Arts & Culture

How going alone to East Williamsburg’s Secret Dungeon changed my life

Experiencing an art installation alone or with one other human is near impossible to achieve in New York. Actually, trying to find the space to do pretty much anything alone is challenging. Most of us have a roommate or two, so finding a moment of peace, reflection and even inspiration can be a rare treat indeed. Last week I was given such an opportunity and it kind of changed my life.

It began the way the best New York moments often do, completely by chance and by following a bright yellow arrow that had been taped to a lamppost. On the arrow were the words “Secret Dungeon Project”, spelled out using stick-on letters which gave the sign a ransom-note type vibe. Below the serial killer lettering was an email address and a single line stating “by appointment only”.  It’s safe to say that this sign had pricked my curiosity and I sat down on a bench to email them right there and then. A response arrived fairly quickly and offered an address and some times slots. I picked my date and time and clicked send. I was all set to attend a secret dungeon.


Photo by Secret Dungeon Project

At this point, I had absolutely no idea what the Secret Dungeon Project was. Most of my friends suggested I take a whip along with me and wear leather. Arriving at the address the next day I was greeted by the lovely Nat, who swept me around the building to a garage door which he opened with the click of his keychain button. A dark, private parking garage was revealed to me and, as we made our way inside, I started to wonder what on earth I thought I was doing. An opening scene of Law & Order SVU came to mind, and I could hear myself yelling at the screen “don’t go into that garage lady!”

Too late, I was in, if ended up putting the lotion in the basket – I guess I only had myself to blame. We walked past a vintage Cadillac, covered in dust, and arrived at a row of storage containers. Scrawled on the front of one of them in Sharpie were the words Secret Dungeon. “That was already written on there when be rented the unit” Nat told me, “the project kind of named itself”. As Nat unlocked the dungeon and the door heaved open I was met with a teeny tiny art space. A video installation played on a screen at the far end of the room and two giant hand-shaped sculptures framed it. In the middle of the room was a beanbag for the viewer to sit on.

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this.


Video still by Anouchka Oler
Video still by Anouchka Oler

The video installation was created by French artist Anouchka Oler and, as the artist was speaking in French, a voiceover was also playing, translating it into English. The effect was hypnotic. After Nat and I talked for a moment, he left me alone in the space. That was when the magic happened. First of all I sat on the beanbag and felt like an idiot. This is kind of my default state. What was I supposed to do? Just sit here? For how long? I’m not too arty so I felt like I was missing the point of the video. Then amid the noise of the overlapping French and English a phrase jumped out at me. The artist described a moment of pain as “my hair began to grow backwards”. I loved that way of putting it! That level of discomfort you experience when you’re trapped in a feeling. I started to relax and just let the sounds and visuals wash over me.


Video Still by Anouchka Oler

By the time my ten minutes or so were up, I was a creative dynamo ready to explode. I had planned a one woman show to present in the space, I had started my novel that I had no idea I was writing, I’d even planned dinner. I’m not sure if that was the response the artist intended, but I felt creatively energized by this space in a way I never have before! Before you roll your eyes, I am British – we invented the eye roll. This place is honestly magical. If you are an artist, or anyone for that matter, and you need a moment to reset and be inspired, I strongly suggest you make an appointment at The Secret Dungeon Project. Installations change every few months or so, meaning there is always something new to experience. Even if you just enjoy a moment of solitude. This place is an oasis in a desert of noise and hassle. Like Alice, I had followed the signs and they lead me to wonderland.

Secret Dungeon Project is primarily determined to present exceptional, idiosyncratic programming in an unexceptional space.  It is located in a storage unit in a garage in the East Williamsburg Industrial Business Zone. Secret Dungeon’s public programming and exhibition calendar are determined through consensus collaboration and as a general condition of participation, artist members of the collective do not show their own work at Secret Dungeon. For more information, see their website.

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