Dan Glass is a New York-based writer who has covered participatory art, solar-eclipse chasing, flophouses, and the psychological effect of viewing Earth from space. He recently joined photographer Tod Seelie and a group of urban explorers on an early morning adventure inside the beautiful old Domino Sugar factory on the East River in Williamsburg. Here is his story.

Fifty people, none of whom knew where they were going, were trucked to the defunct Domino Sugar factory an hour before dawn on a recent Saturday and escorted quickly inside. When asked if they knew where they were, only half the hands went up. Of course, no one in the group had actually ventured inside the sucrose fortress in Williamsburg that they'd seen countless times from beyond its walls.

The iconic property, abandoned since 2004, was bought this past October by Two Trees Management Group, famous for its successful gentrification of DUMBO. To urban explorers N.D. Austin and Ida Benedetto, this meant it was time to pull the trigger on their latest event as the creators of Wanderlust Projects: the Candyland Trespass Safari.

The couple has produced other "trespass theater" events, including the "Illicit Couples Retreat" at an abandoned honeymoon resort in the Poconos, and a pop-up wine bar on Mill Rock in the East River. Each event has been free of charge to participants, and for both security and theatrical reasons, they provide only the vaguest ideas of what will happen in advance, and no clue as to the location.

Mr. Austin, a 31 year-old video editor, and Ms. Benedetto, 28 and a media strategist/producer, emailed prospective participants a questionnaire, and those selected were told only to bring a light, good shoes, and a camera. Once inside the concrete cavern they were treated to "tactical breakfast" served out of an aluminum briefcase, and given their mission: break into teams and then hunt for photos to match a set of captions, as well as collect an item for a memory cabinet. Rules were simple: stay with your team, don't exit the building, and reconvene four hours later for a grand finale.

With that, groups of two or more were given a piece of paper and told to come up with a team name, with no talking allowed; this turned out to be a fun way to bond team members so they were more likely to watch out for one another. Then Team Psychic Laser Katz, Double Jesus Farmpit Typhoon, Budget Shellfish, and the rest were set free to roam the labyrinthine decaying Wonkaland of huge machinery, mysterious control panels, and industrial circulatory system of pipes and ducting. There would be more than enough settings for photo captions that included "If we just turned it this way, it would look great in my living room," and "ruin porn."


The guidelines were just right for allowing those interested in such sites to explore freely, as opposed to being led on a tour. "It's like foreign travel," says Austin, "where you find out that you're connected to things that you never experienced before or ever had any insight into, because they were invisible to you."

There are certainly mysteries behind the source of the yellow packages that appear on store shelves around the world. Why, if the many caution signs are any indication, is so much acid used? What exactly is the semi-hard tar-like substance all over the floors? And does "soft liquor 8 blowup" stenciled on a large vessel mean something either as dangerous or as fun as it sounds? The complex looked more like an industrial coatings facility than the beginning of your birthday cake.

Wanderlust Projects is about a lot of things—discovery, history, and just reminding people to be curious about abandoned structures beyond the "ruin porn" aspect, though they don't have anything against it per se. The problem with ruin porn, says Benedetto, is that "like most uncreative pornographic practices it's just producing what you've already seen, not actually a practice of looking." Austin adds, "There's nothing I love more than a good photograph of peeling paint, but if your only relationship with these kinds of places is the aesthetic, you're missing out on a lot."

The finale was indeed grand. After roaming catwalks, attempting to decipher control panels, and shooting photos of fire extinguisher sex, the group was led to a long inclined skybridge between two buildings, with conveyor belts on either side of a narrow service way. Was that music? Yes, a reverent dirge was emanating from the distant rectangle of daylight, as participants filed forward to be born into a bright room where a trumpet player and accordionist serenaded the crowd from atop a platform next to a manifold that looked like Picasso's pipe organ had he lived in Pittsburgh. Necks craned and eyes were wide, and then word came that security was mobilizing. It was time to leave, quickly.

Austin said that you can't organize first-time discoveries with a big group of people, when you have no knowledge of what's there. "But the finale," he added, "was my trying to re-create for an entire group of people my emotional response to seeing that space for the first time. I call it 'the cathedral.'"

Brunch at Benedetto's loft was the denouement to the excursion, where photos were judged over pancakes and coffee. The winning team received a set of blueprints from the site; a diagram of their adventure, which would have been little more than lines and glyphs before exploring the site first hand, connecting the form to its meaning.

N.D. Austin will be giving a talk on ethical trespassing at the Observatory Room in Gowanus Brooklyn on January 8th at 8 p.m.