Thanks to New York City artist Duke Riley, the US surveillance apparatus faces a new airborne foe – the homing pigeon.
Riley trained pigeons to smuggle cigars from Havana, Cuba, to Key West, Florida, while other birds filmed the 100-mile journey with custom-made cameras. The pigeons and their videos will feature in Riley’s solo show, which opens next month at the Magnan Metz gallery in New York.
Riley, 41, said he came up with the project at least in part to challenge the idea that the spying capabilities of the US government have become all-encompassing. He started with 50 birds – tagging half of them as smugglers and the other half as documentarians.
“A lot of the work I do seeks to create some sense of possibility or empowerment, in a humorous and romanticised way, using the simplest means possible,” Riley said.
It was also his way of protesting against the US embargo against Cuba. Under the 1917 Trading with the Enemy Act, the US has enforced economic sanctions against Cuba since 1962.
More recently, Americans with permission to travel to Cuba were allowed to bring back $100 worth of goods, but the Bush administration ratcheted up sanctions in 2004, imposing a total ban. Riley’s cigar project aims for more than just subversion. “I don’t want to – can I say it? – be pigeonholed,” said Riley, who has been around pigeons since he was a child.
He spent years researching their role in carrying information for the military – more recently for the US navy during the Vietnam War.
Riley has long courted trouble with his artistic interventions. In 2007, he was arrested by the US Coast Guard for approaching the New York-berthed Queen Mary II cruise liner in a makeshift wooden Revolutionary War-era submarine. Riley called that project commentary on the Bush administration’s “war on terror” and the gentrification of the Brooklyn waterfront.
In 2009, he hopped freight trains on his way to Cleveland, Ohio, and infiltrated the sewer system to emulate the hobo lifestyle of migrant workers during Cleveland’s Depression-era.
If some of that artistry bordered on illegality, the latest project, four years in the making, dives straight in. Normally outspoken – “if you’re an artist and not taking risks, you’re just masturbating” – Riley became guarded when discussing how the pigeons got to and from Cuba.
Less than half of the original number of his trainees took part in the mission. Of the 23 birds that embarked on it, only 11 made it back – toting six Cohibas. Those cigars are now cast in resin and also on display. A 12th bird, D Ruggero Deodato, nose-dived into Havana harbour under uncertain circumstances. The bird survived and made its way back to the United States without any cargo.
“I imagine Cuban authorities would be sensitive to American pigeons flying over with cameras – that would cause some alarm,” Riley said, grinning. “But I’m just speculating.”
Some of the pigeons are now awaiting exhibition in a bird loft at the gallery, surrounded by portraits of each of the 50 participants painted on tin shingles.
A spokeswoman for the Joint Interagency Taskforce South, which monitors such activity, said: “If we had some intel that the pigeons are involved in drugs, or in international crime, or illicit trafficking, we would use whatever assets we have to obtain that information.”