Dustin Yellin on His Quest to Reimagine Learning in the 21st Century
Since establishing the Pioneer Works nonprofit cultural center in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood in 2013, artist Dustin Yellin has slowly grown the place into a powerhouse hub at the nexus of art, technology, music, and science (with literature and food sprinkled in). Like the beautifully complex glass sculptures he creates, Pioneer Works is a richly layered mishmash. Consider this spring’s lineup of programs: One night this April, there’s a performance by the Ghanaian electronic and rap artist Ata Kak; another night, there’s a “Supper Club” dinner featuring traditional Japanese home cooking by chef Emily Yuen and owner Maiko Kyogoku of the New York City restaurant Bessou; on May 2, there’s the institution’s annual benefit, this year co-chaired by Austin and Gabriela Hearst, and honoring poet, essayist, playwright Claudia Rankine, as well as economist Marilyn Simons and her billionaire hedge-fund manager husband, James. Currently on display in the galleries is a performance set by artist Jaimie Warren (through April 12) and a showing of four Japanese avant-garde films from the 1960s and ’70s (through April 19). (Note that due to the coronavirus, as of March 14, Pioneer Works is temporarily closed.) This is to say nothing of the classes, roundtables, and residencies Pioneer Works offers, or its book-publishing arm.
Pioneer Works’s eclectic, wide-ranging buffet of intellectual offerings is pure Yellin. With boundless energy, enigmatic bravado, and a collaborative spirit, he has built a multifaceted community not unlike what Andy Warhol had at The Factory from the ’60s to ’80s—only it’s somewhat more institutional and professionalized, and with a new executive director, Eric Shiner (formerly of White Cube gallery, Sotheby’s, and the Andy Warhol Museum), at the helm. As Yellin points out on this episode of Time Sensitive, maintaining a certain scale and intimacy at Pioneer Works is essential to him, with future growth potentially coming from building satellite locations in other cities. As he sees it, the institution could become the next Stanford, Harvard, or MIT Media Lab—a new outlet for education, an incubator that brings together the best and brightest minds on earth in a fresh way, a place to foster the shapers of the future.
On the episode, Andrew speaks with Yellin about everything from his wide-ranging dreams for Pioneer Works; to his ambitious plans for “The Bridge,” a large-scale monument to the end of oil; to his harrowing memories of Hurricane Sandy.
Yellin talks about the impetus to start the Pioneer Works nonprofit, a sort of cultural reimagining of the commons in Red Hook, Brooklyn.
Yellin recalls what it was like to deal with the flooding and damage of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, which was detrimental to the Red Hook neighborhood, and elaborates on his approach to building out Pioneer Works into a full-fledged institution.
Yellin looks back at his upbringing and journey to becoming an artist, and also discusses some of his influences and approaches to making art.
Yellin details some of his plans and vision for “The Bridge,” a monumental architectural installation exploring the end of oil.
Yellin gets deep into how he thinks about time in his day-to-day life, as well as his approach to thoughtfully scaling Pioneer Works.
ANDREW ZUCKERMAN: Today in the studio, I’ll be speaking with the artist Dustin Yellin, who operates a studio in Red Hook, Brooklyn, right next door to Pioneer Works, the cross-disciplinary cultural center that he founded in 2012.
Welcome, Dustin, thanks so much for joining us today.
DUSTIN YELLIN: Thank you for having me here.
AZ: You always seem to be curious about where we’re going, the speed at which we’re moving towards a future. And you have two main points of focus in your work life, which is your whole life in a lot of ways. Your work and your life have always been kind of interwoven—your own practice and, of course, Pioneer Works. And for people who may not be aware of Pioneer Works and who should be, tell me a little bit about Pioneer Works, what it is, what its values are.
DY: I’ll back up a little. I think of the work lately—and that morphs—as descriptive and prescriptive. And so, my art-making—again, if you want to call it that, “practice” of making things—is a descriptive practice of creating storytelling devices, almost like frozen cinema, that tell stories about our species, its relationship to the planet, technology, the earth warming, mythology, history, and so on and so forth. And if we are facing the unprecedented challenges that it seems like we are, in the last two hundred years, going from several hundred million people to several billion, to having an internet, artificial intelligence.
AZ: Mass agriculture.
DY: All of it just changed in two hundred years where we haven’t even caught up with the change. It appears that we’re headed right towards a precipice. And a prescriptive measure for that would be Pioneer Works, which is a modality to really rethink how people learn, how cultural production occurs, how we can create states of discovery for those processes to happen. So it’s really an experimental social experiment—I said experiment twice; I must like that word—with a very simple mission, which is to build communities. So to bring people together through the arts and sciences, to create an open and inspired world. How do we bring people together, really, to think differently together about how we are going to—
AZ: Big, species-wide issues.
DY: Yeah. But using culture. And when I say “culture,” I have to include sciences, because I don’t think that’s always considered to be part of culture, but… So again, to use the arts and sciences as a medium to get people unarmed and open and willing to express these issues, and to create discourse around them.
AZ: Over the years, you’ve talked about the town square or the commons.
DY: Reimagining the commons, yeah.
AZ: Yeah. And so, I’d love to hear a little bit more about that idea.
DY: I think in a world where there’s been a certain movement towards the commodification and commercialization of culture, we are thinking about things being accessible and free. Sometimes, in higher academia, brains are protected beyond, behind lots of firewalls—there’s not a lot of access. And so, to create a place where all these brains are accessible to everyone, not just to each other. Instead of, like, standing in a circle all facing in, everyone’s standing in a circle facing out, so everyone can be interfacing with that.
I think of, what is the commons? It used to be that hut in the middle of the village. There was a time when it was museums because they were free. Parks, theaters, right? And so, there’s been different forms, I think. We’re just building another one. And I don’t think it’s a brilliant idea that I had that wasn’t had before. I think this is something everybody thought about. Every young person—not every young person—but do you know what I mean? I think everyone at some point was like, “Why isn’t there a place where artists and scientists and technologists and musicians and writers and filmmakers were all in a building together learning from each other, exchanging ideas, writing, reading, singing, talking, playing?”
AZ: I think you know better than anyone that it’s not so easy.
DY: I think it’s extraordinarily challenging to realize that sort of vision. Thinking about it, though, is easy.
AZ: Yeah, of course. And you’ve done it in a very specific space. You’ve done it in Red Hook, Brooklyn. People on our show are from all over the world, may have never been in New York, may have never been to Brooklyn. So describe Red Hook a little bit, and specifically why that’s such a perfect place, at this moment in time, to do this.
DY: Well, I think for a couple of reasons. The community is composed of so many different people, from so many different economic backgrounds and social backgrounds. That creates a beautiful spectrum. I think that it is a great test tube for what cities in the future are going to have to contend with, with the waters rising and the earth warming, because we are in a flood zone and we’re a neighborhood that is facing termination, literally, and we’re building.
AZ: And you’re right on the edge.
DY: We’re right in it. We had five feet of water in Sandy, we are built to get more water. We don’t fool ourselves and say, “Oh, that’s in another hundred years!” We’re ready for the water to come tomorrow, and then to clean up and keep going. But there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of millions of people that are going to be facing those issues. So it’s a good place to think about it. We are a small village because we were cut off by the BQE, which creates this sort of isolated, small-town vibration within the Gotham metropolis of New York City.
AZ: It feels like a longshoreman’s…
DY: Yeah, like a village. Which is great, though. But it’s still accessible to this. So there’s a lot of attributes. I went there just because I couldn’t afford space in the city to make my art, many years ago. So that’s what brought me there was, again, economics. I could afford a studio out there, on a ground level, to make heavy sculptures, many years ago, and I wanted to be near the water.
AZ: Yeah. In the early days, you saw it as a building that wasn’t being used for what it should be used for. So a little bit of the history, you had been living in Tribeca, which is is actually when I met you, way back, you were making art in a loft, which is probably now a ten million–dollar loft or whatever, but at the time was a place you could afford to live in and you were making art. And then you go to Brooklyn, and you started sort of prototype, in a way, of a shared space, on Imlay [Street].
DY: Well, no. I mean, I think the ideas went way before that, though. And in Chelsea, I had a place where everybody was… An incredibly bohemian version, where there was a place to play music and lots of people were gathering. I think I’ve always unconsciously built these sort of places where people come together. That was always the idea. But yes, then I found this building, which just blew my mind. And I couldn’t even—it was like I fell in love, I couldn’t even breathe or sleep. I couldn’t afford the building, and I had to beg everyone I know. And I begged and begged, and it took months, several months of begging, to even just figure out a way to get the building, let alone what we would have to do to it.
AZ: Right. And then you build it. Take us through a bit about those first early months. You mentioned Sandy a little bit, which is kind of a phenomenal story.
DY: Well, I mean, we started fixing up the building. I was doing what I’ve always done, which is: I’d be like, “If you buy that sculpture, we got windows,” and “If you get that piece of art, we’re going to have bathrooms,” and…
AZ: And it’s a massive space. Describe the space a little bit.
DY: Well, it’s a civil war ironworks. With the gardens, we have a little bit under fifty thousand [square] feet. And it’s beautiful, it’s wood and brick and forty-foot ceilings. The volumetric dimensions of a fifteenth-century basilica. It’s bananas.
DY: But it required a full—and we’re actually still in it—renovation. Now we’re in the more grown-up version of elevators and sprinklers and egresses and the final stages.
AZ: You have a reception desk with screens above it. It looks like a museum.
DY: Yeah. We have a beautiful bookstore, and we’re building an observatory, and we’re building more classrooms. So yeah, we’re in a new phase.
AZ: Yeah, which is amazing. But shortly after you finished building it, Hurricane Sandy came to New York.
DY: Right. We were in it. We weren’t finished, we were fully in renovation mode.
AZ: I remember you had done the floor, this exquisite floor.
DY: Right, a beautiful, radiant floor, which is resilient to flood. And luckily, our architect put the mechanicals on the second floor, just because it worked with the way the cores were built, which meant that we had just installed three boilers and a crazy mechanical room. Literally hadn’t even turned it on yet, and the flood comes. Because it was there, we didn’t have to replace it. We would have lost another year or something like this.
So then, yeah, the hurricane comes. I’m there in Red Hook, it’s the wildest thing—one of them—I’ve ever experienced. I was there, I tried to even take my canoe out. I was picking things up, and the water kept coming up, and the next thing you know, I’m upstairs with the dogs, and the water’s coming up, coming up. It’s hitting the picture frames on the walls. The drum kit, the refrigerator, and the dining room table all became like soup. The refrigerator was the chicken and the drums were the carrots, and they were all like moving through, making these crazy sounds. It was bananas.
And I wasn’t thinking about loss. I was like, “I can’t believe nature. Look at this! Look at this!” And then in the morning, after the water went back out, I went downstairs, and I was like, “Wow.”
AZ: No one realizes it happened in like fifteen minutes or something. [Editor’s note: Hurricane Sandy took place over six hours.]
DY: No, it was more than that.
AZ: I remember hearing about it.
DY: It was like this. It was the water slowly coming under the door. And then it was like, oh, I’m so glad that I’m here because I’m picking up things, and we’re going to get four inches of water. I had friends of mine who used my studio. It was a very communal place. I was like, this is great, I’m the one who didn’t leave when they told me to, so I’m going to pick up everyone’s stuff. And I’m picking things up, and then the water goes from, like, two to four to six [inches] to a foot. And then I’m like, “Wow.” And I go in my standing room and I grab some rubber boots and again, I’m like, I’m glad I’m here. And then the water’s like eighteen inches. And I’m like, next thing you know, now it’s starting to keep going up.
Then I realized the electricity is on, and I’m standing in the water. This is bad. So I told Gabriel and my friend, get the dogs, get the food, go upstairs. I’m going to turn the mainframe off—the city hadn’t done it yet. At that point, the chaos. So the water was really going up fast, to the point where it went above the tables.
AZ: Because in this neighborhood in West Chelsea, I looked out the window, I went to give one of my kids a bath. It was bedtime at that moment. I came back out after the bath ten, fifteen minutes ,and it was eight feet of water in our block.
DY: That fast?
AZ: That fast.
DY: Wow. See, for us [it] was slow.
AZ: It happened really, really quick, and I couldn’t believe how quickly it just took over. We’d never seen that before. Anyhow, so you go through this thing. And then some people would go, “I don’t know, I’m kind of done.” That was the last thing on your mind, you just started rebuilding.
DY: That wasn’t even on my mind. I went through 9/11, I went through a lot of things.
AZ: And so, in terms of Pioneer Works, back to where you’ve been, you have this incredible group of people—Janna Levin—you have an amazing team with capabilities from all sorts of areas. That didn’t just happen right away. Tell me a little bit about the sort of time it took, the pressure it took to build to where you are now.
DY: I think it was something I was doing subliminally, subconsciously, my whole adult life. And then the building really just became the container that activated a life of dreaming. And then a lot of coincidence or fate or whatever brought people like Janna Levin, and so many people, to what I call “the table,” I think of Pioneer Works as this sort of meta-table. And gravity begets gravity. So, more people, more people, more people…
It was strange. It was almost like I’d been building the crystal ball forever, not physically, but then once there was a container, everything just went bananas. And the thing is, in seven or eight years or whatever have gone much faster and become much more than I would have imagined because I was imagining this just utopic feeling or vision or idea. I didn’t know what it meant to administer something like that, to have forty or fifty people working and administer an institution, if you will. None of that ever crossed my mind. And, of course, through the processes, I learned about the genesis of MIT and CalArts and Caltech and Bauhaus and Black Mountain [College], and lots of interesting moments in history. Looking at the Renaissance—
AZ: Which are always about the people.
DY: Humanism and all of it, it’s all about the people.
AZ: We went there because they were teaching at the time. I think that one of the things that you’ve been so successful at is drawing the great minds that are willing to go on the edge and push through with an idea, not knowing exactly where they’re going.
DY: People—it’s everything.
AZ: Yeah, it’s everything. And so, to describe Pioneer Works right now, at this moment in time, it’s all of a sudden very grown-up. In a physical way, you go there and—I remember when you first did the garden in the back, you’d bought out a garden center, done some deal with a garden center. There were these little trees and this very beautiful little thing that you guys did. And now it’s an incredibly well landscaped garden with grown-up trees. And you sort of see this place actually physically growing in the same space which is very, very beautiful. And right now, you’ve gotten very serious: you’re raising money on a capital campaign, you have a new executive director. Give us a bit about what the current moment at Pioneer Works is.
DY: I always like to think it’s the beginning. I think I’m born to think it’s the beginning. At the moment, yeah, as you stated, we’re in a stabilization phase, of saying like, “Well, these are all the things we need to do to stabilize for fifty or a hundred years. Potentially.” So that’s what we’re doing. Building an incredible board of directors. Eric Shiner, our executive director; Gabriel [Florenz], our artistic director, Janna, our science director. We’re looking at creating a whole Department of Letters next year. We see that the arts, sciences, music, and technology are really percolating together. And now we want to bring more of the narrative arts in there. So yeah, it’s about—we’re just kind of inventing it as we go.
AZ: One of the things that I’ve always been impressed with, watching your journey, is that with these massive ambitions and big projects—like, really, really big projects; nothing’s small that you get into—you also don’t seem to carry around a ton of stress. I mean, you get busy, but you don’t really get that stressed. And I’m curious how you , over time, learned to kind of take deep breaths, slow down, and where you’re at now with that?
DY: I would say that there’s a few things. No matter how much there is to learn, there’s infinitely more that we don’t know. So we never know. So I would say, if you go through life knowing that you don’t know, and if you go through life knowing that a hundred years is an hour, a minute, a second; if you go through life not drinking your own Kool-Aid at all, and not taking it seriously, any of it, seriously, because you can’t, because that would be crazy; if you think about the billions of planets and the way that particles are colliding, and giving us this illusion of what this is, you can’t take it seriously.
So I think that’s how I do that, is I just don’t—as much as I care and I’ve given my life over to this mission, if I ceased to exist in this body tomorrow, I would have thought it was a wonderful run. And I would say, “Let’s celebrate.” Does that make sense? It’s so mystical, mysterious and infinite, this reality, that I can never take existence too serious. So that might be one reason.
The other reason is, potentially, I’ve been exposed to lots and lots of tragedy firsthand. And therefore, within that tragedy—and I’ve also been exposed to so much privilege, so within that privilege—how could I, at all, go through life with anything but wonder and gratitude for the fact that I’m experiencing this?
AZ: That’s very beautiful. You also have had this consistent desire to invent your reality. You invent your reality over and over and over. I’ve always been kind of curious where this comes from. What was your upbringing like? Where’s this curiosity and ambition to invent reality come from?
DY: I don’t know. I think I was very loved by my mother, even though I was a bit of a latch-key child, and she was not around for the first twenty years. There was still this force field around me. I think I was very lucky because when I was 18, I was exposed to a very interesting scientist, who exposed me to lots of ideas, and not only ideas, but people, meeting [and/or learning about] Buckminster Fuller or Nikola Tesla or Pablo Neruda, or Rilke, or Dostoevsky, or anything. When I was young and I didn’t know anything or anyone or any—wasn’t exposed—those things really opened up the doors of my perception. Huxley.
I think that the way I was exposed—my parents were not cultured, so a lot of my friends in New York grew up with these cultural lighthouses as ways to, where I got exposed to it all pretty quickly between 18 and 20, and completely opened up the way I perceive the world. And so, I think Pioneer Works is modeled on some of those ideas of that, you might come last night to see Brian Greene, but then you learn about Jaimie Warren or you go to see Gloria Steinem and you learn about Jacolby Satterwhite. Or you go to see Werner Herzog and you learn about Ben Lerner. You know what I mean? I really think that curiosity is such a great way to learn. You don’t need to have someone telling you to memorize dates or memorize text as much as just a natural-born curiosity.
AZ: Yeah, and you’ve also had an entrepreneurial spirit your whole life. Didn’t you have some watch business as a kid or something?
DY: Yeah. But that was just to get by, or to get freedom. I’ve always had an undying desire for a boundless freedom. I think that’s ultimately what settled me on practicing art, was that that was the thing that was infinite and free, that there was never going to be a wall around it.
AZ: When did you start making art?
DY: I made it as a kid but didn’t take it seriously. I didn’t really take it seriously until I was 17, 18.
AZ: Which is when you moved to New York?
DY: Yeah. Maybe 18, 19, yeah.
AZ: And you came to New York. We talked a little bit earlier about this Chelsea loft you had and your early memories. What was it like at that time when you moved to New York, for you?
DY: I was pretty young and pretty wild. A different person. I don’t even know what it was like. I was so wild. I was meeting people, I was doing cartwheels through the streets. I was being exposed to everything. I didn’t know about anything. I didn’t know about the art world, I didn’t know about anything. I was very impressionable, I think. It took me years I think to get my feet, or maybe I’m still getting them.
AZ: Did any early events happen in New York that drastically shifted your perspective on New York, on yourself, on life?
AZ: Yeah. Are there any that come to mind that you want to talk about?
DY: Just lots of loss. I won’t get into the details of that, but lots of loss, probably. Lots of love. Lots of incredible relationships forged, but then also lots of loss.
AZ: Yeah. So, up to now—this is sort of shooting ahead—now you’re in New York, simultaneously running Pioneer Works and next door your own studio, which is quite an operation. Tell me a bit about how your studio operates. What’s the structure and ambitions?
DY: It’s a bit of an idea factory. I have lots of ideas and only a certain amount of bandwidth to realize them. It’s almost like a movie studio. I’m making frozen movies all the time. I just finished “The Politics of Eternity,” which is this really crazy narrative artwork, and just finished an artwork this week, a psychogeography, where you have tubes of water going through floating islands with animal-headed humans inhabiting these islands. And then the chest filling up with water, and then coming out the arms, and then drowning the body. So the studio is just always many, many, many, many years behind the ideas, and always just trying to catch up with the things that I’m working on. So I’m working on sculptures, which I think of as frozen cinema. I’m working on an augmented reality project right now, which will come out—a first version of it’ll come out in April. I’m working on “The Bridge,” I’m working on—
AZ: Which we’ll get into all these specifically. And I want to start with the idea of time with your work. So you talk about frozen movies, and something that filmmaking, photography, and I think your work—a three-dimensional version of that kind of optical expression—does is it either expands, compresses, or simply stops time.
One of the things that I’ve been so interested in with your work is how long it takes to complete the pieces and what value comes out for you, or what insights you’re able to draw from the period of time you’re able to work on a piece, simply because they take a really long time. What do you go through during that time? Do you change your mind, do you make new decisions?
DY: World-building. So I can really contemplate the world that I’m building, and I can make notes, which are almost like scripts, and say, “Oh, here I’m going to add a Masonic symbol, and there I’m going to add drones delivering fruits. And I’m going to put Icarus over there and Sisyphus over there. And wait, the way time is working, in the future, it was hard-edged and geometric, and in the past, it was more organic. So I’m going to change the shapes of these caves accordingly.” It gives me time to really think about what the thing will be at the end, and then work towards that end, I think, super slowly. It’s not like ab-ex or action [painting]. It’s very thoughtful.
But within that is an extraordinary amount of room to play, and to have fun and keep thinking about it. So I think that’s maybe the advantage of taking so much time to make a work, is that I can keep adding things. I’m going to put weeping willow here and I’m gonna create an A.I. under the water there that’s gonna capture the data that’s trapped in the rocks over here. And then in the cliffs over there, I’m going to add Egyptian and Roman and oceanic artifacts that will tell histories that are hidden in the archeology of the piece.
AZ: And then, oftentimes, you’re pulling source material that is existing imagery.
DY: I’m always doing that. I have a whole library that’s like a cutting room that’s an internet of paper that’s being classified. Drawers of icebergs and humans and animals. Drawers of mushrooms. Drawers of architectural components. Drawers of mountains. And this becomes a place to call from because I’m thinking about the work being almost DNA maps of our species through our found images. And I think we’ll have a different—or we’re already getting—a different relationship to paper. So these become ways to…
Also, I think about what cannot a machine make? And so I think these works—a machine can print a Caravaggio or a van Gogh now, probably even a Cornell at some point soon. But because there’s tens of thousands of found images that are trapped within these compositions, it’s very difficult for an A.I. to build one.
AZ: Which is fascinating. What can we still uniquely do? Which is back to where we started in a way: a lot of the thinking about where are we going, the speed at which we’re going somewhere, and how can I somehow get an insight out of that influence or create a picture of that? Because I think right now we think of images—first of all, there’s been a loss in value in the image. Along with the ubiquity of an image has come this sort of loss and value for it. As anyone who practiced photography seriously, they’re sort of recognizing the crisis of that medium right now.
DY: Photography was one of the first things I fell in love with, in a darkroom, in whatever grade at school. And this was something that at the time was huge for me. I was like, wow, I was in the darkroom, this is the only thing I like to do at school. But as you said, the ubiquitous nature of it, it wasn’t something even now—contemporary photography doesn’t really turn me on because it feels everywhere. It feels like my eyes are the camera.
AZ: Yeah. And you’re not looking into the internet, the archive of imagery and then printing it out using it in your works.
DY: Generally no. I mean, I will—
AZ: If you need something.
DY: Yeah, but it’s very unusual.
AZ: Yeah, mostly you’re pulling from printed imagery from a time when the image itself had more value, which is really interesting.
DY: And the printing processes were different.
AZ: Yeah. Yeah. Back to the idea about the time it takes to make the work: You also change throughout that, you meet new people every day, you think of new ideas, you read new books. You’re constantly evolving and changing because of the kinetic quality of your curiosity. Have you noticed that the pieces change and you’re thinking about‚when you started—you’re not thinking about things the same way, and you have to kind of go back and shift things from the beginning, or is it a generally kind of a straight shot forward?
DY: No, it feels pretty straight because the works are, I think a lot about the work, so…
AZ: Yeah, and they become a road map in a way.
DY: Road map to the next work.
AZ: Yeah. And also, to kind of the choices you’ve made. I mean, people talk about this idea of vision, which is always a hard thing to understand, but it really is, especially in your work, very clearly an aggregate of your choices. These sort of pieces, they become a road map of your choices. So how do you resist patterns, repetitions, when you’re working in such a specific medium and such a specific process?
DY: Because it’s infinite, it’s endless. It’s not like I’m making color field paintings with just… You know what I mean?
AZ: It’s the content is what’s helping you create—
DY: I’m telling really complex, circular, infinite, unfolding stories.
AZ: And I want to get to “The Bridge” a little bit, because that’s one of the most interesting projects that you’re thinking about, definitely one most physically ambitious. Describe what “The Bridge” is and where it’s at right now.
DY: It’s really simple. I’m taking a supertanker, a boat that moves fossil fuels around. And the boat that we’re looking at is not terribly large when it comes to supertankers, but it’s about twice the size of the Statue of Liberty. And we’re going to simply pick it up—it’ll be, I believe, the largest lift in history. We’re going to pick it up and put it on its nose and build a monument to the end of oil, called “The Bridge.” And we’re going to code this monument for about a million and a half people to take elevators up to the bridge of the boat—which will be at the top—every year and learn about, through the experience, learn about the inner workings of the earth warming. So the whole visitor experience will take you through carbon and technology and the history of how those things affect us.
So it’s really a monument to the end of fossil fuels. And it will hopefully be a bit of an economic engine, as well, because observation-deck economics will help to raise funds for protections and conservation.
AZ: And how close to realization are you, do you think?
DY: It was always like in the vein of Bucky Fuller or Superstudio, just a conceptual project. But actually, we’re now in phase two of a deep technical study, where a group has shown extraordinary interests to realize the project, and Arup, an engineering firm, is working on it. Bjarke [Ingels] has been helping advise on it, and lots of people are involved in the thoughts around it. And there’s a group now that has the capacity and is doing a deep, deep second technical study.
AZ: And where would it be?
DY: Can’t say yet.
AZ: Can’t say.
So “The Bridge,” the work, Pioneer Works, all of that is a lot. Tell me a little bit about how important it is for you to actually change location. It’s actually something Bjarke and I talked about a lot on our episode of this podcast and talk about in life a lot, this idea of needing to physically change location so that your growth can catch up with you because when you’re in one place, you kind of get stuck.
DY: I make it a habit. I spend a lot of time in Hawaii and surf and hike. I probably prefer to be in nature. I prefer nature to anything. And then I spend a lot of time visiting island communities, Borneo, Papua New Guinea, going into the Amazon. I basically want to see the entire planet, so every year I take trips that help realize that—Africa—because I think it helps, again, to lubricate the relativity nerve.
AZ: And specifically, with indigenous communities that you’ve been interested in, there’s this new book out by Julia Watson called Lo-Tek, I’m sure you’re somewhat aware of it. Are you also specifically kind of looking at the ways they’re living and what they’re doing far better than the ways we’re living?
DY: Yeah, yeah, I think I am. I made a movie about it years ago called Little Grandfather. We didn’t do much with it yet. But yeah, I love to see the myriad ways in which humans construct their systems to administer their culture.
AZ: Yeah. And the idea of luxury for you is very much evolved into that. You’re not someone who thinks of luxury in a specific, socioeconomic way. And oftentimes, you’ve come back from these trips and said, you know, they’re living in this really luxurious way, actually, compared to the way they’re doing it. Is that also part of it, a sort of redefinition of the idea of desire and world-building?
DY: I think it’s good to, again, have the relativity to know that, with all the stuff that we have here in New York City, with our fancy plumbing and our fancy hot water and our fancy mattresses and transportation systems and what have you, that that could be stripped completely from us. And we could be living under a coconut tree, eating an avocado, drinking out of a river, and know that we have it all in that.
AZ: Fantastic. The one thing that I did want to get more into with you, if I’m thinking about it now, is how you see time because you do see time in a very different way. We don’t just have anyone on here. All of our guests are incredibly focused on this idea of time management and they all honor their time in this amazing way, and they found agency through their perspective on time.
DY: I have a weird relationship to time because, well, it perplexes me. I don’t believe in it.
AZ: You don’t believe in time?
DY: Well, I think everything is endless and infinite, and that we can access the past and the future simultaneously in the present, if we can figure out how to do that, neurologically. So yes.
AZ: What do you mean by that?
DY: I think that there’s probably ways, if you think about the sun or a cell, if you think about a star, if you think about micro/macro, if you think about neurons and protons, if you think about different ways we quantify matter and consciousness, I think there might be ways in which to simultaneously be aware of all of those spaces and motions at the same time. Therefore, as much as I do feel like I am dying slowly with this body and that it will cease to exist, potentially, maybe consciousness won’t, energy won’t. Matter will keep going. So, I don’t, you know.
AZ: And do you think of that as soul? Do you think of that as something that has relationships with others?
DY: I think language has tremendous limits. I mean, the word soul...
AZ: What does that mean?
AZ: I think of it as something that has a recognizable identity to others, that it’s part of something. That it connects with others, that it shares something.
DY: A particular sort of pattern.
AZ: Yeah. Yeah.
DY: A particular configuration of protons.
AZ: You’ve also been incredibly agile and flexible in how you’ve approached your life. So, have you had to learn to get better at that or it’s just kind of always how you’ve been? Were you like that as a kid?
DY: I think I’ve always been like that. I think, if anything, I’m challenged by—as you said—how do I with the information, how do I make a decision to go to Arkansas or Colorado or Stockholm or Arizona or Switzerland in six months? It’s like my mother will say, “Oh, you’re coming home for Christmas on which day?” And I’m like, I don’t know where I’m going to go in March, and you’re asking me about December? I don’t like that. I don’t want to be put on a course that’s so predetermined.
And so that is my challenge with what I’m working on. And folks are trying to schedule me, and I am committing to things like this ahead of time, many things ahead of time. More and more things ahead of time. And that’s challenging, because I kind of want to do those things, but then, I have to say, yeah. Even tonight, I’m going to see a friend and then another friend. And I’m like, that means I have to be somewhere at this particular moment, and then I have to get in a car and be at this other place. So I don’t know, I think the future holds some sense of reclusivity for me. As I get older, I think I’ll retreat into nature a lot more.
AZ: Yeah. And I think that happens to a lot of people. You meet people at the older, or the more advanced, stage in their life, and their desire to be around other people weakens and their desire to go inward strengthens. I know with you, that you’ve been so focused on going inward and really trying to understand yourself inside, and you’ve given—and you may have always been like that—but you’ve definitely spent the last, say, ten years really looking outward because you’ve been building a community. It’s like, how do you build a community?
DY: And go in?
AZ: And go in? Or just like, let’s leave it at how do you build a community? This is something that is kind of buzzy right now: community building, community building. What is it really? It doesn’t happen right away, it’s not like, well, in six months, we’ve got a community. Your community has taken enormous amounts of time to build. Going back to earlier when we were talking about Imlay Street, you may have been doing that forever, but that really was formalized, in a way, as the first space where you really were building a community, inside of another community.
DY: I don’t know, I feel like—
AZ: Like Red Hook was a community.
AZ: You know what I mean? And you were building your own smaller one. And then, as Pioneer Works got bigger and bigger, you’re now a big part of that real community. So you have your own, but it’s connected, which is interesting. How have you noticed the speed at which a real community, authentic community takes to build? Is it something that can happen in the short term?
DY: I’ve never really thought about it, because I’m just in the middle of doing it. I don’t think like that. It’s funny, I never even think—I know I use the word “build community,” it’s in our mission. Sometimes I think I should change it to just “bring people together.” But I like the word community. But doing it for so long, it was never like, I’m going to build community. It was always like, how do we get everybody together? That was it. How do we just get everybody together to agree to build the world that they want to live in?
That was the thing, it’s always been the thing. It’s like if I ask someone, and I do this regularly: What’s the most pressing issue facing the species? I ask this question every week. Sometimes every day to someone, I meet someone, “Oh, what is the most pressing issue do you think facing our species?” And I often get the same answers, which are climate, inequality, machine learning. The nuclear issue is still as present as ever. I think there’s lots of them.
But at the end of the day, actually, I think it’s just, how do we get along? How do we figure out how to work together across economic, political, geographic, religious divides? If we can get rid of those divides somehow and just work together, then figuring out how to make every air conditioner in a developing country have a lesser carbon footprint will be easy. How to get away from fossil fuels faster will be tenable. Figuring out how to make long-range air travel electric and cleaner, doable, all of it will be possible if we worked together as a species. And so that is where the challenge is. It’s not about the technology, really, anymore. It’s not about anything else than figuring out how to get eight or ten billion people with a shared worldview. That’s where culture—and again, science—plays the role of steward.
AZ: Yeah, and I mean, you’ve also got this little lab for that. I’m sure there’s conflict all over the place within Pioneer Works, within your studio, within your life. What have you learned about conflict resolution since you’ve started these sort of bigger projects?
DY: Again, for me, conflict is, like, I’m going to die in sixty minutes. That would be a conflict to the mission. But the other kinds of conflict, I’m very conflict-less.
AZ: Well, you are, but you’re in a leadership position where there’s conflict all the time, I’m sure. You put a bunch of people together. Things happen.
DY: There’s not too much, actually.
AZ: That’s good to hear. I mean, we talk about this, like how are people going to get along? It’s like this idea that’s empathic understanding of the other.
DY: Within our organization, there’s not a lot of conflict.
AZ: That’s great. I think that’s rare for an organization.
DY: We’re small. I think it’s not that rare for a small organization, is it? I don’t know.
AZ: Yeah. I think that the idea of everyone getting along and us being able to have a shared worldview and a species-wide understanding of our needs, often, these things can happen through major, major trauma, like coronavirus.
DY: This global pandemic, yeah.
AZ: Yeah, and the markets start to crash and things start to happen. People start to get very worried.
DY: I woke up today going, Wait, these trips that are planned, these speaking engagements I have in March and April and May, are they happening? You know what I mean?
AZ: A lot of things have been cut off because of it.
DY: We’ll find out.
AZ: Salone [del Mobile design and furniture fair in Milan], a lot of big things are being canceled [or rescheduled]. These things also tend to happen out of a lack of context. One of the issues that we talk a lot about on this show is the lack of context, and how context is the all-important factor in the truth. And I think, going back to Pioneer Works, I do want to stay specifically about that, because it’s such an incredible organization, is that context has been a big part of, whether it’s in your mission or not, everything is about placing a kind of context. Science is in the context of art; art is in the context of science.
As you’re shaping Pioneer Works and you’re shaping a true cross-disciplinary institution, does context come up? Do you guys talk about this? Do you guys talk about the need for context? A lot of the reasons we are where we are, with Silicon Valley, with things, is that context was kind of taken out of the conversation. Move fast and break things.
DY: I think we think about it, but I think it also is natural to the state of what’s going on there because of the people. And, at the end of the day, the people are the context. And the programming is the context. So whatever science is happening in the building, or whatever art is happening in the building, or whatever music is happening, or whatever writers are writing in the building, at the time, is the context. So that again comes right back to people. The collection of souls that are colliding within the container is the context.
AZ: When you think about thirty years out, fifty years out, making these plans for Pioneer Works, a hundred years out, what do you imagine Pioneer Works to look like?
DY: It vacillates. There are moments where I just want to go to the woods. I don’t want to think about that. And then there are moments where I go, Wow, this could be what a Stanford is in a hundred years. This could be Stanford or Oxford or Harvard. It could be a futuristic center for learning, although I worry about scale a lot. So maybe not, maybe it’s these pods. Maybe it’s these micro-community centers that are networked, physical spaces.
AZ: What do you worry about with scale?
DY: What do I worry about with scale? I worry about this idea that—imagine you’re sitting there with your wife and kids, and your friends and they have some kids, and you’re in the woods. And you’re like, all right, we’re living in the woods, got four kids. My friend’s got four kids and their friend’s got four kids. We got to build a little house. We’re going to build a little house so that our kids can go to the little house. And I’m going to teach the kids about photography, and I’m going to teach the kids about medicine, the other person, the other person is going to teach the kids about architecture. Great, little schoolhouse, right? Little house, in the woods, where the kids go to learn.
But then a few years go by and those kids have kids. And then those kids have kids, and then those kids have kids. And then the next thing you know, you’re like, you’re the architect, and you’re like, I need to build a building, to teach enough architects to build enough structures to house all the kids. And the doctor, maybe it’s your wife, she’s the doctor, she says, this is great, but we have so many people getting sick. I need to build a hospital, and I need to build a building just to train doctors to teach care at this scale. And next thing you know, the hospital’s over here, with a building, to teach people. The architects are over there to teach people how to build towns, to house the kids that are having kids, that are having kids. There’s a little music school over here, lots of people are interested in music now.
And without thinking, accidentally, through scale. everybody’s been separated. And information and knowledge has been siloed. And therefore, it wasn’t intentional. But all of a sudden, the musicians aren’t talking to the doctors, the doctors aren’t talking to the architects, the architects aren’t talking….
AZ: You’re describing modern academia.
DY: But I don’t think it was an intentional thing.
AZ: No, of course not.
DY: That’s why, when I talk about scale, I’m very thoughtful about, well, maybe we’ll make more than one Pioneer Works, but maybe we’ll keep them all very small so that everybody’s colliding. That’s what I worry about with scale, is the second you start really having to walk two blocks, and the astrophysicists are in one building, and the applied physicists are in another building, and the computer scientists and in another building, I think that can break down the speed within which our civilization can evolve.
AZ: Yeah. Well, it’s a much more beautiful thought to think of Pioneer Works at the scale it is, maybe a little bigger. And then there’s another one, and then another one, and it’s more horizontal.
DY: That’s what I’m thinking. We want a concert hall. Imminently, in New York, we would like to have a concert hall with music studios in the building that’s adjacent. And then we have some ideas in the garden—you’ve seen the models, classrooms, whatnot, observatory, café. Then we feel like we’re at a good scale, we don’t need to go bigger.
AZ: It’s like this idea, what I love about the observatory is that you have this idea, it’s kind of like Andri Magnason‘s “Lights [Out], Stars On” project. Everyone has a basic human right to see the stars. And the idea of having a free observatory in New York City—that’s real, that’s not a telescope that you’re carrying around, not a small amateur telescope, but a real observatory—to see the sky, that’s a civil service.
DY: We’re very excited. We’re working hard on that.
AZ: We’re hoping for the best for Pioneer Works. It’s been a huge addition to the city and the artistic community here, people love it. I hope more people come to see it, support it, and realize some of these things like the observatory. Thanks so much for coming on today.
DY: Thank you.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on Feb. 26, 2020. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity.