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Dustin Yellin: From Hijacking Golf Carts to Building Brooklyn's Art Utopia

The 2014 VICE Photo Show is being held at Pioneer Works in Red Hook, Brooklyn, so we talked to Dustin Yellin to find out what makes this impossibly ambitious project work, against impossible odds.

by Gideon Jacobs
Jul 8 2014, 3:33pm

Dustin Yellin, 2014. Photos by Matthew Leifheit

"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." —F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Crack-Up)

Artist Dustin Yellin once cracked up.

One evening in 1999, he used a camcorder to document himself committing three acts of trespassing: First he wandered onto the Forbes family yacht claiming he owned it (“I think this is my boat”), then he hijacked the golf-ball-collecting cart at the Chelsea Piers driving range (“We’re going to have fun tonight.”), and then things came to an end when he got arrested for breaking into Belvedere Castle in Central Park (“I climbed up the wall because I’m going to talk to someone in the tower that I’m in love with.”).

Yellin pretty casually refers to the whole thing as a “psychotic breakdown,” but his behavior during the episode isn’t really all that bad, and maybe not even all that psychotic. Sure, he says some stuff that sounds fueled by a potent brew, equal parts confusion and clarity, that has you wonder if this whole adventure began with a tab of acid or two. But, pretty soon into the video, the mystery of what Yellin might be “on,” a mystery we sort of perfunctorily find ourselves trying to solve, feels unimportant.

Instead, what becomes engrossing are the characters who are forced to deal with Yellin. And what becomes fascinating are the reconciliation processes that take place when a guy who has cracked up encounters security guards, managers, and other minions of capital-O Order—you know, nice folks really just trying to do their jobs. If this video clip is, in fact, a piece of art, then its artistry lies in that it reveals the incredible anatomical complexity of situations where two opposed ideas—Yellin's seemingly ruleless reality vs. the reality where you can’t just fucking steal a golf cart—are forced to reconcile.

See, it’s reconciliation and the tiny miracle inherent in the very meaning of that word that Fitzgerald is talking about in the The Crack-Up, the 1936 essay that Yellin asks the guy on the driving range if he’s ever read, mid-hijacking. It’s reconciliation and the liminal space between two totally contradictory notions that characterizes Dustin Yellin, both his art and Pioneer Works Center for Art and Innovation, the wildly ambitious project that has become his Magnum Opus and pretty much consumed his entire life.

The "Cathedral Hall" at Pioneer Works

Pioneer Works couldn’t be done. In fact, Yellin is the the first to admit it: Pioneer Works shouldn't really exist. Yet after millions of dollars, years of renovations and Hurricane Sandy, there in Red Hook it stands, a colossal, utopic “Center for Arts and Innovation...dedicated to the creation, synthesis and discussion of art, science and education.” The massive converted iron works factory sits on some half-acre-wide fault line between the territories of possible and impossible.

There are reasons—ones that have nothing to do with financial means—why you haven’t heard of people successfully ideating, building and managing 24,000-square-foot paradisiacal arts centers even though I’d bet it’s a wildly common life dream, especially in these parts (Brooklyn). There are reasons why all things as seemingly idyllic as Pioneer Works tend to only work in theory. But those reasons, like the ones that should keep you from, say, simply strolling onto the Forbes family yacht, start to look a bit arbitrary when you’re around Yellin. I’d say that rules in general start to feel a bit flimsy, but somehow not so flimsy that you can’t play by them.

Ella Marder, programming director at Pioneer Works

That’s the nature of the delicate balance that’s been struck by the Pioneer Works crew, headed up by Ella Marder, programming director, and Gabriel Florenz, chief operations officer: Everyone’s dreaming, but also fighting for permits, for educational certifications, for funding to do everything from keep the toilets clean to the lights on. Everyone’s totally bonkers, but sane enough to actually pull this thing off.

Again, it’s that strange kind of intelligence via simultaneity that’s at work here: The team is working their ass off, putting in twelve hour days of blood, sweat and emails as if Pioneer Works is everything, a project of great consequence, of enormous importance. But amid that mentality, there’s also a concurrent sentiment that this whole thing is small, a drop in the bucket, scratching some larger surface.

Guest quarters at Pioneer Works, available to artists in residence

That’s the thing: Pioneer works can’t just be big, can’t just be small, can’t simply be possible, can’t simply be impossible, because Dustin Yellin won’t let the place be defined. Sure, sure, OK, OK, it’s an “arts center,” but call it that in front of Yellin and he immediately begins telling you about the Pioneer Works physics lab, the flight simulator, the radio station, the metal shop, the cancer research. It’s not that he fears being pigeonholed, but rather to build something that could be fully described or even fully understood would be counter to the very heart of the project.

And it’s then that you realize that Pioneer Works really is Yellin's biggest instillation yet, some kind of Beuysian social sculpture that dwarfs the thousand pound terrariums for which Yellin became known. This big brick oasis in Red Hook really is art in the most fundamental sense, not because it was built by an artist and not because it’s got white walls covered with arty stuff, but because it’s an entity conceived, constructed and functioning in this world but has bold ambitions to be of some other one entirely.

Most people who walk into the main space of Pioneer Works for the first time mutter some variation of, “Holy shit.” But then they come to their senses and get confused: “What is this place?” “How did this happen?” “How is this possible?”

Therein lies the beauty of Pioneer Works. Therein lies Dustin's favorite part. 

The 2014 VICE Photo Show will open at Pioneer Works July 31 and remain on view until August 10.

Follow Pioneer Works Center for Art and Innovation on Facebook and Twitter.

Gideon Jacobs is the creative director of Magnum Photos, New York. He was an actor and now is a writer, publishing a book called Letters to My Imaginary Friends in summer 2014. Follow him on Twitter.