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


“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.


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.


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.


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.

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

  1. Unfortunately I haven’t seen Fly By Night. But I know a photographer, Stephen Gill, who takes pictures of London’s pigeons in their natural habitat in order to give them at least some of their ‘honor’ back. I love his mixture between documentary and artistic photography!

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