Living the Dream with Nina Tarr at Dream House
The actress, comedian, and overall multi-hyphenate invites us inside her psychedelic world.
By Josh Mosh
This Must Be The Place explores the perfect spots, hidden gems, and secret slash not-so-secret retreats of New York’s luminaries and lunatics.
Between rent hikes, dead-end jobs, and the hot smell of garbage, life in New York can feel like a nightmare. Despite all that, wildly talented up-and-comer actress, comedian, and vinyl DJ (not to mention music curator and podcaster) Nina Tarr is living the dream–especially if your dream is to never work in an office. After years of spinning vinyl, going from the west coast to the east, and from small venues to swanky rooftops, Nina’s taste for eclectic disco, soul, and funk has landed her a number of enviable positions curating music for the likes of Vegas’s Superfrico and Tribeca’s own Roxy Hotel, where she gets a discount on drinks and we meet up at the bar.
“My mom’s a Persian immigrant,” she tells me, “and I think it’s that immigrant mentality that’s made me like, almost pessimistically frugal. But isn’t life for the living? Human beings are feeling things, we touch, and taste, and smell. I want to feel good and look good and smell good. I want to experience it all." I agree, of course, I’m a sensualist. “I like that word,” Nina says, continuing on. “I’ve always been an independent person, and I feel really lucky that my life affords me a kind of freedom and independence. But I’m worried that I’m tenderizing myself, because I don’t think I could go back, I used to wait tables, I don’t want to do that again. That’s why I save so much and how I was able to survive during the pandemic.” Pointing to a big picture window looking into a plush luxury condo across the way she asks, “fuck is that an apartment? Are we supposed to be able to live in a place like that? I wonder…I feel comfortable now, but this city just surrounds you with shit like this, and are those people happy? Does having more just make you want more?”
Sitting outside the Roxy on a beautiful Indian summer day, we commiserate the real estate market while discussing the freelancer lifestyle. Once a waitress, Nina now manages music for hotels and events; all this on top of regular DJ gigs, side-splitting stand-up sets, and an acting career that’s gathering steam. You might recognize her from a bit part on HBO’s hacks, and next year she’s got three feature films coming out. When I ask Nina to take me to her spot she leads me across the street to the Dream House, a sound and light installation by composer La Monte Young and visual artist Marian Zazeela.
Situated on the second floor of the artists’ residential walk-up, and almost completely unnoticeable from the street, the Dream House is described as “a continuous sound environment,” where light and sound come together to create a new experience “for dreaming.” The installation has existed in various forms since the sixties, once residing at MoMA, and traveling throughout Europe before taking root in Tribeca in 1993. When Nina and I arrive, it’s closed, but luckily artist Jung Hee Choi happens to be there to let us in. She asks us to remove our shoes and wait in the hallway. I’m thrilled we won’t be turned away and feel a nervous excitement, unsure of what lies behind this innocuous door, when a dramatic humming starts to come from the other side of the wall.
Inside I’m immediately struck by a roaring drone. We enter into a hallway connecting a large room facing the street and a smaller second space in the back. The noise is surprisingly uniform, and loud. What I imagined to be a calming meditative experience is shockingly jarring. We follow Choi to the back first where she was photographing her work, Manifest Unmanifest, consisting of news footage projected onto the smoke from a single stick of incense, and accompanied by The Tone-field, a series manipulated sine waves cycling through eight modal scales based on the sun’s position over New York and inspired by Indian ragas. We discuss Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, and she explains that the Tone-field is actually evolving perceptibly as time passes. As I move my head throughout the room, I notice distinct variations on the sine pattern, and feel overwhelmed and sort of insane.
My hearing already kind of sucks from years of going to shows and band practice, so I can barely hear her or Nina, but as time goes on the sound starts to fade into the background. Nina and I move to the front room, the traditional installation at the Dream House, where La Monte Young’s unique sine-drone is accompanied by Marian Zazeela’s soft pink lighting design. The windows to the street are covered in thick pink gels and pillows dot the floor. In this room the droning noise sinks further into my subconscious and suddenly Nina and I are able to hold a conversation. She confesses to me, “I got my pussy eaten here once. It was transcendent.”
How’d you discover the Dream House?
Nina Tarr: My friend and fellow DJ Kristine Barrili told me about this spot ages ago. The first time I went I didn't live in New York City but this place would be added to the list of reasons why New York was such a magical place to me. This place really is a refuge and when I walk inside I immediately feel like I've been put into some sort of peaceful trance. When I'm immersed in the space I feel soothed and at ease.
What was it like visiting the Dream House for the first time for you?
Nina Tarr: I was so tickled at its mere existence, my dwindling faith in humanity and the ingenuity of human beings had been restored. Like how does this place exist? It’s so cool that a lot of people care about this place existing and they donate money and time and resources to make sure it lives on for other people to enjoy. I was, and still am, so inspired by the work of these two artists collaborating with one another to create a little slice of auditory and visual heaven for a yearning group of obscure New York weirdos.
It is a wonderfully weird experience. Does it influence your creative work?
Nina Tarr: Not directly, but it does inspire me to take risks. I’ve left financially stable jobs for more fulfilling creative opportunities. I was scared, but time and time again I was rewarded for taking those creative leaps. There's a great Kurt Vonnegut quote I live by "we have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” You can't just leave things when it's comfortable for you to leave, you have to take a leap of faith and make tough choices and sacrifice knowing what's going to happen next. You'll figure it out though. If it's sink or swim, it's human nature to swim. You'll most likely swim.