Careers rarely go according to plan. In Job Hacks, we ask people who love what they do to explain how they got where they are.
Name: N.D. Austin
Original Home State: Alaska
Job: Austin is an event-planner of sorts, but not the kind you’ve ever heard of. He’s the king of New York’s underground counterculture scene. He’s responsible for events like the pop-up speakeasy in a Chelsea water tower that was covered in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Atlas Obscura. He’s also hosted a party on the Williamsburg Bridge and several fake hotel conferences. His events are short-lived, boundary breaching, and spontaneous. Austin is living proof that the alternative art scene is not dead in New York.
I know you consider yourself a placemaker and experience designer rather than an artist. But did you originally come to New York with the intention of being an artist?
I moved to New York to be a film editor, but I haven’t done that for years. I make a living building experiences that have private commissions. Everything from individuals to institutions, non profits, companies sometimes. For anyone who needs an experience or a journey or a ritual or a moment created, I design it.
I don’t call myself an artist because the things artists are doing are different from what I’m doing. Usually I work as a designer. People hire me to create beautiful and crazy gifts — experiences motivated by generosity. There’s art in everything you do if you do it well and with heart, but I’m much more a craftsmen and an instigator. I’ve always made crazy experiences for my friends: scavenger hunts when I was a kid; building tree houses and taking people into fantastical worlds made real.
Where did the name “The Night Heron” come from?
The Night Heron came from the name of a bird that nests in abandoned islands around New York City. It’s a funny little bird that explores and nests around New York.
What was behind the Chelsea water tower event?
I wanted to open a bar and I didn’t want to raise $500,000. It’s expensive, opening a bar in New York. There’s still a lot of opportunity here. You can want to open a bar but you don’t have to raise half a million dollars. The path would be get investors, find a bank, get a liquor license, it’s a long process. I didn’t know if I would really be good at or like running a bar. So I wanted to test that out for myself — is this going to be something that I would be good at and I like doing? What happens if I raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to open a bar and I do it for a few months and then I’m like, “actually this is terrible!” I wanted to test that out. So I used it as a way to test all these ideas that I sort of accumulated being in New York for several years.
What made you decide on a water tower as the location?
I was looking for unique spaces in New York and pretty quickly settled on water towers. There’s a long and rich tradition in New York of people swimming using water towers as swimming pools on hot summer days.
I knew that people here and there over time have squatted in water towers. I knew it was possible to get into them and that most of them are in use. There’s like 10,000 water towers in New York and almost all of them are in use. But sometimes some are empty, so I started looking for an empty water tower.
I knew I wanted it to be in a neighborhood that was busy during the day and pretty dead at night. So Chelsea, because it’s boring at night. In fact, when they got the location of the rendezvous, one couple was like, “What cool shit could be in Chelsea? There’s no way there’s something cool in Chelsea. We’re not leaving Brooklyn to go to Chelsea!” It’s as bad as if you said it’s in New Jersey.
But I looked through city records to find buildings with outstanding violations and fines. I didn’t want a water tower on top of someone’s home. People’s private space is important and there’s very little in this city. Nobody wants hundreds of people tromping all over their rooftop, so I wanted an empty building with a landlord that wasn’t paying attention. I made a map, I cross referenced aerial photos of the city with a big list of buildings that had a crazy number of unpaid fines; figuring that landlords that aren’t doing such a hot job. That gave me a list of about 50 places and then I just went and visited them. I probably climbed about 30 water towers and picked the best one.
Was the Chelsea Water tower the first big event you did in New York? Or was it just the one that got the most coverage? How did you get started with this?
Probably about only half the stuff I’ve done in New York you’ve heard of. Lots of stuff I do is private. Some stuff you want everyone to see and know that this is possible. When I first moved to New York, I didn’t know any of the people I thought I wanted to know. I had a few acquaintances, no close friends, and none of them were doing any of the things that I wanted to do. I was like, “I don’t know where my people are!” I really wanted to figure that out, but I didn’t know where to start looking.
Eventually, I told myself, “I’m going to make the kind of event that I would want to go to. If I do that, that will attract the kind of people I want to meet.” The first event I did in New York was an extreme urban croquet competition. I ran this contest that was basically a giant urban croquet obstacle course through lots where developers had bought buildings and torn them down to build condos, then the economy tanked. At that time, there were whole neighborhoods with blocks and blocks that were vacant. All those blocks had been torn down and nothing was happening with them. So I said, “Let’s take those blighted areas and make something awesome out of those. We should bring life into this space.” That turned into a croquet game. Then I did a few other things. Eventually I had a party at the top of the Williamsburg bridge, where the cables are.
Were you concerned about the police?
Absolutely! It was totally illegal. You probably couldn’t get away with that now. Actually, you could if you did it right. But the way we did it at least, it was fine. We were careful. The place I want to take you is not a place of “oh you might get caught.” That’s just a basic, primal thing. If you do get caught or don’t get caught, either way that’s just a stunt. I actually want to take you to a place where your view of yourself or your view of the world shifts a little. Your sense of possibility changes, because you have gone somewhere that you wouldn’t have gone otherwise. Very often I do experiences where everything is mostly legal.
What’s the main allure of having secret, transgressive events?
There’s lots of ways to transgress, only one of which is trespassing. Transgression is really just a tool for taking people across a boundary they wouldn’t normally cross. That can be an emotional boundary, a physical boundary, or moving to a place where the stakes are higher.
If you’re trespassing on a bridge, there are several stakes: There’s your physical safety, there’s legal repercussions, you can spend a night in jail, you can get charged with reckless endangerment. That stuff is just a tool to raise the stakes and make for an intense moment. Something where you feel really present.
That’s the big thing that I want to do when I’m taking people to any kind of place, whether it’s a physical, emotional, or even a conceptual place. That’s part of why I don’t do a huge amount of social media. There’s ways to be present with that stuff, but I want people to be physically present with each other. In New York in particular, one of the most valuable gifts that you can give someone else is your presence, your time, and your attention.
I went to a recent event you had, a pop up wine bar.
That kind of space doesn’t really exist much — where somebody takes a space and says, “we’re going to make a little hidden womb where people can turn it into whatever they want to.” There’s very little of, “here’s a social space that is flexible and doesn’t have a lot of demands of what it should turn into.” Its purpose is not to make a lot of money.
Speaking of money, then, how do you make a living off this stuff?
It depends. Money you might otherwise spend on yourself — like going on a vacation or something — I would spend that money on creating an experience for my friends. That’s the kind of thing that feels good to me. But most of the big experiences I do are private commissions or somebody wants to build a journey for somebody they love or for a group of their friends. It usually works like that.
What do you think is the allure of underground events in hidden places?
In a world where everything is known and everything is photographed, shared, Google street-viewed — to be able to go to a place that isn’t on any record and it isn’t digitized in some way — to be able to go to that pace in your city is magnificent. It’s saying there’s still stuff to be discovered in the world. And it’s hard to feel that way! It’s very easy to feel like everything’s been discovered, we’ve been everywhere. It’s not the case, but it’s easy to feel that way. So it’s really wonderful for someone to take you to a place that you’ve never been or imaged was here or there were rumors of the possibility that it might exist. I love being taken to those places.
You said you’ve lived in many cities — is every city conducive to this, or is there something about New York?
In order to have a real counter culture, you need to have something to counter. Some places don’t have much of that. In some places there’s not something to push back against. One of the things that forces there to be an underground in New York is the fact that the city is such a monolithic. New York is a giant cock made out of cash. So there’s really something to push back against.
In some cities only approved restaurants and kitchens are allowed to sell food. In those places, people who are running restaurants out of their kitchens are actually breaking the law. Most of the laws that govern the way the small details of your life work in any particular place are just particular to that place. They’re not inviable, essential, universal stuff. Like in New York, you’re not allowed to drink in the streets. In New Orleans you can drink anywhere you want. Everyone knows this, but even so there’s some part of the space in your imagination where you think “oh, this is how it is, this is the natural way of things.”
It’s easy to assume the way things are is the natural order of things — when most of the time it’s just a total construct. You go somewhere else and the rules could be totally different. New York needs this shit! Some cities don’t need it so much. Some cities are actually pretty good or the culture isn’t dominated or dictated by giant institutions or a certain segment of people with money or power or whatever or intrenched interest. Some cities have more space to do things. There’s places where you could make a speakeasy and everyone would be like, “Oh, that’s nice,” but it doesn’t matter because nobody cares.
In New York, I can contribute something that makes a difference for the life of the city. For Detroit I don’t have that down. It’s not like Detroit needs some speakeasies! You could try it but nobody would care what you’re doing. Under an authoritarian kind of city like New York — which is way way more authoritarian than other places — it makes sense here to make things that push back against it.
What advice would you give to an aspiring counter culturalist, or a young person who feels the way you used to — that they’re having trouble finding their people?
You don’t need to be an artist and you don’t need to be an aspiring counter culturist to be able to make your city and your space your own. All you need is a hunger to not just accept the way things are is the way things have to be. I think you can make the world that you want to live in. You can gather other people who feel the same way and together create whatever the thing is that you want to have exist. Then it will exist! If there’s things you’re looking for in your life or in your world and you’re not finding it, don’t wait for it to be given to you or to come from someone else. And don’t wait to find it either. If you don’t know how to make it, that’s okay. Attempt a piece. Where I am now — I didn’t get here overnight. I got here through 10 years of one piece at a time.
By one piece at a time I mean the first time I made an event in New York, I didn’t try to bite off everything. By the time I got to the water tower, I had done many events. I painted a 400 foot long mural in 5 minutes with 60 people. That was totally illegal. That was crazy. It was in the east village. I’ve done lots of other events and in other places too. I made a Night Heron Sao Paulo, Brazil, that was in a treehouse, instead of a water tower. It was great. It was in a giant, beautiful, Brazilian tree in the middle of the banks that was near this horribly polluted river, in the middle of an abandoned park, in the middle of Sao Paulo.
The first time I made an event in New York, I didn’t try to bite off everything. By the time I got to the water tower, I had done many events. I painted a 400 foot long mural in 5 minutes with 60 people. That was totally illegal. That was crazy. It was in the east village. I’ve done lots of other events and in other places too.
It’s very easy to look at whatever someone’s doing and think they emerged fully formed, but that never happens. If you want something for yourself or you wish something exists in the world, just make it. If you don’t know how, work on the pieces fist. Then eventually you find your way to the thing you want to exist. Half of the stuff I make is just because somebody else isn’t making it. I’m always trying to give my ideas away to people to be like “please make this thing exist!” Then I could just have fun! It’s a lot of work! But if I could convince somebody else to make stuff that’d be great. Here’s an idea I want to have exist in the world and I’d be delighted if somebody else can make: Tubs on tugs. A hot tub tugboat festival. Shouldn’t that exist in New York? I want to go to this thing. I want that.