Like most New Yorkers, I didn’t think much of pigeons. But a trip to see Duke Riley and his flock—more than 2,000 birds of varying breeds that the artist has trained at the Brooklyn Navy Yard for his Creative Time project Fly By Night—changed all that.
The Brooklyn-based artist's vast knowledge of the history of pigeon-breeding is matched only by his genuine affection for the birds. I couldn’t help but share his enthusiasm during a recent visit to the Baylander, a decommissioned military boat that he has turned into a floating coop. “You won’t find pigeons away from people,” Riley says. “They were domesticated thousands of years ago. That sort of contract can’t be undone.”
New Yorkers are used to seeing pigeons all over the city—patrolling the streets, roosting on train trellises and streetlights, and even occasionally perched on the air conditioner outside my office window—but Riley’s birds are surprisingly at home on the water. People have been doing this since the days of Noah,” Riley said, explaining that pigeons were originally coastal birds that nested on the cliffs of the Persian Gulf. Fishermen would take them out in stormy weather in case of shipwreck, since they were the only way to send a message home.
Riley’s pigeons have taken on a less utilitarian function. He has trained them to move in unison with LED lights attached to their legs. From Saturday, they will create “a moving constellation” every weekend evening for six weeks. “I have one whistle for when I want them to fly and another whistle for when it’s time for them to come home and have dinner,” Riley says. As the flock has practiced over the past few weeks, they have been flying closer together and more in sync with each other, he added. When Fly By Night ends on 12 June, Riley plans to give some of the pigeons to a Bushwick breeder who lost his birds in a fire. But the artist also said he would like to have the project travel and “keep the flock together”.
The artist was inspired to create the project after reading a secret military document about pigeon training. “The interesting thing about that manual is that it’s probably one of the only top-secret military documents that describes the necessity for tenderness,” he says. Indeed, the only way to work with pigeons successfully is to keep them comfortable. “You have to make sure they’re happy and have plenty of romantic interest, then they’ll keep coming back.”
Riley hopes that the performance will inspire some people to take up pigeon-keeping. More importantly, however, he wants to remind all New Yorkers of the city’s connection to nature. Much of the work, he notes, “is just looking at the sky”.
City lights take flight The project got off the ground this weekend, with the first public performances on Saturday and Sunday. The sold-out crowds turned up to a sheltered slip in the Brooklyn Navy Yard to find the roof of the Baylander ship covered with a team of eager-looking birds. Riley could be seen chatting with local pigeon enthusiasts. A soundtrack that included the mournful singing of Nick Cave blared from the speakers on deck as people filled the two-storey-high bleachers.
As the sky slowly darkened, and the lights in the Manhattan skyline and the Brooklyn Bridge in the background blinked on, the music was replaced by the familiar, amplified cooing of pigeons. Riley and his assistants appeared on the ship's roof, waving long poles tipped by black trash bags. A sharp whistle sounded and the pigeons took to the sky.
The birds soon started moving in distinct clusters, the largest wheeling low over the stands of on-lookers, their wings rustling like a breeze moving through trees as they flew overhead. A small team soared far up into the clouds.
The lights on the pigeon’s legs started off soft and subtle against the still-blue sky, but as the performance continued into the night, they appeared brighter, flickering against the bird’s wings as they turned in slow circuits around the ship. The flocks blended and divided as they flew like shoals of silvery minnows, while individual birds could be spotted dipping in and out of the nearby building rooftops like overgrown fireflies.
With the chiming of a bell, Riley gave a different whistle, and the black flags came down. The pigeons circled lower and lower onto the deck. By the time Prince’s When Doves Cry came on, most of the birds were back safe and cozy in their coops. And the packs of New Yorkers were headed into the city, their sight aimed maybe a little higher.
• Fly By Night, commissioned by Creative Time, is at the Brooklyn Navy Yard from 7 May to 12 June. The event is fully booked; to join the waiting list, visit www.creativetime.org