Duke Riley: Welcome Back to Wasteland Fishing
On ViewOpen Source Gallery
September 12 – October 17, 2020
“The bulk of the water in New York Harbor is oily, dirty, and germy,” Joseph Mitchell, a longtime journalist for The New Yorker, wrote in his 1950 character study of New York City’s commercial fishermen. “Men on the mud suckers, the big harbor dredges, like to say that you could bottle it and sell it for poison.” For millennia, the Upper New York Bay has been a feeding and spawning zone for dozens of species of fish—cod, flounder, sea bass, mackerel, sturgeon—but by the middle of the 20th century, Mitchell wrote, the pollution was so intense that “only germs can live” at the head of the Gowanus Canal, where chemical levels were highest.
Recent years have found cleaner waters and fish returning en masse to New York City’s harbor. With them come sea life higher on the food chain. In 2011, one environmental organization spotted five whales in the waters around New York City. Last year, their count was 377—a rise at least partially attributed to cleaner waters. Though liquid chemicals are less present in the country’s waterways overall, solid forms of pollution have set in. Since World War II, plastics have filled the waters. A 2016 study published by the World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation found that by 2025, the world’s oceans will contain one ton of plastic for every three tons of fish, and by 2050 plastic will outweigh the sea life. A majority of these plastics come from un-recycled trash, which runs into the water during sewage overflows. Over time, large items can break down, but microplastics and out-gassed PVC are no less deadly to fish.
Just a few weeks after a humpback whale was trapped for three days in commercial fishing gear at the mouth of New York Harbor this summer, the artist Duke Riley opened an exhibition of fishing lures made from plastic trash he harvested from Brooklyn beaches. Riley, like Mitchell, is an idiosyncratic student of New York’s seedy underbellies, and he’s long been occupied with maritime history. Most New Yorkers know him as the guy who sailed a reconstructed Revolution-era submarine to “attack” the Queen Mary II, protesting the War on Terror. For over a decade now, he’s worked in Sheepshead Bay, where, 70 years ago, Mitchell ate stew with oystermen at Lundy’s.
Riley’s concept here is straightforward: he shows anglers how to up-cycle plastic waste into sport-fishing equipment. Riley pairs several dozen of these lures—made from lighters, syringes, and even a dildo—with an instructional video that parodies YouTube how-tos. The lures are convincing to my eye, and seemingly to fish’s eyes as well: in a second video, Riley uses a lure made from a tampon to catch fluke. Part of what Riley illustrates is that fishing, like just about everything else, is dominated by capital. The lures are a pun; they nod to the fish that is fatally hooked to commercial desire. The same economy that pushed humans out into the waters has, millennia later, pushed fishing folk into the cultural margins—Riley plays the wasteland fisherman as a country rube. Meanwhile, we may have inalterably destroyed the oceans.
Riley’s wasteland fisherman makes tackle for a leisurely sport, but the very insistence of fishing as a sport can marginalize those who depend on it for a living. In Buffalo, the entire Canalside waterfront “revitalization” (a là Baltimore) once hinged on opening a Bass Pro. If you still think fishing is recreational, spend some time watching anglers on YouTube. The videos are steeped in the calm but masculine mindset that would twist Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea (1952) into a fable of man’s dominion over nature. Riley borrows these videos’ tics and aesthetics: “Oh, hi!” he drones over hokey music, and the one-camera setup cuts to a crop and slows when he blows paint dry. Want to catch more fish than your buddy? Watch my YouTube. Want to dominate more and better? Buy new gear.
While Riley may be known for his large-scale work—like a four-boat naval battle that ended when the last boat sank in the reflecting pool of the Queens Museum—Wasteland Fishing is almost uncharacteristically discreet. Riley presents his project as part of a YouTube series called “Wasteland Fishing,” and as far as I’m aware, he’s only made the two videos in the gallery. I think that’s a waste. They’re good content—useful, relaxing, funny, and unpretentious—and they’d do well as an actual series that reaches some of Flukemaster’s 388,000 subscribers. Riley’s not making fun of anglers more than they can handle. Besides, he’s a fisherman himself and he moonlights inking traditional American sailor tattoos. Ultimately, Riley finds beauty on the margins. The survivors of Riley’s wasteland aren’t unlike the 2,000 pigeons he let loose in Navy Yard four years ago, each with a light strapped to its leg. New Yorkers scorn the birds in the glittering city. They’re scavengers and outcasts, overlooked. But they’re also able to harvest something living from the detritus. Where others can’t, they survive.