NEW YORK – Creative Time’s ambitious public art projects have become a major highlight of New York’s summer events calendar, and this year's commission is no exception. For Fly by Night on weekend evenings at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, artist Duke Riley releases a flock of thousands of pigeons outfitted with small LED lights. The birds fly in beautiful loops and waves, illuminating the sky over the Navy Yard and East River. Sotheby’s Preferred secured VIP access to a sold-out Friday night performance that was bookended by a tour of Kings County Distillery, also in the Navy Yard, and dinner with the artist.


LEFT: BOURBON TASTING AT THE KINGS COUNTY DISTILLERY.
RIGHT: THE MANHATTAN SKYLINE AS SEEN FROM THE FLY BY NIGHT VIP VIEWING AREA. PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR.

At Kings County Distillery, Lia Niskanen was waiting to teach us about the historic building and offered samples of whiskey, bourbon and moonshine. After the tour, we headed to the performance location and proceeded up a tall staircase to watch from a VIP area. As the sun descended, we heard calls from Riley and the sudden release of birds. The calming sound of the birds’ wings washed over us, and as it grew darker some people even laid down for an optimal view of the distant flickers of light. After about 25 minutes, reggae music began to play as the birds slowly returned to their custom-built coop on a converted historic boat, a massive homage to the historic rooftop pigeon keepers that were at one time commonplace throughout New York City. 

PIGEON KEEPERS DIRECT THE BIRDS FROM THEIR COOP. PHOTO BY TOD SEELIE, COURTESY CREATIVE TIME.

Katie Hollander, executive director of Creative Time, later explained to me that this ending is one of several elements that have evolved over the duration of the project, which was first performed in early May. Riley has not strictly adhered to a rigid plan, in part because of logistical challenges – everything from pigeon wrangling to uncertain weather conditions – and the fact that the birds fly differently from night to night. Riley has changed the music, his position (sitting or standing) as well the position of all of the pigeons at the beginning of the performance. Hollander added that everyone from contemporary art collectors to young children have greeted the project with enthusiasm; it has been extended through 19 June.

PIGEONS FLYING AS THE SUN SETS. PHOTO BY TOD SEELIE, COURTESY CREATIVE TIME.

After the performance we headed to the nearby Dumbo neighborhood for dinner at Atrium, joined by the directors and curator from Creative Time and Duke Riley himself. The artist, sporting his pigeon-keeping jumpsuit and a warm smile, was greeted by our group with applause and he spoke intimately about the work with his dinner companions – a truly Preferred experience.  

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