As American cities vie to transform their waterfronts into tourist attractions and high-end residential communities, it becomes difficult to remember that historically, the place where the city meets the sea has been the haven of society’s discards and degenerates. Throughout history, the urban waterfront has been the province of grizzled sailors, struggling fishermen, burly dockworkers and corrupt middlemen. Dotted with whorehouses, saloons and other dens of iniquity, it has long existed as a fertile source of tall tales and urban legends.
Duke Riley’s imagined histories, illegal performances and dioramic installations tap into that fast disappearing world, blending fact and fancy in a way that reminds us that history is anything but an objective science. The starting point for Riley’s conceits is almost always some obscure historical event or circumstance, but his reweaving of history inevitably enmeshes him in contemporary concerns as well. His projects serve as a reminder that the mythic freedom of the waterways is increasingly impinged upon by Homeland Security, whose representatives have detained and questioned Riley on more than one occasion, while the gentrification of waterfront communities makes the kind of extra-legal gatherings and lifestyles he celebrates ever more difficult.
Riley was born in Boston, Massachusetts and grew up around the water, thanks to an uncle who worked in the fishing industry. After receiving a BFA from RISD in Rhode Island, he made his way to New York, settling in Greenpoint, Brooklyn not far from a still ungentrified waterfront. In New York, he earned an MFA from Pratt Institute. His day job as a tattoo artist (another profession that traditionally hugged the shore) allows him to indulge his fascination with waterfronts, their denizens, and their stories. Over the last ten years, he has “documented” the history of the little sung and unpeopled islands surrounding Manhattan, supplementing real or apocryphal events with histories of his own making. His works are a mix of found and created artifacts, videos, drawings, mosaics and maps that are presented with museological seriousness. RIley also engages in guerrilla actions that provide these overlooked sites with new histories, including the erection of fly by night bars broken up by local authorities, parties in abandoned warehouses, and even, during the 2004 Republican Convention in New York, the planting of a flag on an unoccupied island in the dead of night.
A 2006 project titled East River Incognita !: Bright Passage centered around Mill Rock Island, an uninhabited strip of land located just north of Roosevelt Island. In Riley’s imagination, it became the home of a motley crew of disreputable individuals who, he suggests, may be descendents of escaped slaves and survivors of two more or less historically documented shipwrecks. (One, more solidly established, was the sinking of a pleasure ship in 1904 and the other a shipwreck that deposited a fortune in gold at the bottom of the sound.) In a documentary style video that includes footage of the artist’s boat trip around the island, “historians”, “scholars” and “local inhabitants” spin tales of cannibalism, piracy and unnatural sex. The saga was further “authenticated” with a massive map of the island, various military uniforms and other artifacts, drawings which echo 19th century whaling art, and mosaics depicting the contemporary lives of the island’s residents.
An earlier project, from 2004, was built on the real experience of a squatter known as RA who eked out a living selling items from a cache of old clothes left behind in an abandoned warehouse in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. In Riley’s elaboration, this became The Paul Pierce Collection, a designer clothing operation which merchandized these clothes to trendy Brooklyn boutiques while employing drifters squatting in the warehouse. In 2006 a fire, possibly set by one of the squatters, burned the warehouse down, singing many of the remaining clothes. These became the basis for a video in which actual squatters recounted how the smoke infested tatters became a hot designer clothing line.
Among Riley’s more ephemeral projects is Dead Horse Inn on Plum Island. This was a bar constructed of scraps of wood and other discards which played on the historical fact that in the early 1900s Plum Island existed largely outside the jurisdiction of the New York City Police and was home to illegal saloons and prizefights. Riley’s reenactment lasted for one summer night in 2006 and was attended by chic art world denizens who imbibed Martinis beer and wine (purchased for a nickel in order to flout city regulations against the unlicensed sale of liquor) until the party was broken up by the National Park Service Police.
Riley’s newest project, After the Battle of Brooklyn, offers a re-enactment/reinvention of certain aspects of the first major battle of the Revolutionary War. The Battle of Brooklyn pitted the rag tag American army against a formidable British naval force. Outflanked and overpowered by the British, the Americans were forced to retreat and might have been decimated were it not for their evacuation by Massachusetts’ Marblehead Regiment under a heavy fog. Riley’s intervention into this history embroiders on the real life existence of a primitive submarine, named the Turtle, which was unleashed in New York Harbor following the American retreat. Hand powered by it sole occupant, its mission was to blow up the flagship of the British fleet by attaching a cask of gunpowder to its hull. Unfortunately for the Americans, it was discovered when it came up for air. The pilot was forced to evacuate, leaving his ill-fated vessel behind.
Riley imagines that after this failure, a second attempt was made in a similar vessel named the Acorn, which was manned by a pilot from the Marblehead Regiment. A video included here offers a spirited debate among a panel of “historians” as to the sub’s ultimate fate, the real motivations of its pilot and its historical significance. As in Bright Passage, this project also involves a present day maritime adventure. This time Riley, in the role of the commander of the second submarine, actually built and piloted a small sub near shore of Red Hook, Brooklyn. Meanwhile artifacts from the fictional pilot’s historical journal have been gathered for display in a museum style installation. Among these is the preserved body of the cat that, Riley maintains, accompanied its owner under sea.
After the Battle of Brooklyn is a tangle of fact, fiction and metaphor and interweaves historical realities with contemporary social commentary. Among the circumstances that add significance to this work is the fact that the Marblehead Regiment was multi-racial, reflecting the mores of one of the only colorblind communities in pre-revolutionary America. The fact that this regiment saved the fledging army only adds to the irony of the young country’s racial inequity. In the video, one of the faux historians suggests that the Acorn was piloted by a renegade from the Marblehead Regiment who was angered by the American army’s racial discrimination. From this perspective, the saga becomes a commentary on America’s continuing racial difficulties.
There are also, in this reenactment of a Revolutionary War episode, inevitable echoes of the contemporary conflict in Iraq, which also involves insurgents, bombers and unequal shows of force. A third contemporary thread has to do with the transformation of the Red Hook Harbor in Brooklyn by commerce and gentrification. In particular, Riley points to the failure of a newly constructed to cruise ship dock there to revitalize the neighborhood as its developers had promised. His own reenactment of the sub’s course took him close to this dock, where the contrast between individual and commercial modes of transport could not be more stark. This point is re-emphasized by several mosaics that feature the tiny sub pulling the Chrysler Building, which, astonishingly, is the same size as the Queen Mary docked in Red Hook.
Riley’s shares his interest in invented histories and ambiguous narrative with other contemporary artists. Pierre Huyghe’s recent video, The Journey that Wasn’t, 2006, for instance, recounts the artist’s search and possible encounter with a mythical beast, an albino penguin, on an island in the desolate reaches of Antarctica. Meanwhile Riley’s display of fictional archival materials brings to mind Mark Dion faux natural history displays. But the artist who seems to most closely approximate Riley’s mix of playfullness, marginal historical plausibility and social intent is Walid Ra’ad. A Lebanese artist who works under the name of his fictional foundation, The Atlas Group, Ra’ad presents documentation of politically charged scenarios that, though believable, are completely fictitious. These draw on the already unstable political situation of the Middle East, in particular the Lebanese Civil War that ravaged his native country from 1975 to 1991. His video, Hostage: The Bachar Tapes, 2001, for example, inserts an unknown (invented) Lebanese hostage named Souheil Bachar into the real history of the Lebanese hostage crisis. In an invented flatfile, Secrets in the Open Sea, 1999, Ra’ad presents tiny photographic portraits that were supposedly found in the rubble during a post-civil war demolition of a neighborhood slated for commercial development.
Like Ra’ad, Riley invents scenarios that play on the kind of data historians use to construct history. Invoking battling “historians” and contradictory pieces of evidence, he reminds us how unreliable such reports actually can be. History, he argues, is a series of stories told by narrators with their own agendas, and sometimes truth lurks most accurately in fiction. Riley’s exploits his attraction to America’s early history to cast light on contemporary conditions and entanglements. Through reinvented histories, he argues for the restoration of traditional American values like independence, self-reliance and individuality that seem to have been lost in subsequent centuries.
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