Street Church, whose bell ringers play during First Night.
That was fun, a mix of different Christmas carols.
The parade has had the same format for years.
Each festival has a theme, although the only place I can see any evidence is on the signs of participants.
This year the theme was “light”.
People walked down the street wearing giant puppets, alternating with a large selection of community groups.
The puppets contained psychedelic designs that were supposed to be related to the theme.
Other people threw beads, which seem almost required for this type of celebration.
I grabbed one early and let the rest fall to other people.
Dancing in the cold in the Grand Procession
Prominent among the community groups were several dance groups, ranging from salsa to hip-hop.
The Caribbean dancers were in full regalia, which must have been cold in this weather.
A few brass bands livened up the crowds.
A group of Chinese banged on traditional drums as a dragon train snaked through the crowd.
A large sign proclaimed the year of the horse.
The parade closed with a group of antique fire engines.
Since the festival is under new management, the parade had some changes to previous years.
The most notable was a huge float near the front decorated like one the famous swan boats
from the Boston Public Garden.
This was the float (although “royal coach” would also be appropriate) of Mayor Thomas Menino, who had spearheaded the festival rescue effort.
Sure, it’s a blatant move by a municipal leader to soak up accolades, but in this case he deserved them.
Most of the crowd cheered.
The parade also had more sponsor floats than I remember in the past.
First night fireworks
Weeping willow fireworks close up during the early fireworks show
Someone has posted video:
After the parade, a wave of people surged down Boylston Street, heading for the fireworks on Boston Common.
Thanks to the parade staging area at the end, nearly all of them end up funneled into a narrow passageway next to the street, which then leads to a fence gate surrounded by vendors.
This stretch was slow and careful, moving through the lines at a snail’s pace.
I give the cops credit for keeping people moving.
Finally, I was through.
By this point, my fingers were completely numb, and I had to change camera batteries.
Like many others, I took a chance hiding in the parking garage kiosk at the edge of Boston Common.
Lots of other people had the same idea, so it quickly became a sardine can.
The heat was worth it, though!
My fingers became spikes of pain as feeling returned, all at once.
This was enough to handle the batteries.
Soon afterward, security guards appeared and cleared everyone out.
All this effort was worth it because the
High and low
High and low fireworks, including a rare view of the launch
early fireworks provided a close up view rare for a big show.
The most desirable area was an open stretch of pathway between trees looking at a baseball field.
Long rows of black boxes appeared dimly in the light of surrounding path lights.
Barely discernable people in black clothing walked around the boxes.
One of them then lit an electric torch and touched it to one of the boxes. Fireworks shot out
and the show began!
When the wind is right, these spots provide a rare view of the people running the show as well as the show itself.
Unfortunately, the rest of the ball field is surrounded by trees, so these prime viewing spots go early.
Today, sadly, the wind refused to co-operate.
It blew the fireworks quite a distance from the launch pad, causing nearly every view to appear through at least a few trees.
I ultimately chose an unobstructed view of the field to see the low level effects cleanly.
The fireworks show was put on by Atlas Pyrovision
, the same group that does the celebration on July 4th
, and they did a very good
A single moment of the early fireworks finale
They shot multiple fireworks at once to create patterns.
Thanks to the viewing area, the low effects showed in full, which was nice.
Unlike some previous years, the low effects and high explosions couldn’t like up due to the wind.
A special treat, which was hard to photograph this year, was watching fireworks launch before exploding above.
The show ended, as most do, with fireworks exploding faster and faster until they lit up the sky.
Real nice, and the closeness was well worth the effort to secure the viewing spot.
Video from across the common:
Once the fireworks ended, I headed to the Common’s other major piece of First Night, Figment New Year's
The Figment Festival
was founded in 2007 by Burning Man artists to bring that festival’s non-commercial highly participatory artwork to the urban environment.
The organization now throws events around the United States, including a summer outpost in Boston
When the city needed a group of outdoor artists for First Night, the local Figment organizers happily took the call.
Like First Light, the results were raw, highly creative, mind blowing, and unlike
Fire throwing skeeball by Christopher Guard at Figment New Year's
anything ever seen at First Night before.
Full disclosure: I know many of the artists involved.
Figment’s single largest draw was a group of fire sculptures.
I suspect part of the reason for the crowd was the chance to get away from the cold!
Burning Man artists have brought fire art to the festival for years, but this is the first time it has appeared in Boston.
The city has always been reluctant to issue permits due to safety concerns.
Many beach goers are familiar with skeeball, a game where people roll balls at a ramp that shoots them into different holes, which score points based on difficulty.
Riskeeball by Christopher Guard
was just like it, except that when people scored it shot flames!
The better the score, the more fire!
This one drew a crowd.
Near it people danced in front of another sculpture, Toxic Bloom
by Chris Linder and David Dowling.
This one shot out colored flames based on people’s movements!
Finally, nearby people danced
while spinning flaming balls on strings and rods.
This art is quite dangerous, although mostly to those performing it;
A Different Spin manipulates flaming balls at Figment New Year's. This is a long-duration photo to get the streaks.
spectators were kept behind a safety fence.
Riskee ball video:
Although the fire drew the crowd, it was just a small part of Figment.
A large metal sculpture outlined in ever changing LEDs sat nearby, the Penrose Triangle
by Blake Courtier and Blake Courtney.
The triangle was a classic optical illusion shape first described in the 1700s.
From one viewpoint, the sculpture looked like a triangle; from others it looked like something else entirely.
Near it was Video Bleep
, a big dome with seamless graphics projected over the surface synchronized to music.
This one had a long line to get in.
Hanging under tree branches were light-up artificial flowers of clear plastic, Water Lilly Sky by Julia Jerome.
Moth Machine by Luke Randall and Ben Knox Miller was a spinning set of sculptures under a strobe light that looked like a giant moth in flight. The list went on and on
As great as the
Penrose Triangle, front
Sculpture of an impossible shape by Blake Courtier and Blake Courtney at Figment New Year's.
art was, I ultimately did leave Figment for other festival events.
The cold got to me, and the festival had much else to experience.
I took the freezing cold walk back to the convention center, grabbing a cup of hot chocolate along the way.
Boy did I need that!
First Night Late Night
Puppet Showplace Theater held a Puppet Slam
at night, a puppet show for adults.
It featured a half-dozen performers, one after the other.
As one should expect, the show involved heavy doses of PG-13 rated humor combined with some amazing artistry.
One act consisted of two hand puppets, a husband and wife.
“You take the baby today. No, you take the baby today. Fine, I’ll take the baby but you need to go to work! No, I’ll take the baby and you go to work”.
I can’t mention what “work” entailed, but it was off color and hilarious.
That was followed by a beautiful marionette act of a two character dance.
In this case, they were a toy clown and a jack-in-the-box!
It featured lots of jumping, of course,
Penrose Triangle, side
An optical illusion sculpture by Blake Courtier and Blake Courtney at Figment New Year's.
plus amazing gesture work.
The toys’ emotions came across clearly throughout, without either saying a word.
Later on, a ventriloquist took the stage.
She dressed like a policeman, carrying a grandmother puppet. She tried to arrest the puppet for loitering.
The puppet resisted, with some great prop comedy.
Watch out for the banana gun!
When the acting didn’t have us rolling on the floor, the atrocious puns that accompanied it had us groaning in our seats.
Like First Light, Experimental Spaces
was another festival within the festival.
They called themselves the “weird zone of First Night”, and mostly delivered.
More artists familiar from Burning Man events participated here too.
One room was set up as a strange installation filled with fake land mines.
A second room had a bar, which would have given the old organizers fits.
The main room featured body painting, performance art, and more video projection art, all done to DJs and live bands.
I caught the set by well known Burning Man DJ Living Light
, which mixed house music, bass, and traditional Tibetan music ideas.
Like many winter
Outside shot of the dome covered in projection artwork, at Figment New Year's
festivals, this one featured a number of sculptures made from blocks of ice.
Lit up at night, they look beautiful.
Unlike past years, they were spread through much of the city this time around, and I only had time for two of them.
(N)ice Puppy by Donald Chapelle
was a huge bulldog on a heavy chain, led by a small boy.
This one was next to the convention center, and I saw the team carving it earlier in the day.
Copley Square, along the parade route, held A Peaceable Kingdom by Eric Fontecchio
and Brookline Ice.
A copy in ice of a famous folk painting by Edward Hicks
, it shows animals gathering together under a huge pyramid, illustrating a biblical prophecy of the future world.
Copley Square Midnight Countdown
The festival ends with a few different ways to actually welcome in the new year.
The oldest is a fireworks display over Boston Harbor.
I’ve usually skipped it thanks to the fireworks earlier in the night.
This year’s other countdown event was in Copley Square, starting with a concert by Gentlemen Hall
Formed by six Berklee College of Music graduates, they have been touted as the
A dance between a clown and a jack-in-the-box
next breakout rock band from Boston.
They play an anthemic dance-rock hybrid with lots of guitars, atmospheric keyboards, and soaring vocals; plus a flute player (!) who got the rhythm parts other bands would assign to keyboards.
Their performance was energetic and fun, and really got the crowd going.
The space was packed, to the point I didn’t notice the cold.
A number of people surfed the crowd, and the cops held back and let them.
For the more popular songs, people (including me) knew the words and screamed along.
The group has all the markings of becoming a national act soon.
I really hope they stay in the city after hitting it big; most groups ultimately move to Los Angeles or New York, which have much larger (read “more profitable”) music scenes.
About ten minutes to midnight, Gentlemen Hall took a break for the final countdown.
It was implemented by a work of projection art
on the façade of the Boston Public Library across the square.
Projection art, as the name should imply, uses buildings as a giant video screen.
The best incorporates the physical
A Peaceable Kingdom
Ice sculpture by Eric Fontecchio and Brookline Ice
architecture into the video, making the building itself appear to come to life.
This particular video was by Zebbler Studios
, one of Boston’s most cutting edge video art groups.
One segment slowly outlined each of the buildings windows in white lines, a popular tactic in projection art.
Colonial style lights were then projected between them.
The ensemble then exploded outward, resolving into an animated sequence of the Boston Tea Party.
Another sequence featured a first person view of a drive over the Bunker Hill Bridge, a local architectural landmark.
Yet another featured an amazing series of old maps, all on the same scale, showing the growth of the city over the last two hundred years.
The modern map of the city dissolved into an animated airplane flight over downtown Boston.
Numbers started rising from between the buildings, 20, 19, 18.
The crowd quickly picked up that this was the final countdown to the New Year and joined in.
At 10, the view reached the library in Copley Square, and covered the facade.
Ten seconds later, the entire façade exploded into simulated fireworks as the words “Happy
Rocking out as midnight approaches.
New Year” and “2014” spun above.
Confetti cannons came to life, covering the crowd with paper streamers.
The show ended with a view of the earth orbiting the sun.
Unfortunately, I was close to a confetti cannon, cutting off half my view of the finale.
The whole thing was still amazing.
See it (plus some concert footage):
Gentlemen Hall closed out the festival afterward with their second set.
Since it was after midnight, the lead singer joked “Welcome to our first concert of 2014!”
He then announced some big news; they had recently signed a major record deal.
The band then played the first singles from that album, “All Our Love” and “Sail Into the Sun”.
True scenesters, of course, will mope that both songs are not new at all; they bought both on the promo CDs the band has sold at their concerts for over a year.
Regardless, the crowd (me included) loved every moment of it.
The joy lasted until 12:30, when the band concluded the concert, and the festival.
The bitter cold drove me home soon afterward, exhausted
Illuminating the library logo and adding colonial lights as the countdown projection show starts
The videos for both singles are out:
While this may have been the best First Night ever for me, the uncertainty just underneath can’t be ignored. The city’s ability to get funding
was only for this year.
The same issues that may ultimately kill the event are still around, and a permanent solution is nowhere in sight.
The city’s version also brought much less desirable changes.
The original organizers had an incredible dedication to egalitarianism; anyone who bought a festival pass could attend any performance or event, with no reserved seats or other privileges.
The city, on the other hand, sold a VIP pass that guaranteed the best seats for major performers.
If it proved popular, I expect tiered ticketing to spread, followed by sponsors wanting their share.
Ordinary attendees, the festival’s original reason for existence, will then be relegated to the side lines.
That would be a huge loss, making First Night into just another expensive New Year’s party.
I hope somehow, the original spirit will find a way to stay alive
, because New Year’s Eve and First Night won’t be the same without it.
Simulated plane flight over Boston as the final seconds of 2013 tick away.
Happy 2014 everyone!
Tot: 1.589s; Tpl: 0.11s; cc: 25; qc: 100; dbt: 0.065s; 1; m:saturn w:www (220.127.116.11); sld: 2;
; mem: 1.7mb