Design Matters with DUSTIN YELLIN

Published on 2019-02-16
Photograph of Dustin Yelling and some of his artwork by Danny Ghitis for The New York Times
Photograph of Dustin Yelling and some of his artwork by Danny Ghitis for The New York Times

THE ESSAY

 Dustin Yellin is perplexed by boredom. And that’s really all you need to know to begin to understand him.

“How the fuck can you be bored?” he mused to The Creative Independent. “It’s incomprehensible, what I don’t know compared to what I do know. This leaves me in this state of total wonder and thirst to discover more. I’m like that when I travel. It’s pathological. I’ll want to drive down every single road on an island. … And when I hit a dead end, I want to get out of my car and walk into the bush.”

The pace at which Yellin lives, creates, opines, forms bonds and ponders the world around him is intense. He’s perhaps best known for his surreal collages set in dozens upon dozens of panels of glass, clocking in at thousands of pounds each. And then there’s his creativity laboratory Pioneer Works. His poetry. His 2D paintings. His perpetual presence in Red Hook. All access points to his mind—as are the 18 quotes in this collection to celebrate the latest episode of Design Matters.

To Yellin, everything is creativity. Ponder, and live accordingly.

—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief

“I’ll start with when I was 8 years old. I took a wood box, and I buried a dollar bill, a pen and a fork inside this box in Colorado. And I thought some strange humanoids or aliens in 500 years would find this box and learn about the way our species exchanged ideas, maybe how we ate our spaghetti. I really didn't know. Anyway, this is kind of funny, because here I am, 30 years later, and I'm still making boxes.”

//

“I’m terrible at speaking about art. I think you should cut off your tongue if you’re going to make art.”

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“I subscribe to the idea that I’m lucky to be alive and I might die in 65 minutes, and that, in the Bayesian sense, civilization is a sculpture, and everything has been invented, and we’re now in the midst of inventing whatever the future might be.”

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“I’ve always felt like making a sculpture is like making a poem. You’re putting down a few words and then you’re reacting to those few words.”

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“[The elements in my pieces come from] LIFE magazines, art history books, encyclopedias, old dictionaries, people’s notebooks that I find in the street, things that I’ve picked up during my travels. … I think of them as road maps. The books that I’m using won’t exist in 200 years; they’ll be gone. And a lot of the illustrations and photographs that I’m cutting out and putting in the work will be the only remaining examples of those images. They’re remnants of souls. They’ll be lost inside of the abdomen of an exploding supernova and crumbling in a black sea of guitar strings.”

//

“I have drawers of mushrooms and drawers of icebergs and drawers of humans and drawers of architecture and drawers of plants. … I’ve been building up this collection as long as I can remember. Everything’s labeled. I have these beautiful brass plaques that are engraved with the names of the different subjects, so when I’m building these worlds, I can find them.”

//

“It’s like an internet of paper. I’m painting with the detritus of the world.” 

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“Everything’s accumulation. We are just accumulations of dust that are somehow conscious.”

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“I work in the lonely darkness of my soul … with a team of people to help me execute it. It’s almost like I’m making frozen movies.”

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“I don’t like to think of myself as being thematic. I respond viscerally and visually. I don’t think it’s thematic. Unless you think death is a theme, and life is a theme.”

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“I’m always thinking about a 500-year time scale. I’m not making this work for the person that’s gonna come in this week and bring it home and love it. I’m thinking, in 400 years, how is this gonna tell a story?”

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“Sometimes you have an idea, sometimes you have an art object, sometimes you have a cultural program. But at some point it’s all the same. If you’re breathing, and you’re not dead, and you make something out of nothing, then it’s coming from the same place.”

//

“There is no difference between a work on paper or The Triptych or Pioneer Works or a love song that I’m going to listen to tonight while I’m drinking tea and musing over the pleasant surface of the water.”

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“I’ve been making art my whole life, and I’m getting older and I feel like I have 700 years or 7,000 years of stuff that I want to make. No matter what I do I’ll only capture the thumbnail of it.”

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“As an artist, I really want to get into a room and talk to a scientist who inspires me, and most of the scientists I know are musicians because of the math, and most of the musicians I know want to be making paintings when they’re not making music because it’s cathartic. This is the mission [of Pioneer Works]—to break down these walls—but it’s very difficult because there’s a lot of simultaneous programming. But that’s the idea, that at any given moment within our residency program you have many of the disciplines of the arts represented simultaneously, and many disciplines of the sciences represented simultaneously.”

//

“I think that’s the way you change the world. You redefine your insides and the box that you're living in. And you come together to realize that we're all in this together, that this delusion of difference—this idea of countries, of borders, of religion—doesn't work. We're all really made up of the same stuff, in the same box. And if we don't start exchanging that stuff sweetly and nicely, we're all going to die real soon.”

// 

“I want you to have a revolution in your heart. I want you to stay up past your curfew.”

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“My wildest wish is that all the people around me are content and peaceful and die in love.”

THE INTERVIEW


Curtis: This is Design Matters with Debbie Millman from designobserver.com. For 15 years now, Debbie Millman has been talking with designers and other creative people about what they do, how they got to be who they are and what they're thinking about and working on. 

On this episode, Debbie talks to Dustin Yellin about his busy life making art while also running a nonprofit cultural center. 

Dustin Yellin: I have no life, no wife. I'll strive, can't think, overwhelmed, don't know how to do it. I love it. 

Curtis: Here's Debbie.

Debbie Millman: In 2012, when Hurricane Sandy hit New York City, the Brooklyn neighborhood of Red Hook was catastrophically flooded. Dustin Yellin had just finished renovating an arts and cultural center he founded in Red Hook called Pioneer Works. He watched from a rooftop across the street as Pioneer Works filled with water up to the neck. Pioneer Works survived and is still going strong and so is Dustin Yellin and his own artwork. Sculptural paintings with often dystopian themes. His work has been featured in Lincoln Center for the New York City ballet art series, and he's been working with Google on virtual reality technology. Dustin Yellin, welcome to Design Matters.

Dustin: Oh, thank you. Thank you for having me here.

Debbie: Dustin, I understand you break danced in Jay-Z's Picasso Baby video, music video. Tell us all about that. 

Dustin: I don't even know where I would begin. They just called me up and said, "Come on over." Sort of an unexpected sojourn into Chelsea. But I as a young man, I did break dance on the Venice Boardwalk on some cardboard for ... I could make around $13 in a day and then slowly I moved up to linoleum. 

Debbie: Now how did Jay-Z find you and why? And how did you learn how to break dance? 

Dustin: I don't know how they found me. 

Debbie: You just got a call one day like, "Yo dude, Jay-Z wants you to be in his video."

Dustin: I got a call yes. They said to show up, yeah. In the 80s I was just into that music. And so I was in the break dancing like during the coffee grinder and yeah, it's like sort of modern gymnastics.

Debbie: When you were five years old, I understand your mother left your father and you moved from California to Colorado and you've said that you were lucky to be raised by women in the mountains. Tell us more about that. 

Dustin: I'm just grateful that yeah, that my mom took me out of Los Angeles where I was born and into the mountains because I was raised in nature. Yeah, I grew up in the woods. 

Debbie: Tell us what it means by being raised by women. 

Dustin: Well, I think the term was lesbian wolves. 

Debbie: So you were well parented?

Dustin: If I were to quote. I was well parented by many women yeah, 'cause my mother she would say she just try anything. There was a lot of folks coming and going, but mostly women and I was in the woods. I feel very lucky to have grown up not in a city, but in the middle of nature and building things out of sticks and rocks and talking to animals and whatnot. 

Debbie: Your mother was a real estate developer and has described you as the weirdest kid and a willful loner. What was at the heart of all that willful lonerness?

Dustin: I just didn't really necessarily connect with the normal things. And so in Colorado all the kids were playing hockey, I'd be figure skating by myself or they'd be drinking beer up on the mountain and I'd be fumbling through the woods on my own. I think I always felt a little bit displaced potentially.

Debbie: Would you consider yourself a loner now?

Dustin: I would consider myself in perpetual conflict now because I'm wearing two hats all the time. So yes, I would love to go and spend time in the middle of nature on my own. And yet simultaneously I am an organizer and I'm bringing people together. It's two hats.

Debbie: Yeah. Those two hats require almost completely different kinds of lifestyles. As an artist you have to spend quite a lot of time alone, but as an organizer you have to spend quite a lot of time organizing quite a lot of people. 

Dustin: Yeah. So it's challenging and I try to mitigate it by getting out of New York City. I just drove through Hokkaido in Japan and last year I went through Papua New Guinea and then the year before into the depths of Africa. I tried to get out and I try to balance that with time out or hide at my house, but it is truly challenging because I'm always in between those two things.

Debbie: Now, I know your father was an avid collector and you followed suit. From what I understand when you were a kid, you could often be found digging through other people's garbage and bringing home all sorts of things to arrange in your bedroom. What kinds of things were you amassing? 

Dustin: I still do that.

Debbie: You do? You get to other people's garbage. Do you ever get arrested?

Dustin: Not for that.

Debbie: We'll get to that later, for the other things. 

Dustin: I'm still doing it, and I collect all kinds of strange things. I have a very strange barometer I found in the garbage when they were renovating ... This was in New York ... renovating a school. Books, love. Nothing has changed. So I'm still bringing home books and furniture.

Not as much because when I was younger, I would fill up spaces. I was painting on doors. I was painting on mattresses that I would find. Just about anything really. 

Debbie: What did you want to be when you grew up back then? What were you imagining for your future life? 

Dustin: When you say back then, how far back?

Debbie: When you were collecting rocks, when you were working in the crystal kingdom and I understand you took rocks as payback then.

Dustin: It's true. I still do it. I'm obsessed with rocks. I still have rocks everywhere. I even bought a 40 pound rock back on my last trip in my suitcase. I could hardly put it above a thing in the plane. 

Debbie: What made you decide you wanted that particular rock?

Dustin: Such a beautiful. You have to come see it. It's at the house. It's a beautiful rock. I think rocks tell stories. I think objects tell stories. I think they almost have histories-

Debbie: Oh absolutely. 

Dustin: ... so I think that's my attraction and I think a rock can be as interesting as a Caravaggio.

Debbie: Now, I understand that you had as a kid growing up, quite a predilection for making money. I understand that you hired people to buy up limited editions swatch watches that were one per customer and then you went off and sold them. Not only that, but you made enough money at that time to buy an Audi. So how old were you when you did this and what was at the heart of this drive and ambition? 

Dustin: I think probably just freedom. Freedom was the drive. I was I believe around 16. And that's before I dropped out of high school and there was a kid in school named Seth Grossman who I started ... It was just a way to make some money and buying a car was like the first symbol of freedom.

Debbie: But you needed to sell a lot of watches to buy a car. swatches are expensive but-

Dustin: We did really good. Yeah.

Debbie: Thousands and thousands, right? 

Dustin: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It was good for a little while. Yeah.

Debbie: Now given your acquisition, your own acquisition of a car, I'm wondering if you can tell us about what happened when at 11 years old your mom caught you smoking pot and what she then promised you.

Dustin: I have back then and still do now a very open relationship with my mother. And so I said, "Ma, I smoked pot."

Debbie: Oh, you just told her, you didn't get caught. 

Dustin: No, no, no. It was just like yeah, and she's like, "Don't do that again." And then a week later she said, "Look, I'll make you a bet. If you don't smoke cigarettes, don't do drugs, don't do anything, drink alcohol, nothing, until you're 18 years old, I'll buy you a nice car." And of course, I'm a kid and I'm an honest kid. I say, "Yeah, sure."

And then I went through my younger, those years when all the other kids were doing that stuff, not doing any of it. And as you pointed out, when I was 16, I bought my own car. So by the time I turned 18, I said, "Look, I won the bet, but I bought my own car with my own money, but so now you have to convene money instead of a car because I've spent all these years." 

And she did, she kept her word. I kept mine. And then I spent that money on drugs, sex and rock and roll, and really just like had my own Woodstock in my mind. 

Debbie: Yeah. I read that you hitch hiked through New Zealand, Australia and Thailand, Read Freud, learned about Warhol, wrote bad poetry and dropped acid in Bondi Beach while Woodstock.

Dustin: You read that, that's amazing. The things I've said. Yes. All of that is accurate. 

Debbie: What made you decide to drop out of high school and why did your mom allow that if she didn't want you to be smoking pot and cigarettes, why did she-

Dustin: I think at that point I was-

Debbie: To willful to stop?

Dustin: Precisely. And I just wasn't connecting with what I was learning in school, so I felt I just wasn't connecting to the people or to the teachers.

Debbie: From what I've seen you never went back to school. 

Dustin: Correct.

Debbie: But you did get an honorary degree from the Savannah College of art and design. 

Dustin: I did. I got a doctorate there.

Debbie: Do you mean people call you doctor?

Dustin: I call everybody doctor. So super candid.

Debbie: Were your parents terrified at the choices you were making back then? Given your mom's urging of you and bribe really to keep you from doing drugs and smoking pot and so forth?

Dustin: I imagine. Absolutely. 

Debbie: How are they feeling about your choices? 

Dustin: Not so hot. It's probably terrified.

Debbie: When you finally returned to Colorado after the-

Dustin: expedition-

Debbie: ... dropping acid in Bondi Beach while watching Woodstock-

Dustin: There was other good things I went to.

Debbie: Oh, tell us.

Dustin: Oh well, I wouldn't even know where. I went all over. I hitchhiked across New Zealand, I went skydiving, I went caving, I went to visit Aboriginal tribes in the middle of Australia, I went all kinds of things. It was like a weird adventure.

Debbie: What were you searching for?

Dustin: The meaning of life. What do we always searching for? Same thing I'm searching for now.

Debbie: Have you learned anything about it? 

Dustin: There's probably no answer. It's just more questions.

Debbie: Damn, damn. Always hoping I'm going to get that holy grail for one of my guests. Please tell me why we're here, how we got here and what's the point? When you returned to Colorado, I understand you became an apprentice to a physicist who performed experiments on you using crystals, hallucinogens and other drugs.

What kinds of lessons and realizations did you have from those experiences and what kind of experiments were there?

Dustin: Well, I'm-

Debbie: You're blushing. So this is going to be juicy. 

Dustin: Are you familiar with John Lilly?

Debbie: No, I'm not.

Dustin: He's a scientist. Did you see the movie Altered States? 

Debbie: Yes. 

Dustin: So that was based on the character of a scientist called John Lilly. And I met this interesting physicist who knew Buckminster Fuller and was very much a scholar of Tesla and Zero-point energy and things like this. He was at the time extraordinarily influential on me for many different reasons because I didn't have anyone exposing me to things.

Debbie: Really? It seems like you're quite well aware of possibilities. 

Dustin: I was aware of possibilities, but no one was saying this is Nicola Tesla, this is what he did. This is Buckminster Fuller, this is what he did. This is Pablo Neruda.

Debbie: So it was an intellectual stimulation.

Dustin: Absolutely. And this is Rilke and this is certain kinds of music and literature and things like this. 

Debbie: Yes.

Dustin: And yes, I was doing this strange experiments with consciousness and I would leave my body for about an hour at a time and-

Debbie: Where would you go?

Dustin: It's almost like you've become one cell in your bloodstream moving through a liquid eternity and then you'd become a one star in space going into the cosmos and then you'd be in a cathedral and there'd be no ceilings. It's sort of become consciousness or like aware without the body of all of what consciousness is. 

Debbie: What kind of hallucinogens were you doing? 

Dustin: I was doing muscular injections of ketamine. I haven't done that in a very, very long time, but there's a lot of research I've been reading about it now for PTSD, Krashen and that's very interesting.

Debbie: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. End of life care.

Dustin: All kinds of interesting things now. So potentially I was ahead of my time.

Debbie: Now, was it true your mom eventually banned you from seeing the physicist?

Dustin: That's pretty accurate. 

Debbie: You're still pretty young at this point. Under 20?

Dustin: Oh yeah. 18. 

Debbie: I think her exact words to him were, "Don't ever go near my son again."

Dustin: I don't remember, but they were certainly stern.

Debbie: That's what she said. No, I'm teasing. I didn't ask her. 

Dustin: Oh yeah. I think she was, again, as a mother would be quite concerned. For me, I was very lucky because I was exposed to these things and it also gave me this bigger visions of I was making art and writing, but now I was obsessed with grander idealistic notions of how do you bring the world together to solve for climate, for poverty, for agriculture, for larger issues, I think. 

Debbie: Do you feel that experience rebuilt you psychologically? 

Dustin: Yeah, I don't know if I would use the word rebuilt, but certainly rewired and exposed me to a certain kind of possibility and really set me on a path where I came ... I was obsessed with art and I was reading about Warhol and I couldn't imagine how ... I hadn't studied art history yet, so I couldn't imagine how this guy for the Soup Cans could become the most celebrated artists in 50 years.

I just didn't get it and I wasn't making a judgment. It just seemed so easy. And he had such a voice. So much influence and voice from his art that that combined with what I was reading about Bucky Fuller and folks like that really sent me on a trajectory to go to New York. 

I said, "Well God, if Andy Warhol could do that, I can go to New York and become like Andy Warhol." Anybody can do that, and then you have a voice and then it really was about what you did with the voice. And for me that voice was about bringing people together across disciplines to work together at some of the larger issues, particularly around I think energy and climate.

Debbie: You've said, "I didn't decide I wanted to be an artist." Like someone decides they want to be an astronaut. It evolved as a form of therapy as your way of dealing with the world and what was in it. And I think that's so interesting to discover that that's what you want to be as opposed to declare that that's what you want to be. 

Dustin: Yeah. I didn't feel like I really had any other choice. I was all over the place as a kid. I was interested in space and I was interested in film. I was interested in things, but I didn't know about them. They were just very abstract ideas. But as I learned more and got exposed to more things, it became more clear. It was also the ultimate form of freedom. 

Debbie: One of your first tasks as a New Yorker was along with a friend to rent a raw loft in an old horse stable at 10th avenue and 18th Street. And you turned it into a 24 hour event space where artists and celebrities and scientists and local auto mechanics would drop in whenever they wanted to.

How did you decide to do that? Why did you decide to do that? How did you get that kind of immediate clientele? 

Dustin: Right off the boat when I moved to New York, I was going out a lot as a young person is and like a magnet or something or sometimes of gravity I kept meeting people right away. So I met artists who are still in my life now, almost 25 years later, and all these incredible people that a lot of them are still in my life. That was what New York was a symbol for and frankly still is, is its people. 

Again, I would live in the middle of nowhere happily. But if you're trying to organize and bring people together, New York City is a great intellectual fabric, if you will, to weave of souls. And for me, I think that place was just my version of the factory or something.

It was a place where musicians and poets and writers and filmmakers and artists were just convening and very informally playing music together and painting together and writing together and sharing ideas together. 

Debbie: You were also making art at the time. Tell us about the body of work you made for Cipriani in SoHo. 

Dustin: Just strange, very ... Again, I was not educated in art history yet. If I were to reflect they are very much AbEx type paintings, very gestural weird paintings, but this I was in my mason very experimental stages.

Debbie: But that's a pretty big thing to get at such a nascent age or nascent phase your career. 

Dustin: I didn't know who Giuseppe Scipioni was back then. I didn't know anything. He was just one of many people I met who really believed in me and people said to him, "You're crazy. You can hang anything on your walls," because of his clientele. And he said, "If Dustin gets on the table and pisses on the wall, I'm going to hang it."

Debbie: Wow. He really liked you.

Dustin: Which wasn't far off from what I made, but he really believed and was incredibly supportive and a lot of people were. I was hustling. I would do anything. I would sell a painting for $200. I would give away art if it meant that the art got out of my studio and someone could see it. 

It was like whatever it takes, and I still say that to artists, "Better to get your workout by giving it away if it's going to go have a life." Because if 10 people see it and only one of them connects to it, that's one more that's gonna ... It's almost like a disease. It has to spread in the only way it really. If you get too proud or too precious and it just stays in your room, it's going to get stuck. 

Debbie: To this day, you're still entirely self taught. 

Dustin: What does that mean? I learned from ... I think-

Debbie: You taught yourself. That's I what it means. You learned by curiosity.

Dustin: Yeah. I'm self taught and I try to surround myself with people that are smarter than me and I'm always trying to learn from everybody around me. Then I think it's a great way to learn. Especially in New York City it's endless. 

Debbie: Well going back to that particular time in your life while you were the officiator of your space, you were also partying quite heavily. And in my research I found that you once boarded the Forbes family yacht and said you owned it. You sustained an accidental stab wound, quite a deep stab wound from Bijou Phillips that left you in the hospital and also made tabloid headlines. 

And then you broke into the Belvedere castle in Central Park looking for a Punzle and subsequently were locked up in psych ward.

Dustin: I was actually looking for Zelda Fitzgerald. 

Debbie: Oh, okay. Sorry about that one. How did you rebound from this life? Did you have to consciously redirect? 

Dustin: I don't know if I was partying as hard as potentially it's been written about. In the episode in Central Park, there's a film of it called the Crack House. 

Debbie: Yes. I was going to say-

Dustin: Did you watch it?

Debbie: ... I understand you have a video. Yes. Yeah. Video tape of the experience. Who was shooting it?

Dustin: Me. I was by myself. 

Debbie: Okay. Yeah. So you knew enough ahead of time to document this?

Dustin: I didn't know anything. It just happened. It was amazing. It was an incredible experience. And I thought it was almost like life was playing a joke on me and that the whole world knew each other, like The Seven Daughters of Eve that everybody was related. 

Debbie: Any of that is possible. 

Dustin: True. And so I would walk by a restaurant and I just wave at everybody. I thought everyone was pretending not to know each other. 

Debbie: What were you on?

Dustin: I don't know, but I was really like ... It was incredible. The video is cool. One can find it on the Internet. It was an incredible experience, and I think I've just been very lucky where I've bounced back from all of this stuff. I've always had the same North Star.

Debbie: What was it like in the psych ward? Do you remember?

Dustin: A little bit. I remember I was arrested in Central Park looking for Zelda Fitzgerald. They took my shoe laces, they put me in a ambulance to a hospital. Some friends came to get me. I was like, "I won't leave." They were like, "Get dressed right now." I said, "I don't want to go. I'm not going to leave." And they said, "Get dressed right now," and they couldn't get me out of the hospital. 

Debbie: So you wanted to have that experience? 

Dustin: I don't know.

Debbie: You were aware?

Dustin: I don't know. I really I don't know. But at the end they couldn't get me out. So then another ambulance takes me to another hospital and that's like in the movies with the little window and the little cups in full lockdown. At some point I said, "Oh, I want to go home." And they were like, "You can't go home."

Debbie: Now you can.

Dustin: And My mother and father who had not been on an airplane together in decades flew out to New York and got me out.

Debbie: And then what happened? 

Dustin: Life resumed. 

Debbie: Did you feel comfortable with the direction your life was taking at that point? Or did you feel like you had to tone down? Reboot?

Dustin: I don't know. I think I was okay.

Debbie: I know at that point your money started running out and in order to continue being able to make your art, you began recycling or reworking some of the pieces that you had with resin. And then in 2003 as you are working on the collage, a bee flew into the resin of one of the pieces you were working on in real time, which profoundly changed your work.

I'm wondering if you can tell us a little bit about that experience. About what happened next after that bee flew into the resin. 

Dustin: Yeah, a wonderful series of accidents. I was making an Agnes Martin like grid of ripped up dictionary pages and covered that in resin to seal the paper 'cause I was always working with lots of found paper, and a bee got stuck in it. I was actually making this for my mother, this weird collage and she is frantically fearful of bees, so when she runs out of the room. 

So I poured more resin on it thinking I could submerge it more, but I noticed an optical quality, almost a magnification that taxed on the dictionary page and I built these wood boxes to make these Joseph Cornell esk 3D collages out of found objects. And then I started drawing around the objects with whiteout the way you might draw on a dead body in the street, like just tracing them. And I realized that I could draw in space, in layers. 

So I removed the objects and started making these weird, they almost looked biological and then created my own taxonomy of invented specimens and then almost felt like I was finding a language, then I started to scale those up and I actually ... The art people were really connecting to it and I was selling more and more art, but the materials were toxic.

Resin is toxic. So I was stuck in between finding a language and not getting to have the ability to bond with my materials and get close to them. Then I switched to glass as a way just to get away from resin. So again, all of these accidents and with the glass I could move the panels back and forth. 

I retained the ability to edit and to change my mind and to build almost like a film maker in frames and the works became more like almost frozen movies where I could build a narrative and perspective and spend a long, long time adjusting and changing and thinking through a work. 

Debbie: The panels that you created with glass, they had this ability to present themselves as three dimensional sculptures, but also there were landscapes, they were a theorial humanoid figures, they were little stories in a box almost. But as you moved into the work with glass, it seems like the panels disappeared. 

How have you been able to create your work there? It's very, very large. Your pieces are huge. They weigh a lot. How are you able to create the ability for the elements in your sculptures to float through the glass? 

Dustin: Well, I'm just making the collages and drawings and paintings on layers of glass. The glue has the same refractive index. Everything is floating. I'm very much telling satirical dystopic stories like frozen movies. For one I just finished this called the politics of eternity, which is the future mirroring the past. 

Debbie: In what way? 

Dustin: It's about 10,000 pounds modulated sculpture, left and right and on the left is the future and on the right is the past, and in the future we're building a futuristic city, a rocket, a Hyperloop, and a particle accelerator. And exactly where the particle accelerator is positioned in the future is a cave of minerals in the past. 

And there's animal headed creatures inhabiting that world and they're carrying these minerals up through tunnels to build totemic intended to the gods, which is exactly the same scales the rocket in the future. So there's this symmetry city coming on underneath the ocean. 

There's two oceans, one in the past, one in the future, underneath the ocean in the past is a group, Sisyphean Mormon where they're pushing a boulder to capture a sea monster that's eating the boats. That same Mormon is mirrored underneath the ocean in the future by astronauts pushing a robot to capture data that's coming out of the ocean and everything is mirrored.

So where there's a tree growing in the future, there's a tree growing in the past, where there's a field of lights in the future, there's a field of mushrooms in the past, where there's a cluster of satellites by the moon, in the future, there's cluster of dinosaurs by the sun in the past. 

And then you have the past and the future falling in to the present where you have Mars, the god of war looming over this third ocean. And underneath that third ocean is a super tanker sinking with animals coming out of it. Sort of an allegory to the arc. And that's also in relation to a post petroleum post hydrocarbon economic system. Another project I'm working on. 

Debbie: Where do these ideas come from? 

Dustin: They're everywhere. 

Debbie: How do they get into you?

Dustin: It's like there's so many ideas. There's so many books to read and movies to watch and poems and places and things that I'm living in a constant state of overwhelmingness, almost complete arrest because it's the infinite detail in the information is so vast that it's incomprehensible. Kind of like the cosmos. 

Debbie: You're a Peace Triptych which is inspired by Hieronymus Bosch and described by Vanity Fair as a super terrarium containing a blood spewing fountain, a female serpent and foaming geodesic domes. It weighed 24,000 pounds. It is 18 feet and it sold for 1.7 million dollars. 

How closely do you feel you've hit your original goal in the art world? 

Dustin: I don't. I don't think I ever will.

Debbie: Why? 

Dustin: 'Cause I like to wake up every day and say I've done nothing and this is all meaningless. I really believe, again, in relativity and in a relative frame I've done nothing. A lot of the things that I wanted to happen in my 20s are happening now, but then you have a whole new set of what's possible. I honestly just wake up every day, I've done nothing.

And now I have these other crazier dreams. And I imagine when those dreams come true, then there'll be another set, another set. And so I like to wake up every day and just go, "I've done nothing. I've accomplished nothing." I did the Triptych and then I did this thing called 10 Parts, which is the whole world melting and the whole world drowning in the ocean, falling off the edge of the world.

Debbie: Psycho geographies, which is stunning.

Dustin: That's still in progress. And then the politics of eternity. I'm building a work right now, augmented reality work and I'm writing a science fiction movie right now. There's myriad projects and then Pioneer Works. I think I'm fine with not feeling like anything will ever be finished. 

Debbie: Does that mean you're dissatisfied? 

Dustin: No, I feel very satisfied and lucky actually. I'm grateful. I am so lucky. And every day I just say, "Don't die. Don't die. This is so good. I'm so lucky. Most people don't even have clean water." I think about the world and the in the 1930s, early 40s, so I really frame things in a relative system. 

Debbie: Are you still working in two dimension? I know that you have described working in two dimension as your yoga, and I'm wondering if you're still doing that.

Dustin: Yeah. Well, I'm building a land full of human time. Yeah. 

Debbie: How are you doing that and what does that mean? 

Dustin: I'm basically taking information, whether it's in the form of paper or hard drives or cassettes or 8-tracks or found paintings and I'm stuffing them with a stick almost archeological into these vessels to build this labyrinth that you'll walk through. 

Debbie: And will that be a Pioneer Works? 

Dustin: Not short anything of my own really a Pioneer Works. I would like to, but I keep it very separate. Pioneer Works is its own thing. My obsolescence is my success. 

Debbie: Let's talk about Pioneer Works. You began buying property in the area of Red Hook Brooklyn and that culminated with your purchase of this civil war era warehouse in 2011. You transformed what was then named the time moving and storage building, but originally called the Pioneer Iron Works into Pioneer Works. 

And I understand that your goal was to create "A Utopian Arts Center." What made you decide to do this and what does Utopian Arts Center mean to you? 

Dustin: Well, again, back to when I was 18 and obsessed with Bucky Fuller and all that stuff, I wouldn't say Utopian Art Center, I'd say just utopia.

Debbie: Okay. 

Dustin: Lately, we've been thinking a lot or I've been thinking a lot with my practices. In my art studio I make these very descriptive tableaus of almost satirical dystopias. The state of the world. A lot around climate, around technology, around AI. Themes like this. Yes. Where's next door PW it almost could be considered prescriptive. 

Debbie: What do you mean? 

Dustin: In the sense of potentially the way to deal with climate or any of the major scale issues that humanity is facing is by bringing people together across disciplines, across socioeconomic divides, but really using culture as a catalyst for change and as a new organizing principle.

If historically you have the state and religion as organizing principles, which did work but also divided potentially culture could be another organizing principle, and I use the word culture, I put the sciences in there. So the arts and sciences, and so Pioneer Works isn't a art center if anything, it's the center for the arts and Sciences and it's very much around accessibility because we're losing the Commons and there's a real commodification and commercialization of knowledge and culture.

So it's responding to that and it's responding to overspecialization. Academia is incredible, but it's scaled. So there's big universities where if you're in the architecture school, you're never going to be in conversation with the music school. If you're in the physics department, you're never going to be talking to film schools. So everybody's in their places and it's like in a brain. If parts of the brain are talking to each other. 

So I think Pioneer Works is trying to react to that and bring people from all these different fields, all these different backgrounds together to think together differently. 

Debbie: So it's a real cross pollination?

Dustin: Hmm (affirmative).

Debbie: You overhauled the warehouse and as I mentioned in the introduction, Hurricane Sandy hit. Take us back to that time and what it was like and the impact it had on you because you've talked about it as a very visceral experience. 

Dustin: It was incredible. I love the weather, so this is incredible. The water, the thing. And then the street started to come up slowly, slowly. At some point I was like, "This feels like Venice." And I went to grab the canoe and my friends said, "Are you crazy? You can't go out in this?" I said, "No, I'm gonna canoe through the streets." He said, "No, no, no, no."

He stopped me. But then the water kept coming in the studio and it went from around six inches to 12 inches. And I put on these rubber boots and I thought to myself, "This is so great that I'm here." Cause I started picking things up off the floor. I had friends of mine who were using the studio so there's other people's stuff. "If everyone was all safe, I'll put stuff up on tables. This is perfect that I'm here." 

The water kept coming up and then at some point I realized I was in the water and the electricity hadn't been turned off by the main thing. So I said to my friend, "Grab the dogs, grab the food out of the fridge, bring it upstairs. I'm going to kill the main power of the building and come up." And at this point it was mayhem. It was really hard to even compute. 

And I got upstairs and there's a overlook down to this room downstairs and the water's still coming up. And in that room there's a refrigerator, a dining room table, and a drum kit. All of it had floated up like chicken soup, like the refrigerator was the chicken and the drums were the carrots and the water's hitting the picture frames, and I'm still just in awe.

I said, "This is amazing." I'm not thinking about destruction or damage, I'm just thinking this is the most incredible thing. The sounds, everything are just ... And I walked to the other side to the place and I opened up the window and I looked outside and the ocean was now in the building. Like the building was in the ocean, the ocean was down. 

The building was the boat. I was in the ocean and I peed into the ocean from the second floor window. And I was just in total amazement. The night went like that. I was never really concerned except for the smell of gas. I said, "Oh, well if the water catches on fire, this is a problem." But I didn't think the water would ever get past the roof of the building, which was the next place to go. 

And so that was how the night went. Just in utter amazement. And then the next morning, it was a surge, it went out and I walked downstairs and I had lost everything and it was like world war. It was bananas.

Debbie: You lost a lot of your personal art. 

Dustin: I lost a lot of everything. Yeah. 

Debbie: How did you feel? 

Dustin: I'm pretty good with loss. Yeah. I don't really hold onto much. You can't take it with you. 

Debbie: I also experienced Hurricane Sandy. I live in the Brownstone and at the time I was renting it and I got a call that water was coming in to the basement and it was a hurricane and I wasn't there, but I had to get there. So I had to go out in the hurricane and get to the house to see what was going on and the terror at watching the water, hearing the water. 

First of all, that sound, as you mentioned, it's indescribable. There was no way to describe what that sounds like, and we didn't know when the water was going to stop. We didn't know if it was going to go up through the entire house. We started picking up furniture, bringing it to another floor. You realize how little control you actually have over anything when something that big happens.

Dustin: And I think it's good to live through these things and experience these things because I think we are in an emergency, and I think there is consensus now potentially around the idea that climate change exists and that the earth is warming. I believe there is some consensus globally around that, but I do not feel that there's this idea that it's an emergency. 

That hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of millions of people are going to be affected very soon and that this is happening in real time and that there's communities and cities all over the world that are going to be affected very soon and not prepared. And it's not in the conversation as a global emergency. It's just this thing that's happening and yet we're still going through the same methodologies of extraction. 

We're still using fossil fuels at the same way. We're still building the same kinds of air conditioners. We're not putting our resources into cleaner energy at the scale that we should, and the emergency I don't think felt or articulated by our governments so that the people really feel it and can react because I think that wasn't an anomaly. It's going to be more and more and more. 

Debbie: No. We're living in a time now where last week in New York City it was five degrees and yesterday it was 63 degrees. A 60 degree span in six days 

Dustin: And we think about migration right now as an issue because of politics, but wait until you have real climate movement. 

Debbie: These are some of the themes that you are tackling at Pioneer Works, whether it be through performance, through art, through talks, through exhibits, but the New York Times quoted Papo Colo in saying that to sustain an art space in New York, especially a nonprofit one is sort of a miracle because the art world is a for profit culture. They said the odds were against you at Pioneer Works. How have you managed to beat the odds? 

Dustin: Just keep doing it. Again, I don't think of us as an art space. I think of us as something else. As a center for the arts and science, a cultural center. Profit, nonprofit, I don't really think in those terms. I just think in how do you get people to come together to solve at scale. 

Yes. It's extraordinarily challenging building a nonprofit and didn't know anything about it. We had a $200,000 budget in the first year and we're at about an 8 million in the sixth year of being a 501(c)(3), which I didn't even know what a 501(c)(3) is. 

Debbie: So you constantly in a raising funds?

Dustin: Yeah, we have an incredible board of directors and an incredible group of advisors and supporters and it's a constant battle. And even my own art work, I believe is an instrument in that, because people will come into my studio and want to acquire a piece of art and I'll ask, "Are you going to give this to a museum or a school for public consumption?"

And they'll say, "No, no, no. We just were big fans. We're going to put it in our house." I'm like, "You disgusting capitalist pig." You want to buy a piece of art for a quarter of a million dollars and put it in your house when people don't have clean water. That's disgusting-

Debbie: You're a real sales man Dustin.

Dustin: Go get involved in the institute first and then talk to someone about acquiring art. So the art's almost like an instrument or a gateway to a much larger social idea. 

Debbie: I know you originally had some fears about how to balance your art with running Pioneer Works. That's really not an issue anymore. 

Dustin: No, it's a for real an issue. That's certainly an issue. I have no life, no wife, I'll strive, can't think, overwhelmed, don't know how to do it-

Debbie: But you seem happy as hell. 

Dustin: I love it. I do love it. But what we are doing is search right now for an executive director, I'll stay on as a creative director and founder of the project, but I won't ... I do want to make all this art and I'm working on this crazy post petroleum project, which is for another time. But yeah, t's really untenable.

I have two separate staffs and two hats, and one who wants to be like the freaky poet under the rock and the other one is like as a university president and that's what I'm navigating, and they actually work incredibly well together to build something, but it's extraordinarily challenging. 

Debbie: It seems that this is a running theme of your life. 

Dustin: Which one? Just the-

Debbie: The theme of really balancing two aspects of being a maker, a creator. How do you create and make something meaningful and how do you get it out into the world in a meaningful way?

Dustin: You have to just run into the streets. I will go into the streets and literally ... When we were in the elevator coming up here today, I said, I gave a talk in the elevator, "Have you been to Pioneer Works?" Literally one person at a time. 

Debbie: One comment from an article about Pioneer Works that I found particularly powerful was this, "Art historians may one day look back on the whole experiment of Pioneer Works and call it the Red Hook school." And I'm wondering what you think about that. 

Dustin: I think certainly we look at ... I've looked over the years now from doing this and look deep into Black Mountain and deep into Bauhaus and deep into the genesis of Cooper Union and CalArts and Caltech and Negropontes, Media Lab and all of these different models that are different but have attributes, and I find it extraordinarily interesting to learn about other iterative moments where many humans were organized to deploy culture in different ways. 

Debbie: Dustin, I'd like to close the show with a quote that I read of yours as I think it could very well be a mantra for living. You state, "I wake up every day with the idea that I've done nothing, that I've accomplished nothing. I've done nothing. And the page is white. And I think what is possible, what can be invented now." 

"I subscribe to the idea that I'm lucky to be alive and I might die in 65 minutes and that in the Bayesian sense civilization is a sculpture and everything has been invented and we're now in the midst of inventing whatever the future might be." 

I love that Dustin. We're in the midst of inventing whatever the future might be right now. 

Dustin: That's true. It's all in our hands. There's no one else doing it. 

Debbie: Dustin Yellin, thank you so much for making so many wonderful things and many things for joining me today in Design Matters. 

Dustin: Thank you. It does. 

Debbie: You can find out more about Dustin Yellin at dustinyellin.com and Pioneer Works at pioneerworks.org. This is the beginning of the 15th year we've been doing Design Matters and I'd like to thank you for listening, and remember we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference or we can do both. I'm Debbie Millman and I look forward to talking with you again soon.