Dustin Yellin

In Issue 43, curated by Mike D, we shared with readers the sculptural works of Brooklyn-based artist Dustin Yellin. If you haven’t already read this substantially cool issue, get a copy here. And if you did page through the conversation between Mike and Dustin, you’ve seen the life-sized and painstakingly crafted figures from the six-year Pyschogeographie series.


Since gracing the pages of Monster Children, Dustin was commissioned by the New York City Ballet to include new pieces from Pyschogeographie. Tonight is the opening night, where visitors to the ballet will also see the layered glass pieces, which he explains are “made up of cut up books, magazines, art history books, encyclopedias, trash I find on the street. So it’s sort-of all born out of accidents…. the idea that all of your memories are stuck inside of your bone marrow.”


Dustin’s sculptures will be with the New York City Ballet for the third presentation of Art Series, which hosts contemporary artists to Lincoln Center. Dustin’s work can be seen during the performances which run February 12, 19, and 27 with tickets on sale at $29 dollars. For more information, visit the New York City Ballet site here.

If you missed the issue, we’ve got you covered – here’s the interview from #43.

I’m not a very good art interviewer.

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

It’s the same for musicians, right? It’s the weirdest thing to have people talk about something they made, because it’s all about that thing that they made. And talking about it doesn’t give any insight at all into the process. That’s a good place to start this. I feel like when I meet artists or other musicians, it’s always about what the process is. No matter what you do and however different that process is—the difference that they always have in common is what you’re aspiring to, all of these moments, they’re all invisible.

The process is invisible.

But your work is a cool analogy to record-making in a lot of ways, or filmmaking, because it’s kind of like there is the moment of your initial inspiration and there is a moment where people actually interact with what you have created from that inspiration, and that is what you’re making the creation for. But, those two moments are actually super far apart. They’re absurdly and surreally far apart. It’s a huge production, right? I guess in terms of process, it’s a huge, huge undertaking of production to bridge those two moments.

I never anticipated that kind of gulf in the sense of people and processes. That’s why I agree; I even call them little movies now. It’s like these sculptures are little movies because the process is so complex from the start of finding a book or a piece of garbage in the street, and then cutting it up and organizing subjects and building composition. It’s been ten- plus years in the layers and problem solving with the work. It’s funny because when you hone something for so long, the process eats you alive. So the poetry in it, I guess, is actually once I get into the layers and I start moving things around. When I know too much what something is going to be, I get freaked out—not only in my work, but also in my personal relationships and life. When you’ve figured something out and you know exactly what it’s going to be, you almost want to run from it. Because already you want to destroy it and create something that you haven’t seen yet or you haven’t accomplished or tried. With this work, there’s definitely a balance, too. So if I’m making a landscape, it’s as if I’m building a set. Lately, these landscapes I’ve been making are sort of these post-apocalyptic dreamscapes with an open-ended, what I’d call improvisational, narrative where the narrative is coming from the reaction of the thing that I keep putting in. So if I’m putting a creature who’s committing suicide into a sea of purple lava, and then there’s some sort of spaceship made out of tits with benches and tires flying out, that’s happening sort of as I’m doing it. I’m freaking seeing these things. So it’s all a series of reactions, in that sense.

‘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.’


Well I think it’s clear in your work that you’re now in a place where you’re fucking with that constantly. It’s almost like you’ve perfected it and now you want to fuck it up. You’re putting this form of expressionism into that.

Yes, and I’ve been doing that with the paintings on wood so much, which are sort of influencing the new work. A friend has one of the new paintings in her house, and when I brought it over she asked me, ‘Are you thinking about anything when you’re making these paintings?’ I said, ‘Well, actually, I’m thinking about absolutely nothing.’ That’s the idea: I’m not thinking about anything, and the paintings are making themselves as a result. The idea is to not be thinking about anything.

Do you sometimes start with the
idea that it’s going to be about a specific image, and with a couple of layers on top of that it still stays intact, but then with another couple of layers beyond that you start to get to a completely different place than the one you set out for?

Yeah, I think that’s maybe the most fun part. When you know too much. I guess that happens traditionally when you’re making a painting. You’re laying down [paint] and you react to the scale of the bark and the value of the color and that is the thing that somehow jolts you into your next move. With music making, it’s like that. You hear the baseline.

Then it’s just about juxtaposition. It’s just a reaction to that.

And poetry has got to be like that, no?

Yeah, I guess so.

Well, song writing.

Yeah, all the time. Lyrically, I’ll start thinking that I’m writing about something and then it ends up being something totally different. That, to me, seems more genuine. It’s not the most fun road, because you sit there feeling like a jackass a lot of the time. It’s a struggle and there are times when you’re not coming up with anything. You don’t think you’re ever going to do anything valuable ever again. That’s the reality of it. I think we’re curious about that uncomfortable place—becoming comfortable in the unknown.

Which is the place to operate in when you’re making anything. Obviously I don’t find the difference, I just play a little guitar, or if I write poetry or, say, make a movie, I find these all to be the same.

Or maybe it’s just the approach to making these things. But 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. Maybe you’re thinking about how someone broke your heart or about someone who died or the seasons.

Or in one kid’s face, you saw this incredible joy.

And you’re trying to find a way to feel that. And to somehow tell that story. Then there’s how you can tell that story. There are so many ways. You can write something very direct about the kid’s face. Or project your ideas onto his thoughts, or just make a straightforward portrait that tells that.


Then it’s also about what we relate to, and project onto, that as well. Why does it touch us?

That starts to make you think about humanity as a whole. Where is it going? It’s funny, I can zoom in and out of this micro/macro, the great things that are in our lives and in our community, that we experience every day. I quickly zoom out and just think: I’m just this bacteria on this host planet, quickly utilizing all of the resources within this system. You can sort of look through the next thousand years. Then the relativity sets in. That’s probably what gets with my obsession with time, which is a complete contradiction because I’m completely obsessed with this idea that a week is a hundred years. Or a hundred years is
a week. Everything is just so fleeting.
On one hand, I don’t feel that death exists. Because I don’t. I think that we’re all made of matter and there’s a molecule of the DNA of a dinosaur in your glass of water and our DNA is 50 per cent bananas. We’re 98 per cent chimpanzees. That living matter is all made up of the same stuff. Maybe the six-billion-year timescale that we relate to is accessible at any given moment. Six billion years in the past and six billion years in the future are all sort of dimensionally something that you can pull apart into different fibers that we have access to and can somehow be cognizant of. Somehow I’m just obsessed with just a hundred summers. At my age, I’m lucky if there are fifty more summers. Being a father, fifty summers is like fifty hours. And fifty hours is a couple of days. That’s bananas to me. I think I drive myself crazy thinking about this. Maybe that’s why I don’t ever feel like I’m making anything.

I’m going to jump over to Pioneer
Works Center for Art and Innovation,
in Brooklyn, and I think that it feeds
into both of the things that you’re talking about. It’s an incredible place. Without it, you couldn’t have this multi-artist, multi-media discipline to search for these types of questions about time, space, love. You’re in the process of Pioneer Works, kind of building the host platform or a place for the dialogue to happen.

It’s for people to come together and assimilate these ideas together in a new way. Pioneer Works is like a utopia. It’s an impossibility and yet it’s happening. It’s this enormous metaphysical stew-pot that we keep putting things in. We have a physics lab, we have a microscope, a 3D printer; we’re putting a music studio in there, the observatory. Oh and everyone is hungry so we better put a restaurant in there too. Everybody’s hungry for knowledge so we better put a bookstore in there. Well, we have to have all of these great art shows and all of these great concerts at the same time. It’s really trying to put it all together in a form that’s really accessible to the community and to the people working within it. So it doesn’t become ultra- specialized like academia.

It’s also living. That’s the thing. Academia doesn’t have a creative interaction with the public. It’s cordoned off from that. It’s limited to doing stuff purely for other academics.

And for the people who wrote it. Half
the time the people who wrote it don’t even share it with the department next door. The people I talk to, they’ll be in the physics department in the university and they won’t even have a conversation with the folks in the other departments. The people in the photography department aren’t having a conversation with the folks in the music department. The
music department certainly isn’t going
to be talking to the sustainability people. Everything is completely blocked from one another. This is what we’re trying to dismantle. We want everyone else to be exposed. If you’re doing a residency here, making music, you may go over and use the microscope because you’re obsessed with the way a cymbal looks under a microscope. And then the cymbal might look like crystals. And the crystals might grow into sandcastles. So you might go down to the photography department
and you might start using some of the animators to build these crazy crystals that are turning into sandcastles. And all of a sudden maybe someone is watching that picture while you’re editing it,
and they start writing a two-page paper about climate change. Because they saw cymbals that look like something in the structures of icebergs in Greenland, which then got them thinking. Then the next thing you know, someone’s writing the algorithm and the sounds of music are simulating the icebergs melting.
Or something. This is just one of many possible things that could go down.


I’ve been a New Yorker all my life and there are places for performance art and sometimes there’s an overlay or an overlap of visual art, but mostly they’re spaces for performance art. They’re not for creation. I can’t think of any other place that is the home for creation and also the stage for it.

The exhibitions are almost the result
of the symphony of actions happening throughout the building. Our residency feeds our education program. It’s a very interdisciplinary program. We don’t have five painters next to each other. Right now we have a physicist, a neuro- scientist, this guy out of MIT doing aeronautics with a flight simulator—but not as a simulator for flight, almost as a simulation of air and space—next to an artist who’s making sculptures, next to an internet radio station, next to a dance residency. And all of those people per se are teaching. That’s the kind of thing
I find interesting. It forces everyone to interact. It forces a conduit for the practices to culminate in transmission, into a public. And it begs for the unknown. Not knowing what’s going to happen if I go upstairs. I’ve never used a 3Dprinter and there was something that I was going to make out of clay. And the next thing I know, I’m using a 3D printer to make that thing and then someone’s using sensors because they’re waiting in the room. I say, ‘Wait. How did you do that? Can I try that over here?’ These things just keep melding and mixing to create this organism that’s alive. I’ve got to give you this book by Du Bois. His idea is that everything is a social structure. I’ve met so many people who I’ve asked if they were artists and they’ve said, ‘No.’ Their idea of an artist is a painter. But everybody’s an artist, whether it’s a baker, someone who makes music, someone who makes poems, someone who builds rocket ships—these are all different arts, right? What is an artist,
in some sense? Is it just a vision and
the ability to manifest the vision into a reality? Then that of course becomes
art, I guess.

I’m sorry. I don’t have the answers.

Mike. I need the answers.

You create the connectivity. You’ve
got the physicist next to the painter next to the sculptor. That population interacting, it wouldn’t mean anything
if they didn’t talk to one another. In New York, it’s really hard for the artists to have that space where they can interact with the public and the public then interacts back with them. That’s what makes it super special here. You feel it right away when you walk in.

There is no place for that right now. We had this concert here and they had never been here, they didn’t know where they were going. And they go upstairs and they see all of these people working on science or whatever. That gives them an idea: ‘Fuck. I just came to play a show, but I’ve been thinking about teaching a music show. Could I teach a class here?’ A lot of times in life, if things are made accessible to people and they can be involved—that’s one of the exciting things here. I’m really just trying to build the connective tissue for that to happen. It’s challenging at this scale. It’s kind of exciting though. It’s a strange, strange thing for me to watch. For me, making it, it’s the same as making love or making sculpture. It’s all the same to me. It’s taxing and complicated, but that’s why

I love it. Because it is so challenging. Making static pictures and drawings, I’ve been doing that my whole life. But this is something I’ve been thinking about for twenty years. Now it’s a reality.


What made you finally feel like you could do it? Did the space just present itself to you or did you already decide that you were going to do it?

I had been talking about making sculptures, and making things and reacting to things. Since I was twenty,
I had this idea for an interdisciplinary place with all of this instrumentation— people working together in a community.

All kids in art schools want this incredibly utopic place to exist: ‘Why isn’t there a place like this that I can call home and make things in? And find other people to talk to about making things.’ I’d written
it all down and all of my studios were sort of embryotic forms in the sense that a friend would say that they didn’t have a space and they’d paint in the corner. Another friend would ask to write songs. Next thing I’d know, there’d be multiple people in the studio working. It’s great for me. When I see someone working over there, I’m like, ‘Oh shit. I better get to work over here.’ It’s contagious. It kind of organically grew and grew. In my last place, I had one little exhibition space and one little residency. I started a magazine. I had tried to start a magazine when I was younger, but when you’re young things are harder. You’re so fucking concentrated on picking the one thing you want to do. You want to fly airplanes and build sculptures and be the best surfer in the world, but if you really want to do
it at the greatest level you have to just do that one thing. When you’re young, you can get stuck in that. As I got older, it was easier to start opening up to other things. When this building became available, it couldn’t have been a more perfect structure for the kind of organism that we’re speaking of. So it happened accidentally.

That’s what I was curious about. That’s how I feel things in life happen. It kind of presented itself to you. The idea had been gestating. Fermenting.

Then I was like, ‘I can afford to do this. I’ll give it eight to ten years to make it happen. I’ll have to live here. My friends will have to live here and work here. It
will just be a miracle.’ And then in 36 months, somehow we went from that concept of the eight-to-ten years to a fully programmed institution, blossoming at a rate where we are all internally struggling to negotiate and navigate the possibility.

Yeah, you guys went from zero to light speed in a short time. And in that fleeting time you had Hurricane Sandy, which shut everything down and flooded your former space and this space and literally the entire neighborhood. Looking back, I think it helped us.

It forced us to be more resilient. It forced us to look at things three or four or five times. Maybe we thought this was the best way to do something, and then that happened, and we had to change it.

It created a sea of change, so to speak. Now the challenge is to keep this organism as an institution malleable
and changeable in a way that is fluid as we introduce more ecosystems into the mix, which is what’s happening—quickly. Now we’re building departments up so we have to build a set of curriculums so that we can easily go to the photography or music department and set up classes and create lines of connectivity between these things. That’s really what we’re focused on. It’s the people. None of this would work without the people.


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