The Future of Party Planning is Trespassing
By Caroline Winter
April 11, 2016
Photograph by Daniel Shea
Sextantworks has hosted events in illegal locations like empty water towers, barges of questionable seaworthiness, and abandoned honeymoon resorts.
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 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 Sextantworks 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 Sextantworks 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 Sextantworks 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 co-founded 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 Sextantworks’ 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?”