Hello, my name is Dustin Yellin, I’m a mammal, I wander the world looking for bodies of water. I make many things, I make maps of consciousness, I make poodles of water, I made Pioneer Works, and I made Zia Copernicus. I made my way down from the mountains to live in this metropolis that is Brooklyn.
“Do I think 1-54 should be in New York? You should do it twice a year! Bringing all these folks over and bringing all these different artists together here is absolutely important.“
You welcomed us in Pioneer Works in 2015 and you hugely contributed to the successful turnout of 1-54 New York. What are your memories from those years?
I just remember when I sat down with Touria the first time and she asked if we could 1-54 at Pioneer Works and maybe, Ben or somebody came and talked to me about it, and I said absolutely not! We don’t sell art; we are not a place for art fairs and this is just not what we do. We support artists with residencies and exhibitions, and it’s not a commercial venture, so this is not our ethos. But the more I talked to friends and the more I got to know Touria, somehow the picture she painted was so beautiful that our hearts and minds opened up to the idea. Okay, let’s try this! And then we did it, and it turned out to be the most fun, wonderful gathering of souls and works. And we were so in love with this that we said “Oh, we should be doing this all the time!”, because so many incredible artists in one place, so many of our friends in one place, and actually the commercial part faded swiftly to the background, and we really felt the soul of what everyone was trying to do.
How did you conceive Pioneer Works? And did you ever expect that you would host a Contemporary African Art Fair?
The conception of Pioneer Works is something that was slowly evolving over many many years. It was something that I thought about, iterations of it in my twenties, never had the wherewithal to do something like that. But the dream of bringing people together in a space across all the disciplines, where people can learn, and collaborate, and exchange ideas across disciplines was something that I thought should just be happening more and more in society. It was really just a crazy idea and vision, and the actual mechanics of it happened naturally, like a grassroots movement, one brick after the next, one person contributing after the next, and even now I think it’s a miracle it exists. I’m shocked actually. The programme has gotten so incredible, and that’s because of people like Gabriel, and Jenna, and Maxine, and our incredible board, and all the incredible artists. I mean, I wouldn’t even know where to start with all the people that have come together to make it so special. Now we are ten years in the building and it still feels like the beginning. And for the second part of the question, I did not ever expect to be hosting a contemporary African art fair, let alone any art fair. It’s not something that we looked to do, even though we would love to do that again, we looked to give artists and scientists, musicians, and souls, if you will, opportunities to expand their practice, to push their limits of what they think it’s possible, and also to expose them to people, help them to nurture their dreams. So, hosting an art fair is definitely not something we ever expected to do.
“I think a lot about Africa. I think about my time wandering through Madagascar looking for lemurs. I think about Frédéric Bruly Bouabré, and his beautiful little drawings. I think about all the artists that I learned about and discovered. I think about discovery, and history, and I think about an expansion of a canon that needs to be completely ripped open.”
You are an artist and an entrepreneur, does your creative side help you in your decision making?
Well, I don’t think of myself as an entrepreneur so much. I mean, certainly I can be classified as one, and I think that in a way everybody is an artist – someone who’s cooking, someone who’s laying bricks, someone who’s making a garden. I kind of have very blurred lines. I think civilization is a sculpture. I think we’re all playing a part in it. Even for me, Pioneer Works is a social practice. Yes, it’s an institution, and it’s this great learning centre, cultural centre, but from my point of view it’s part of a social practice. But I think of all things as a practice, there are no lines for me if I’m transplanting moss in a garden, or if I’m working on a drawing, or if I’m working on a sculpture, from thinking about how to get more people in Pioneer Works. This stuff all connects for me and often my sculptures are like proxies in a performance to get people more involved with a larger idea. It’s all about nurturing ideas.
We did six physical editions in Pioneer Works in NYC – and two digital ones during COVID times. Do you think 1-54 presence in New York was and is still needed?
Absolutely, do I think 1-54 should be in New York? You should do it twice a year! Bringing all these folks over and bringing all these different artists together here is absolutely important.
“We really felt the soul of what everyone was trying to do.”
What are your hopes for the future? Do you have any exciting plans coming up?
My hope for the future is that humanity can come together and sort of start to break down the ossified false narratives of our relationships to each other and maybe build new ones, and work together to build a new world that we can all live in together harmoniously. I think that culture can be that glue, that catalyst. Looking into the future, all I can think of is that in the next 10-20 years we don’t destroy each other, and that we actually agree on a future with less hydro-carbons, and less war, and less division and whatnot. That’s what I’d hope for the future, and it might seem optimistic, but certainly possible.
If I say 1-54 what comes to your mind?
I don’t know why I think about beaded military explosions of colour. I think about when I’d been visiting the art school in Accra, looking for artefacts in Bozwana, looking for rocks in Namibia. I think a lot about Africa. I think about my time wandering through Madagascar looking for lemurs. I think about Frédéric Bruly Bouabré, and his beautiful little drawings. I think about all the artists that I learned about and discovered. I think about discovery, and history, and I think about an expansion of a canon that needs to be completely ripped open. I think about people who have really, really good intentions to expose people to other people that might change the way they see the world.