O Pioneers!

Kaitlin Phillips at a gala for Pioneer Works

Left: Artist and Pioneer Works founder Dustin Yellin with Liv Tyler. Right: Attendees with VR. (All photos: Sam Deitch/BFA.com)

ON A RECENT SUNDAY—mock hatred of Brooklyn (the boonies of Red Hook), galas (the third annual Village Fete), and bad weather (spitting rain) being fodder for all the talk I’ve heard before—imagine just how pleasing it was to find that the “cultural elite” (those paying anywhere from $1,000 to $2,500 for seats at the Pioneer Works dinner) and the civilians and noncomped alike (PR Girls, reporters from Artnews) found something real to get riled up about.

“Three out of eight planets are in retrograde!” said a man seated on one of three white picnic benches around the backyard bonfire that is the reason my borough-inappropriate Altuzarra dress is now at the dry cleaner’s. (Stella Schnabel: “You’re the kind of writer who can’t pronounce anything, aren’t you?” when I did my “It sounds like Al Jazeera” thing.) I might have enlightened the man that it’s five planets, had he not already fallen out of society’s graces by introducing himself thusly: “I’m an artist. You’ve probably heard of me.” As to pickup lines, no man of interest bothered with the common refrain of “smoke follows beauty,” instead focusing his attention, as the truly famous should, on other famous men. “I don’t want to lose the opportunity to work with my hands,” said Peter Sarsgaard, staring deep into the flames. “I know,” said Girls actor and fellow Brooklynite Ebon Moss-Bachrach. “I know just what you’re talking about.”

“Mercury is in retrograde,” said a girl with the list when I first walked into the party at 6 PM and she couldn’t find my name. (I did not opt for the SoHo-Brooklyn shuttle; I was on the press list.) If I were to be especially generous, I would gather that she mentioned Mercury’s in retrograde because it’s so often associated with computer glitches and technological mishap and that was Pioneer Works’s PR push for the night: “This year’s benefit emphasized innovation, supported by a burgeoning partnership with Google, who created site-specific virtual reality stations where guests could paint, sketch, and sculpt in 3D using the new Tilt Brush App.” No one said much of anything about the VR. A man hired by Google redacted his entire interview, and he was sweating so much about revealing information that to me didn’t sound revealing, I’ll just leave it out. Reality is entertaining enough for me: I added my name to the VR station list, right after an elderly man who was enthusiastically explaining the structure of DNA to his leggy blonde companion cut him off with a bright-toothed “INTERESTING!”

Left: Choreographer Bill T. Jones with Brooklyn Museum director Anne Pasternak. Right: Artist Carol Bove.

The Met gala, the following night, was also on a science kick—“Manus x Machina: Fashion in the Age of Technology”—though that invitation-only experience cost 29/30th more per ticket than the Pioneer Works fete. Limited googling would suggest that the guest lists didn’t overlap. Except perhaps in mind-set; i.e., delusional thinking only truly great philanthropy can foster. (Artist and Pioneer Works founder Dustin Yellin on the new partnership: “I think Google is really cool. I don’t think they got into it for money.”)

A few things from the dinner party I’ll chalk up to astrology’s thwarting imperative, despite the fact that I apparently willingly overstayed the event, clocking in at four hours and fifty-two minutes, wandering from tiki bar to backyard to the $300/photo booth (monopolized by Swizz Beatz and Alicia Keys): a placard for “Jake Gyllenhaal” at the head of a table catercorner to me with an empty chair in front of it. Sister Maggie was in attendance. (For what it’s worth, this behavior isn’t without parallel: She graduated from Columbia, while Jake dropped out after two years.) The food that, to my knowledge, passed not my lips: roasted bass, dandelion pesto, oysters.

Speaking of aphrodisiacs—and hard-working PR women—I missed my “exclusive” with Monica Lewinsky. I had been told she was “very nervous about reporters,” but she was willing to make an exception since I’m “an art reporter.” My dinner seatmate, the writer Ben Lerner, and I worked out that I could finagle a question about Walt Whitman past the Eagle Eye of PR, what with Whitman’s recently unearthed columns championing the Paleo diet and fretting about “manly virility.” (That Bill, per the Starr report, gave Monica a copy of Leaves of Grass continues to delight.) Personally, my interests tend to skew conspiracy: the Clintons’ alleged theft of art from the White House when they moved out. Talk about humanizing Mrs. Clinton with young women—a klepto! Upstairs, Stacy London, the host of What Not to Wear with the signature Sontag stripe in her hair, detailed her interests to a tarot reader stationed outside the leafy tiki lounge: “I just want to know where I’m supposed to be on the temporal end of things.” By the time I exited the packed bar, a new woman had taken her place. “What kind of energy work do you do?” she asked the reader. “All kinds. All of the kinds.” They exchanged business cards.

Left: Chirlane McCray. Right: Alicia Keys and Swizz Beatz.

David Byrne wore a blue suit. Fitting that he didn’t seem to be having that good of a time, having written the gala theme song: “Same as it ever was / Same as it ever was / Same as it ever was.” I didn’t miss the million times in a lifetime chance to talk to celebrities who don’t care about art about art. Liv Tyler, wide-eyed like a deer, like someone who seems physiologically incapable of lowly human emotion, who’s known Yellin since they were sixteen: “Oh God. I don’t know if I own any art.” Then, perking up, “I have photographs! Does that count?” Her friend assured her that photographs are art. “And I have some of Dustin’s things, but I think they were gifts,” she continued carefully. Maggie Gyllenhaal, now that I compare them, also talks with the slow, crystallized enunciation of someone who can count on being interrupted before anything that could plausibly be defined as a “conversation.” In fact, a friend did interrupt, and they giggled at her response to the art question: “Malerie Marder is a photographer that…used to date my husband, and we have a lot of her work.”

Don’t get me wrong, Dustin Yellin: Even Brooklyn isn’t without astral pull. “Dustin Yellin is the greatest hustler south of Harlem,” the MC reminded us at the dinner auction, perhaps misguidedly. Or maybe not. As Thomas Mann said Degas said, “An artist must approach his work in the spirit of the criminal about to commit a crime.”

Left: Maggie Gyllenhaal with David Byrne and Peter Sarsgaard. Right: Artist Derrick Adams.