We’re beautiful like diamonds in the sky

Contemporary artist Duke Riley’s outdoor installation, Fly By Night wasn’t like anything I’d seen before. And I’ve seen plenty. Riley constructed pigeon coops on the helicopter landing deck of a decommissioned Navy vessel that was docked in the Brooklyn Navy Yards.


The press release said 2,000 pigeons lived there. For six weeks, three nights a week at dusk, Riley and his handlers stood on top of the coops, whistled and whooped and set the birds flying. They gently swirled over the East River.

You may have noticed something odd. Attached to their legs were small leg bands. Long ago, when pigeons were used as couriers, these bands contained messages. Now, they contained LED lights. As darkness fell, the lights popped against the black sky. They became swirling comets over the Hudson.

Pigeons are not nocturnal by nature. Riley had to acclimate them to flying in the dark. Some animal rights activists felt this was abuse and picketed the exhibit when it first opened but none were there the night I saw it. Here, the choreography is set against the Williamsburg Bridge and Manhattan skyline.

The piece lasted about :20 minutes. They were trained homing pigeons and didn’t fly away to join their brethren in the city. They returned to their coops to the sound of Sister Nancy’s Pigeon Rock.

Riley has a special fondness for pigeons. In an earlier piece, 50 of them carried illegal cigars from Havana to Key West. Tiny cameras recorded the event. This last clip is superfluous. It’s just me toying with my iPhone settings.


Meanwhile, back in my past, a vacation goes bust.


March 17, 1992

The Bahamas were lovely but we never had sex. Not once. I wasn’t interested and neither was she and no amount of alcohol could change that. I wish I’d gone with anyone else. I’m sure she feels the same way.

I’m refreshed. Nine hours of sleep every night and day after day of sunshine, beaches and great meals will do that to a person. But at night, I looked across the bed and felt nothing. Thank God she lives in Columbus. That’ll make it easier. She drove me mad with that fucking camera. How many picture do you need?

She could’ve been more adventurous. She’s consumed with caution and dread and governs her life with a strict adherence to rules. She wouldn’t take a boat out to a coral reef to snorkel because she was afraid of getting too much sun. Scuba diving was entirely out of the question because it’s too dangerous. She was afraid her lungs might burst. I finally got her to snorkel, but only in the lagoon near the hotel, which was so polluted with sunscreen that you couldn’t see six feet in front of you. It was disgusting. After that, she wouldn’t go again.

She insisted on eating only ‘natural’ food. What’s that? Lots of fish, I suppose. Every morning she took a fistful of vitamins and supplements. I’ll bet half of them are placebos. We took a ferry to the mainland to visit the ruins and she got seasick. So frail and easily knocked off her game. I can’t say I was much of a gentleman. She’s probably as glad to be rid of me as I am of her. Perhaps more so. I barely know her. What were we thinking?

65 thoughts on “We’re beautiful like diamonds in the sky

  1. What a cheery start to the day. We spent a lot of time outside this weekend (in Quebec, we get two long weekends in a row, the provincial “national” holiday this past and the national national holiday next), and I was remarking that there were more fireflies buzzing about than in recent years. Why do lights blipping around in the night make us feel so hopeful?

      • To make things even more ideal, we have this brilliant house concert series going on in town. The promoter (a local guy) convinces these musicians on tour to stop for the night. He feeds and boards them, they do a set, and about 50 people show up for pot luck and music. This past Saturday, it was an indie-folk duo (ugh; labels) named Oh Pep from Australia, up on the porch, the rest of us on the grass. My two older girls joined us. Glorious summer nights. It’s the best if not only good thing going on in my little town right now.

      • And all that is courtesy of nice weather. We get a lot of outdoor concerts and movies (yes, movies), too. It makes you wonder why we live in a place that only had nice weather four or five months out of the year.

    • It’s funny you say that. In a few of the reviews I read they said the same thing. How good could this possibly be? But it was quite a spectacle. The videos only capture what was in front of the camera. This was going on 360 degrees.

  2. Fascinating pigeon display Mark. It never ceases to amaze me how large numbers of birds flock together, turning together and moving up and down together – like they read each others’ minds. Swallows come in even bigger flocks but alas are too little to carry an LED. I’ve stopped on the roadside and watched fascinated while the flocks maneuver. Cool.

    That was a crap shoot with your young female friend that didn’t pay off. It’s not possible to know the outcome unless you try. For a while Babe Ruth was the home run king. What few mention is that he was at the same time, the strike out king. The reason?: He swung at the balls with all his might if he thought he had even a small chance of connecting. And so should your love life be. I once had the exact opposite happen – ended up with a nymphomaniac in the cab of the truck for a week. By the end I was so sure I was incapable of satisfying a woman that I suspended all relationships for months. An ego crusher. But hey, ya gotta try. 😀

    Great post Mark – birds of both kinds – ha!

  3. Pooh I love the pigeons. I will need to watch it again. As a bird lover, I’m not generally fond of pigeons, but wow!

    I’m in Maine now, watching the gulls over the water..oh how I’d love to fly!

    I hope your non-lover learned, eventually, to take a few risks. What a boring life she must have had otherwise. I know yours isn’t!

    • I always thought that pigeons were garbage birds as well. Here in NYC they call them rats with wings. But one of Riley’s aims, believe it or not, is to give them more respect. It was beautiful in person. The videos are inadequate, but definitely take the time to watch them. They’re worth it.

      I was never a big thrill-seeker but c’mon. Once in a while, take a chance. Especially if you’re someplace you’ve never been.

      I hear Maine is really nice. Have a good trip.

  4. Wow! Amazing! We do like our night lights, don’t we? Everything from fireworks to (now) lighted pigeons. This must appeal to some primal comfort zone. Thank you for sharing this with us.

    There’s nothing more awkward than going on holidays with the wrong person. You can make the best of it, but holidays are so valuable, and that’s such a shame.

    • I loved it. There were a lot of little kids there and they seem enthralled. It looked like a dumb idea on paper but the execution worked beautifully. A very trippy experience.

      In retrospect, I honestly don’t know what we were thinking going away together. We really didn’t know one another. As is often the case when you’re young, you throw caution to the wind and hope everything works out. This time, it didn’t.

  5. That is WAY better than fireworks. I’d love to see that.
    I had a Bahamas vacation with a girl I wish I hadn’t gone with, but I also wasn’t trying to sleep with her. She was just a bitch. I just kept my distance (as much as was possible given we shared a room) and a Pina Colada in my hand. It’s been 28 years and it’s still the best Pina Colada I ever had.

    • The only downside was that I had to wash my jacket the next day. I’m thinking a lot of people had to. Small price to pay for such a unique experience.

      How do we wind up in these messes? Vacationing with people not fit to tie our shoes? I chalked it up to youthful exuberance. I didn’t have a lot of money at the time. I was kind of angry that I blew so much $$$ on what was basically an extended bad date.

  6. There were pigeons I used to see from the Henry St apartment and one day a raptor just waiting in a big tree.I never saw it catch anything, but I watched…

    A strike-out trip to the Bahamas…must have been a blow at the time, but you found a story in it.Someone told me that Hemingway never wrote off any experience as worthless either. So there ya go.

  7. The pigeon installation was gorgeous.

    Hey- give a shout next time you have something like that planned. I’d have gone! I’m actually leaving my house this summer.

    I once traveled with a girlfriend whose company made me cringe. I left early to go home.

    • I should’ve called! I went to that alone, which is fine, I don’t mind, but it would’ve been fun to drag you with me. Isn’t it great that the kids getting older = more freedom? My wife and I go out to dinner and leave them home alone. It’s like a magic trick.

      • Yes, it’s easier now that my kid is older. But I’m also a little sad. We still hang out, but I sense that starting to slip away. I knew that would happen. 😞

      • We both knew the day would come when we were needed less and less. Soon, we will no longer be needed at all. Knowing it’s coming doesn’t make it any easier when arrives.

  8. What is it about 1992 and your entries? Are they concentrated in that year, or what kind of span of journals do you have, I’m curious. Are you going sequentially or just on “Shuffle?” Bill

  9. Hello Marky Mark – hope you are well! I don’t know how anyone could come up with something like that installation. It’s incredibly creative. Thanks for sharing your photos. Just when you think you’ve seen it all in the wonderful world of art via Mark’s blog… then there are pigeons lighting up the night sky!
    As for your journal entry… why did you go on a trip with someone like that to begin with? Live and learn, I guess.

    • It’s you! Guess what? I’m coming to Cleveland over the 4th holiday to see my family. You’ll feel my presence.

      In 10,000 years I would never come up with an installation that clever. The video doesn’t give the full picture. Those birds were swirling all around us 360°.

      You know why we went to the Bahamas together. Starts with an L. Rhymes with rust. Doesn’t always work out though.

  10. If Lucy had been in the sky too, the spectacle would have been complete. I wonder how he got the pigeons to fly in the dark against their nature. Are they enjoying the experience or scared of not getting their birdseed ration if they don’t? The animal rights people need to investigate these matters instead of just protesting.

    How was the sex with her before you went to the Bahamas? It doesn’t seem like the right chemistry could ever have existed.

    • You are betraying you age, sir. The title is a reference to contemporary pop song, whereas your reference is to an old chestnut from the 1960’s. One wonders if the kids who get my reference know anything at all about yours.

      Maybe the artist threatened to starve the birds or pull their wings off if they didn’t fly at night. That’d be effective enough incentive, I’d say.

      Hmmm…the sex before the trip was…let me try to remember…oh, yes. It was awful. Perhaps we felt a change of scenery was needed. Fail.

  11. You know being from Cleveland when i see the words Fly By Night i figure i’m gonna hear some Rush maaaaan! I do like the glowing pigeons though, they remind me of being in the sea and watching the schools of swirl and dance… i’m heading to the Bahamas in the near future so i can swim with the pigs… yes you read that right.

    • Every time—EVERY TIME—I did something with this post I wound up with an ear worm. Glad I wasn’t the only one. I’m off to Clevo for an extended holiday. On Saturday morning you can fine me buying bacon at the West Side Market.

      Speaking of bacon, I’ve read about swimming with the pigs. The NY Times did an article. Apparently, they’re stressed out because dopy tourist are having their pictures taken while sitting on them. If you see anyone do that, kick ‘em extra hard.

    • The Bahamas isn’t a terribly expensive vacation from here. You get there in no time and they use US currency. It’s probably a major undertaking from where you’re reading this.

      We did not stay in touch. Afterwards, she said she was going to come out to New York for a visit from Columbus, Ohio but she never did. And I didn’t encourage it.

    • Are you home? Finally? You are a lucky, lucky girl to have had that experience. Oh, lucky girl.

      We were sexually incompatible. I think we both thought a change of scenery would improve things but…well…you know how your brain works when you’re young.

  12. I don’t care for pigeons . They foul my arbour. The last film gave me a Hitchcockian shudder.
    At least you had a good rest in the Bahamas. What were you thinking?

    • Pigeons are hated by most people. It was part of the artists’ intent to change that perception and get people to see them as beautiful creatures. I can tell you I wasn’t the only one who had to have their jacket washed after the performance.

      I chalk up Bahamian episode to youthful exuberance and wishful thinking. Seeking but not finding.

  13. Another amazing Art installation. Better than Jannis Kounellis’s Untitled (12 Horses) at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise gallery in Greenwich Village a year ago this week. This has a lot of ACTION as opposed to bowel MOVEMENT.
    Your journal entry was dated St. Patrick’s Day. Was that Bahama trip so depressing it spoiled the Green Beer Fest for you?
    I also did a weekend trip (LasVegas) with a girl. It started out bad as we boarded the jet. Sex was ok but everything else was terrible. Never spoke again and we lived in the same complex. I feel your pain.

    • Do you remember when I posted about that horse exhibit or year ago? It really did seem silly. Although, I like the part where they fed us tacos that were cooked underground for free.

      I had very limited choices when I was young man. I had to vacation with who was available to meet at the time. Quality and compatibility went out the window. Those were luxury items I couldn’t afford to pack.

  14. I’m normally much too white-bread to appreciate performance art, but that was cooooool.

    I can’t wait until they recreate your Bahamas experience as a commercial for Sandals’ Caribbean vacation packages. Truth in advertising.

    • If I had known the installation was going to be that visually stunning I’d have gone back to smoking weed just for one night.

      The odd thing about the trip is that we didn’t fight or have any hostility. We just weren’t interested in that part of the vacation.

    • She lives! SHE LIVES!

      I was quite the vulgarian back then. I don’t approve of that language now and must be forgiven for my youthful transgressions.

      Speaking of youthful transgressions; No, I never saw her again although she made plans to take a few days off in the summer and visit me. It never happened.

  15. They say we make mistakes as young people. Sometimes our judgment was good and sometimes not. All I can say is that the “vacation” woman seemed to be a bit squirrely.

    I was fascinated by the LED lights attached to the pigeons. Although they are messy in big cities they are not here. Once as I was driving to the VA hospital where I worked as a permanent evening RN, I happened to see a group of seven while pigeons take flight from a roadside ditch. They were stunning and I’ve never forgotten that scene. I considered those pigeons a good luck omen but they was only a pipe dream or maybe not.

  16. I love the light-bright pigeons.

    But I love the story from 1992 so much more. Do you think you would have been so annoyed with her if you weren’t so pissed that you weren’t doing the intercourse? It’s funny how much we thought with our ding-a-lings back when we were young, dumb, and full of you-know-what.

    • Lite Bright
      Making things with light
      Otta sight
      Making things with Lite Bright

      Are you old enough to remember that?

      Actually, I wasn’t pissed at all. I might’ve been if I was willing and she wasn’t but, honestly, the feeling of revulsion was mutual. I just thought it was a wasted opportunity.

  17. Unlike most people, I’m very fond of pigeons, not to imply that I feed them or would want one for pet. I think they do rather well fending for themselves here in NYC. Sometimes when I’m walking on the sidewalk, I’ve noticed them walking next to me ad I always like that. I have mixed feelings about Fly By Night, only because now that the exhibit is over, I hope they weren’t destroyed. You must think I’m a sap, but they’re living creatures. If 2000 of the are going to be housed in coops and trained to fly at night, that messes with nature. But I suppose if their fate had been Something Bad, animal rights activists would have pounced all over the artist.

      • The videos were okay, but knowing that it was carrier pigeons with LED’s strapped to their little legs, it rang the alarm bells in my head about the welfare of these creatures. If the end result is that 2000 pigeons were destroyed for one man’s art, I find it cruel. Sorry to be such a wet noodle, but I’m a bird lover.

  18. I’m quite fond of LEDs, having been involved in the development of solid state white lighting… it’s pretty cool, and I like to think that the pigeons weren’t really harmed in the process. they were fed, housed, and got to live a little bit outside the envelope of their comfort zone.

    I had a vacation like yours, only in Milwaukee, not a beautiful tropical location. Met up with an old friend from junior high, and we decided that we needed to make up for missed opportunities in our youth. After the first attempt at a hook up when I arrived, it was clear to me that sex just wasn’t gonna happen… how to fill the rest of our time over the long weekend? We spent time walking, playing guitars, and cooking. Not a complete waste, but because he is a recovered addict, I didn’t drink (even though he said it would be ok). I gulped three doubles in the airport before the plane took off…

  19. Pingback: A light shines in Brooklyn | Exile on Pain Street

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