“I missed Scandal for this?” The woman behind me was not impressed as we sat on risers and watched a small fraction of the 2,000 pigeons in the avian light show Fly By Night prepare for their Brooklyn Navy Yard debut. Her question made me wonder whether I had walked deep into the Navy Yard simply to watch pigeons fly. These, my feathered nemeses, were now the star of a show; it’s a free show, sure, but one with a waiting list and a great review in The New York Times. It was akin to hearing that a childhood bully had become a movie star.
Growing up in New York City pigeons were a nuisance, not works of art. While the city has long had a tradition of rooftop pigeon coops and pigeon fanciers, to which Duke Riley, the artist behind the show, is paying tribute, their charms never seduced me. In fact, despite watching one hatch on my parents’ balcony, I’ve spent most of my life in an avian cold war, never attacking them, but convinced that they would attack me if given the chance. Was detente finally here and and happening in Brooklyn?
In a borough that has undergone a massive changes over the past decade, Fly By Night feels like a coming out party for the new Navy Yard, a rebirth, or more likely, a rebranding of a manufacturing center whose infrastructure has been decaying for decades. In a few years there will be more tech companies, a Wegman’s supermarket, Brooklyn Brewery’s new headquarters, which was just announced this week, a WeWork co-working space, a new film school, and who knows what else, ushering in a design and food-focused future.
Could the show provide similar image rehab for pigeons, those anxiety producing winged rats?
After about 10 minutes pondering both gentrification and the more pressing question of whether the birds were rehearsing to peck my eyes out, a whistle broke my anxious reverie. Then all 2,000 pigeons equipped with tiny LED lights on their feet, were released as the sun set over the East River and with them, a pinch of my skepticism. Standing on the deck of the Bylander, an 80-foot decommissioned Vietnam-era Navy ship where the pigeons are housed, Riley and a couple of black-clad assistants carrying bamboo poles with garbage bags attached directed the flocks to ascend over the Navy Yard.
Fly By Night is at once simple and mesmerizing, as 2,000 birds circle, dive, flip, and dance over the river, the skyline, and occasionally the heads of the audience. It’s best to sit toward the back or the middle of the bleacher-like seats to get the broadest view of the constellations the birds form over the East River. The shapes are mostly a series of circles, but a couple flocks got creative with zig zigs and arches.
Even I couldn’t deny that it was just as majestic as it was terrifying. In the course of an approximately 20-minute show, Riley transformed these creatures, the objects of my mild revulsion, into artists. Fly By Night is a living, breathing artwork that will never be the same twice; the pigeons don’t follow any choreographed pattern, they fly where they will each night. Riley and his assistants only ensure that they leave the Bylander and return. What happens in between is all up to the flock.
At the end of the show, a few birds hung out on the rooftop of a Navy Yard building, the LED lights visible at a distance. Another flock felt the magnetic pull of the Williamsburg Bridge. All eventually returned, and as of this review, they’ve come back every to the Bylander every time. Why wouldn’t they, living in what Riley jokingly called Bylander’s “luxury waterfront lofts” in the Times review?
Not all New Yorkers are convinced that these conditions, or the show itself constitutes luxury. There’s a Change.org petition with over a thousand signatures asking Creative Time to end the show, on the basis that pigeons have terrible night vision, are susceptible to drowning, and in general were not created for our entertainment. Members of a group called the Animal Cruelty Exposure Fund organized a protest at the May 15 performance. Creative Time, the public art group that has facilitated Riley’s project, maintains that the pigeons are treated extremely well.
Riley’s condo remark stuck in my mind as I walked out of the Navy Yard, passing cranes, construction, and other signs of the development boom that is undeniable to any Brooklyn resident. If the show could soften my stance toward my old feathered frenemies, could I learn to love, or at least ease into co-existence with the glass towers rising along the waterfront? Perhaps, though I remain wary on all fronts.
Fly by Night runs Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, through June 12, at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It’s free, but tickets must be reserved online and there is a waiting list. If you’d rather DIY the experience, the show can usually be seen from the East River Park Amphitheater on the Lower East Side, or the Williamsburg or Manhattan Bridges shortly after sunset. If you’re already around the Navy Yard, you can also see the show from Rooftop Reds, a rooftop vineyard. For more information and to get on the waiting list, visit the Creative Times website.