Some artists are willing to do anything for their masterpieces, including risking their freedom. American Duke Riley is one such artist. He walks the fine line between legal and illegal in his new project called “Trading with the Enemy” which involves smuggling cigars from Cuba to Key West using pigeons specially trained for this shady task.
For “Trading with the Enemy,” Riley, who makes a living as a tattoo artist, started off by training 50 birds. Some were taught to carry cigars from Cuba to their destination – which, if you don’t already know by now, is illegal, and some were given special cameras to document their trip back and forth over the boarder. The spying equipment was engineered by Riley himself who worked for several years to make them as light as possible so the pigeon’s wouldn’t even notice them. According to the New York Times, the artist’s concept was a commentary on “the long history of pirating on the southern border.” Riley also wanted to dismiss the government’s very expensive high-tech spying gear by using homing pigeons instead of drones. “I wanted to subvert this billions-of-dollars high-tech system with things that were being used in ancient Sumeria. A lot of the work I do seeks to create some sense of possibility or empowerment, in a humorous and romanticized way, using the simplest means possible,” Riley says.
The entire operation was conducted in a colorful pigeon loft in Key West. There, Riley trained his pigeons and gave them the names of notorious smugglers and eccentric movie directors who have had issues with the law. The smuggler-birds were given famous names such as Pierre Lafitte and Minnie Burr – known for hiding supplies under her skirt during the Civil War. Spy-pigeons borrowed names of celebrities like Roman Polanski and Mel Gibson. Equipped with harnesses made form colorful bra straps, the pigeons were sent on their mission. But not all birds made the cut. From the 50 feathered-spies and smugglers, only 23 were send to fulfill the illegal deeds and unfortunately, 12 of them never returned.
Thankfully, the 11 pigeons that made it back managed to come back with six Cohibas – now preserved in resin, and hours of shaky but valuable footage. The films depict the whole experience from the perspective of the winged filmmakers: taking-off, flying over the Strait of Florida, picking up their valuable cargo and the trip home, as well as their frequent breaks along the way. But the videos also present spectacular ocean views, as well as funny reactions from some unsuspecting people. One woman listening to music and minding her own business saw one of the winged cameramen and thought that the camera attached to the pigeon’s harness was a bomb.
Because of the law-challenging nature of his project, Riley is open to talk about the result but not about the actual process of how the cigars were smuggled. Riley’s art dealer, Dara Metz says that “when it comes to Duke’s projects, he’s always candid about what his intentions are. He does not get into the details about how he executes them.” The artist’s view on risk-taking is this: “If you’re an artist and not taking risks, you’re really just masturbating.” And Riley is all about taking risks. Back in 2007, he intercepted the Queen Mary II in a war-era submarine and was arrested for it. “Despite the fact that they [the New York harbor police] were pointing machine guns at me in the pictures, they were actually very nice,” he said back then. In 2009, he tasted a bit of the hobo lifestyle during the Cleveland’s Depression time when he infiltrated the city’s sewers. In the same year he also staged a naval battle in a reflecting pool in Queens which started innocently enough but ended in a messy melee.
The “Trading with the Enemy” project was riskier than those before it, but also closer to Riley’s heart as the law-defying artist has been a bird-lover ever since childhood, after rescuing a pigeon. “I let it go and it came back. You feel sort of connected to the animal after that,” he says. His passion for birds has even been permanently transposed in ink, on his body. Despite his offbeat approach to art, his new avian-masterpiece has been well-received. For each of the pigeons involved there is a portrait painted by Riley that can be bought from the Magnan Metz Gallery. The cigars immersed in resin are also for sale as well as a pair of bird accomplices which are worth an amazing $100,000. Although Riley escaped the sharp teeth of the law, he couldn’t avoid becoming a grandfather as the remaining pairs of pigeons have mated and their chicks are about to hatch.