The Building: Western Union, Weather Control to Watermill Center

The Watermill Center
The Watermill Center, Photo: Dan Rattiner

Robert Wilson’s Watermill Center at 39 Watermill-Towd Road is one of this community’s great art centers. Because it is in the woods, off the beaten track, it is not well known by those unfamiliar with the arts. If they do go, they are probably very surprised to see it. The building stands on eight and a half acres of woodland and is three stories tall and 20,000 square feet in size. Originally built as a factory for Western Union, it lay abandoned for some 30 years before Wilson bought it. Later in this article, I will describe what went on there while it was abandoned. But first, I will talk about Robert Wilson himself and his latest press announcement.

Wilson is celebrated for directing plays and operas using light and movement in ways never done before. His performances, produced around the world, have included 1914, The Black Rider, Einstein on the Beach, Doctor Faustus, The King of Spain, The Little Match Girl, Three Sisters, Woyzeck and dozens of others. Many are done as collaborations. His merging of light, movement, choreography, costume, stage set and even script is considered unique and unprecedented. He works in many languages. And much of what he does begins at his Center in the woods in Water Mill, where he also works with young artists-in-residence.

Last week, his staff announced those selected as Artists-in-Residence for the upcoming year of 2018. They will be Amtim´Etodo (Chile), Ville Andersson (Finland), Jarrod Beck (U.S.), Tania Bruguera (Cuba), Anne Carson (Canada), Jayoung Chung (South Korea), El Colegio del Cuerpo (Colombia), Lauren DiGiulio (U.S.), Saskia Friedrich (Germany), groupe Karol Karol (France), Molly Joyce (U.S.), Masako Miki (Japan), Iva Radivojevic (Serbia), Hugh Ryan (U.S.), Bastienne Schmidt (Germany), John Stintzi (Canada), Tercer Abstracto (Chile), Barthélémy Toguo (Cameroon), Boris Willis (U.S.) and Joe Zorrilla (U.S.). “Each artist will spend two to six weeks at Watermill,” stated the Center’s press release, “to create works that critically investigate, challenge and extend the existing norms of artistic practice.”

At the Watermill Center
At the Watermill Center, Photo: Dan Rattiner

Here’s some more from the release:

“The 2018 Artist Residency Program has expanded to include more writers, researchers and visual artists than ever before” noted Elka Rifkin, Director of The Watermill Center. “This dynamic mix allows artists working across disciplines to develop their individual practice and share ideas with an eclectic community while gathered in a common space. We have also expanded our Educational Programming to provide more interactions between our Artists-in-Residence and the local community, including more workshops for children and professional development opportunities for East End teachers and educators.”

The resident artists also have the opportunity to utilize the Center’s art collection, library, archives and grounds, as a home and workshop to create and develop their own work. Resident artists are chosen by a distinguished international selection committee composed of artist peers, journalists, academics, and other cultural leaders from all disciplines.

“The gift of a residency at The Watermill Center is an invaluable treasure,” said returning Artist-in-Residence Alvaro Restrepo of El Colegio del Cuerpo. “Inhabiting Bob Wilson’s physical, mental and spiritual environment is a lesson in the quest for artistic and human excellence.”

The entrance to the 2014 Watermill Center benefit was "gated" with this huge cloud made of dry ice, producing an otherworldliness and marking the casting off of everyday life upon entering a fairytale.
2014 Watermill Center benefit, Photo: Daniel Gonzalez

2018 marks the first year that Artists-in-Residence will have access to the Center’s new onsite digital research tool, The Library of Inspiration, launched in November 2017. The library allows artists and researchers to explore Watermill’s collection of art and artifacts, documentation of new works created on site, the archives of its Founder and Artistic Director Robert Wilson and the supporting collection of books.

Sharing access to these resources, recipients of the residencies, including those receiving the Inga Maren Otto Fellowship providing them with a stipend, travel expenses, and financial support, are able to present a public exhibition of the work created during the residency.

The Residency Program will begin on January 8, 2018 with Iva Radivojevic and Borris Willis. Radivojevic is a Serbian video artist based in Brooklyn. While at The Watermill Center, she will develop Aleph, a video journey through a labyrinth of 10 different countries and characters using magical realism to steer the viewer through collected stories. Willis is an American artist merging performance and technology, crafting interactive multimedia works that draw from his theater and dance background.

During each residency, artists present their work to the public as part of In Process @ The Watermill Center. Past residents have presented work that was created and developed at The Watermill Center, at festivals and venues including the New Museum, Whitney Museum of American Art, The Kitchen, Roulette, Performance Space 122, American Realness, Clocktower Gallery, Performa, Vienna’s Donaufestival, Kampnagel in Hamburg, CPR—Center for Performance Research, and the Baryshnikov Arts Center, among others. To date, The Watermill Center has hosted over 640 residents.

The Watermill Center
The Watermill Center. Photo credit: Tom Kochie

* * *

As I mentioned earlier, I said I would tell you what went on at the Water Mill building after Western Union abandoned it.

As you know, I often write hoaxes to liven things up in these pages. As it happened, although I’d been living in the Hamptons since the 1950s, I did not know there was an abandoned factory in the woods of Water Mill until about 1980. It had been abandoned for at least 20 years by that time and, as it was in the news because officials said it ought to be torn down as a derelict building, I decided to go over there. It was a classic rectangular, red-brick factory building, three stories high, with broken windows high up and boarded-up windows down on the ground level. What a mess. I decided something ought to be going on there. So I made it up.

In 1980, I published the first of a series of articles about “The Hamptons Weather Center,” a factory in the woods in Water Mill where the weather over the Hamptons could be controlled, or at least modified, to try to create pleasant meteorological resort conditions here. The building now housed a series of enormous generators powered by dozens of coal-fired furnaces that could throw extra heat or wind up into the atmosphere to increase or decrease temperatures or change the course of storms—or at least hold them off until Monday, when the visitors had gone home.

I’d go around the paper-shuffling manager of this facility to conduct a phone interview with Scotty, the foreman directing the workmen on the factory floor, shoveling the coal into the furnace, for the latest update. Scotty was modeled after the “Scotty” on Star Trek.

“We’re doin’ the best we can,” he would tell me. “That hail storm snuck in without warning from the south. The men worked double shifts when we learned of it. And we almost got it to blow off before reaching here, but some did get through.”

You could hear the rumble of the generators in the background, and sometimes the workmen shouting back and forth to one another as they shoveled.

I interviewed Scotty about a dozen times over the years, but when the effects of climate change around the world began to become noticeable around 1990, I felt I had to retire Scotty and his merry band. He could do a lot, but only so much, and only by greatly polluting the skies. Wilson purchased the property in 1989.

And another thing.

I go to the Watermill Center a few times a year. I’m Vice President of the Bridgehampton Child Care & Recreation Center board, which by invitation sometimes sends its kids to Water Mill to take part in the goings-on there. Also, our annual fundraiser takes place at the Watermill Center, thanks to their generosity in letting us use part of their space for that event.

Over the years, the Western Union Building/Hamptons Weather Center has been so modified and added onto that you wouldn’t even know it had ever been there. But I see it. I wonder if anyone’s ever been to the basement to see all the furnaces down there sitting idle.

More from Our Sister Sites