Whitehot Magazine

March 2011, Interview with Duke Riley

Duke Riley, Map of the Kingsbury Run In Her Years of Splendor and Glory


Interview with Duke Riley

I don't know that there's much Duke Riley could do that would surprise me. After all, we had been trying to get this interview done for a couple years, and the first time it was postponed was because Duke was organizing the first ever Saint Patrick's Day Parade in Havana.

Mention his name around town and people say, "oh, the water guy." Duke's ambitious and idiosyncratic projects involve heaps of research, and plenty of floating around. He covers the waterfront.

He's interested in discovering, and like any good sailor, sometimes embellishing, the stories of obscure and neglected communities. He merges the literal and the littoral, as it were. By relentlessly testing the limits, Duke finds out what the real rules are. He gets out there and does things! Thus the work is conceptual, experimental and somewhat romantic, but also quite specific, dependent on action, and rooted in a very real sense of place.

I caught up with Duke at Magnan Metz Gallery on West 26th Street as he was preparing for a show there. We sat on the edge of a circular well, made of found bricks, for our conversation. Some of the bricks are covered with moss, and they emit a distinctive maritime fragrance. The well will be filled with whiskey for the opening. Duke wonders whether it may be toxic, and I say, don't worry, the whiskey will kill the germs.

Duke's hardcore. He's old school as hell. Also, he is a man of the people.

Joe Heaps: So what's going on out there on the water?

Duke Riley: I think the thing that's interesting is how stuff like that has changed, even in the past ten years or so. I feel like whenever I started doing stuff on the East River, with homemade boats and things, there's just not a lot of people out there doing that. It's pretty much always me, especially after 9/11. Generally, there's a safety concern too. They see somebody out there, they automatically assume they don't know what they're doing. New York City has this strange way about it, Manhattan's an island and it was at one time this major port city. If you go to pretty much any country in the world, to a major port city, you'll see all different shapes and sizes of vessels out on the water, intermingling with commercial ships. It's totally normal to see people commuting on small sailboats or rowboats or junks or anything, right alongside commercial traffic. Here in New York, they're not aware that Manhattan's even an island.

Heaps: Right, before 9/11 I remember going out on the harbor, about 3 in the morning, zooming around in a Zodiac with my boy Noodles. Remember Noodles from the Mars Bar?

Riley: I think I remember, yeah.

Heaps: Duke, when I first met you and became aware of your work, we were both doing stuff with Rebecca Smith, a curator who is impossible to Google. You used to be interested in pigeons.

Riley: Yeah yeah. I was doing a whole series of pigeons at that time.

Heaps: And you gradually became more interested in nautical adventures. Is that right?

Riley: Yeah, originally. All that stuff's connected. A lot of the stuff I was doing when we were hanging out at the Mars Bar is all paintings I was making out of material I was collecting along the Williamsburg waterfront. They used to have all these abandoned buildings along Kent Avenue. Stuff dealing with those autonomous zones in urban areas.


Duke Riley drawing at Magnan Metz Gallery

Heaps: So, are you interested in how nature reasserts itself in deserted spaces within the city?

Riley: Yeah, I was looking at things from that angle. In undergrad I was doing a lot of nautical stuff and things that had to do with when I worked with my uncle in the fishing industry. Then when I came down here, I started spending a lot of time in that area where the water meets the land, abandoned spaces along the East River. I think actually as that stuff started to disappear, it was one of the things that drove me to start venturing out into the water, really to access other places, forgotten parts of the city that were completely unaccessible unless you got to them by water. There were places you could go where you could be outside the constraints of society. A no man's land, where you could do...

Heaps and Riley: Whatever you want!

Riley: I sought out those kind of places and that's where I would go to gather material, when I was working on stuff like the pigeon series. I was harvesting all this stuff in these abandoned buildings.

Heaps: And you would have events, and bring in other people.

Riley: I think at the time I was doing that, I didn't really put the two and two together... I would put all this energy into weird parties at abandoned buildings on the East River, and serve up all this fish... at that time I hadn't merged the two ideas in my head, that they were both part of my artistic practice. That was the art too.

Heaps: People pretty much found out about it by word of mouth, right?

Riley: Yeah, pretty much. I don't think at that point I had the internet, or anything like that (laughter).

Heaps: When the internet came around, you used it to record your adventures, sometimes in the form of a PBS-style documentary where you start out and it sounds reasonable, then it becomes more and more absurd, and you realize you're getting you leg pulled. You mix historical fact with made up stuff. Do you feel like when you were shooting these videos, were you more documenting what you were doing, or were you thinking about the video before you did the stuff?

Riley: I feel it's a combination of both. I don't know if I got better at video, just my process changed. I went out one day and I bought a video camera. When we were doing stuff in the mid-nineties, I was kind of strictly putting paintings on the wall before.

Heaps: Were you in that show at the National Arts Club?

Riley: Yeah yeah yeah, that's when I first met you, right?

Heaps: Right around then. And then you were in that show in Greenpoint, with the Enger brothers.

Riley: Yeah, that was the place I bit that guy's ear off.

Heaps: Who bit whose ear off?

Riley: The guy that ran the gallery there.

Heaps: Somebody Rebecca Smith was involved with?

Riley: Yeah.

Heaps: One of the Engers bit that guy?

Riley: Nah, I did. It's a long story, but it ended up working out in my favor, but I got in a lot of trouble. At any rate, that's a story for another day.

When I first got the video camera, I felt I wanted to document these places that nobody... that you couldn't really access. At that point there weren't all these kayak clubs like there are now. Maybe one or two people trying to start something up, but you could go to these islands and see that nobody had been there in decades.

Heaps: They are odd places, because they are in sight of millions of people every day, but they're hard to get to

Riley: Yeah, it's almost like people look at that river like it's made of hot lava. When I first started going out and working on this project on Mill Rock Island, I started meeting people in different places too. They were living totally off the grid, along the water in some of these abandoned buildings. There are a whole bunch of people who used to live on Randall's Island in a whole tent city that was out there that has since been completely cleared away. I didn't want to just go out there and be one of those guys who sticks a camera in somebody's face and starts... that's how the Mill Rock Island project happened. At Mill Rock Island there was nobody on there but I started asking people who lived in the woods around Randall's Island and Ward Island what they thought went on on Mill Rock Island. And they started making up stories. I started researching the island, and finding out different stuff, and then I was taking the stuff that they were making up, and videotaping that. So rather than doing a documentary on them, and being, oooh, look at these people that are living in the woods, which seemed kind of weird and exploitative, or something, I was making a movie with them, about these other people that didn't even exist. They started making up stuff about them.

Duke kayaking in Cleveland, photo by Kitty Joe Sainte-Marie

At any rate, that was a little bit about how I started making those kind of videos, but then, later on, I started thinking more about the idea of looking at weird, obscure historical stuff, and seeing how it related to things that were going on now.

Heaps: Well it seems like you started getting interested in old styles of art, like scrimshaw, which would be a real 19th century New England whaling type thing, and old style drawings... when did you start doing mosaic?

Riley: I started really messing around with mosaic when I was working with Julius and Joel from the Mars Bar on a construction project. We were building a loft in East Williamsburg, when I first moved here. We started laying down this BCT floor. I ended up taking home a bunch of the extra BCT cutouts from the floor. I just ended up messing around with it. I was doing some other work at the time, like some decorative painting and outdoor murals and scenic stuff and whatnot, I thought it was something that might be cool to use for a mural or something. I did a few mosaics that were just pretty much straightforward, some of the original ones were more along the lines of the stuff I was doing.

When I was working on the project of Mill Rock Island, creating the idea of these fake group of people who didn't exist...

Heaps: These are the ones who were banished to the island after they instigated a slave revolt, and they sank the General Slocum, and they blew up part of the island, which accounts for its funny shape...

Riley: Yeah, yeah, exactly, but the thing is, the way it's twisted around, it sounds like pretty much bullshit, but most of that's factual information. Like that really was the largest non-nuclear explosion in the history of the world, still to date. They really did blow up that island. And there really were people banished from New York after the slave revolt. They basically were sent up river and disappeared. A lot of the initial people were hung, but people that were loosely associated with it were sent out of the city.

The thing was this. I guess I was thinking, when I started working on this video, I didn't know what the hell I was doing with it. I didn't necessarily know if it was an art project that I was going to turn into an installation or something, or whether I was trying to make a movie, or what. I just felt like I wanted to film this stuff, because it was just disappearing, all over the place. All these buildings were getting knocked down, and the waterfront was changing. I knew I had to document it somehow, but I didn't want to just make a documentary. As people started making up stories about the people on the island that didn't really exist, I felt I wanted to make an art show and have artifacts that could embellish, or reinforce what the people were saying, so I decided they needed to have their own style of artifacts, or folk art, from that island.

I went back to Massachusetts, back to the Cape. So I didn't want to make some literal copy of this previously existing nautical craft, some type of folk art, and reclaim it as my own, and say, ok, this is it, except now I'm gonna make it look like it's taking this old thing and turning it into something else.

Heaps: Well you did start to master that folky, old timey, colonial style of drawing, and integrate that into your style.

Riley: Yeah, but I was trying to mix a couple things together so you couldn't really place it. Those things they have up there, like scrimshaw, or seashell mosaics, or an arrangement of seashells, but I thought why don't I use the mosaic tile that I was doing the other stuff with, it kind of doesn't look like anything nautical, so it's basically more like a Byzantine mosaic style or something. I was thinking about blending two different types of artifacts together, and coming up with something that really didn't look like anything, except that people thought it looked old, and looked like an artifact. Like it might be something that's really specific to this group of people that doesn't even really exist, so that was where I originally was heading with it, rather than just being, all right, I'm gonna make scrimshaw, except I'm gonna put oil tankers and stuff in there, and throw some sexuality in and make it postmodern. I was trying to make it more a thing that was genuinely weird artifact that didn't really look like it came out of a New England whaling museum, or Byzantine mosaic either, just looked like some really weird old shit! (laughter) You know what I mean?

Heaps: Would you say drawing is fundamental to the way you come up with your ideas? Do you get more ideas from drawing, or from going out there and exploring? Because there's a lot of imagination in the work.

Riley: Yeah, I think it's both things kind of... scrub each other's back. When you're cooped up in your place drawing for days at a time you get kind of a weird meditative thought, where you think about ideas for new projects and whatnot, then, definitely when I'm out wandering around, in a boat, or in the process of doing a project, like going out to Petty's Island, all of the stuff I'm seeing during the course of the day, different types of trash, or things floating in the water, certain dead fish that you see, and whatnot, all that stuff, you make mental notes of it and then when you go back and draw, or study history in a historical society, doing all this reading, and you read about something that might not have anything to do directly with what you're trying to do with your project, maybe some weird random thing that happened in the same area as your project. Usually I'll start a big drawing at the same time I start a project, and as I'm working on the project, I come back at night, or at the end of the week, and if I saw a bunch of, whatever, some condoms and a bag of Frito Lays floating down the river, I'd go home and night and maybe draw the Frito Lays in there.

At the same point, when you're doing historical research you read about some crazy shit that happened, and you might draw this weird thing in there too. It's all part of the same story.

Duke, in the Acorn, busted by the Harbor Police.

Heaps: You were interested in the Revolution a few years ago, when you were doing that thing with your submarine, the Acorn, was it the Acorn?

Riley: Yeah.

Heaps: I guess that was probably the most publicity you ever had, at that time, because you ended up on the front page of both the tabloids. Was the headline "What an Idiot", or is that just my imagination?

Riley: The Post said "Sub Moron", and the Daily News was "Sub Moronic". The Times was a little friendlier. I guess that's naturally the way things go.

Heaps: The Times already knew about you. I think you had a couple articles in there before, they weren't totally unaware of your existence.

Riley: But that's what you gotta expect from the Post and the Daily News, it's not like I thought that was gonna happen!

Heaps: So, for all those who don't know about Duke Riley, what happened on that fateful day, when you took your submarine innocently out toward the Queen Mary, docked in Red Hook?

Riley: Well, I definitely thought that I was gonna get away with it. I really, right up until the end. Looking back on it, I never realized, I was really pressed for time, I definitely knew that I didn't want to do it. The Queen Mary's only in town a certain number of days during the summer that coincide with the tide going in the direction that I needed it to go to get to the QM2 because the sub had no motor. It was totally relying on the tide.

Heaps: You had pedals in there, right?

Riley: The original one had a crank pedal mechanism, for when they used it in Boston, but when they used it in New York they just relied on the tides too.

Heaps: So, you're just floating around in a bobber.

Riley: Well there's a rudder. As long as you know where the tide's going, you can steer pretty well. You just can't go backwards. I knew that the Queen Mary would only be in town a certain number of days. It was definitely my plan to approach the QM2, because the original submarine was used to attack British ships in the harbor.

Heaps: So was the original submarine real, not just made up?

Riley: Yeah, the original was called the Turtle. The only made up part was, I said there were two submarines, and one of them mysteriously disappeared.

Heaps: And then the guy became a privateer.

Riley: Yeah, and that guy had a seditious faction. Which is all based on truthful things that happened too. At any rate, what happened was, it was definitely not my intention to get caught. I was hoping to document getting up close to it, and getting away, proving the ridiculousness of the whole Homeland Security system.

Heaps: They were too good for you, Duke.

Riley: Yeah, we spend millions and millions of dollars for these guys to check old ladies' pocketbooks on the train, at the time that was one of the top Al-Qaeda targets in the world, the QM2. I just wanted to get up to it and get away, and document it. I still got pretty fuckin' close to it! Somebody on the ship spotted it, and there were some harbor police nearby, and they came over, and, at gunpoint, made me stop the vessel and whatnot, and at that point, I still thought I was gonna get away with it. I basically felt, this is cool, I got within a hundred feet of the thing, I'm pretty happy.

They were asking what I was doing, and I was like, yeah, the sub got a little out of control, I was testing it out and I got stuck in the current. They were like, what do you want to do, I said maybe why don't you guys just tow me back over to Red Hook and we'll call it a day, and they were pretty much, no problem. They didn't want anything to do with it, you know, let's just get this guy out of here, and move on. But what happened was, somehow, a news helicopter was flying over and saw the whole thing. Or somebody from the ship I think called into Fox News, or some shit like that. These guys were all set to let me go. They were all, it's not a big deal. You know, New York police are used to seeing some pretty ridiculous shit, on a day to day basis, so the idea of a guy in a submarine was, to them, not that big a deal. They were kind of like, yeah, whatever, and the harbor cops are usually pretty cool. As soon as that happened, it went on the news, live, I guess, and they got a call...It was something that they couldn't like, all right, let's just tow this guy back, they realized they had to do everything

Once it was on TV, live, these guys were aware they were being watched, and scrutinized, and they had to follow every procedure, I mean they were all set to tow me back to Red Hook, and I was gonna be, all right, I'll never take it out again. Sorry! And then the Coast Guard showed up, and the FBI showed up, and the fuckin' bomb squad showed up, and the scuba diving unit showed up, and then some other Homeland Security. Next thing I know there's a hundred fuckin' cops out there and news cameras and all this other kinda shit. They were all ready to let me go before that.

Heaps: Did you give them a Power to the People salute?

Riley: Yeah, that was what happened, and then it turned into a much bigger deal. Ultimately, everything still worked out all right.

Heaps: Then, a lot of people knew who you were. I guess then you were working on a show for Magnan Projects.

Riley: Yeah, that was something I had been planning for a while.

Duke Riley, Those About To Die Salute You, Brooklyn vs. Queens
Photo by Jason Andra

Heaps: Then, in 2009, you had a show up at the Queens Museum, where you staged an enormous Roman-style naval battle in the reflecting pool which was built for the 1964 World's Fair. How many people were involved in the battle itself?

Riley: That's a good question. I don't even know how many people were in the battle. People always talk about projected numbers, like how many people they thought were in the crowd... Maybe 100, maybe more.

Heaps: Each of those boats had ten or twelve guys.

Riley: There were five big boats, and three smaller boats...

Heaps: Cases of tomatoes, and a thousand people in togas. That was pretty good. So how come the museum curators ended up getting mad about it, Duke?

Riley: Oh, wow! You're really getting right into it, man!

I think there was a little bit of a miscommunication. I think I made pretty clear everything I intended to do. It wasn't like we ever really wrote the fine details of it down on paper, but we definitely discussed, some of the things that were gonna happen.

Heaps: Did they have safety concerns, or legal concerns?

Riley: They got really freaked out, once it actually started to go into effect and they realized all of a sudden there was something that basically appeared to be completely out of control. That's what we were going for, you know? I think the fear factor set in, of just the litigious society we live in, they basically had thirty minutes of panic where they probably were thinking their whole lives were about to be destroyed.

Heaps: It was one of the biggest events ever at the Queens Museum. It was the first time I ever went over there. That's probably true of a lot of people who were there. It was an awesome experience.

Riley: Thanks.

Heaps: You were never out there in a kayak, ramming into boats?

Riley: No, no, I was the emperor. I was up on my throne, being fed grapes and rubbed with olive oil.

Heaps: It was a nice touch when the Queen Mary sailed out and got blown up.

Riley: Yeah I got my final revenge. Settled the score.

Heaps: So tell me what you're working on now, Duke. What's this new show called, and what's it about?

Riley: This show here, which I am calling Two Riparian Tales of Undoing, is basically a combination of two different out of town projects that I worked on in the past year.

Heaps: You had a big show at the Cleveland Museum. How'd that go?

Riley: Went great! And I had a show up in the spring in Philadelphia, at the Historical Society, as part of the Philagrafika biennial thing they started doing down there. Different artists did projects all over the city.

I'm basically showing what I did in the past year, because the year before that, I was working on the naval battle. This year I worked on these two things. They have similar things about them. They both have to do with these two different riverfront communities.

Heaps: So you went to those places and did some exploring before you decided what you were going to do there?

Riley: Yeah, basically that's what happens. I get asked to do a project, going different places, snoop around the waterways, read a little bit about the history of the area, talk to a bunch of people in dive bars and stuff and try and find out something that maybe got overlooked, and catches my interest, and maybe in some way it relates to something else that's going on, stuff we're dealing with in society now, or something like that.

Man, can you smell the whiskey well? It totally smells like low tide, which is good, I want it to stink a little bit. Ideally, I want the room to smell more like whiskey when I pour the whiskey in it. People might not be taking me up on some of these free whiskey drinks out of the well.

Heaps: Where did the bricks come from?

Riley: These all came from Bottle Beach.

Heaps: Where's that?

Riley: It's a beach that's out by Floyd Bennett Field. You go over like you're going to the Rockaways, by the Gil Hodges Bridge. It used to be a landfill from the turn of the century until the forties.

Duke Riley, Prepare to be boarded! Photo by Jason Andra

Heaps: At Dead Horse Bay I saw a dead baby shark on the shore. There was a bunch of garbage there from the forties.

Riley: It's at Dead Horse Bay. Yeah, that's Bottle Beach, right there. That's where you were.

It's kind of wacky what happens there with all these piles of newspapers. The pressure? You'd think it would be the first thing to break down, decompose. Newspapers out there that are sixty, seventy years old, all compressed. Some of them look like stones because they've been getting worn away by the water. They're all smooth and round. You think it's a stone, and you can peel it apart and it'll be, "16 ounce box of oats, 17 cents!" and weird old comics and stuff and then you see it disintegrate pretty much right before your eyes.

Heaps: Do you know the enemy of newsprint? Oxygen. Is the whiskey well a wishing well?

Riley: Originally it had to do with a river that was buried in Cleveland, connected to the sewer system. I was implying a sort of a portal to the Great Rock Candy Mountain, some sort of hobo's paradise. It's the river all the transients and hobos used to live along. There's going to be a tree, made out of cigarettes, but it's been chopped down, so it's like a paradise lost. There will be different mosaics and drawings that tell the story of how it was destroyed and what the ultimate outcome of that was.

And this is all going to be stuff to do with the thing I did in Philly.

Heaps: That was the story of a guy who lived on an island near Camden, and he was a deaf mute pig farmer?

Riley: He wasn't a deaf mute, his kids were all born deaf mutes but he was an immigrant who moved to Philadelphia and it didn't really work out for him there, so he decided to head out to this island in the middle of the Delaware and try his luck out there. He decided to declare himself king of the island and actually got married and had a bunch of kids. Other people who were immigrants, struggling in the new world, could come out to the island and get a foothold there.

Heaps: Duke, thank you for your time, especially since you're under pressure to complete this show. I'm looking forward to the opening. I bet it will be a great looking show, and a fun party.

Riley: Hopefully we'll have you there and we'll drink some fuckin' whiskey out of the well!

There is a ton of information and good documentation at Duke's website,

Duke's solo show, Two Riparian Tales of Undoing, will be on view at Magnan Metz Gallery, 521 West 26th Street, New York, from February 25th through April 9th.

Special thanks to Kitty Joe Sainte-Marie for the photos.

Heaps and Duke

Joe Heaps Nelson

Joe Heaps Nelson is an artist and writer in New York City.

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