Fly By Night: Duke Riley turns everybody on at the Brooklyn Navy Yard

“Duke Riley’s Fly By Night brings the rock dove back to the forefront of the New York story once again,” reads the program for the performance we saw last night, “assembling an unprecedented fleet of specially-trained birds that pay homage to the inhabitants of Cob Dock [the largest U.S. Navy pigeon coop, previously located in the Brooklyn Navy Yard and now defunct] over 100 years later.”


As they got started, a hush fell on the crowd

Extremely cool artist and “long-time pigeon fancier” Duke Riley is partnering with one of my favorite organizations ever, Creative Time, to enact a fairly thrilling bird-based performance on a semi-secret corner of NYC’s waterfront this spring. Creative Time says:

“Friday through Sunday evenings at dusk, a massive flock of pigeons will elegantly twirl, swoop, and glide above the East River, as Riley orchestrates a series of performances… At the call of a whistle, thousands of birds will emerge from their home in a grand, converted historic boat docked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The pigeons will circle above the river as the sun sets over Manhattan, and small leg bands, historically used to carry messages, will be replaced with tiny LED lights, illuminating the sky in a transcendent union of public art and nature.”


The birds’ changing shapes, swoops, and dives were mesmerizing!

One might wonder “why pigeons?”, but then one only need read further into the event program, which was so good that I’ll just quote it verbatim again:

“As the oldest domesticated bird, the rock dove has been part of the human story for thousands of years. …These delicate and talented creatures are deeply loved by the humans who raise them and widely misunderstood by their urban neighbors. … Letter carrier, spy, camera operator, educator, and soldier are just a few of the professions cited on the long resume of this often underestimated bird.”


In the dark, it resembled a giant game of Pong on steroids

The romance of the many points of light, the pigeons’ swirling flight patterns, and the long, almost melancholy whistles of the jumpsuited “conductors” were not lost on the crowd. Most of us kept our seats on the temporary bleachers and craned our necks back to watch the half-hour show, while others reclined on the pavement for a panoramic view. Judging by the general silence and periodic gasps of delight, I think we were pretty much all peacefully entranced.

From any vantage point, it was nice to see NYC’s proverbial “rats with wings” literally cast in an artful and appreciative light. (I’ve never had an intrinsic problem with rats either, come to think of it. Maybe a performance starring them will be next? Paul Jarvis would be proud!)

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