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Inside 'Dream House': NYC's Trippy, Hidden Meditative Art Space

Published On 10/05/2016 Published On 10/05/2016
Dream House
Daniel Fishel/Thrillist

The first thing I notice is the overwhelming smell of incense. The apartment is smoky, which makes a neon sign on the ceiling that reads "The Dream House" (back-to-back in forwards and backwards script) appear fuzzy. Six or seven people are standing or sitting around the carpeted rooms in various meditative poses: gazing at video installations, lying back, sitting with crossed legs on meditation pillows.

"Dream House," an unassuming third-floor apartment located off Church St in TriBeCa, is that rarest of all things: a place dedicated to relaxing in an area full of over-stimulated, overextended New Yorkers. For a small donation, visitors are invited to spend as long as they like in a series of purple-lit, incense-filled rooms, listening to spacey minimalist music and absorbing the effects of the space's immersive light installation.

It's an art installation that you could sit in for an hour without realizing you're even inside an art installation. It feels like a place far removed from 2016, a world away from this city of pricey restaurants and boutique gyms. It's a throwback to the legendary, artist-friendly New York of yore, back when creatives of all kinds were free to pursue art for art's sake without all the dream-crushing real estate pressures that make it downright impossible today.

In fact, that seems to be the whole point of "Dream House": an otherworldly, head-clearing experience with no chintzy museum gift shop or art-dealer sales pitch at the end.

***

Founded in 1993 by visual artist Marian Zazeela and experimental music icon La Monte Young, "Dream House" has served as a continuously running light-and-sound installation for decades -- part meditation room, part art installation. A decade ago, Artforum remarked of the place, "Outside it is 2006, inside it seems perpetually 1985." And it still does. The scene recalls a line from TV's 30 Rock, when Jack Donaghy says, "Never follow a hippie to a second location." This feels like the second location.

You might miss it if you didn't know it was there. The street-level door to the space is almost unmarked, so you have to seek it out -- which plenty of people do. "We get crowded on Friday nights," says Rebecca Lentjes, a music writer who has worked as a volunteer monitor at "Dream House" on and off for years. She says that she volunteers because coming to the space after a long day in the city relieves her stress.

So how does a nonprofit, donation-based space stay afloat and pay rent in pricey TriBeCa? "Dream House" is run by La Monte Young's MELA Foundation and supported by Dia Art Foundation, among others (the visuals and music that make up Dream House were exhibited by Dia in a different space, in Chelsea, in 2015). It also helps that the Church St building's landlord is apparently "sympathetic" to the installation.

Young and Zazeela's original, collaborative work involves Zazeela's visuals coupled with what Lentjes calls "the drone" -- not the flying vehicle, but rather a minimalist musical genre. Intricate, looped harmonies created by Young are projected through the converted apartment. The placement and mix of the tones create something called a "psychoacoustic phenomenon" or, as a sound engineer friend of mine put it, "weird ghost sounds." What you can hear in the music changes based on whether you're standing up, lying down, in the back, or in the front of the room. The work is meant to immerse the viewer and listener in a complete sensory environment, to trigger a subconscious awareness via physical immersion in purple light and and deep tones.

"Dream House" has essentially remained the same for the last 23 years. But through October 8th, the space is hosting a rare temporary exhibition, an installation called "Ahata Anahata, Manifest Unmanifest X" by an artist and longtime mentee of Young and Zazeela's, Jung Hee Choi. Choi is perhaps Young and Zazeela's most committed student and an heir to their minimalist legacy. For the exhibition, Choi filled the space with strange visuals -- a video of swirling blue dots, a projection that looks like dancing smoke -- and wrote an accompanying sound piece based on an algebraic sum of sound frequencies (Choi calls them her "Tonecycles"). It's heady stuff, but the immersive sounds, smells, and light of the mystical-feeling space make it easy to forget the technical complexities.

***

On a recent weekday afternoon, I make a visit to Choi's installation. Lentjes buzzes me into "Dream House" and hands me a packet of information about the exhibition. "It's not the usual drone," she says with a smile.

In addition to all the smoke and the bright neon sign, I notice a large piece of paper covering the apartment's far wall and emitting multicolored light through thousands of pinprick holes -- a piece by Choi that looks sort of like a huge butterfly, or a bonfire. From a distance, the shape formed by the holes appears continuous, an illusion that Choi became interested in after she developed glaucoma.

Picking up a plush pillow from a stack near the door, I make my way into the apartment's front room, where two women sit with their legs crossed and eyes closed. Another couple is lying on the floor, holding hands, and gazing at the ceiling. Bass tones resonate through my body as I take a seat facing a video piece called "Rice," which consists of two swirly, pupil-shaped projections that seem to grow and shrink at once. Sometimes the movement of the video matches the "drone" and sometimes it doesn't. The projections appear to spiral inwards and dance outwards at once, a transfixing illusion. Most of the people who enter the space, about 10 in all, seem to intuitively orient themselves towards the blue lights. We form a semicircle on the carpet. It's easy to lose track of time.

At one point I hear a quiet sound coming from behind me: the woman holding her partner's hand is snoring, lightly.

Immediately opposite the ovals is a light effect that weaves across a large sheet of graphite-covered paper. This piece is a video homage to incense smoke, according to Choi's description in the exhibition literature. Next to the smoke-like projection, another feature of the room -- a permanent one -- is a large, framed photo of Pandit Pran Nath, an influential Indian musician who was responsible for bringing much of the classical tradition to the West in the 1970s, and who inspired the founders of "Dream House." In the photo, Nath is wearing white robes. His mouth is slightly open and his hand is raised, as if he is giving a lecture.  

After a few minutes of attempting to meditate, I get restless and wander around, ultimately stumbling upon the source of the smoke in the back room of the space: a small video installation by Choi called "Color (CNN) live realization." A live feed of CNN is broadcast upside down in a small box. Between the projector and the image, four incense sticks burn, catching the light. While I watch, the upside-down face of a CNN broadcaster discusses a headline: "TRUMP VISITS DETROIT TO APPEAL TO BLACK VOTERS." Flecks of ash cling to the cast face of the commentator.

Sitting there, I start to forget all the trivial stuff: the groceries I have to buy later, the perpetual lack of air conditioning on the 1 train, the deadlines, the unanswered texts. It feels as if the afternoon could stretch into night without me noticing. I find myself wishing I could stay longer -- maybe listen to the deep harmonics for another hour or three. "Dream House" offers a sense of calm and emotional remove that is so hard to come by in the city, a space to take a break and look inwards.

But it's 2016, not 1970, and there are places to be and rent to make. I take a final look around the buzzing, purple room and exit "Dream House" into the bright afternoon sunlight.

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Eileen Townsend writes about art and movies. Sometimes she draws, too @sosadsocreepy.

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