In a project aimed at making a statement about U.S. spying capabilities, as well as a subtle protest against the 51-year-old U.S. embargo against Cuba, artist Duke Riley trained 50 pigeons to smuggle Cuban cigars from Havana to Key West, Fla. Other birds equipped with custom-made cameras filmed the 100-mile journey.
The pigeons and their videos will be on display in Riley's solo show, “Trading with the Enemy,” which opens Nov. 1 at the Magnan Metz gallery in New York.
Riley, 41, who has been around pigeons his whole life, spent years researching the birds' role in relaying information for the military. For this project, the idea was to bring attention to the long history of pirating on the southern border, and to take a jab at the high-tech surveillance devices that monitor the coast; apparently, drones have little interest in pigeons.
“I wanted to subvert this billions-of-dollars, high-tech system with things that were being used in ancient Sumeria,” he told The New York Times.
He started with 50 birds, tagging half of them as smugglers and the other half as documentarians. The smugglers were all named after famous smugglers, the documentarians after famed directors.
Less than half of the original 50 eventually took part in the mission. Of the 23 birds that took to the wind, only 11 made it back — six with the contraband Cohibas. Those cigars are now cast in resin and also on display.
"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 said.
Riley is no stranger to subversive art. In 2007, he crafted a wooden Revolutionary War-era submarine and rode it out to the Queen Mary II when she was docked in Brooklyn, to make a statement on the Bush administration's "war on terror.” For his efforts, he was arrested by the U.S. Coast Guard.
But it looks like he won’t be getting in trouble for the cigar project, since there’s no law against pigeons smuggling Cohibas. As for his involvement, he remains coy.
“How those cigars end up on the birds, I can’t say,” he said, demurely. “If a bird ends up in my pigeon lofts, that happens to have a cigar from Cuba, and there also happens to be a pigeon that has a video camera on it, that shows footage of birds flying from Havana to Key West with cigars — yeah, I can’t really say how that happened.”
See some bird's-eye view clips from the pigeon-cams in a video from the artist below:
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