Pigeons Light Up the East River: Last Week for Duke Riley’s “Fly by Night”

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“Wanna go to a pigeon art thing in the Navy Yard?” Generally, when I’ve asked this, my friends give me skeptical looks. I get it; pigeons are not usually the vehicle for art and I myself am not a huge pigeon fan. Living in New York, I tend to ascribe them all the health and cleanliness of our subway rats. But Creative Time‘s latest summer intervention in public space is changing my mind.

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The premise of the Fly By Night is that artist Duke Riley has raised and trained some 2,000 pigeons that he keeps in coops on a retired war ship in the Brooklyn Navy Yards. As dusk on weekends, the pigeons are released to swoop and sweep across the sky with very small but bright LED lights attached to their legs. Against the night sky, they create a shifting constellation of lights that is sweet, subtle, and enchanting. When I viewed it from the roof of a nearby wine bar, I and the rest of the crowd were entranced for the long show, like children watching quiet fireworks. When I saw it last night, after waiting in the stand-by line for tickets, the crowd was excited, letting out big gasps of excitement as the pigeons were shooed by handlers off the coops and flew out right above us.

The performance is durational, occurring over about half and hour at the onset of dusk, and not precisely controlled. People on deck let the pigeons out of the coops and then wave big flags in the air, which seemed more like gestures that would keep the birds aloft than specific ‘pigeon signaling’ technique. The birds tended to fly in one of two small flocks, but I certainly saw rogue pigeons breaking from the generally cyclone-esque formation of the others. It is both an ambitious and modest approach to nature: ambitious to control so many live animals for a light show and modest in that it does not seek absolute control but allows the birds to fly according to their natures. That is, Riley cannot truly control how each bird will fly. I wonder if he can really know if they will all fly home when the whistle blows at the end.

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Fly By Night recalls in its title the night missions of birds used as messengers, and the project as a whole recalls the history of raising pigeons on city rooftops, which Riley has done for some time. It’s easy to forget several things about this teeming, dirty, built-up city–and the ever-present nature in the form of pigeons and the water encircling the boroughs is certainly part of that. Overlooking the East River on a summer night one sees the lights of city buildings rather than stars. But the pigeons’ shifting, live constellations of light bring a semblance of the night sky to anyone willing to pause and look. Sentimental? Maybe a bit. But fundamentally enjoyable and worth being reminded of.

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This is the last week of Fly By Night–check it out this upcoming Friday, Saturday, or Sunday night either by showing up early to wait for a stand-by ticket, or viewing the performance from the rooftop vineyard Rooftop Reds or any other roof you can gain access to in the Navy Yards, or from Manhattan’s East River Park Amphitheater.

How to Drift in Daylight: My Advice

Dancing, acting, ice cream, the glimpse of a billboard–throw in dog walking, bicycling, camera-wielding tourists, and joggers and this describes almost any other day in Central Park in New York City. “Almost” is the operative word. Camouflaged within this green oasis are eight performative, perceptual, or participatory works of art sponsored by Creative Time as part of “Drifting in Daylight: Art in Central Park.” These new works shift the busy park from the mundane to the magical, albeit subtly and only if you allow yourself to be open to the experience.

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I entered the park through the Westside 81st street entrance and followed West Drive north toward the Pool. Based on Creative Time’s map, I expected to come across Nina Katchadourian’s junk bird’s nests along the way. The refuse sculptural installations were too subtle for me, as I realized when I saw finally saw one later: black net and soccer balls dangling on high like a pair of teenager’s sneakers. I arrived at the Pool and, having missed Lauri Stallings + glo’s dance performance, was pointed in the direction of one of David Levine’s Private Moments. Royal and Etheline Tenenbaum (of the 2001 movie The Royal Tenenbaums) sauntered toward me around the lake, unremarked and alone. I continued to walk toward the actors and, as I came close, felt a sudden awkwardness. Was this definitely a performance? Should I stare and take pictures? I trailed them, listening as they recited a dialogue I remembered from the film. When they finished, they walked to a bench and I walked on, wondering if anyone else noticed this cinematic replay happening in real time.

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Black Joy in the Hour of Chaos, Marc Bamuthi Joseph

I cut across to the Great Hill, as much for the restrooms as Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s performance piece Black Joy in The Hour of Chaos. The sight there stopped me in my tracks. Black bodies in red shirts occupied the highest point of the hill, alternatively singing, dancing, and speaking poetically in reference to current events. Black joy is a tough concept given the recent chaos that the country has faced. The performance felt timely and moving, not least because the audience was invited to come and help raise the performance tarp like a floating parachute in a gesture that both completed the performance and felt like an act of solidarity.

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Sunset (Central Park), Spencer Finch

I again tried to find Lauri Stallings’ glo dance troop as they contorted and cavorted through the North Woods in a six-hour long choreographed loop, but to no avail. The timing seemed to only loosely match the schedule. I continued on to the Harlem Meer, where a representative of Creative Time informed me that the captain of Ragnar Kjartansson’s S.S. Hangover, an ongoing musical performance on a boat, had decided to dock because of oncoming rain. I was beginning to feel as if luck was not with me.

Walking around the Meer, I soon came upon Spencer Finch’s Sunset (Central Park). You would never guess that title corresponds not to a landscape painting but an ice cream truck, specially outfitted in dreamy pastel hues and with solar panels. I got a good look at this truck, because I waited in a half-hour line of excited children and patient parents. In terms of the pale orange scoop of ice cream churned out by the energy of the sun, it was not worth the wait. In terms of the experience of waiting, thinking about the sunset and simple pleasures, I’m not sure. Without much of a conceptual backbone, it verges on the saccharine.

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Here and Now/ Glacier, Shard, Rock, Karyn Olivier

Walking with my cone on the path around the Meer, I encountered Here and Now/ Glacier, Shard, Rock by Karyn Olivier up close. I had registered this billboard as an unremarkable grey rectangle from across the Meer. As I walked up to it, I discovered it contained not one but three images. Depending on the angle I looked from, I saw a glacier, a pottery shard from a local historic settlement, or rocks like the contemporary landscape. All of these images relate to the land during different periods of time, reminding me of the long history of the place.

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S.S. Hangover, Ragnar Kjartansson

The sounds of brass instruments wafted toward me. Continuing on, I spotted a white-sailed vessel near the island in the west end of the Meer—the S.S. Hangover was back in action. The small wooden boat, holding a six-piece band in formal dress, was anchored to the island. Gently swaying with the breeze, the sail flapped to reveal the blue Pegasus across it as a slow, melancholic tune spread out across the lake. I sat on a rock and listened with the others around me. Kjartansson’s work first appeared at the Venice Biennale in 2013, where the partially Venetian boat design dovetailed with the site. It bothers me that the piece is not site-specific, but rather a chunk of performative romanticism thrown into any body of water without thought to its specific relations. That said, the boat cuts a dashing figure.

And all directions I come to you, Lauri Stallings + glo

Finally, I headed back down toward the Pond. I would be early, but hopefully that meant I couldn’t fail to see to the glo dancers as they ended their performance, entitled And all directions, I come to you. I waited. Eventually one dancer came running up, under the bridge, up the steps, and away over the field around the lake, out of sight. Then one came who stopped and sat, head bowed, in the field. A magnificent spectacle. Her yellow dress draping softly over her poised body contrasted with the fresh green May grass. Dappled light filtered through old trees covered her. Central Park creates odd connections—this dancer faced an absorbed man reading in the grass further up the hill and behind her three young jazz musicians were busking at the base of a tree. No one but me seemed to be here for a performance, although an audience began to gather.

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And all directions I come to you, Lauri Stallings + glo

The rest of the dancers arrived in ones and twos and haltingly converged on the space of lawn where the dancer in yellow sat. All were women wearing long, flowing dresses reminiscent both of Classical drapery and prom dresses. All making movements alternatively statuesque, feral, fast, slow, and occasionally a dance movement I was familiar with. Gradually their bodies came into harmony and they made the same movements, until one or two would break free and change the equilibrium of the line. The dresses in different single hues provided a study in contrasts, and rendered this avant-garde dance almost like a Vogue shoot, given the idyllic setting. The group left the lawn to crouch in a row on the shore of the lake, and then trickled apart and down the rocks of the nearby waterfall. Climbing, laying atop one another, pulling apart. Then, like a force of nature, they began to disperse again. Eventually I was left on the pavement while three dancers alternatively lifted one another up and laid low on the ground, legs akimbo in the sky. And then they too went away. And I went mine, out of the park, tired after four hours tracking down art installations.

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And all directions I come to you, Lauri Stallings + glo

I had the wrong mindset when I approached “Drifting in Daylight.” I intended to use the map as a list, checking off works of art methodically. But this meandering experience is not easily contained—indeed I only saw a little over half the works. And my list-oriented, dogmatic self seems to have missed the point. I envy the people who suddenly stumble across a beloved movie made real, or stand in line only to be surprised that their ice cream is free and the color of the sunset. I envy those who are getting lost in the North Woods when suddenly a wild-looking sprite whispers something to them before running by and grinding strangely into a piece of earth. The unexpected mystery and joy of the project was lost on me. One can’t have it all, as I tried to. At best, one can have a small piece—a moment that becomes un-ordinary and magical.

Rather than demanding the passer-by’s attention, these works tempt people into a new openness and curiosity, a difficult task in a place as distraction-filled as New York City’s Central Park. My advice is: don’t be like me. Don’t say to yourself that you’re going to go see the new Creative Time art in the park. Just give yourself permission to take a Friday or Saturday afternoon to wander open-eyed and without a schedule. Let yourself be surprised by a world full of small, good things. Some of it might be the art. Some of it will just be life. And maybe that is the point.

On Fridays and Saturdays from 12 to 6 pm, through June 20. “Drifting in Daylight” includes work by artists Spencer Finch, Alicia Framis, Nina Katchadourian, Ragnar Kjartansson, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, David Levine, Karyn Olivier, and Lauri Stallings + glo. Learn more here.

The Monuments of Skopje 2014: Constructing Macedonian National Identity

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It’s been a busy time lately as I’ve been preparing to give a talk at a conference, “The Rhetoric and Aesthetics of Memory,” at the Meadows Museum in Dallas this weekend. I’ll be presenting a portion of my thesis research on Skopje 2014, a building project in Skopje, Macedonia.

Cultural memory and memorialization is often a contested issue in the post-socialist countries of Central and Eastern Europe, despite (and because of) the fact that government-mandated art policies designed to support a regime’s power have disappeared from the region with the fall of Socialism. However, this current building project recalls the authoritarian monuments of those ideologically controlled policies. “Skopje 2014” is a current urban renovation project in Macedonia’s capital designed to emphasize a strained connection to a classical past through extensive new building and over forty new monuments in the city center.

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A striking example is Warrior on a Horse, a sculpture of Alexander the Great on a rearing house atop a triumphal column that towers over Macedonia Square. ‘Alexander,’ as it is generally called, is 48 feet tall on its own, and it sits on top of a cylindrical column that is 33 feet tall. Three large ivory battle friezes wrap up the column. At the base of the column are eight bronze soldiers, each ten feet tall. The enormous structure is underscored by the fountain it stands in. Eight bronze lions surround the pool of the fountain and four of the lions spray water from their mouths. The fountain periodically shoots water in choreographed streams, tinged by multi-colored lights, in time with classical music blasting from enormous megaphones raised on poles around the square, channeling ancient Rome via Las Vegas.