The cooing of artist Duke Riley’s pigeon flock can be heard from the street. Like a softly purring engine, the noise is simultaneously comforting and heart-racing, but it can’t prepare you for the sight of his industrial studio, where rows of spacious coops are tended to by the artist and a staff of five.
His Red Hook aviary faces the monumental facade of Brooklyn’s seaside IKEA, but is otherwise removed from the urban environment. The generous airspace suits the artist and his winged assistants just fine. An East Coast native, Riley has habitually returned in his work to the city’s coastline—where the domestic world meets the wild. Pigeons have repeatedly played a role in these creative endeavors. A hobby he picked up as a child, Riley has kept the domesticated birds for decades, first as a passion and now as an art. In 2013 he trained them to smuggle cigars from Cuba to Key West for a piece he titled Trading With the Enemy.
This May Riley will employ his coop again, but this time for an even bigger stunt he’s calling Fly by Night. Best described as a pigeon-powered light show over the East River, Fly by Night is a site-specific performance, presented by Creative Time in partnership with the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Using a whistle signal, Riley will send his LED-strapped flock to form patterns against the setting sun. New to many, the artist’s techniques are actually rooted in an ancient tradition. “Pigeons were domesticated long before cats and dogs,” Riley notes. “It’s actually a very accessible activity that is practiced all over the world.” For the sake of the show, Riley is taking his hobby to an extreme—his airy industrial space now houses thousands of pigeons. Adopted, traded and purchased, the different species and families are nested according to their origins. This practice is to ensure that none of the birds are separated from their partners, because like penguins, they mate for life.
Fly by Night seems like a natural progression given Riley’s installation-heavy past. Some of his endeavors have been for public institutions like the MTA, New York’s transit system, while others have flirted with the law. The Dead Head Horse Inn, a bar he erected and manned without a liquor license on New York’s abandoned Plum Island, is a perfect example of the legal gray area he likes to embrace with his work. His more theatrical pursuits are balanced by a healthy fine art practice and a tattooing studio. Mimetic of scrimshaw, his ink creations intertwine the city’s art and seafaring histories. Two halves of a whole, these distinctive studio practices enrich one another.
To ensure maximum impact, Riley will perform his piece multiple times throughout the spring. In addition to ticketed guests, many New Yorkers are sure to catch a glimpse of the spectacle, but that is all part of the plan. “Making things accessible has always been an important part of my work,” Riley says. “As far as this project goes, I’d like to think that people will be able to see it up front in the Navy Yard but also possibly someone might take notice of it if they are driving over the Williamsburg Bridge. But we won’t really know till we get there.”