Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Dustin Yellin (@dustinyellin), a Brooklyn artist who is also the founder and director of Pioneer Works, a multidisciplinary cultural center in Red Hook, Brooklyn, that builds community through the arts and sciences to create an open and inspired world. Dustin and his incredible work have been featured by media and organizations including the New York Times, Artforum, Vanity Fair, and TED.
Drawing on both modernism and the sacred tradition of Hinterglas painting, Dustin primarily works through a unique form of three-dimensional photomontage, in which paint and images clipped from various print media are embedded within laminated glass sheets to form grand pictographic allegories, which Dustin calls “frozen cinema.” These totemic and kaleidoscopic works often plumb the history and fate of human consciousness within the Anthropocene.
Dustin’s art has been exhibited at or with the Amorepacific Museum, Brooklyn Museum, City Museum, Colección Solo, Corning Museum of Glass, The Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Museo Del Palacio de Bellas Artes, SCAD Museum of Art, Tacoma Museum, and Creative Time, among many others. He holds an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from the Savannah College of Art and Design.
Transcripts may contain a few typos. With some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!
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Tim Ferriss: Dustin. Welcome to the show.
Dustin Yellin: Thank you. Very happy to be here.
Tim Ferriss: You are one of my favorite mad men. I’ve been following ever since we first met at Pioneer Works and was blown away by your art. Blown away by your storytelling. I remember this family going with my crazy Bulgarian assistant/director of editorial with you on a little tour of your studio and it seemed like your life story was just the most incredible eclectic mix of things. And I thought we would start, and we’re going to go down all sorts of roads, but let’s start with you dropping out of high school. And my understanding is that you end up hitchhiking around New Zealand and I was curious how that came to be.
Dustin Yellin: Well, I actually don’t remember. I was in Colorado, I had dropped out of high school. I, for some reason, couldn’t connect to the system of education and I just wanted out. So I tried to persevere and then I left and I turned 18 and I had a bet with my mom where if I didn’t do any drugs or alcohol or smoke cigarettes or anything until I was 18, I would win this bet and she was going to get me a car, basically. But when I was 16, I hustled Swatch watches actually. And I made some money on my own and bought my own car, so when I turned 18 and I said, “Look, I won the bet, but I already have a car that I paid for with my own money. So you’re going to have to give me some cash.” Which I then spent on drugs, sex, and rock and roll, and just went bananas and ended up doing copious amounts of hallucinogens at 18, which is maybe good because a lot of these kids don’t know what they’re doing and they’re 12.
So it was cool. And then I just decided to get out of Colorado, kind of picked a map and went to New Zealand and just started hitchhiking, and through Australia, hitchhiking as well. And I hadn’t been very cultured as a kid. And so I was a late bloomer and at 18 here I am on LSD for the first time listening to Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd and having my own sort of Woodstock in my mind as I’m hitchhiking through these countries. And it was pretty crazy and getting exposed to all this weird stuff through people I met on the road. And then I ended up in Thailand, on an island, on lots of mushrooms. They put them in your omelets and I was like, this is paradise, I’ll never leave. Why would I ever go back to what I knew before? I’m just going to live on this island. And then that kind of, at some point, scared me because I was like, Whoa, I’m so detached from what I once knew. And then I went back to Colorado and met that crazy physicist.
Tim Ferriss: We’re going to get to the crazy physicist. I want to leave that just as a cliffhanger for folks for a second. Let’s go back to the Swatch watches for a minute. So in doing homework for this, it seems like you had the hustle from a very young age. And I read that you used to busk as a break dancer. I don’t know if it was on the Venice boardwalk or somewhere, but as a little kid, you would take this boombox out and flash forward honestly your bio is just hilariously fascinating and almost unbelievable to me. At some point later, 30 years later, you ended up somehow break dancing in Jay-Z’s 2013 Picasso Baby video. It’s hard for me to even connect these, but where does the hustle come from? The entrepreneurial hustle that I think has served you well in a whole lot of different areas.
Dustin Yellin: You know, I don’t know where it comes from. I think perhaps it was always there. Yeah. I have no idea. I guess it’s in my DNA. I don’t know.
Tim Ferriss: Do your parents or any siblings have similar programming? That type of entrepreneurial make something from nothing?
Dustin Yellin: Both my parents have a bit of that and I’ve had it, I guess — my ma left my pa when I was five and took me to Telluride, Colorado, and she’s a single mom at that point, always on the road working and hustling herself. So I kind of raised myself those first, between five and whatever. Since I was five, it feels like, and so there was a lot of just having to figure it out, whatever it may be, I think.
Tim Ferriss: Was your mom supportive of your various, I don’t want to call them schemes, but the various moneymaking operations from, it seems like a really early age? Did she know about them?
Dustin Yellin: Yeah. Yeah. My mom was always very supportive. She was very, not around, I think, in my youth, but also very supportive of my, whatever it may be. I think everyone got a little bit more nervous when I kind of dropped out of high school. And then when I turned 18 and got pretty wild and then of course I think my father was completely horrified and my mother was just praying I would get through it.
Tim Ferriss: So let’s segue back to physicists. So how do you meet this physicist and who is this person?
Dustin Yellin: You know, it was very unusual circumstances. I returned from that trip, so I returned from Thailand to Colorado and this woman that I was very fond of and dated introduced me to — or she started telling me about this physicist and that he was brilliant and that he was working on environmental sciences and the damage from the Gulf War and was trying to make free energy like Nikola Tesla. And of course, I didn’t know who Nikola Tesla was at the time, so I’m now learning who that is and that he worked with Buckminster Fuller, and I didn’t know who that was and started learning about Bucky Fuller. And so again, getting introduced to all this new stuff, and I told her I wanted to meet him. And I met him and he was maybe the first adult to turn me on to cultural lighthouses, like Pablo Neruda or Dostoevsky, or Tesla, all these different things and reading and music and kind of just teaching me and I was obsessed.
So I asked him if I could study with him and he kind of tried to discourage me not to because he said that that would be dangerous because the government was watching him because he was trying to make free energy. He was really, really out there and also really, really brilliant and that made me really, really interested to learn from him. He finally accepted me to learn from him and we would have just conversations and do mushrooms and LSD together and just have these long conversations. And then he — basically, he was like putting me into a closet on a saline solution bed with a quartz crystal on my chest, listening to whales. And he was like, “Look, you’re going to think I killed you. You’re going to think you’re dead, you’re going to think about pathological murderer and that I’ve killed you, don’t you worry, it’ll pass.” And he would inject me with ketamine and I didn’t know —
Tim Ferriss: This is straight up Altered States at this point.
Dustin Yellin: It was a great movie and kind of got messed up in the second half because it got sort of obsessed with primordial regression opposed to progression. But William Hurt did a great job in that picture. And that was, I guess, loosely based on John Lilly’s life and John knew the scientist that I was working with. So I’m having these crazy out of body experiences where I’m leaving my body in this sort of pure consciousness state and I’m becoming one cell in my arm. And then I’m one star. And then I’m fractalized into billions of little pieces, recombobulating. And then the more I would do it, I could navigate through what I guess I’ve perceived to be consciousness and I had all these crazy visions, which I felt like, kind of, is what sent me to New York.
Tim Ferriss: How so? How did those send you to New York?
Dustin Yellin: Well, this blew my mind because I’m making these crazy paintings. I’m making art constantly at this point.
Tim Ferriss: When did that start? Sorry to interrupt, but when did the artwork start?
Dustin Yellin: Well, I always made weird shit, but I never really thought about it as anything. I would make little drawings or I’d make things out of rocks and sticks and things I found in the forest, which actually, I’ve been doing all week this week so nothing’s really changed in a long time. So I guess I was always doing that, but by the time I was 17 or so I was like, this is what I’m going to do. I’m going to make art. And I didn’t really know about art history yet. I mean, I might’ve known who Andy Warhol is or Picasso and Matisse, but I really knew nothing.
But art felt like the greatest freedom because it felt like something you could, it was completely free. You could invent whatever and you were never limited to the thing you invented because you could go and invent something else. And then after I met the physicist, I became obsessed with the sciences because I was like, Holy shit, this whole world is a hallucination, everything’s been invented. Therefore, we can just build some crazy utopic vision of what we think it should look like on this planet. And so the art became almost like the voice and the science became like the tactic or something. I don’t know.
Tim Ferriss: Are you saying the art was sort of the inspiration or the muse and the science was the sort of means by which you expressed whatever had been kind of intuited or received by you? Is that what you mean?
Dustin Yellin: Yeah. And I think I was really obsessed with clean energy and the ’60s, even though we were in the ’90s. I was getting obsessed with Nikola Tesla and I was getting obsessed with this idea that we can make clean and free energy and — therefore, I felt like the art was almost the bonfire which you could get people around and if you could get everybody around a fire, then you could start to build these more complex systems, which could be scaling clean energy or various new forms of political systems.
Tim Ferriss: Now you said that some of the visions or experiences when you’re in these saline baths — so people can imagine if you float in the Dead Sea, because of the high salt content, it’s like half your body’s kind of suspended.
Dustin Yellin: I wasn’t actually in the baths like John Lilly. I was on a saline solution bed in a dark room.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, I see. All right. That’s a lot safer. Okay.
Dustin Yellin: Similar feeling, but a lot safer, precisely.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Now, during those experiences, you said some of what was imparted or experienced led you to New York? How has that?
Dustin Yellin: Well, I think I was feeding, if you will, these enormous delusions of grandeur where I’m like, everything is possible. Do you know what I mean? Like I could do anything and I’m in a small town in Colorado and I’m obsessed now with — I’m like, I’m going to make art and that’s what’s going to be, my medium is making things out of nothing. And so I basically reduced the idea that the only way to do that was to go to New York City. Because that’s where the artists were, it felt like. That’s where people were. Because I was in a small town and the kids were like drinking beer on the mountain side, talking about hockey. And I was like, I need to get the fuck out of here.
Tim Ferriss: And how did you then find your way, or fund your way, both I guess, at that time to New York? How are you making ends meet?
Dustin Yellin: Well, I went there without really knowing anyone or anything and found a — and my mom was very generous and she said, “Look, I’ll help you with putting like a very cheap roof over your head and then you need to figure it out.” So I went there and found — I basically rented through, I think it was Craigslist or The Village Voice, I found a room, it was more like a closet from some dude in SoHo. And I lived in this little tiny room and he was very generous and gave me another room to make paintings in. And again, I was young and wild and I was just making these crazy Handycam, I didn’t even know what abex, abstract expressionism, probably was at the time. But looking back, I was making these weird abex paintings and renting this little closet room from this guy and out every night, like a wild man, and somehow talked my way into these bars and places. At the time, it was a place called the Bowery Bar and a place called Spy. I don’t know, I was very lucky because I met all these amazing people right off the boat, so to speak. A lot of them are still in my life today. I don’t know how that happened. I met people right away.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Well, I mean, it sounds like you went to the action and then you sort of entered yourself as one of the lottery balls in that spinning container of a thousand other lottery balls and bumped into a lot, which would be viewed as serendipity, but you kind of engineered it by going to the center of the action. What year roughly, do you recall when you got to New York?
Dustin Yellin: ‘94, I think.
Tim Ferriss: ‘94. All right. And when did you first feel like, and maybe you felt this all along, but from the standpoint of keeping you afloat financially, professionally, when was the first inkling that you felt art could do that for you?
Dustin Yellin: Well, in my mind coming to New York, I thought, Oh, of course it would be so easy. Once I got to New York that wasn’t the case. And talk about hustle. I mean, I’d be like, buy this painting for me 2,000, $2,000. No, no, no. Buy the painting, a thousand dollars, thousand dollars, fuck, 500 bucks buy that painting, I get to eat some food, come on, you know, I was crazy. And then, and then I’d be like, if someone didn’t want the painting, I’d be like, just take it, like, just take it. Because I thought to myself, well, if they take it and they hang it on their wall and 20 people see it and 19 of them cannot stand it, but one person likes it and asks about it, then maybe it would become a plague.
Tim Ferriss: Did you say a plague?
Dustin Yellin: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, because it’s like a plague, it’s like a disease, art. If we put something in a room and 50 people don’t like it, but the 51st person loves it and wants one and they get it and then they do the same thing and the next 50 people don’t like it, but one person sees it and they get one, over a lot of time that can really get you going. And that’s what I would do. I would just hustle. And I would be — I was wild. I’d be doing fucking, what do you call them, like cartwheels and somersaults through the bar. And I had long hair and beard and beads. I was out there. I was meeting people who were also teaching me — that’s where I got my education, really, was from the people I was meeting.
Tim Ferriss: How many, how many pieces of artwork would you guess you gave away for free or close to free during the —
Dustin Yellin: Some of the people have called —
Tim Ferriss: Dozens? Hundreds? A handful?
Dustin Yellin: I don’t know. Multiple dozens. Yeah. I don’t know, maybe 50, a hundred, who knows? I mean, some of that stuff will like appear nowadays or someone will call me out of the blue and be like, “I have this painting from ’95,” and I’m like, “Can you fucking burn it?”
Tim Ferriss: Good on them for holding onto it. So ’94, ’95 I’d thought about — actually, this is from a conversation I had was with a friend named Graham Duncan when he was on this podcast and he talked about swimming in this metaphorical river and on one shore, one side, you have this like hyper rigidity, OCD, et cetera. And on the other side, you have chaos and serendipity and psychosis, right? You have these two extremes and you can swim down the middle, you can swim to either side, and sometimes people get like lodged on one of those shores. This is leading to a question about Zelda. I don’t know if this question is going to make any sense, but who was Zelda and why did you have to rescue her? Does this question make any sense? If not, I can —
Dustin Yellin: So I was obsessed with F. Scott Fitzgerald and then of course, Zelda Fitzgerald. And so for some reason, I was having what one could call a mild psychotic break. And I had this moment where I thought that everyone knew each other, that everyone was almost playing a joke on each other that they didn’t know each other, almost this idea of The Seven Daughters of Eve, where we all came from the same mother, but now there’s billions of us. And then I thought everyone was pretending not to know. So I would walk by a restaurant and I would wave at everybody thinking like, “Hey, everybody.” And they would all look at me weird. And it was really weird. And I was adding up things. So like, if I saw you, Tim, I’d be like, Tim, T equals 20, I is whatever it is, M is 13 and I’d add up your name. And I thought there was this like numerical meaning.
And I was filming all this because I had traded a drawing for a little Handycam, I think that’s what they were called, the camera. So I was filming everything by myself, just whatever I was doing. And I had this moment where I was writing all over my paintings. I thought everybody knew each other. And I went onto a boat. There’s a great — have you seen the video? The Crack-Up?
Tim Ferriss: No, I haven’t seen the video. I just read about it.
Dustin Yellin: There’s this video where I accidentally filmed a psychotic break and I go onto the Forbes boat and I’m like, “This is my boat.” And the guy’s like, “What are you talking about?” I’m like, “This is my boat.” And I kind of felt like, this is my world. And he was like, “What are you talking about? Are you related to the Forbes family?” And I was like, “Yes, directly. F-O-R-B-E-S.” And he listened for a little while and he gave me a tour of the boat until he realized I was bananas and then he kicked me off the boat. And then I — this was on Chelsea Piers. And then I walked over to the Chelsea Piers Golf Range, where they hit the balls. And I literally just in the nighttime, by myself, filming, walked onto the field and started kicking the golf balls and walked up to the guy driving the vehicle used to pick up the balls and I said to him, and I used the wrong words because I said, “I need to reprimand your vehicle.”
Tim Ferriss: You were trying to say requisition, I guess?
Dustin Yellin: The poor guy was like, “Are you crazy?” I’m like, “No, no, no, you don’t understand. I’m having a party on this field and I need this vehicle and so jump on the back.” And so he literally held the camera, jumped in the back onto the balls and I started driving and I tried to drive the vehicle out into the outside of this area. And of course he grabbed the keys and brought out the managers and I tried to convince them. They weren’t having it. And so I left.
And then the very next morning I went into Central Park under the same idea that everyone knew each other. And I never forgot because I was talking to everyone as if they were family. And I started talking to this guy and having a long conversation in the park. And then if my memory serves me right, he tried to kiss me, and that freaked me out and I ran. So now I’m like running through the park and I go to Belvedere Castle. I don’t even know if I knew what Belvedere Castle was, but I go to the castle in the park and I climbed it and I scaled the castle and the police came and got me down from the castle. And they were so nice. They were like, “What are you doing up there?” And for 15 minutes, the police were really nice.
And I was like, “I’m looking for love.” And they were trying to understand what love was. I’m like — and I was demanding that they opened up this castle because there were classrooms in there to let the kids use the frogs and the dinosaurs and the microscopes. And the police and I had a very nice 15-minute conversation where they were really trying to understand my motivations. And finally, after 15 minutes, they were like, “You’re under arrest.” They threw me on the ground. I peed in my pants. They took my book, which was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up, which was a book from 1945, published on New Directions, of essays that Edmund Wilson, his editor, put together.
And they took my book. They put me in Central Park Prison. I’ll never forget, they took my shoelaces. Then the ambulance came, took me to a hospital. My two best friends who are both no longer with us, came to try to get us out, get me out. And I wouldn’t leave the hospital because I was in this weird narrative that this is where I was supposed to be. And my friends were like, “Come on, we’re going.” I’m like, “No.” And literally there I’m arguing with my best friends and they were like, “Get out, let’s go.” And then for some reason I wouldn’t leave. Then another ambulance took me to a full lockdown. I’m writing all over the walls, like my numeric codes, and it’s like the whole thing in the movies with the glass and the little pill cups. And finally, I was like, “Okay, I’m ready to leave.” And they were like, “You cannot leave.” I was like, “No, no. I’m ready to go.” They’re like, “No.” And my parents, who had not been on an airplane together in I don’t know how long, flew from the West Coast and they got me out. It was amazing.
Tim Ferriss: All right. So, amazing is definitely one word. There are many descriptors one could use —
Dustin Yellin: You’ve got to watch the video, The Crack-Up, and then it will make sense.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. Well, I’ll check out the video. To those listening, I suppose a few at least, would think to themselves, “Holy fucking God, that is terrifying.” Two questions for you. Number one is, was that out of left field, psychotic break, was it precipitated by something? So, that’s number one. And number two is, have you ever gone so far to the shore of chaos and psychosis that you’ve scared yourself?
Dustin Yellin: Good question. I don’t know what was the cause of this. It was a long time ago, so one could point to a surplus of hallucinogens. One could also just say oh, wow, life was so good. It was a dream and I got so enmeshed into the dream that the dream sort of interconnected us all. Even at the time, I don’t think it scared me because I thought it was real. And since then, I mean, sure, I’ve probably scared myself a few times, but not so bad. I think it’s good to shake it up a little.
Tim Ferriss: So you’ve never been worried about losing your tether to this reality and really just ending up in a psych ward for years or decades? You’ve never had that concern?
Dustin Yellin: No.
Tim Ferriss: Why is that?
Dustin Yellin: No idea. I was never there. You know how manic depressive is something that one can be? One could say that I’m just manic.
Tim Ferriss: I see.
Dustin Yellin: And it’s provided a great fertile soil to make work.
Tim Ferriss: Now you told another story, I recall, during this first tour of your studio, where I was marveling at your work, which people have to look up and certainly visit your Instagram account, which is just @dustinyellin. But there’s this family, or a mom and dad and their son, and I remember we were all standing in a circle at one point, and you’re telling this story that completely captivated and mesmerized, I want to say this like 12-year-old boy, and the parents were just not sure what to make of it, and I thought the whole thing was hilarious. Because you were telling a story about, I want to say LSD and swimming from one place to another, or I can’t recall exactly, but does that ring any bell at all? Something involving swimming and hallucinogens?
Dustin Yellin: Let me think. I mean —
Tim Ferriss: If not, it’s okay. It’s probably one of a hundred stories. I just remember more the audience reaction and the facial expressions more than anything else.
Dustin Yellin: I don’t know. I’ve come closest to death swimming, once to a bird sanctuary — I was swimming to a bird sanctuary and then also in Bocas in Panama, I was spearfishing for hamlets and we were on a beach with a few scientists and I got swept away. I was told not to swim, I should’ve listened. But I don’t think I was on any hallucinogens either time, so I don’t recall almost drowning because of hallucinogens, but I have definitely almost drowned.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. That’s perfectly good as a way of getting to the question, which is how did you develop your abilities as a storyteller, or maybe a better question is, because that’s always a tricky one, what makes a good storyteller? You seem to be a fan of a Werner Herzog, there are certainly others. But you are a good storyteller. In your mind what makes a good storyteller and are there any people who stick out as really good storytellers?
Dustin Yellin: Oh, well there’s so many, I wouldn’t even know where to start. Werner’s an amazing storyteller. I mean, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Murakami, I wouldn’t even know where to start with storytellers, there’s so many. But I think perhaps being curious is a great place to start and trying to be fearless is another place, where you just want to inject the entire civilization into your neural networks as fast as possible, all of the time. So, whenever you’re conscious there’s more than you could possibly input. I mean, even right now, while I’m speaking to you, I’m looking at a mountain, I’m looking at hundreds, probably thousands, of trees. I know that there’s a river about a hundred yards in front of me and a valley, even though I can’t see it, I’ve been that river every day looking for rocks.
The infinite detail in our existence is so vast that if you can be aware of it and process it, then somehow you might be able to describe it, and then that could become a captivating story. And if you put yourself in those places, often, it becomes a great medium, I guess. I’m constantly throwing myself into the depths of the Amazon or Papua New Guinea or Africa, or all kinds of weird places, I’m kind of a bit of an explorer. And then the things you see and the things that you experience, you describe. I think that people are like planets, as well, so you could say the same thing for a person. All of their experiences that you could describe, if you think about anybody, a musician, a writer, a data scientist. I don’t know if that answers the question.
Tim Ferriss: It’s kind of secondary if what you say answers the question, I think. If it’s important, I’ll come back to it. It’s more of a prompt what I say. I’m just like a Buzz Lightyear pull doll that’s trying to keep things moving in certain directions or any direction, but the observation that you made about the detail of reality makes me think of Aldous Huxley in Doors Of Perception, talking about the mind as a reducing valve, in so much as we’re optimized to fight, fornicate, flee basically. And that on some level you can imagine hallucinogens allowing, dropping, or widening the aperture of your reducing valves so that you’re seeing a lot of what is —
Dustin Yellin: You literally just said what I always say. I even said it to someone like yesterday. I say it almost every 72 hours, which is, if I’m speaking about hallucinogens, I say exactly that. It’s literally imagine your aperture is opening up and therefore more light, more color, more sound is coming in.
Tim Ferriss: Have you found anything outside of hallucinogens to help you to widen the aperture so that you can —
Dustin Yellin: Absolutely. I mean, when I’m drawing, people have been trying to get me to meditate and I think I’ve done it, but not in a traditional sense. A lot of folks would say meditation will take you very much to the same place. Nature. I mean, I’ve been out here hiking every day in the river. I think being conscious, take the hallucinogens out of it completely, but somehow just being conscious of where you are in the world and what you are in the world, and the complete incomprehensible mysticism that is inherent in the very fact that you can experience or be conscious of any experience, is the same as potentially in taking a hallucinogen.
Tim Ferriss: For those folks listening, and I wonder this too, who are saying to themselves, “This guy’s fascinating, his stories are incredible, and I’ve no idea whatsoever how he has not self-destructed, like how he has managed his life or had it managed in such a way that he’s become a super successful artist.” What would you say to them? Is it just a miracle that you’ve kind of rolled snake eyes a thousand times or is there more to it?
Dustin Yellin: Well, “I don’t know” is what I would say. I would say yes, I’ve been extraordinarily lucky. Every day I’m like, just don’t die. This shit is so good, don’t die. Don’t die, motherfucker, get one more day in there. So, I’ve been very lucky and I’m very grateful for that. I think I’m also very cautious. I’m not doing lots of hard drugs. As I’ve gotten older, I’m slower to jump in a crazy, wild ocean if I don’t know that I could actually swim in it, or into a river if I think that it’s going to take me down. So I’ve been very lucky, but I also think, yeah, you can dive into the infinite complexity of our existence and do that by not just rolling snake eyes every time, but by just being open and curious, which is, I think, a great way for how people learn is by just being curious.
Tim Ferriss: I totally agree, and I’m going to dig a little bit more, well, I’m going to dig a lot more just because part of what I try to do in these conversations is to tease out the, some people don’t like this term, but the superpowers or idiosyncrasies that allow people to break the normal molds of society and achieve unusual things. Which you have done, demonstrably, objectively, you have done that. One thing that came up as I was reading were quotes describing you as anti-competitive. And I’m wondering if maybe that’s a gingerbread trail worth following and thinking about, and I’m looking at this quote from a Vanity Fair piece from 2015, and this comes up a few times elsewhere also, but it mentions a friend of yours, is it Tom Reiss? I don’t know if I’m pronouncing that correctly, but he’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning —
Dustin Yellin: Tom Reiss! Amazing writer, yeah. You’ve got to meet Tom.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. I’d love to meet him. And his quote is, “Dustin loves everyone else’s creative egos. He’s learned the magic formula, which is that if you’re competing with other creative people, you’re just depleting your energy and destroying yourself.” That’s really interesting. Can you comment on that? I don’t know if it’s accurate, if you consider it accurate, but can you speak to that?
Dustin Yellin: Well, yeah, sure. I think that the species is pretty incredible and just the way I’m inspired by nature constantly, I’m inspired by people and people are a part of nature. And so when I fall in love with, well, like Tom’s books is a great example, and Tom is a great example, but you could go just down the list and line of incredible souls, making amazing drawings and paintings and movies and records and math problems and all of it. All of that stuff to me is fucking amazing, incredible, magnetic material that can help propel you through the world. So, I don’t know if that — yeah, I just want to get turned on more and more and more to all the cool potential that can be unleashed by certain combinations of, I don’t know if it’s neural activity or if it’s meta fucking cloud —
Tim Ferriss: Stimulation? Yeah. What form, if it’s the right term, does anti-competitiveness take? What does that look like to be anti-competitive in the art world? If that’s a thing for you and if —
Dustin Yellin: It’s to embrace and love your community, and to help your community realize their dreams, not just your dreams. And if you can make your dreams part of dreaming that how do we help realize everybody’s dreams together in some collective orgy of dreams?
Tim Ferriss: Now, is that driven by optimism and idealism? Is it driven in part by just finding that a better way to increase your energy as opposed to deplete it? What led you to that?
Dustin Yellin: It feels like just common sense. It feels like —
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, sure.
Dustin Yellin: I don’t know if there’s any great specific schism that led me there, except that sort of a corny, silly idea that there’s like love and fear. We can all love each other, we can all fear each other. And it seems so simple, we can all come together and say, “Look, we’re going to figure out how to be stewards to this planet together and create great, clean technologies in great, responsible ways for 8 or 10 billion people to live together, or we could create conflict and I guess competition and territorialism.” And I feel like the idea of a country, which is arbitrary and new, and religions and different ways in which we draw lines around thought, can maybe create ceilings for us. But for me, it’s very much, I would guess, a natural state that we should just all love each other and build the world that we want to inhabit because the entire thing is just malleable and sculptable.
Tim Ferriss: I have another quote that I love to fact check, see if it’s accurate, first of all. But second, just to hear you explain it, if it makes any sense, because it stuck out for me. And that is from a New York Times piece, and the quote is, “I don’t worry about inspiration as much as system overload.” I don’t know if you remember saying that, if you did, but what does that mean?
Dustin Yellin: I feel that every day, Tim. Oh, what does that mean? I feel it every fucking day. I feel it right now. I’ll give you an example. I’m making sculptures right now out of rocks, and I love rocks, and I go up the valley and I go onto a river where there’s, I guess, probably millions of little rocks. And as I’m looking for the rocks in the hot sun with my head sort of gazed down at the ground, I say to myself, “Holy fuck, there are so many rocks. How could I possibly see them all at the same time and then distinguish which ones will fit together in order to make something out of them?” And I could say the same thing about people or places, or pretty much anything, that there is just so much.
If I said to you I’m just going to read poetry. Shit, I’m just going to read Japanese poets for the rest of my life. That in itself I could spend a hundred years doing. Just that or just watching French films or just learning about specific plants. There’s so much to learn and to be exposed to, and to remember, which I have very hard time doing, that constantly I’m in system overload. And so when someone — you know, I always get that question, “Well, what inspires you? What painter –?” I’m like, “Fuck man, I’m inspired by everything. I’m inspired by being conscious right now of the fact that we can have this conversation, that’s a fucking miracle.” And really it is. But if you play that out and you are trying to till the soil to be aware, or as we said earlier, open our apertures, and the more and more you open your apertures, the more and more you possibly, maybe, perceive and, Huxley is a great example, amazing brain, then how do you mitigate system overload?
And so where my challenges have been, I think, is that I’m always trying to widen that aperture. And then at the same time, I’m like, “Oh, but I should have some kids and wouldn’t it be nice to do things that happen in the world, that maybe require a little closing of the aperture or something, to focus?” Because it feels like just this endless, infinite awesome sea of possibility that is always where you are.
Tim Ferriss: What have you found to help, if anything, with system overload? Because for you, as someone who feels the world deeply, and who willingly wants to widen and maintain the width of your aperture, this is just an ongoing, in a sense, an onslaught of input. So, what do you do? What are some of the things that you’ve found to be helpful for preventing complete overwhelm?
Dustin Yellin: I like to draw and I like to be in the middle of nowhere and I like to smoke marijuana. No, I mean, those three things I like a lot. Love to make love. There’s a lot of things I think that could help one to calm their — yeah, somebody got me to meditate on a lake this week, that was pretty cool. Swimming can be good, I guess. Oh, yeah, watching things — like I can watch a movie and it puts me in a world which then makes it so that I’m kind of living that world while watching it, and therefore I’m not thinking about the 10 zillion other possible things I could be watching.
Tim Ferriss: You seem to have watched a lot of film; do you have any favorite films? Or for people who don’t know anything about film, if they’re like, “Dustin, please guide me through the light or the darkness, or however you want to do it.” Please, can you make some recommendations? Do you have any films that come to mind that are films you’ve recommended a lot or watched over and over again?
Dustin Yellin: Yeah, I often recommend a movie called Fitzcarraldo by Werner Herzog. I highly recommend that and many of Werner’s movies. There’s a great movie that’s really funny, I don’t know if you’ve seen this movie, Tim, called Bad Boy Bubby.
Tim Ferriss: No, I have not. I like the title, though.
Dustin Yellin: Australian movie, 1993, I believe, Bad Boy Bubby. That’s a cool movie. Another movie called The Color Of Pomegranates by, I can never say his name, Parajanov. He’s an Armenian director. I love Hal Ashby’s Being There. He also made Harold and Maude. I mean, Jesus, movies, there’s — Claude Chabrol is a great French director. Obviously Kubrick, watch all of Kubrick’s movies and Tarkovsky’s movies. And Tarkovsky wrote a great book about filmmaking called Sculpting In Time.
Tim Ferriss: Cool title. Yeah. Sculpting In Time. Very, very cool. Well, let’s grab one of them. You mentioned Fitzcarraldo first. Why do you recommend that movie to people? What is it about it?
Dustin Yellin: And not only that movie, but there’s a great documentary about the making of the movie called Burden Of Dreams by Les Blank.
Tim Ferriss: Burden Of Dreams?
Dustin Yellin: Yeah, by Les Blank. But Fitzcarraldo, I mean, it’s just this ultimate metaphor of this human who wants to bring the opera into the depths of the Amazon and the trials and tribulations of what that means. And in the course of the film, to get out of the jungle, they have to carry a boat over a mountain, which I think is just a great metaphor for what it’s like to be alive.
Tim Ferriss: Well, it sounds also a lot like building Pioneer Works. How did Pioneer Works, for people who don’t have any idea, no visual in mind of what Pioneer Works is, maybe you could just describe what it is and then describe what it was because I’ve visited in person and it’s spectacular. But that is not how things began. Can you describe it for people?
Dustin Yellin: What it is now, or —
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. What it is now, and then rewind and talk about what — well, you can do either or, what it was and what it is now or what it is now and what it was, however you want to approach it.
Dustin Yellin: Well, I mean, I think it was just a hallucination and then a dream, and its genesis I think is — I don’t think it was this great idea. I think every kid in every art school probably had similar sentiments of like, “Why isn’t there a place where I can go, where there’s writers and scientists and artists and musicians and filmmakers all together in a building, sharing ideas, thinking together and dreaming together?” And I, again, didn’t go to high school, I didn’t go to college, and so maybe subliminally or sublimely or somehow this was a way for me to incarnate what I wished to be or wished to experience at some point. I never understood, why isn’t there a place where just everybody’s together, trying to think about how we build this world together? So it started very much as just an obvious question, I guess. Why doesn’t this exist? And when I was younger, I started having roommates, and I’d have a loft with lots of people playing music and reading poetry and kind of together. And I sort of had these primitive versions of this, naturally. So what is Pioneer Works now? It’s an institute with a mission — and I don’t know if institute’s the right word, but its mission is to build community through the arts and sciences, to create an open and inspired world.
So what does that mean? It’s basically how do we use arts and sciences to bring people together, to build the world they want to live in? And now it’s somewhere between a school and the learning center and a museum and a community center and I don’t know what. It’s a social experiment that I think could end up being a great model, as a learning center. And I don’t like to use the word school because it feels like it puts you in something that is old and not necessarily functioning in its current state. So I’d say it’s a learning center, a cultural center. When I say culture, I have to circle sciences because a lot of folks don’t think about science as part of culture.
Tim Ferriss: How large is it? My subjective experience was feeling that it was vast, when I walked through and walked through again, and then had two glasses of wine and walked through again. How big is this space?
Dustin Yellin: It’s so funny because when I got the building, it was an iron works built at the end of the Civil War. I had to beg everybody around me to get the — I couldn’t afford the building. And I was begging everyone, and collectors were like, “Look, here’s half a million dollars. Get the building and we’ll take the art later.” I was begging everybody, and it almost didn’t happen. And when I first went in the building, I was like, this thing is giant, like you’re saying, and it’s about 27,000 square feet inside and about 20,000 square feet outside at its current footprint. We’re going to be adding some things. And it felt massive. Now, it feels absolutely tiny.
Now I walk in there, I’m like, fuck, we have no room. We need five more classrooms. We need to triple the size of the tech department. The science area needs to be twice the size. We need to build recording studios. We have a tiny recording studio, but it’s not big enough. We need a place for a democracy and equality program, which is going to require 10 people, and a narrative arts program. So right now, we do about 75 residencies a year where we’re giving space for free to scientists and artists and writers, et cetera. So we need more place for the residents. So I don’t know if that — it feels tiny.
Tim Ferriss: Let’s go back to, as I’ve read you describe it, the original shithole. There are no windows, no floors, no stairs, no utilities. You’re trying to gather millions of dollars. That’s a hard pitch, it would seem. And so what worked? What got the money? What was the pitch?
Dustin Yellin: Perseverance was —
Tim Ferriss: I know, but you can persevere and bang your head against the wall with a shitty pitch and it will not work, but it did work. So what happened? And why did it work?
Dustin Yellin: Well, I would say a few different things. In the beginning I was, or for a very long time, even in the beginning, I was just giving away all my money. So if I sold a sculpture, and I would beg you, I’ll be like, “You want to buy a piece of art, you disgusting capitalist pig? I’m not selling you any art. Help us do this thing. People don’t need objects. People need ideas!”
Tim Ferriss: How close to verbatim was that? Was that the sentiment or would you actually say that and just endear yourself because you gave zero fucks?
Dustin Yellin: I would say it. No, I’d say it, but sweetly and somewhat ironically. And I believed it. I was like, look, if you could buy a piece of art from me for a couple hundred thousand dollars, well then, you can help us with this bigger dream, which is not about me or my art, but about a lot of people. And so for years, I did that. If someone wanted to buy my art, I’d be like, look, I’m glad you like this art, but look at this crazy project we’re building. And I gave away everything. I almost bankrupted my art studio every few months because I was just keeping it going, barely. And then water heaters, stairs, floors, roof repair, whatever it took to get the building inhabitable. So that was the first stage, was just can we get this building safe? And I thought that would take a decade.
Tim Ferriss: Let me pause for one second. So you said giving stuff away. You have, on one hand, the well-funded capitalist pigs, as you put it. I guess —
Dustin Yellin: They’re good people. No, I don’t mean —
Tim Ferriss: I’m just fucking around! I’m fucking around. I’m fucking around. Like very wealthy, merchant class or merchant aristocracy. Then you have everybody else. Who are you giving your art away to during that period of time? And why are you giving it away?
Dustin Yellin: No, no, no, no. I’m not. I’m selling the art to people, but let’s say a collector comes in the studio, and this happened, and I’m like, look —
Tim Ferriss: Oh, you’re giving — you mean the proceeds of that back to Pioneer Works?
Dustin Yellin: Yeah. “Please buy this sculpture because we will get water heaters.”
Tim Ferriss: Yep. I see. I see.
Dustin Yellin: “Please buy this piece of art, and we might get some windows.” And I would say in the beginning, that helped jumpstart the project. And then somebody was like, “You need to start a nonprofit.” I didn’t know what that was. And a board of directors — and I would say at its very best, what Pioneer Works is now and maybe always was and will be, is an amalgam of souls. It’s a group of people. Gabriel Florenz is the artistic director, who’s like my brother, and Janna Levin, who I know you know, who’s like my sister, and family and all these incredible people who — you know what I used to say, and I used to think of it and I still do, is Pioneer Works, it’s just a table. It’s just a table. And whoever’s at the fucking table is making it work.
Tim Ferriss: I like that. That’s really a beautiful metaphor and visual. How do you, and maybe the answer is somebody else does it, I have no idea, but you strike — well, you don’t strike me. You are a manic artist, and you love making art. How do you balance that with the managerial responsibilities? Does it drive you fucking nuts to do that kind of stuff? Or is there some way you think about it? How do you integrate that, if you do?
Dustin Yellin: Well, I would say that a couple of different ways. One, the last decade has been really challenging to do both, but I try not to think of it as both. So I think of Pioneer Works as a social sculpture. I just think of it as another artwork. And I think the way I try to measure some of the success of that artwork is that my obsolescence is my success. So the sooner that I can be obsolete and the thing works really, really well, then I know I’ve done my job. And here we are a decade later, and I think there’s some truth, where I can kick it, and this thing is going to flourish. 36 months ago, that would not have happened. So I would say that me not being there and it working really well is success.
And I think of it as an artwork. That’s helped me to do it for so long. I will say I’m at a new place with it because PW’s really working well now, and there’s incredible brain trust and group involved, that it’s working. And I’d say that it wasn’t tenable, but by the seventh year in or eighth year in, I was giving tours, five, six, seven tours a day. And people would come to see my art and my studio, and I’d be like, “Let me show you this other thing.” And by the time I’d done my fifth tour on a Friday, I’d be crying. I’d be like, “This is where the music studio is, and we’re going to build the observatory.”
I was so worn out of my being the showman of this is what we’re going to do here, and we’re going to do a gap year, a post-high school and a post-college gap year. And then we’re going to raise funds to do more kids programs. And then we’re going to get another — I was driving, and it worked, but it got to the point where it was like, “I’m going to fucking die. This is not tenable.”
Tim Ferriss: So you’re having this dark night of the soul where you’re crying about the new art spaces as you’re giving a tour. Were there any changes that really moved the needle in the right direction for you? Did you just take a break from it all for a period of time to get your head screwed on? What you do?
Dustin Yellin: The key, the key, the key is the people. And so our incredible board of directors and advisors and staff, it’s all on them. I’m just another little cog in the wheel or whatever. So, again, I have to take my hat off to Gabriel and to Janna and to Tommy, who’s our director of technology, and to just Tiffanie and — there’s just so many people over the years, some that are still there, some that aren’t there, Daniel Kent, who’s our incredible director of design, who is so talented. It’s really just the people. And that’s the whole thing. The idea is great too, but it’s the people.
And maybe those things combobulate because if you bring a musician on, and this happened so many times, where friends of mine who play music, they would come there for the first time where I’d be meeting a musician and showing them around and they’d be like, Holy fuck. I’ve dreamed my whole life of a place like this. I cannot believe it exists. How can I be part of this? How can I help? I want a seat at the table. And so, the way they say like-minded people attract each other, the fact that all of these crazy disciplines are in one building and all of these crazy souls are in one building, that’s what creates the gravity. And Maria Popova and all the fucking amazing, talented, magical souls that are coming and going inside of this vessel, the building is nothing. It’s a fucking bunch of bricks. It’s bullshit without those people.
Tim Ferriss: We’re going to come back to Maria because there’s a question I want to ask you, that she actually suggested. I don’t think she would mind me saying that, but first — we’re going to get to that. But first, I want to try to connect some dots and flesh out some of your journey. So you mentioned early in this conversation, you’re hustling, you’re giving away art for free. You’re like, “1,000? Forget 1,000. 500. No to 500? Okay. Take it for free.” You get from that point, and in passing, you mentioned something that I think is worth noting, and that is collectors, or I’m not sure what you would call them, patrons, customers buying artwork, in many cases, for hundreds of thousands of dollars a piece. What were some of the decisions or the influences that helped you to go from where you were to where you are, in terms of commercial viability? Because you are, it seems like — you’ve used the word untenable a few times in this conversation, but you got to a point where it was very tenable. If you wanted to make really good art and sell it for what, for a lot of artists would just be a tremendous unthinkable sum of money, you can. What were some of the things that happened or that you did to get from where you were to where you are?
Dustin Yellin: I think it’s accumulative. I think it’s so many, many little things. Because I remember when I first sold a picture or whatever for 1,000 or 5,000 or 10,000, or maybe even 25,000. And I was like, “Holy fuck. I just got $25,000 and we’re going to Sizzler, motherfucker! This shit is crazy. I can’t believe how lucky I am. I just made some shit, and people paid me for it!” That being said, it’s relative. Now I sell something for $25,000, and it doesn’t even move the needle because I have a big, big studio and operation and crazy projects I’m working on. But I would say it happened over 25 years, a little bit at a time. And at the end of the day, I think it’s the work. I try to ask myself three questions. Can I live with it? Will I go to sleep next to it each night?
Tim Ferriss: You’re talking about a piece of work, a project?
Dustin Yellin: Yeah. Can I just live with it? Can my kids live with it? And now, I don’t have any yet, but if I did, and how will I feel about it in 100 years? Will it still make sense to me in a system of objects or in a system of ideas? And so I honestly think that the work is the work. If you tear away all the writing about the work and all the bullshit or all of it, and you just literally are left with the thing, will that tell a story, and will that move someone to maybe change their aperture or the way they see the world? But it happens over just a very, very, very long time. You learn from each thing you do. It’s the way, what is it called, LiDAR works with cars? It’s learning, or an AI is learning. That’s how art really works. You just keep learning.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. For a lot of people, the majority of artists, they never get to maybe these phase shifts, where even in 20 years, 30 years, they’re able to command attention that I guess then translates into — and I’m not going to obsess on these prices. I’m just using it as a proxy for the work that you’ve done and decisions. So I do want to ask, and I am going to ask about the psychogeographies or psychogeographic sketches in a second, because I want you to describe them for people. Actually, let’s just start there. And then I’ll go to the next question. But could you describe, because they are unlike anything I have ever seen anywhere. There is nothing that I can think of that is remotely similar, and you might have some type of reference, but I don’t. Can you describe what these, as one example of the type of work that you do, what do these look like? If somebody were to walk into your studio and behold these things, what do they look like?
Dustin Yellin: Well, we’re talking specifically about the psychogeographies?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Dustin Yellin: They’re meant to be this installation that’s taking me, I don’t know how long until I finish it, 10 or 15 years, of about 120 humans that are kind of like — if you think about the Terra Cotta Warriors, they’re meant to be this group of together. And they’re kind of like a — I kind of think of them as consciousness or something, yeah. If I took your brain and smashed it together and made a map of everything inside of it, that you could read through images, that’s what they are. So, often within a psychogeography, you’ll have tens of thousands of images that I’m finding from about 100 years’ worth of books and magazines mixed in with paintings and drawings on the layers of glass.
Tim Ferriss: So describe the glass for a second, just so people can paint a mental picture. Based on my recollection, and please correct me if I’m wrong, I’m just going to use an analogy here. For anyone who’s a Star Wars nerd, or at least saw Return of the Jedi, as an example, Han Solo frozen. If you were to take something like that, stand it up, so that Han Solo is standing on his feet per se, but suspended in the amber, and then slice that and convert it into multiple layers of glass, and take like the culture and consciousness of Han Solo and sort of use it to replace the imprint of his body with the constituent parts of that. I know this might sound strange, but that’s kind of the visual in my mind, as I recall it. But could you maybe just describe the form factor and how much it weighs, what the size is like?
Dustin Yellin: Sure. One way I try to describe it, if I’m trying to describe it to a young person, is I just make window sandwiches. I just take a piece of glass. I just take a window, piece of glass, and I draw on it. And then I cut up my homework, let’s say, or I cut up an encyclopedia, and I glue little pieces, a little human with a head of an elephant next to an amethyst crystal next to a piece of architecture from Bauhaus and whatever. I’m just rambling. But my point is, I’m cutting up little pieces of paper and drawings, and I’m putting them on the layer of glass. And then I add another piece of glass on top, and I do that again, but within relationship to what I did before. And then again and again and again, and the next thing you know, you have 30 windows on top of each other, and all the drawings, mark making, and all of the pieces of paper and collage on every single layer in concert together, make up a psychogeography or tell a story.
And then I glue them together with a glue that has the same refractive index. And the psychogeographies that we’re discussing are about 3,000 pounds each. And I’ve made works that are up to modulated in 24,000 pounds or whatnot.
Tim Ferriss: And it’s, as you would expect, coming out of your brain and hands and work, it’s trippy when you look at these, because the experience changes, depending on where you are situated and looking at the piece of art. If you’re standing on the sides, it is quite a different experience. It’s almost a vanishing act, compared to looking at it from other perspectives. And then there is the looking at it from 20 feet away, where you think it’s quite one thing or resembles a melting person, or any number of different — the forest or stairsteps within a human body. And then you get really close, and you have the micro versus the macro experience, which is yet again, something completely different, at least to the beholder. How did that start? How did the psychogeographies start?
Dustin Yellin: Well, I guess I should just go backwards a little bit with the work. I don’t know. You mean how did I start making work in layers or just the psyches?
Tim Ferriss: Whichever one you would like to tackle. And I don’t mean to fixate on this as the exclusive representation of your work. I know you’ve done a huge wide spectrum of work. I just think it’s helpful, since we’re having a conversation with an artist, for the listeners who are just hearing this, to kind of paint a picture of one example. So it could be layered art, if that precedes the psychogeographies, let’s go with whichever you like.
Dustin Yellin: Yeah. And then the newest one that you haven’t seen, I don’t know if you saw The Politics of Eternity finished. That’s a cool one. But really, all of this was experimentation and accident, and I was making collages. I always loved collage. I always loved, again, kind of what we were talking about, how do you not have system overload? Maybe one of the ways I deal with the system overload is I love amalgamations, and I love bringing things together. And Pioneer Works is that with people. But with artwork, I used to, or still love, to make paintings and collages and drawings and things out of rocks. I’m constantly putting disparate things together and very much interested in the relationships between those pieces.
And I was making a collage many years ago out of pages of a dictionary that I was ripping up. And Agnes Martin, who’s an artist, grid of dictionary pages. And I started pouring resin on the thing, and I saw an optical quality, and a bee got stuck, and poured more resin. And then I decided to make these sort of boxes of resin, Joseph Cornell-inspired. I love Joseph Cornell. Boxes with objects, and I started drawing in layers of resin. And then I saw something that looked almost biological, and I took the objects out, and I started just making these dendrite drawings, almost invented specimens. And I got obsessed. And I did that for some time and created lots of botanical looking drawings and layers of resin. And eventually I tried drawing a human in the layers of resin, and I was starting to get shows, and I couldn’t — the resin was going to kill me. So I switched over to glass, just because I —
Tim Ferriss: The resin was going to kill you, just because, is it toxic? I don’t know anything about resin.
Dustin Yellin: Yeah, it’s toxic. And I was scaling the work, and I was in masks all the time, and it wasn’t a fun way to work, but I was actually developing a language that I was really connecting to. And so I switched over to the layers of glass, and that allowed me to change my mind and edit and go back and forth. Because with the resin, I could only go backwards. I could never change my mind. So it was really a series of accidents. And the psychogeography is really — I’m not even one, I don’t think, that really counts so much to figurative art. So it’s weird that I’ve spent a decade on a project like that. But at the end of the day, I’m just trying to — I feel like I’m trying to make maps of consciousness. I’m trying to make things that a fucking meteor hits the earth, and maybe one of the things that was left — you dig it out of the dirt, this 3,000-pound glass block, and it could really, almost like a microscope slide, like the DNA of our species can be told through images and through media that’s been found and trapped and preserved. Like frozen movies, they tell stories through collections of ideas.
Tim Ferriss: I dig it. I dig it. You must have, because you are a very good teacher and explainer of things, and you mentioned earlier the window sandwiches and speaking to younger people. What do you think are some of the common mistakes that aspiring artists make? Let’s just assume they have some talent of some type and they have some passion. Let’s assume those two things just to try to constrain it. What are some of the mistakes that you see aspiring artists or up-and-coming artists making?
Dustin Yellin: Well, I don’t know. Maybe too much looking at what the people around them are doing, opposed to finding their voice through their experience and through their lens of life. I think that might happen in art schools, or getting too obsessed with one period in art history that moves them and then sort of trying to emulate or build off of it too much, opposed to again, finding out what is in the bottom of their brains. That might be one thing.
Also just knowing that it’s not a job, it’s like, if you think you can stop doing it to do something else, maybe stop. There’s nothing else you can do. Never fucking giving up, basically, and always pushing and pushing and trying and not giving a fuck about what comes out at the other end, really, but more about learning from the process of making the thing,
Tim Ferriss: How much of that is dependent on being willing or even embracing of living a very simple life? Because I would imagine there’s some people out there who would say, “I’d love to do that, but at the end of the day, I’ve got to pay my rent, I’ve got to have X, Y, and Z shoes, I can’t live on ramen every day, etc., etc.” Is that a piece of it? Or am I just —
Dustin Yellin: Yeah, of course. You’ve got to be able to die for it, quite literally in a way you got to just be like, “This is the thing.” I’ve done that with the works. The last work I finished, The Politics Of Eternity, which is only the third large, narrative work, it took me a couple of years, and I almost bankrupted my studio to make it. I do that constantly. I’m like, I don’t give a fuck about anything but making the thing.
Tim Ferriss: What would happen if it bankrupted your studio? How would you feel and what would you do? Would it just be destiny? Then you’d become a short order cook or what would happen?
Dustin Yellin: I’d probably go like, I don’t know, become like yeah, go live in a fucking tropic somewhere and live off of coconuts, seriously. I’m always like —
Tim Ferriss: If it were anyone else, I’d be like, ha ha ha. I am laughing, but I’m laughing in part because I can totally fucking imagine it.
Dustin Yellin: Yeah, I’d be so content. In fact, that life calls me constantly, but I try to do these really — like the new piece, The Politics Of Eternity, it was really cool. It’s got like a whole narrative, where I’m trying to depict the past and the future simultaneously. In the future, there is astronauts inhabiting the world, if you will, and in the past where there would be astronauts, there’s animal-headed humans, if that makes sense to you, and everything is mirrored.
In the future, they’re building a rocket on the top of a mountain and in the same place in the past, they’re building a totemic antenna to the gods, so everything is mirrored. The tunnels in the future are straight and modern, and in the past, organic, and in the future, there’s the same tree that’s growing in the future’s growing in the same place in the past, or where there’s a particle accelerator in the future, there’s a cave of minerals in the past.
Where there’s like a group Sisyphus moment in the past, underneath the ocean where the animal headed humans are pushing a boulder to capture a sea monster in a cave. That same moment’s happening in the same place underneath the ocean in the future, but it’s astronauts pushing a machine to capture data that’s coming out of the sea. Where the moon is in the future, there’s the sun in the past, and you’ve got Mars right in the middle, splitting the worlds.
The future and the past are also depicted by waterfalls, falling into the present simultaneously, where there’s these weird narratives on the sea. There’s a supertanker sinking, which is connected to another project, and there’s animals coming out of the supertanker as an allegory to the arc.
Tim Ferriss: I just want to pause for a second and tell people, go to DustinYellin.com or @DustinYellin on Instagram, and this will make a lot more sense. Not that it doesn’t make sense, but they might think to themselves, holy shit, this guy’s done a lot of acid, which is also true, but it’s a lot easier to absorb visually in a sense, although I like the description.
I want to harken back to something you said, which was you have to be willing to die for it, and you talked about death for a moment. That actually relates to the question that Maria Popova for people who don’t know who that is, she’s the most prolific writer imaginable, very talented, brainpickings.org. She suggested that I perhaps explore the death of your mentor or one of your mentors. I don’t have context for this question. Please tell me if I’m barking up the wrong tree, but does that question bring anything to the surface for you? It seemed like this was something worth plumbing the depths of a bit.
Dustin Yellin: Yeah. Well, I’m an old man now, I’ve lost a lot of people, but when I was young, 25, I lost my best friend and who was like my mentor and teacher, was a teacher. I think that completely affected me for the rest of my life, and since then, I’ve lost a lot of people, including one of my mentors who was older than me. I think when I was young, I was always obsessed with death. I think I probably still am because I think of, I don’t know how time works. I think it may be is that the past and the present and the future exist simultaneously and somehow you can access it, and I’m not sure that when the body dies or we die here, that it’s all gone.
I’m very much an optimist and think that maybe there’s some semblance of it that we can still tap into because energy cannot be destroyed. I don’t know how it works. I definitely have been obsessed with it always and still am. Again, back to that idea of over system overload. Well, if I think about right now, how many summers left do I have, call it 50 for the sake of the conversation. You too, you and I have, let’s say 50 summers left. Well, fuck, 50 summers is like lunch.
Tim Ferriss: For sure.
Dustin Yellin: It’s so fast. It’s so quick and finite, and so I don’t know if that affects my relationship to death, even though I think it might be infinite and that somehow I don’t know how it really works, but death has really informed maybe — it’s definitely that losing someone, the closest person to me at such a young age, I think really — it definitely changed the way I see the world completely.
Tim Ferriss: Does that obsessing over death, and I’m asking as someone who really in the last few months has been thinking about death, almost constantly. I’m curious to know what form that obsession has taken. In other words, is it heavy and foreboding? Does it lead to a depressive feeling? Is it just a kind of snap of the fingers and kick in the ass? Like, “Hey homie, let’s get moving. You don’t have that much time, so let’s use this as best we can.” What is the sort of emotional tenor of that obsessing over death?
Dustin Yellin: I think it’s probably the latter is like, look, the rest of your life is fucking almost over so you better get into it now. You know what I mean? Like this is it, there is nothing else, but to this fucking minute, this hour. I have a hard time, I think, thinking about forever or for the rest of my life. I think it’s positing some challenges probably in maybe why I haven’t started a family yet, or maybe I need to start a family right away or making decisions in interpersonal relationships, I think, has challenged me, because I’m like, this is it.
Right now, I could literally be gone in 12 hours. It’s completely plausible., and therefore, I want to open up the aperture and maybe that’s through meditation or maybe that’s just through listening and being quiet, but I want to open up the aperture as much as possible all of the time and feel as much as possible all of the time, because the way that I feel right now make could be gone or completely changed.
Tim Ferriss: If we’re looking at living your best life, I sort of dropped this in the beginning. This is going to seem like a very strange segue, but from the sort of sublime to the maybe ridiculous, how did you end up dancing in the Jay-Z video?
Dustin Yellin: No idea.
Tim Ferriss: Is that even a real thing?
Dustin Yellin: I literally don’t — it’s true that I used to break dance on Venice Boardwalk when we were living there for a heartbeat and I would fucking — I remember moving up, starting on cardboard and then people will give me like 15 bucks over the few hours. Then I moved up to linoleum, which I thought was cool. I do not know how the Jay-Z video happened. I mean, he’s cool. I’d like to actually have a coffee with him at some point, because of —
Tim Ferriss: Well, hold on. Do you literally just not have a recollection of how you got filmed, or were you — how does that happen?
Dustin Yellin: I actually don’t know. I got a phone call. They’re like, “Show up at this place.” I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, God. I feel like there’s so many directions we could take that. Let me ask you this, this is a question that is sometimes a dead end. It’s not always a great question, but I’ll try it, and it is, if you could put anything on a gigantic billboard, metaphorically speaking, to get a message, an image, question, a word, whatever out to billions of people, what might it be?
Dustin Yellin: You mean an image or a word or something on a billboard?
Tim Ferriss: It could be anything that you want to convey to billions of people, anything at all, noncommercial hopefully.
Dustin Yellin: Yeah. Yeah, no. I would just want to try to get everybody to love each other, like get everyone to be a little bit more tolerant, a little bit more open a little — F. Scott Fitzgerald said that a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind simultaneously and still retain the ability to function, so that if we could just somehow accept our differences as the great glue that creates the complexity and miracle of what we experience.
That would be the thing I would try to somehow portray as to say that, look, all of us, every single one of us is experiencing the same thing differently, and we’re all made of the same stuff and we’re all sharing the same stuff. So why on Earth are we deploying capital at such a scale to defense, opposed to education or healthcare? Why does the world look the way it does when really it could be so, so incredibly dreamy if we all just decided together to do that?
Tim Ferriss: You mentioned earlier the tanker, and you said that connects to another project, and I remember you sharing a couple of slides, I think it was on a laptop, related to this, but can you describe this other tanker project and just tell people what the vision and/or the status is of this project? Lest they think it’s all about windows sandwiches? Although that, I love, love, love, love that work. What is the other tanker project?
Dustin Yellin: A supertanker moves fossil fuels around and I’ve been obsessed with this thing for years, and now it’s got a little bit of movement, but it’s just this idea of how do you bring awareness to getting away from fossil fuels? I’m working on a project called The Bridge, because it’s a bridge from the past and the future of how we use and think about energy, where I’m taking a supertanker, which is a boat that moves oil around, and it started to be at like 1,200 feet. It’s not as big anymore, but it’ll still be the largest lifted, I think in history, where we’re taking a supertanker and literally in one moment, we’re pulling it up and putting it on its nose.
Basically, almost like a monument to the end of fossil fuels and we’re coding it, so that safely, let’s say a million or a million and a half visitors can go take elevators through the boat up to the top of it, and then get to an observation deck, which is made of the bridge, which was where used to control the ship from, hence the name of the bridge, also. It’s a double name, and through the experience of visiting this monument, you’ll learn about the history of energy, and potentially the future of how we can responsibly shepherd in a cleaner, safer way to power the earth.
So, that’s The Bridge. I’m basically just putting a supertanker on its nose. Again, love, that’s what I probably won’t — I love Fitzcarraldo, pulling a boat over a mountain. I’m now trying to take a boat the size of a building and put it on its nose.
Tim Ferriss: It’s like a Statue of Liberty with the liberty being freedom from fossil fuels, or at least that’s the —
Dustin Yellin: Not quite the size of the Statue of Liberty, and yes, it’s a monument to the end of fossil fuels. It’s a monument [to the fact] that we can power the earth with water and with sun and with various other technologies, if we can scale them.
Tim Ferriss: Where might The Bridge be?
Dustin Yellin: I can’t say. I can’t say.
Tim Ferriss: Okay, all right, we’ll keep it under wraps for now. Also, I’m using the royal we since I have no fucking idea, but TBD.
Dustin Yellin: It’s a really cool project; I’m working with Bjarke Ingels, who is an amazing architect, and I’m working with Arup Engineering. I’m working with all these cool people who are helping me to realize this dream.
Tim Ferriss: That’s incredible. Just a few more things, and this has been so much fun. I’m looking at a quote from thecreativeindependent.com, and the paragraph is attributed to you, I believe. Here’s how it reads, “But I try to wake up every day with this mantra or idea that I’ve done nothing. You know, I’ve accomplished nothing, I’ve done nothing, and the page is white.” Therefore, therefore is my words, “What’s possible, what can be invented now?” Is that something that you constantly remind yourself of? Is that still the case, or is that intermittent? How do you think about the “I’ve done nothing” blank slate? Is that accurate?
Dustin Yellin: Absolutely. I feel that every day, because it’s true. Until we’ve come to a place where there’s more harmony and more equality and more justice and more thoughtfulness on our planet that we share, I certainly feel like I’ve done nothing. Because if anything is possible, then think about how much we can do together than what I’ve done in the past, and if the past is no longer now, then therefore I’ve done nothing. I kind of feel that way all the time.
Tim Ferriss: Do you find that intimidating, overwhelming, or invigorating, or something else? I could imagine some people will be so crushed under the formidable nature of that type of what they might view as a burden or obligation that they just would be paralyzed.
Dustin Yellin: No, I guess I probably have semblances of all of those feelings, but if anything, I feel the wonder and possibility of what we can make as a species together or as an individual that it’s all possible. It’s like if I look at a white piece of paper and then four hours later, there’s a drawing there. There was nothing, and now there’s something. This idea between nothing and something is really interesting because if you look at cities and technologies and all of it, there was nothing, and then there was something. We really do have that capacity to create absolutely anything all of the time.
Tim Ferriss: Dustin, I think that is a great place for me to stop my inquisition of questions, so fun to reconnect. People can find you on Instagram @DustinYellin, last name Y-E-L-L-I-N, DustinYellin.com, pioneerworks.org. I highly recommend people check out all of those, and of course, we’ll link to everything we’ve talked about, the movies, the books, everything else in the show notes for people. Is there anything else that you’d like to say before we close up shop on this first conversation on the podcast?
Dustin Yellin: Well, I wouldn’t even know where to — read some poetry, think of this whole thing as a poem. Realize that all of our — I guess if people could just fucking come together, and the injustices and the incomprehensible horrors that this species has created with some of also the great things on the planet in the past, like let the past, let us learn from it. But know that going forward, we really, if we choose to, can build the world that everyone wants to live in together in a way that is equal and just. We can all sort of support and love each other to just to keep fucking inventing the dream.
Tim Ferriss: I like that. It’s inventing the dream, it’s not finding the dream, because you can each day, like you said, choose to create something from nothing. It certainly helps when you have the right people at the table, as you put it, which I think is a beautiful metaphor. To do that, you have to sometimes go out and invite those people, find those people, which is, I think, a common thread throughout a lot of the adventures that you’ve had.
Dustin Yellin: I’m the weird guy who, in New York City even, going down the street, I’m saying hello to everybody, and they’re like, looking at me, what’s wrong with him?
Tim Ferriss: Well, Dustin, thank you so much for taking the time. This has been a lot of fun for me and I’ve learned a lot, so I really do appreciate it. For people listening as always, I will link to all the resources and there’ll be a transcript and all sorts of things, which you can find at tim.blog/podcast. Just search for Dustin or Dustin Yellin or Yellin, Y-E-L-L-I-N, and until next time, be safe. Thanks for tuning in and see what you can do at this empty table of life and good luck.