When Dorian Gray needs to get high, he knows where to head. With opium lust gnawing away at him, he hails a hansom cab and bribes the driver to take him to the docks in London’s East End. On the shadowy, greasy quay he is spoiled for choice with regard to opium dens; the perfect backdrop for his moral disintegration at the end of Oscar Wilde’s famous novel.
For a long time the margins of our towns and cities – particularly those around water – were dangerous, dirty and disease-ridden places to indulge one’s darker appetites safe in the knowledge that nobody would ask too many questions. Nowadays urban waterfronts represent prime real estate, but this is a recent development. When the artist Duke Riley was growing up in Boston, he went to work on the fish piers with his uncle, and there wasn’t a whiff of gentrification in the air.
“It was a gritty place and kind of lawless. For starters nobody really asked what I was doing there. I was hanging out at this fish pier in south Boston – sometimes in the middle of the night – and it wasn’t like anyone questioned why there was a 10-year-old kid drinking beer and smoking cigarettes.
“It seemed like the whole place operated by a different set of rules, both actual laws and societal norms that I was used to. I think it had a profound influence on my outlook on the world. For centuries that kind of edge of the city where water meets land was the place where things that didn’t fit into the rest of society ended up. They were places associated with disease and crime and bad smells, undocumented people coming and going, various illicit cargo and sex workers.
“Watching a lot of those places disappear so quickly, I feel that will have an unrecognised impact on what they provided in society and what it means when they’re gone. Gradually I try to continue to seek that environment out and discuss and explore its impact.”
Duke Riley studied painting at the Rhode Island School of Design (other alumni include Jenny Holzer, Jessica Walsh and Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane) before getting an MA in sculpture from the Pratt Institute in New York. He tried a series of jobs but drifted into tattooing to cover his legal fees after a fight led to the other guy losing an ear and – under US law – an attempted murder charge. The case was dropped after it became clear Duke acted in self defence, and his new career prospered.
I interview him over the phone at his tattoo parlour in Brooklyn; an area that knows more about gentrification than most. It lends its name to his most notorious project After The Battle Of Brooklyn, for which he built an eight by six foot wooden submarine and launched a raid on the British cruise liner the Queen Mary 2. He was inspired by a similar vessel used in New York harbour during the American Revolution, but also by the impact of a new cruise ship dock plonked in the formerly blue-collar Red Hook neighbourhood.
Unsurprisingly Duke was arrested and the media had a field day at his expense; The New York Post front page screamed ‘Sub Moron!’ But After The Battle of Brooklyn, although not his first project, is the best example of how three key themes in Duke’s artistic thinking manifest themselves across his work.
The first is risk. Just as Oscar Wilde understood about the seedy side of waterfront communities, he also promoted the idea of uncertainty. Duke quotes a Wildean maxim on his website: “An idea without danger is unworthy of being called an idea at all.”
Since his arrest in the Hudson River, Duke has organised a huge St Patrick’s Day parade through the streets of Havana (2007), staged a mock naval battle between New York’s five boroughs in homage to the deadly entertainments laid on by Roman Emperors (2009), re-run the race of the Zodiac with live animals down a river in China (2012) and trained a flock of pigeons to smuggle contraband Cuban cigars from Havana to Florida while evading the USA’s multi-million dollar surveillance systems (2013).
“I am drawn to those situations because they keep me focussed,” he says. “I was diagnosed with extreme ADD at a pretty early stage and I think somehow risk has played a role in a lot of different parts of my life.
I feel as an artist it’s one of the key ingredients to making something actually. If you’re not pushing any boundaries then you’re not really doing your job. An artist’s job is to break the rules. You’re supposed to be doing things where you can fail and you can make mistakes and doing things that haven’t been done. A lot of times the benefits may not be apparent to anyone else for some time to come but it’s all about taking those risks, otherwise you’re not really accomplishing anything. There are plenty of people who have successful careers as artists who don’t take any risks, but that doesn’t mean that I have to respect them.”
Written down this statement looks quite blunt but his tone is more passionate than pugnacious. Similarly his harrying of the American authorities – be it those patrolling waters around Brooklyn or trying to police illicit goods entering the US from Cuba – stems from a positive rather than negative starting point.
“I had a pretty patriotic upbringing,” he says. “Most of the people in my family had done military service and I feel they get pretty teary-eyed when they hear The Star Spangled Banner.
“My best work is when I am reacting to something in my own country, and that’s when I feel most confident making any kind of criticism. I think it’s one of the most patriotic things you can possibly do because you’re exercising your democratic constitutional rights, and without doing that they tend to fall apart.”
He expands on this idea in a 2008 essay called Thoughts on Democracy. “Our right to fail, encounter chance and danger is just as important as our right to pleasure,” he writes. “It is what makes us a free people. Our rights need to be constantly tested, refreshed and renewed. This testing is the messy process of a democracy…” The patriotic compunction seems to be confirmed by the masthead of his website which reads “Artist. Patriot.” but Duke admits the provenance of this design decision was fairly inglorious.
“The guy who was designing my website just threw it up one day when we were drinking some Sam Adams beer. We were just hanging out in his kitchen and I would show up with a six-pack and at the time they had a thing that said ‘Brewer. Patriot.’ That’s the god’s honest truth about how it all got started, and everything just kind of grew from there.
“Then a couple of years later I got arrested trying to attack the QM2 and all these people in the media picked up on this thing that I was ‘a self-proclaimed patriot’ on my website. I thought fuck it, I kind of am a patriot. Most of the work that I do addresses issues of personal freedom and individual rights so it kind of does have to do with patriots. So I left it up there and it’s still there now.”
Interlinked with this interest in patriotism and our relationship to the state, culture and society we belong to is a fascination with history. “Growing up in New England you are constantly surrounded by history and force-fed it in school to a much greater degree. Every class trip you go on you keep reliving the American Revolution over and over again.
“In Europe people are much more surrounded by history all the time. I dated a girl from London a few years back and she was getting public assistance and the house the city supplied her with had a plaque on it. It was George Orwell’s house! I was like hang on a minute you’re getting subsidised housing and the house they give you is George Orwell’s house?!”
Duke though uses history not as a decorative plaque, but as a way to reassess the present. After The Battle of Brooklyn was inspired by a post 9/11 culture which steamrollered liberty in the name of security.
“The war on terror in the U.S. and abroad mirrors the American Revolutionary War on many levels,” he wrote in his artist statement. “This time, however, our role as the military superpower as well as our ideology has inverted. Those who oppose us must resort to new tactics of destruction and terror. In our effort to squelch these attacks, we have compromised our civil liberties… This undermines the founding principles that true patriots fought to establish long ago.”
Those About To Die Salute You – the joyously chaotic naval battle he staged at the Queens Museum in 2009 – was inspired by the naumachia events held in Roman times. These were used to distract the populace when the Empire was on the brink of collapse; particularly timely then to resurrect the practice in the wake of the economic crash.
First-hand accounts of the carnage that ensued as drunk spectators pelted the participants with tomatoes and invaded the arena despite the desperate pleads of the MC (“Get out of the fucking pool!”) suggest such catharsis was much-needed.
Duke watched it unfold from a safe distance. “I was the emperor so I was not getting involved in that. It was definitely the longest 20 minutes of my life. All of a sudden you realise you’re completely responsible for countless strangers getting really crazy and violent in a pool of water where there’s projectiles and fireworks going off.” It was seen as a huge success – “exactly what the art world needs right now” as one critic put it – but threw up a reoccurring challenge with Duke’s work; how on earth do you document it?
Of course there are the videos and the photographs but Duke’s gallery shows involve a whole lot more as well; drawings, sculptures, paintings and scrimshaw (engravings on ivory) that blend fact and fiction, history, myth and suggestion.
When Trading With The Enemy – the audacious pigeon smuggling project – went on show earlier this year, visitors could study the harnesses used for the flights, the cigars, the footage filmed en route by cameras strapped to some of the participants, paintings of all 50 pigeons (named after either famous smugglers like Pablo Escobar or film directors that have had trouble with the law like Mel Gibson and Roman Polanski) and even the birds that made it back, installed in a loft within the gallery space.
On one level Duke is always thinking about what might eventually go on show; he takes photographs constantly while working to produce “a visual journal of my surroundings.” Flotsam and jetsam he sees floating in the water often reappears faithfully recreated in his drawings. But he also doesn’t feel guilty if some of his work has to be experienced in the flesh, whether that’s an unquestionable you-had-to-be-there experience like the naval battle or a huge artwork that simply can’t be reproduced properly online.
“Every artist will tell you you have to see it in person but the drawings are sometimes 10 feet long, seven feet high, have extremely intricate detail and can take 400 hours to complete. There is actually no way you can experience that if you haven’t seen it. But that’s ok. I think it’s nice to make certain things in the world that only exist in real-time and don’t exist on the internet, things that you’re either there for, or you aren’t. It’s probably not very good for marketing but it’s important to me.”
Another thing that’s important to him is research. He is often reluctant to go into detail with interviewers about how he actually does things but alludes on his website to working “in the tradition of field naturalists, seeking and gathering data, artefacts, and specimens outdoors, transporting them inside for closer observation and study.” There is an element of the untamed maverick to what he does, but he freely admits there are more prosaic days too. “Sometimes it’s more like being a private investigator, going to bars and other places and asking questions. Sometimes it involves hiring real private investigators or breaking into different places you’re not supposed to be. But sometimes you’re in a library looking at microfilm all day.”
In some projects his role ends when the research and the planning does; the final spectacle plays out without his guiding hand. This was the case with The Rematch, a restaging of the Chinese race of the Zodiac which took place in Zhujiajiao in 2012. In the original story the rat wins by cheating, therefore influencing the Chinese calendar for centuries to come, which seemed unfair to Duke. So he worked with the local community, gathering together the same animals and hiring local boatsmen to race them in the river. The dragon was replaced by an iguana and the tiger was played by a performance artist for practical reasons.
There’s great footage of the project; at the end it shows Duke in a gold hat and leopard print jacket giddy with glee as the first boat crosses the finish line: “It’s the cow, the cow was first!” But that was as far as his involvement on the day went. “When you’re working in someone else’s country and reinterpreting their culture, I wasn’t sure how well that would be received. Although I was the announcer at the end it was definitely important for me to not put myself in the actual event and let them maintain ownership.”
The hard work really took place in the days and weeks leading up to the race. There’s a great scene in the same video which shows Duke in a classroom explaining what he is doing and asking the children to draw banners for the race. This is the bit of being an artist he really loves.
“The studio practice aspect of our work I enjoy to a degree, but over time it can get very isolating particularly as I am a very hands-on, need-to-do-it-myself kind of artist. But doing stuff with the whole community is a way to be working on something that is bigger than yourself.
“I have always been drawn to trouble to some degree. I had a lot of learning disabilities and the challenges of certain bureaucracies and education systems where I was constantly trying to bullshit and survive and navigate my way through – I think those are talents where I might have even greater strengths than my ability to draw.
“That’s all part of the game; trying to weave your path through a mess of obstacles and bureaucracy. You take what seems like an impossible task and gradually try to make it happen.”
That appetite for making things happen seems to remain undimmed, even as he gets older and his work better-known. “I don’t feel myself changing much and maybe that scares me. When I was younger I would be involved in different discussions where people would be attacking certain artists for selling out or for their work becoming less relevant. I think it’s hard for anybody to stay relevant as they get older, like it’s hard for somebody’s parents to stay cool. As people get older their lives change and there are different fears and sense of mortality that doesn’t exist in an artist in their early 20s .”
But despite all the big ideas that underpin his work, he is also focussed on doing things he enjoys. “I think with anything artistic there is a blurred line between your own personal manifesto and your own personal desires. I talk a lot about the reasons why my projects revolve around the waterfront but it’s also that I like being on the water. You try and create the most happy situations for yourself.”
The pursuit of happiness; spoken like a true American patriot.