Par­ties you’d love to be in­vited to, in places you prob­a­bly shouldn’t be

IDA BENEDETTO and N.D. AUSTIN open peo­ple’s minds by tak­ing them to for­got­ten and of­ten il­le­gal places

Bloomberg Businessweek (Europe) - - CONTENTS - Ida Benedetto, N.D. Austin

One Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon last fall, I found my­self alone on a de­cay­ing wooden ship­wreck, sur­rounded by fetid wa­ters in Kill Van Kull chan­nel, nearly half a mile from New York City’s shore­line. This wasn’t an ac­ci­dent, but I can’t say I knew the rest of the plan, be­cause I didn’t.

Ear­lier I’d awo­ken to a text mes­sage from an un­fa­mil­iar num­ber: “Be at Snug Har­bor, Staten Is­land, by 2:30. Wear wa­ter­proof shoes.” The mes­sage was signed “Ida,” as in Ida Benedetto, a pro­fes­sional “ex­pe­ri­ence de­signer” I’d met roughly two months prior, at a din­ner party. A co-founder of Sex­tant­works, which orchestrates events in un­usual, of­ten il­le­gal lo­ca­tions, she and her part­ner, N.D. Austin, met me out­side a tent that af­ter­noon, where the an­nual Fu­ture of Sto­ry­telling con­fer­ence was in full swing. They walked me down an over­grown path, through some bushes, and across a road to a rick­ety dock, where a 17-foot mo­tor­boat was wait­ing. “We’re gonna throw a lit­tle sun­set cock­tail party on an old barge out there,” Austin said. “If you don’t mind, we’ll drop you off with some suit­cases while we go pick up the guests.” Fif­teen min­utes af­ter they’d left me alone, my phone went off again. “Hey, turns out we won’t be back for prob­a­bly an hour and half—are you cool?” Austin asked. “There’s whiskey in the big suit­case. Maybe you could cut up some limes?”

Benedetto and Austin are the kind of peo­ple you trust when they ask you to prep a bar by your­self on some flot­sam as mul­ti­story cargo ships mo­tor past. The duo has been host­ing events like this soiree since 2012. But it was their 2013 ex­ploit, the Night Heron, a speak-easy they opened inside an empty wa­ter tower atop a va­cant build­ing on Man­hat­tan’s West Side, that first got the pub­lic’s at­ten­tion. “We had to hand-carry ev­ery­thing up 14 flights of stairs and then hoist it another 25 feet into the tower with ropes and pul­leys,” Austin re­calls. That in­cluded three sal­vaged pi­anos, which the team took apart and made into the bar and in­te­rior fix­tures. The first guests were the pair’s ac­quain­tances—not friends nec­es­sar­ily, just in­ter­est­ing

“The only way these things work is if they’re in­ti­mate and risky”

peo­ple they thought would be game. Things ex­ploded from there. The Night Heron at­tracted fawn­ing press at­ten­tion from the New York Times and the New Yorker, and Sex­tant-works re­ceived a flood of in­quiries from in­di­vid­u­als and com­pa­nies of­fer­ing to pay com­mis­sions. “That’s when we re­al­ized we could do this full time,” Benedetto says.

She and Austin take in­spi­ra­tion from a long line of ur­ban ex­plor­ers and ex­pe­ri­ence de­sign­ers, in­clud­ing San Fran­cisco’s Sui­cide Club, a se­cret so­ci­ety that climbed bridges and staged elab­o­rate games in sew­ers; the Ca­coph­ony So­ci­ety, a cul­ture-jam­ming group started in San Fran­cisco in the ’80s that mid­wifed Burn­ing Man; and the Jacuzzi As­so­ci­a­tion, a group of ex­treme bathers in Switzer­land who once sus­pended a hot tub be­low a bridge so they could soak while dan­gling 450 feet above an Alpine gorge. “I’m al­ways pleased when peo­ple are do­ing crazy things,” Austin says, “tak­ing the fan­tas­ti­cal and mak­ing it real.”

For two peo­ple who’ve built ca­reers on tres­pass­ing, Benedetto and Austin don’t ex­actly blend in. Benedetto has a red bob, big gray-green eyes, and stretched ear­lobes stuck through with thick, green spi­rals—a look that dates to her days as a teenage punk (dur­ing which she of­ten went skinny-dip­ping in New York City’s wa­ter tow­ers). Austin, dark-haired with a slight re­sem­blance to Char­lie Chap­lin, wears a han­dle­bar mus­tache and, of­ten, a tuxedo jacket paired with Carhartt pants. Both are in their 30s. “N.D. likes to say that I’m the ar­chi­tect and he’s the mae­stro,” Benedetto says. She cov­ers most of the team’s his­tor­i­cal re­search and com­pleted a wilder­ness EMT li­cense. Austin, who was raised in Alaska, leads ex­plo­rations, man­ages most lo­ca­tion build-outs, and plays the part of charis­matic front­man.

Ev­ery Sex­tant-works project, whether it’s a paid com­mis­sion or not, is eval­u­ated based on a sys­tem the two de­vel­oped called GLIT, which stands for Gen­eros­ity, Lo­ca­tion, Intimacy, and Trans­gres­sion. Take Night Heron: Lo­ca­tion, intimacy, and trans­gres­sion are all more or less ob­vi­ous. But it was the gen­eros­ity com­po­nent that made the il­licit venue one of the hottest spots in New York. The first group of in­vited Night Heron guests got in for free but had the op­tion of buy­ing $80 pocket watches, each of which would grant two peo­ple ac­cess to the next speak-easy. The price even­tu­ally climbed to $300 based on de­mand. Even Ed Nor­ton and

Girls ac­tor Adam Driver showed up. “We funded the en­tire project through sales of pocket watches,” Benedetto says.

In 2013 the Fu­ture of Sto­ry­telling con­fer­ence—which boasts pro­ducer Brian Grazer, Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art de­sign cu­ra­tor Paola An­tonelli, and Al Gore as board mem­bers—paid the two $10,000 to dream up a rogue event for their VIP party at the High Line Ho­tel, where they cre­ated a con­fes­sional booth ex­pe­ri­ence in­spired by the lo­ca­tion’s rec­tory vibe. In 2013 and 2014, Ali­cia Keys’s Black Ball, which raises money for AIDS care and ad­vo­cacy, hired Sex­tant-works to de­vise in­di­vid­u­al­ized ex­pe­ri­ences for big donors and re­think its an­nual pledge event. (“That year we saw a 76 per­cent in­crease in do­na­tions,” says Natalie Galazka, who helped pro­duce the ball.) Last year, Benedetto and Austin had two wealthy in­di­vid­u­als each of­fer up­wards of $100,000 for ex­trav­a­gant, week­end­long events. “We’re not al­lowed to dis­close much in­for­ma­tion about those,” Benedetto says. “But I will say that, at one of them, 18 peo­ple ended up get­ting tat­toos—in­clud­ing me.”

She and Austin met through a mu­tual friend in 2012 and ini­tially found each other odd. “It took us some time to warm up to each other,” Benedetto says. At the time she’d re­cently co­founded An­ti­dote Games—a startup that de­vel­ops games for the Innocence Project, a non­profit that works to over­turn wrong­ful con­vic­tions, as well as the Red Cross and other hu­man­i­tar­ian groups—a ven­ture very much in line with the rest of her CV un­til then. Af­ter drop­ping out of Ober­lin Col­lege, she’d hitched a ride to Gu­atemala to pho­to­graph ex-guer­ril­las run­ning a fair-trade cof­fee busi­ness. Later, while get­ting dual de­grees in his­tory and de­sign tech­nol­ogy from Par­sons School of De­sign, she landed a Ful­bright fel­low­ship to Ethiopia, where she worked with a film col­lec­tive run by AIDS or­phans. Austin, who has a de­gree in po­etry from Amherst Col­lege, was work­ing as a free­lance film edi­tor and anony­mously host­ing ur­ban ex­plo­ration events, such as a scav­enger hunt to the top of New York’s Wil­liams­burg Bridge.

Even­tu­ally the two be­came friends and started tak­ing trips to­gether. Driv­ing through the Po­conos one night, they stum­bled on an aban­doned hon­ey­moon re­sort. “There were wa­ter­falls and heart-shaped bath­tubs and round beds,” Benedetto re­calls. “We were like, ‘We’ve gotta do some­thing here.’” They in­vited seven cou­ples, telling them only to meet at 7 p.m. un­der New York’s High Line park. There, the guests boarded an RV. “We ar­rived at this des­o­late place that was de­serted and com­pletely silent,” says a JPMor­gan busi­ness man­ager, who asked to re­main anony­mous. “It was like ruin porn. We walked into this en­trance hall, and sud­denly a big brass band started play­ing.” The ex­pe­ri­ence— dubbed the Il­licit Cou­ple’s Re­treat—was so spe­cial, she says, that she helped bankroll Sex­tant-works’ next project, a photo sa­fari through New York’s iconic Domino Sugar Fac­tory.

Benedetto says they’ve been caught only once, dur­ing a pri­vate com­mis­sion, when se­cu­rity guards busted up a pic­nic in a lo­ca­tion they refuse to de­scribe. “Every­body loved it,” she says, not­ing that no one was ar­rested. “The only way these things work is if they’re in­ti­mate and risky.”

Af­ter slic­ing the limes, I dusted off cock­tail glasses and ar­ranged a makeshift bar atop a splin­tered wood beam. It was a balmy af­ter­noon, and I felt grate­ful for the chance to be alone in New York City, even if the view of in­dus­trial New Jersey wasn’t ex­actly pretty. I was half dis­ap­pointed when I saw Benedetto and Austin put­ter­ing to­ward me, their boat full of party guests.

They’d or­ga­nized the night’s event as a lit­tle treat for some lucky Fu­ture of Sto­ry­telling at­ten­dees. The group was hand­picked by friends of Austin and Benedetto’s and in­cluded a New Yorker car­toon­ist and a man­ager for Proc­ter & Gam­ble. It was a small crowd: five peo­ple, each of whom had re­ceived a mys­te­ri­ous, slop­pily hand­writ­ten in­vi­ta­tion to “a brief ex­cur­sion.” Austin mixed Brazil­ian cock­tails he called oca­sos, which means “sun­set” in Por­tuguese. The sun be­gan to set. The Talk­ing Heads played from a por­ta­ble speaker fash­ioned from parts of a mega­phone and an old euphonium. “Wow,” said one guest. “This is def­i­nitely the most in­ter­est­ing thing that’s hap­pened to me in a while. Who in the world are you guys?” <BW>

Pho­to­graph by Daniel Shea

● The in­vi­ta­tion to the Kill Van Kull barge party

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