Pigeons in performance: Duke Riley explains how Fly By Night took to the skies

Fly By Night runs as part of LIFT, Greenwich and Docklands International Festival and in collaboration with 14-18 Now

Fly By Night
Fly By Night
© Tod Seelie courtesy Creative Time

"Pigeons are very social animals", artist Duke Riley explains as his assembled collection of 1,500 animals soar through the air. It's why they look so hypnotising when all assembled together, and how Riley has managed to pull off his original and bold new work, Fly By Night, which runs down in Thamesmead as part of LIFT, Greenwich and Docklands International Festival and the 14-18 Now programme.

Set on the banks of the Thames, the project involves his group of pigeons being used in a visually spellbinding way. "We fly the birds just after sunset from some pigeon coops modelled after First World War pigeon coops."

The First World War element is important – during the war over 100,000 pigeons were used to carry messages across the front. They were, for Riley, unsung heroes, and he's factored this into the performance too: "As the sun starts to dissipate from the sky, there'll be small LED lights attached to the bands where the pigeons would normally carry messages, so it'll create formations of light moving across the sky."

Using a whistle and the occasional shout, Riley coaxes the birds into the sky, where they soar in unison for a good number of minutes.

For Riley, Fly By Night may be making its UK premiere this year, but it has already proven a big hit stateside. When it first ran at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 2016 it attracted huge crowds, though in London the project will be a bit different.

"It's a very different environment here; in New York we had a lot of buildings, whereas it's very flat down in Thamesmead. We've also got a completely new set of pigeons for this performance, though I can always tell which ones are ours by how they're flying."

"This is a fantastic place to spend your days outdoors. This beautiful field along the Thames has been amazing. A lot of the art happens not just in the presentation, but the conversations we've been having, so in the process leading up to it."

Riley's been in Thamesmead since the start of April, overseeing the project and building the coops. "There's many different things to think about with a project like this. When you're responsible for the care of 1,500 individual animals."

"It's a full-time job," he explains, "seven days a week with 12 people working around the clock." Riley has to give the pigeons water, let them have a bath, and keep them fed. It's also been tricky with turbulent weather, as the pigeons can't fly in the rain.

But Riley's always been attracted to what pigeons mean. "I've always had a fascination with pigeons.Fly By Night gives people a chance to look at them in a very different way, they're very misunderstood animals." For Riley, they aren't just, as many see them, rats with wings: "It's also about letting people reconnect with nature in a way they haven't in a while."

Fly By Night runs in East Thamesmead from 21 to 23 June.