I’m looking at a flood of epic proportions, an apocalypse behind glass. Inside this massive, multi-ton triptych, destruction lies just beyond reach. Inside, ephemera is tossed around, foam curls up, waves thrash. You can only stand and look. And it’s hard to look away. I don’t look away. I want to press against the glass and see if it will break. I want to see if the waters will flow out. I want to see if everything will be washed clean and disappear. Instead I step back. The flood remains inside, forever wreaking havoc, a Bosch-like scene set in the middle of the cavernous, Civil War-era building that houses The Intercourse.
The Intercourse—and the triptych—is the creation of artist Dustin Yellin, who bought the 24,000-square-foot brick factory on Pioneer Street in Red Hook a year and a half ago with the intention of turning it into both a large-scale exhibition space and a workspace for artists and scientists. I visit The Intercourse on a clear, cold day. Outside, on Van Brunt Street, striking school bus drivers withstand the cold, and the wind whips pieces of garbage up and down the sidewalk. Inside, the sounds of construction are ever-present. People move up and down the stairs, working together on this enormous project.
Yellin is sitting, rolling a cigarette, and I am standing and we are both positioned under the suspended jaw bone of a sperm whale. It is white and smooth and very long. Yellin tells me, “It’s a challenge, an extreme challenge to make an alternative art space at this scale. I’ve been thinking about it for twenty years now, and it’s had many incarnations, almost infantile incarnations. I don’t know if I ever imagined it would be this scale. It’s very much an interdisciplinary cultural experience of sorts, a residency program for artists and scientists and also the beginnings of a school, so we have lots of classes, lectures, screenings, performances.”
As much as any space is informed by the people who inhabit it, people are also necessarily influenced by whatever space they are in. The Intercourse is one of those places that changes you, that makes you feel both like it’s not exactly real, but that by being there and working there, you can make a new reality. Walking around the building with The Intercourse's Director of Operations Gabriel Florenz, he tells me, “When I’m here all alone, it’s like I’m in a museum, like it’s someplace I’m not supposed to be.” Which is exactly right. That’s exactly what this space does—it inspires a certain amount of awe and a sense of the surreal. But then, if you are not alone, if you are there when the different artists in residence are walking around, talking to each other, laughing, you understand better the utopian possibilities for both the building and the people involved.
Yellin tells me, “It’s very much community-building, a serendipitous thing. We don’t push relationships, we just kind of let them happen. One of our artists was talking to the scientist, and they decided to come up with an algorithm for printmaking. It’s a great way for these things to happen naturally. I just want to help bring all these people together and inform the vision and help sustain the vision and add to that—add fuel to the fire of the vision. It’s a delicate balance, and I look at this very much as a social sculpture. We have an incredible group of people involved to help make this a reality.”
Work on The Intercourse was delayed last fall, with the arrival of Hurricane Sandy and the accompanying flood that most definitely did not remain contained behind glass. Yellin, who has lived in Red Hook for about eight years, was at his studio across the road as the waters started to rise. He tells me, “The water was up to our necks. It was so beautiful and we were taking pictures and then the water started to come inside. We tried to stop it thinking we might only get six inches of water, so we were picking things up and putting them on tables but then the water kept coming in and coming in. We’re still sorting it all out, rebuilding it all. It’s been trying, to say the least, but it’s also been great because I don’t think artists can ever edit themselves enough—good to look to Mother Nature to do it for us.”
And so there have been delays and salvage efforts, but The Intercourse is now on track to continue what began last year, with performances, classes, and events. Recovery—rebuilding—is a funny thing. You don’t always get the chance to decide what to save. Yellin tells me that, in the days after Sandy, “People’s lives were all pulled outwards. The inside of everyone’s existence was now out on the street.” To visit Red Hook now is to see things with a certain clarity—things are gone. Everything damaged has either been saved or discarded. Everything worth saving has been put back inside. It is, therefore, perhaps more important than ever to go inside and see what can be possible, after such devastation, to see what was saved, to see what kind of people did the saving. The Intercourse shows you what is possible. The constructed apocalypse stays behind glass, and reality morphs into whatever vision the artist can imagine. And that reality feels unlimited.•
Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen