Tiki Bars, Tarot Readers, and Virtual Reality: At The Third Annual Village Fête at Pioneer Works

Chirlane McCray and Dustin Yellin at the 2016 Village Fête. ANGELA PHAM/BFANYC.COM

Chirlane McCray and Dustin Yellin at the 2016 Village Fête.


On Sunday evening, Pioneer Works rang in the first day of May with its third annual Village Fête. The guests were firmly divided into two camps: half had just returned from the opening of SFMOMA, while the other half were gearing up for the next day’s Met Gala. But guests also had to attend to other pressing issues.

“I’m sorry, I know you all need to get home in time for Game of Thrones,” the night’s charity sale auctioneer, Paddle8 cofounder Alexander Gilkes, interjected between lots.

In all, the event raised over $1 million for Pioneer Works’s exhibition, residency, music, science, and education programs. The biggest seller of the night, one of founder Dustin Yellin’s own “psychogeography” pieces, went to his good friend Swizz Beatz for $60,000.

I circled all three floors of the 25,000-square-foot space, which was chock-full of amusements: a tarot card reader, a photo booth, hula dancers, magicians performing card tricks, and Google’s new Tilt Brush virtual reality technology, for which guests were waiting in an hour-and-a-half line to stagger around a black stage and paint in 3-D. Inexplicably, a fog machine was present.

Clutching a mai tai from a tiki bar erected on the second floor—“Why doesn’t New York have one of these?” one guest demanded—I encountered Yellin himself on the first floor, patiently speaking to a crowd of reporters. When it was my turn, I asked if he thought the annual fête had improved by its third round.

“Absolutely, absolutely,” Yellin remarked, as my glass slipped from my grasp and shattered on the floor. Shards sprayed onto Yellin’s leg. He continued, unfazed, “More heart, more spirit, more soul. Hopefully with every year.”

“Have you been to the tiki bar upstairs?” one woman inquired, interrupting our conversation. “It’s on the second floor, all the way back, and it’s really fabulous.”

“I actually don’t know anything about the tiki bar,” Yellin told her. “I’m just learning about the tiki bar.”

Returning to our conversation, I asked Yellin what lies ahead for Pioneer Works.

“We officially have Janna Levin signed on as our director of sciences and we just finished building beautiful darkrooms and a film department. The recording studio is now up and running, we’ve built a new bookstore, and we have a new series of books called Ground Works. We’re also starting five or six scientists at a time, sort of like a think-tank residency over a few months. We have a big Derrick Adams show opening in a few weeks, and then we’re going to have a big historical show called Ant Farm, which will have an inflatable that everyone can walk in. It’s going to fill the whole room. We also have a bunch of concerts coming up….I mean, the programs are really just blossoming.”

Passing Monica Lewinsky, who was wearing a much-remarked-upon sweater reading “Inter Galactica,” I spotted David Byrne by the oyster bar with his daughter, Malu Abeni Valentine Byrne. Byrne wore a bright-blue suit.

“Can I ask you a question?” I shouted quietly into his ear. He nodded, gesturing toward the oysters. We moved closer. “Have you seen any art you like tonight?”

“No, I just got here,” he shouted back. He selected an oyster, poured some sauce over it, and downed it quickly, choking.

“Is it true that you just choked on an oyster?”

“Yes, too much vinegar,” he replied, laughing. Someone grabbed his arm. “Sorry, David, but someone from the New York Times wants to ask you what technological innovation means to you.”

As a consolation prize, I took a festive pin offered to me by a man wearing a medieval-looking robe that I later discovered was a work of art, titled Inner Guard Robe, created by the Independent Order of Odd Fellows and now on view at the American Folk Art Museum. “What are these?” I asked. I couldn’t quite decipher the image on my pin. From a distance, it appeared to be a bunch of naked humans.

“Joey Frank, a curator and editor, made these buttons. They’re all different things that have happened inside of Pioneer Works,” the man explained.

At dinner—during which Derrick Adams made a speech praising Yellin as “the greatest hustler south of Harlem” and Pioneer Works as “the future of what creativity can be” (“and I’m not just blowing smoke up your ass”)—I sat next to Lisa Fairstein, one of the artists completing a six-month residency at Pioneer Works. I asked about her experiences with Yellin.

“At this point, he doesn’t have anything to do with the residencies. He says, ‘It’s not a matter of my tastes or my interests. It’s really about bringing in professionals and having them consider the work and decide who would be the best.’ So he doesn’t really get involved. They bring in other people to do that. But I think they’re running a really great program,” Fairstein said. “I commend them for all of the energy they’ve put into it and the amount of respect they have and the people they’ve pulled in.”

To my right, Carolyn Ramo, executive director of Artadia, observed, “It’s a unique model, for sure. People don’t know any of the galleries in Chelsea, but they know Pioneer Works.”

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