Last Thursday night, at the edge of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, hundreds of people sat on bleachers facing a decommissioned Navy ship docked on the East River. Just as dusk began to fall, 2,000 pigeons strapped with LED lights rose from the boat’s deck and took flight, swooping and diving in formation like a rapidly moving constellation. Below them, the artist Duke Riley whistled and waved a stick topped by a black trash bag on the ship’s deck, conducting the avian fleet as it glided against the darkening sky.
The pigeon-powered light show is the artist’s latest work, Fly By Night: a massive, mesmerizing piece of performance art that pays homage to the dying practice of pigeon keeping–and, in the process, pays tribute to the animal most often disparaged by New Yorkers.
Though today they’re often thought of as “rats with wings”–per Woody Allen’s frantic declaration in Stardust Memories–pigeons have in fact been domesticated for thousands of years. In New York, pigeon coops once dotted the rooftops; each neighborhood had its own community of people who trained the birds and kept them as pets. In both World Wars, the U.S. Navy used homing pigeons to carry military messages between bases. Some were even awarded for exemplary service after the war.
The idea of honoring pigeons seems outrageous today: Their carrier service is no longer needed, while pigeon populations in cities have surged, giving them a reputation of dirty, trash-eating park dwellers. New York’s once-thriving pigeon fancier population has also waned, due to higher rents and lack of space. Riley, however, has kept pigeons as pets in Brooklyn for most of his adult life. In 2013, he used them for the first time in an art piece: Trading with the Enemy saw a small flock travel from Havana to Key West, strapped with Cuban cigars.
Riley got the idea for Fly By Night after attaching a light to one of the smuggling pigeons and watching it dart across the sky. The piece, commissioned by the N.Y.C. arts nonprofit Creative Time, includes a variety of pigeon breeds–from the black-and-white Damascene pigeon to the showy Fantail and swift Russian Highflyer.
Riley worked with Kristen Becker of the Seattle-based design firm Olson Kundig to design 13 naval-inspired floating pigeon coops that match the blue-gray color of the ship. Known as the Baylander, it was once used during the Vietnam War to train helicopter pilots on marine landings, then later as a naval training ship in Pensacola, Florida. After it was decommissioned, a naval ship enthusiast named Al Trenk purchased and preserved the ship, docking it at various locations around Brooklyn for the public to tour (it was previously located at Brooklyn Bridge Park).
Riley has a bunk inside the battleship, where he’s been staying to train the pigeons. The self-constructed stick-and-garbage-bag tool he uses to conduct his avian orchestra is meant to resemble a hawk. His whoops and whistles from the boat keep the birds up in the air, though occasionally he had to gently sweep his stick along the lower deck to nudge roosting birds back into the air, where they fly according to their own choreography. The product management consulting firm 10xBeta led the design of the three lumen LED bands, each of which weigh a light five grams, that are strapped to the birds’ legs. According to the New York Times, the batteries last up to three performances and the bands are removed from each of the 2,000 pigeons twice a week so that the birds can bathe.
Ultimately, the piece urges viewers to rediscover the history of the pigeon and consider its beauty–and seeing Riley’s formations lit up against the night sky, performing choreography in flocks or darting off on their own, it’s hard not to. After about a half hour, once the sun had fully set, Riley gave a series of whistles and the flock slowly made its way back to the boat and settled into their coops. The dance hall reggae song “Pigeon Rock” flooded out from the speakers, as the crowd filed out to leave.
Fly By Night will run every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday through June 12 at the Brooklyn Navy Yard at Navy and Sands St.
All Photos (unless otherwise noted): Tod Seelie