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This artist is about to let 1,500 glowing pigeons loose over the Thames

Andrzej Lukowski

The 2018  London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT) is now upon us, and the show that everybody's talking about is ‘Fly by Night’, a co-commission with the Greenwich + Docklands International Festival and the First World War centenary arts programme 14-18 Now. In it, 1,500 LED-wearing pigeons will soar over the skies above Thamesmead in south-east London in a tribute to the carrier pigeons of the First World War.

The US artist behind it, Duke Riley, first staged ‘Fly by Night’ at the Brooklyn Navy Yard a couple of years ago, and he was taken aback by how well it went down.

‘When you arrive, they’re just kind of hanging out,’ he says. ‘And as the light starts to dissipate you start to see these moving constellations in the sky. A lot of people started crying, oddly enough. As an artist you can’t hope for more than that as a reaction.’

We talk at the site in Thamesmead where ‘Fly By Night’ will happen: at the moment it’s basically a massive pigeon coop on a derelict golf course. In London’s unprettified former docklands, the message behind its British performance is explicitly tied to the role pigeons played in the First World War.

‘In WWI – and in the Royal Navy in particular – night-flying pigeons were used as in no other conflict. They flew by night so German hawks wouldn’t get them.’

The pigeons in Thamesmead today are pretty remarkable: a few familiar greys, but also whites, blacks and browns. They wheel and fly in tight, graceful formations that look like clouds of butterflies as much as flocks of birds. But how do you actually source 1,500 pigeons?

‘I was talking to a friend in the pigeon community at home,’ says Riley. ‘He’s Mike Tyson’s bodyguard, David Malone, and he was like, “I know a guy.” I wasn’t sure, but if there’s somebody you can trust, it’s Mike Tyson’s bodyguard. He gave me this number and this guy said: “Yeah, I have that many pigeons.”  A few months later, I was scouting the site.’

‘Fly By Night’ is at East Thamesmead (transport provided from Abbey Wood station). Jun 21-23.

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