Last Friday (January 29), I found myself standing on an unassuming street in Bushwick, staring up at a warehouse that has become the new House of Yes. The former laundromat, identifiable by the white 'YES' sign painted onto the light teal siding, is the third version of the legendary collaborative arts space. The original House of Yes, a 3,000 square-foot loft space in Queens, burned down in a kitchen fire in 2008. Co-founders Kae Burke and Anya Sapozhnikova refused to give up, and instead, moved to a former ice warehouse in East Williamsburg. Over the next five years, House of Yes grew into a bastion of arts of all varieties, hosting and co-producing everything from raves to weddings, acrobatics to underground house music events—all while nurturing a devout community of Burners, stilt-walkers, burlesque fans, and dance music devotees. Then in 2013, exorbitant rent prices forced it to shutter once again.
House of Yes is as persistent as it is eclectic, though, and like a phoenix rising out of glitter-speckled ashes, it's back in its most polished iteration yet. On the corner, a golden triangle outlined a door to Queen of Falafel, the venue's hole-in-the-wall Mediterranean restaurant. In the outdoor patio, a fire pit provided warmth from the cold.
The most notable feature of the new space, though, is that House of Yes is now 100 percent above board. Two weeks ago, Burke and Sapozhnikova secured the venue's first-ever permanent liquor license, which is a major step toward professional legitimacy—now, the duo can throw parties legally without having to worry about interference from the authorities.
When I arrived inside, the theatrical atrium—a large room filled with billowing curtains, mirrors, rugs and varicolored linen streamers—was buzzing with activity. Burke and Sapozhnikova, both 28, were zipping around, packing colorful garments and props into boxes as they prepared for that night's sold-out show, Caravan Gitane—a co-produced "experiential sound" event Burke described to me as "organic, lush, feminine, and ceremonial."
Sitting down with me in a corner of the main room while various staffers scurried around us, the two women told me that their work with House of Yes is influenced by legendary Brooklyn parties thrown throughout the 2000s by DIY promoters like The Danger (now You Are So Lucky) and Rubulad. In that same spirit,the duo has spent the last nine years years cultivating a space that combines music, circus culture, and a fierce devotion to social and artistic collaboration with an underground mentality. House of Yes 3.0, which officially opened on New Year's Eve and housed an epic three-hour DJ set from Lee Burridge on January 22, continues to expand upon their vision.
Tonight's party is just a taste of the wide-ranging events the venue will soon host. On February 13, for example, House of Yes is co-producing a Valentine's Day Lovers Ball with promoters Might Get Weird and Medium Rare. Along with aerial performances and house music from local DJs like The Deep, the night promises to meld the intimacy of a suburban American prom with the edginess of an underground sex club. It's a combination that only House of Yes could pull off.
In between instructing their collaborators on everything from DJ arrival times to the aesthetic of certain wall hangings, Burke and Sapozhnikova told me about House of Yes' remarkable history, and about how their love for stilts and weird costumes has fueled one of the most innovative and collaborative nightclubs in New York City.
THUMP: What started House of Yes?
Kae Burke: Our first space was in a basement in Crown Heights. It was super cheap, and we had our friends over… it was something like a community center. Then Anya got hooked up with this new loft space, and that's where we started having monthly parties. Then that place burnt down in a kitchen fire, so we found a new space on Craigslist. It was like a 4000-square-foot building that we made into a 5000-square-foot building…
Anya Sapozhnikova: …by building a third floor without telling the landlord, inside of the building. We had six people in this third floor that the landlord didn't know about.
KB: We were having aerial circus classes, and we just saw it as a big art building where we could have performances. The living situation was floating the space. The circus classes were basically paying for themselves, and [we were] breaking even at best…we had beer, Thai food and cigarettes. We never were starving to death, but I think we were just too young and dumb to know how bad our situation was, and we just kept going because we had a whole community of support.
The aerial school opened [in 2008] and then we did our first show in January. We definitely were developing as a circus theater space, not a nightclub. Then, it ended up being this whole thing where people were doing their parties at House of Yes. And it ended up being pretty smooth—we got a system down, and we accidentally became a nightclub.
What did it feel like in 2007 when House of Yes burned down, and then again in 2013, when you guys were forced to move out?
AS: It was devastating. It was over. That was like a week of feeling like your heart is ripped out of your chest—feeling very emotionally attached to this thing. I remember [thinking] the first time, when the house burnt down, we are absolutely 100 percent getting a new space as soon as possible. It was very much like, we are the phoenix rising from the ashes and everyone's counting on us to keep the party going.
By the time the second place closed, after the initial devastation, I remember being just like, well, maybe we shouldn't do another House of Yes, let's see what our options are. Who am I outside of this space? I remember going to a lot of dance classes, having time to do stuff, and having money, and all of a sudden it was like, instead of running this place for free with all your free time, you can like go work for money.
KB: But it felt hollow…
AS: Yeah I remember in November is when it really hit me. The place closed in August, and in November, I had never felt in my life that I had no purpose in life, but this is what I feel like now and it was horrible.
KB: So we put it [back] out there; it's funny as a business when you're straight up putting in your mailing list: hey anybody know any investors? Restaurant people? Real estate?
AS: Because at that point we were like, if we're doing this we're not self-producing it, we need partners.
Do you envision any changes with the addition of the permanent liquor license? Have you seen any already?
KB: It's a whole different animal—same genus, different species. This liquor license is everything; we worked to hard to get it so we're very aware of staying above board. We're of course more organized than ever, and there is so much more staffing involved with two full bars. Our [new] business partners Ilan and Justin are a godsend when it comes to making that work.
Also, we're much more selective about the type of vibe, music line-up and caliber of performance that we curate. The new space has opened us up to a lot of bookings that wouldn't have been possible in the old space—Nu & Lum, Damian Lazarus, Kidnap Kid, Human Experience.
How does the curation usually happen?
AS: It depends, now we're getting more and more involved with the bookings, but we tend to support; it's always some sort of collaboration between the outside producer and the House of Yes.
KB: We're conceptualizing and costume-building. We're the performers, we book the entertainment, we have our resident performers. Venues have resident DJs and we have resident go-go dancers [laughs]. Just keeping it fresh and keeping it weird and keeping it new… it's going to be a really cool mix here of outside producers and us.
Are there any particular social groups that regularly attend House of Yes? And how has that changed throughout the years?
KB: Yes, we've always [had] a lot of the burning man family at the old space, and we still have that for sure, but it extends so far outside of that now, to anyone that loves good House music; nightlife lovers; people who love circus theatre; burlesque fans. We're also becoming the spot for a lot of super creative queer communities. Basically we're the place for anyone that loves to dance and dress up in weird costumes.
AS: I feel like we grew up in this neighborhood. In so many ways, I feel like this neighborhood has always fit where I am emotionally as a human growing, and that has always been great. All the businesses in this neighborhood are within the same age range and all the business owners are rocking it but struggling. We all have the same things to fight for. We just opened, but there's this whole idea of getting the community involved.
KB: There's that outreach that we see bridged. If we were to have a holistic weekend yoga thing, we wouldn't produce it ourselves, we'd reach out to the community so we'd have to partner with some organization in the local Bushwick community that already exists. It'd be more collaborative, and that's the that we do things in anyways.
Find out more about Might Get Weird & Medium Rare Present: The Lovers Ball _on February 13 at _House of Yes, and get tickets here.
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