A Conversation with Brooklyn-Based Artist Duke Riley


Riley has been collecting trash that washes up on the Brooklyn waterfront for years. Now he’s turning it into art.

“Works in Progress” highlights artists across a range of disciplines whose work deals with ecological themes. Considering the particular role that artists play in the climate movement, this column will share their voices and provide a glimpse behind the curtain into their creative processes and experiences. Through a combination of Q&As and narrative pieces, this column will discuss the relationship between the natural world, advocacy, and the art itself.

art pieces made of trash hanging on gallery wall
Duke Riley's most recent exhibition, “DEATH TO THE LIVING, Long Live Trash” at the Brooklyn Museum was made to look like a collection in an old maritime museum. – Courtesy of Duke Riley

Duke Riley is a Brooklyn-based artist whose work centers on maritime history and urban waterways. His most recent exhibition, “DEATH TO THE LIVING, Long Live Trash,” held at the Brooklyn Museum from June 2022 to April 2023, was made to look like a collection in an old maritime museum; rather than names, Riley gave the pieces numbers and called the space “The Poly S. Tyrene Memorial Maritime Museum.” The exhibit included scavenged materials that Riley collected along the Brooklyn waterfront to create renditions of traditional maritime crafts such as scrimshaws, fishing lures, and sailor’s valentines

Riley spoke with Bluedot Living’s associate editor, Lily Olsen, about the exhibit, his work, and how it’s evolved over the years.

Lily Olsen: Your work has spanned a range of subject matters and mediums. How has it evolved over the years?

Duke Riley: My work over the years has addressed a lot of different issues, and they're all sort of interconnected. And I think that, as of late, environmental issues have taken more of a front seat as the immediate impacts of climate change happening around us become harder to ignore. 

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My work has always been focused on waterfront communities, particularly urban waterfront communities, and the issues that they face, and how those spaces have changed over the past few decades. And I've always been interested in the psycho-geographic aspect of that space where the water meets land. Over time I was documenting everything that I was seeing, which was a combination of both the flora and the fauna, as well as the trash that was in the water. And I wasn’t necessarily seeing those things as separate from each other. But over the past 20 years, I've watched the plastic just keep increasing in those areas.

LO: Could you tell me more about the psycho-geographic aspects of these spaces that interest you?

DR: The waterfront is this space that's always shifting with the tides and the storms. So it's always been this kind of unstable space. And I think that in the urban environment, that instability made it a less desirable, or a forgotten space. This has changed over the past 30 years or so. But traditionally, that sort of space has always lent itself to being a little bit more lawless and kind of a sanctuary for the kind of things that don't always fit into the constraints of mainstream society.

LO: What has it felt like to see more and more plastic washing up on shore in these places that have been central to your work for years?

DR: I think that people are just sort of used to going into these spaces and seeing trash. When I was a kid, there was seaglass on the beach. You don't see that anymore, and a lot of the shells are gone, too. At the beaches that a lot of people attend, you don’t see plastic, because there are people cleaning it up; there’s an interest in picking up the trash. It makes people not really fully aware of how bad the situation is. It's actually when you go to a remote area where you're sort of expecting to be in more of a pristine natural environment that then, all of a sudden, all this crap is there, because there's no huge interest in attending to it.

art piece made from trash fishing lures
Artist Duke Riley uses items he finds washed up on the beach to create fishing lures. – Courtesy of Duke Riley

LO: How did you start using plastic in your work?

DR: In all of my work going way back, I was always using found materials. Not necessarily for any direct environmental concern. You know, a lot of it was just about wanting to make work that felt like it really connected with the space that I was talking about. That was one aspect. And another aspect was that trying to work on some brand new, white canvas always felt intimidating to me. Whereas, painting something on a piece of trash that you found, it felt a lot less intimidating — that you were really only going to make something better than it was. And it was less precious. Yeah, there’s also a financial advantage to using those kinds of materials. It was kind of already a natural instinct for me to collect materials that way. I mean, I remember in the early to late ’90s, I was teaching art classes in domestic violence shelters, and we would always go to the beach to just get materials to make art projects and crafts. You know, because it was just free stuff. No one was really thinking directly about the fact that we were picking up trash.

LO: What are some projects of yours that have moved your career toward more of an environmental focus?

DR: I was always using a lot of maritime traditional folk art as a reference to talk about various issues. For instance, I've been making sailor’s valentines for years out of shells. And then at some point, I just started incorporating the plastic that I was finding on the beach because I was getting more and more plastic and fewer and fewer shells. And that really reflected the changing reality of the urban waterfront. 

I did a project where I trained 2,000 pigeons to fly with LED lights over the city. That was directly talking about this relationship between technology and nature, and how they've sort of been in competition for human attention, and how we need to think about how these two things can be working together in the future. 

I do a lot of drawings, just sort of mapping out the spaces and recording everything that I see — maybe some horseshoe crabs, or a bag of potato chips, or a mannequin that somebody threw in the river. And just by documenting all that stuff over the years, you're paying attention to it a lot more. And you notice the increase of trash and the destruction that it's causing.

– Duke Riley

And I do a lot of drawings, just sort of mapping out the spaces and recording everything that I see — maybe some horseshoe crabs, or a bag of potato chips, or a mannequin that somebody threw in the river. And just by documenting all that stuff over the years, you're paying attention to it a lot more. And you notice the increase of trash and the destruction that it's causing. 

LO: What was the inspiration for your latest exhibition, “DEATH TO THE LIVING, Long Live Trash”?

DR: The main thing really was just trying to look at the 19th-century whaling industry. This was sort of the fossil fuel of its time, providing this gigantic economic boom for the areas that were hunting and producing whale oil, but in the process, almost wiped whales off the face of the earth. So I was thinking about that in relation to the fossil fuel plastic industry now, which is pushing our oceans and waterways to the brink of destruction. 

Duke Riley makes elaborate collages out of trash he collects on the beach. – Courtesy of Duke Riley

And I was looking at all of the scrimshaw and stuff that I’ve been focusing on for the past 20 years and thinking about how you see these different faces on there that are often not the people who made the scrimshaw, but the ship captains or the families of the the ship owners and prominent people from Nantucket or New Bedford who were profiting off the whale oil industry. So that was when I started making this scrimshaw on plastic that I was collecting off the beaches and swapping out faces for oil executives and people within industries that were some of the largest culprits for plastic pollution and various lobbyists and politicians who are profiting the most off all this stuff.

LO: In the exhibition, you also had some short films of community members cleaning up the area that are juxtaposed with the corporate greed that you also highlight in the show. Could you tell me a little bit about these films?

DR: Well, there's four films in the show. There's one film that is of a woman named Michelle collecting plastic on a beach. Michelle's full-time job is picking up trash off of this beach on a tiny island in the Long Island Sound. You know, I collect a lot of plastic myself to make these scrimshaw pieces. But when I started collecting with Michelle, I was able to do a lot more, because she collects about 20,000 pounds of plastic a year. We go through all the stuff we collect, and we sort it into various categories. I’m able to have a palette where I can get whatever specific things I might need, such as hundreds of green flossers or 50 red lighters. 

At the end of the video, we see her cleaning up this beach in the middle of a snowstorm. The video shows that in this job, she goes around the island in a big circle, and it takes about two weeks, and by the time she gets back to where she  started, it's already covered with trash again. She does this 50 weeks out of the year. 

I think that people are just sort of used to going into these spaces and seeing trash. When I was a kid, there was seaglass on the beach. You don't see that anymore, and a lot of the shells are gone, too.

– Duke Riley

Among the other videos in this show, there's one that's a sort of a spoof on these fishing videos that they have on YouTube. It’s basically me showing how to make a fishing lure out of a tampon applicator, and then going out and fishing with it off the coast of Rhode Island and catching a terrifyingly large amount of fish with this pretty common type of beach trash. 

And then there's another video about a community of people who live on derelict boats on this polluted waterway. In New York City, the Newtown Creek is the site of one of the largest oil spills in the history of the United States. That's all in this very tiny creek and has never been cleaned up. And the video is about the people who are living on top of that spill and who are more concerned about being kicked out of that location than they are about the long-term health implications. I think this is kind of a microcosm for everybody's existence, where we know that these things are happening that in the long term are going to harm us greatly, but we are stuck in this loop of our own day-to-day survival, making short-term survival decisions against our long-term best interest.

LO: Was there any particular piece in this exhibition that you found particularly salient? 

DR: The PepsiCo-owned bottled water company LifeWater, founded by Brad Jakeman and Olga Osminkina-Jones, claims to give emerging artists exposure on the labels of their plastic bottles; it’s a marketing tool targeting people in the art world who purchase bottled water. The company’s slogan is “Water is life,” while they participate in the destruction of our waterways and commodify something that is a basic human right. 

This is, to me, one of the most insulting things. You have people trying to do this virtue posturing while in the midst of doing something incredibly destructive. There were some bottles in the show that I painted that are talking about this. 

Duke Riley painted plastic bottles he found on the beach with portraits of executives, politicians, and lobbyists who profit from plastic pollution. – Courtesy of Duke Riley

LO: What were your personal takeaways from the exhibition?

DR:  It definitely wasn't my intention to try to make anybody feel bad about using any of this stuff. I think single-use plastic is almost unavoidable in our society. Even if you try really, really hard, you're still going to end up coming in contact [with it]. I was trying to focus more on a handful of people who are really responsible for perpetuating this problem. But overall I was surprised at how much of an impact the exhibition had on people. 

LO: Is there anything you do to find hope when you’re surrounded by all this trash and pollution in our waterways?

DR: I don't think it's hopeless. I mean, I think it's a pretty correctable situation. There are other aspects of climate change that are beyond my grasp that are really hard to figure out how to resolve. I feel like plastic pollution is the most fixable. I do believe that we will solve this problem. It does seem like it is within my capabilities to try to make a difference.

Some aspects of the climate problem or pollution are often so abstract or kind of invisible, and that makes it hard for people to engage. And making art about that, where you're not preaching to somebody, or just boring the shit out of them, is really challenging.

I think that in general, when I'm out collecting trash, it can be a meditative and kind of primal, instinctual practice, just being outdoors and walking the beach and collecting things. It's something we as humans have been doing for thousands of years.

It certainly is depressing when you look at all this stuff, but the actual process of gathering stuff and making stuff is more of a joyful one, honestly. 

Visit Duke Riley's website for more about his artwork, projects, exhibits and collaborations.

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Lily Olsen
Lily Olsen
Lily is a Reporter and Associate Editor with Bluedot Living, contributing from California and France.
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