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He’s circumnavigated Manhattan in a plywood raft, planted a flag on the East River’s Belmont Island to claim it as a sovereign nation during the Republican convention, built the secret Dead Horse Tavern on Plum Beach, almost inhabited Robert Smithson’s Floating Island (the Coast Guard threw him off), and lived for several years in a storage space with pigeons. But for Duke Riley—artist and explorer of the obscure, bird lover, professional tattooer, nautical nostalgist—no adventure compared to the Friday morning in August when, in the Buttermilk Channel, he launched The Acorn, his ill-fated version of a Revolutionary War submarine that tried but failed to sink a British man-of-war in 1776. Over two centuries later, Riley was only trying to make a movie. But as he coaxed his miniature sub toward another significant British vessel, the massive Queen Mary 2—an intentional parallel to history—the city saw terrorism instead.
Homeland Security protocols snapped into effect, news helicopters circled, the Harbor Police rushed over to apprehend him, and Riley was hauled off to the 76th Precinct for questioning. Eventually, the FBI showed up to make things, as Riley says, “very dramatic.” One frightening guy, as Riley describes him, stood silently in the corner and just glared, looking like “a cross between Christopher Walken and one of those tree creatures from Lord of the Rings.” Two other agents, working the good-cop/bad-cop routine, tried to link him, he says, to anti-British sentiment and the IRA, citing the thousands of dollars he once received from an Irish woman named Ursula (a grant from an arts organization, actually, for a project in Belfast). Fined by the NYPD, Riley still faces the federal charge of violating a security zone (punishable by up to five years in prison), not to mention the FBI’s promise to keep their dark shades trained on him.
It’s not the first time his art has instigated a terror alert. One morning, as he was filming a project near the East River, Riley says a suspicious cop demanded to see his video camera, found footage of a one-eyed Pakistani man (a friend of the artist) standing before distant jets, and then called in the Anti-Terrorism Task Force. Waiting for the trench-coated agents to arrive, the cop quizzed Riley about college football, apparently to test his citizenship. If you measure American credentials by moxie, Riley’s are more than solid. But as he describes the day of the Acorn incident, he insists several times that he didn’t want publicity. “The submarine was one aspect of a pretty elaborate project,” he explains. “People think about it as a performance, and it becomes something that seems more like a stunt. . . . But there’s never anything I’ve done that solely involves an act.”
The project, titled After the Battle of Brooklyn (at Magnan Projects beginning October 28), centers on a mockumentary that mixes the history of the original 1776 sub, The Turtle, with deadpan Monty Python absurdity. Like his previous video, The Bright Passage—which investigates accounts of Mill Rock Island’s land-based pirates—the latest one is a smirking PBS-style presentation, with English-accented narration, several “authorities” in book-lined offices, clips from re-enactments, and the familiar (and by now clichéd) Ken Burns–ian pans across old images. Leaping from theme to theme (as Riley’s conversations often do), the video touches on insurgency, suicide bombing, and disillusionment with political causes—parallels, Riley sees, between the Revolutionary War in New York and the “current situation.” The video’s central claim is that the Americans employed a second sub—The Acorn, of course—that mysteriously disappeared with the pilot (and possibly his cat) and has now resurfaced. But you never quite know what’s real. His videos, Riley says, demonstrate how “you can take certain information and twist it to tell whatever story you want.”
Fascinated by The Turtle‘s odd history, Riley also saw it as art: “Just as an object, it’s a beautiful-looking thing.” With friends offering their technical expertise (from welding to water displacement), Riley created his own version in about five months. Seeing the craft up close (it’s part of the gallery show), you understand Riley’s attraction: It’s an elegant—and sophisticated—piece of work, shaped just as its name suggests. Built from iron, plumbing pipes, and slats of oak coated with fiberglass (a substitute for the 18th-century tar), the sub includes two large snorkels, a water chamber for neutral buoyancy, a ballast-release mechanism, a flipper-shaped rudder, and miniature portholes. “I definitely wanted to make sure I didn’t die,” Riley says, referring to the controls. Though he never got the thing to fully submerge, he implies that the dangers were a necessary aspect of his imagined history. Consider, he says, what The Turtle‘s pilot, a man named Ezra Lee, “was thinking about in 1776—they had no knowledge of how this stuff worked.”
Riley’s interest in the maritime anachronism extends to his other art works, which typically augment his videos. He designs black-and-white mosaics as whalers’ scrimshaw: Ships and sailors from past centuries, set inside ornamented ovals, sit before contemporary cityscapes or ply through waters filled with fast-food trash. Dense and busy drawings in the style of Hieronymus Bosch depict hallucinogenic frigates. Another piece, in the Brooklyn Museum’s permanent collection, packs in all the images and stories—historical and invented—that he collected for The Bright Passage. And at East River Tattoo, a shop that he co-owns, Riley inks antiquated nautical designs on his customers’ 21st-century skin.
Thin as a harpoon, with tattooed arms and a throaty Boston accent, Riley, 35, resembles an old-time sailor himself and rarely strays too far from the sea, in either art or life. His apartment overlooks Red Hook’s marine terminal, and his studios sit near the river. “The water was traditionally a place available to everyone,” he says, lamenting the gradual disappearance of the working dockside community, something he addresses in his work. “Living close to the water has now become a luxury. Particularly in New York, it’s becoming less and less accessible. To be able to maintain that connection to water is extremely important to me.”
Riley grew up with that connection, working as a kid with his uncle on the docks of New England fishing towns. Having also developed obsessions with drawing and tattoos (his first barber had one), he went to art school at the Rhode Island School of Design and combined everything he knew. In his freshman year, he tattooed dead fish with seafaring scenes and floated them in formaldehyde—his first project, as it happened, to attract unwanted attention from the authorities. Responding to complaints about the smell, a school security guard threw out everything.
Riley’s current troubles, along with the publicity, may force him to postpone his more ambitious explorations for a while. “It makes it a lot harder to do my artwork. Maintaining a low profile has always been really key for me in doing a lot of this stuff.” Possibly he’ll return to pigeons, the less-risky subject of earlier paintings and photographs, and another interest that had its start in childhood, when he first saw the famous rooftop scenes in On the Waterfront. But even the birds have come up against official disapproval: His landlady recently ordered him to discard his coop. “I still have one pigeon,” he happily admits, “that comes back to visit a lot”—a creature Riley welcomes inside as a fellow voyager of the city.