Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a pigeon! It’s . . . two thousand pigeons with lights swirling in the Brooklyn dusk like dancing constellations? In winter 2013-14, Boston-born, Brooklyn-based artist Duke Riley sent camera-carrying homing pigeons from Cuba to Key West, transporting illegal cigars. Now Riley, who in 2012 restaged a centuries-old boat race featuring zodiac animals on a canal in Zhujiajiao, China, and in 2007 reenacted the Revolutionary War mission of the one-manned primitive submarine known as the Turtle in New York harbor, has trained two thousand pigeons, each fitted with a remote-controlled LED light strapped to one of its legs, to soar through the sky above the Brooklyn Navy Yard every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night shortly past sunset. Attendees first follow a winding path through the fascinating navy yard, where military ships were built from 1806 to 1966, leading to the water, where the pigeons reside on the Baylander, a decommissioned Vietnam-era Navy ship now outfitted with eighty feet of coops. People take seats on the bleachers — the higher the better — or stand by the ship as Nick Cave music plays and the pigeons start to gather atop the Baylander.
As the sun sets over the East River waterfront, the music fades and sounds of live cooing rise, and then three operatives start waving flags that signal a wide variety of pigeons, from Homers, Egyptian Swifts, Satinettes, German Beauties, and Russian High Flyers to Tipplers, Damascenes, Fantails, Roller/Tumblers, and New York Flights, to head up into the air, where they perform an improvisational dance, flying in groups in seemingly choreographed patterns, soaring east, then west, or taking off on a solo trip, like a lost balloon floating away. (Don’t worry; they all eventually return to their individual lofts aboard the ship.) It’s utterly thrilling watching them billowing above, a torrent of shooting stars, looking like they’re having at least as much fun as the audience. Occasionally one of the pigeons might actually take a break and dive-bomb into the crowd, soliciting shrieks and cheers. We suggest trying to set your eyes on one — perhaps Tofu, Goldee Hawn, the Red Baron, Lucifer, Saturday Night Fever, or Pablo Escobar — and follow it like it’s a snowflake floating down from the heavens. After about forty-five minutes, the birds are called back to the Baylander, returning home to the sounds of, what else, Prince’s “When Doves Cry.” Presented by the outstanding nonprofit arts agency Creative Time, whose previous projects include Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby” at the Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg and “Drifting in Daylight” in Central Park, “Fly by Night” is an exhilarating experience that will make you think twice about these pervasive urban creatures.