Trading with the Enemy: Pigeons Break the Cuba Blockade

November 4, 2013

Artist Duke Riley attempts to subvert a powerful trade embargo, enforced by advanced military and surveillance technologies, with a time-tested if less sophisticated tool: the Rock Dove.

Oblivious to national borders, pigeons have long carried messages between Havana and Key West, the southernmost city in the United States. A well-trained pigeon can make the 100-mile journey in roughly four hours. A sailboat takes 24. People have used pigeons as messengers from the dawn of civilization in Sumer; the U.S. military used homing birds through the Vietnam War. But in the age of drones, a feather-and-bone messenger seems outdated, particularly when the U.S. government spends millions of dollars on surveillance blimps that drift over the Florida Straits looking for illicit traffic.

Despite a trade embargo and the Trading with the Enemy Act (which the United States only applies to Cuba), Havana and Key West have always had a close relationship. Their cultures have been shaped by a history of transporting illicit cargo, dating back to the rumrunners of the Prohibition era. They’re like sister cities, despite the barricade aimed at separating them.

With “Trading with the Enemy,” I attempted to subvert this barricade using methods that are much older and less sophisticated than the military and surveillance technologies that have superseded them. I landed on the idea of carrier pigeons following the practice of ship captains who crossed the Straits before the embargo and used the birds to relay messages of safe arrival or distress.

After coming up with this idea, I used reclaimed materials to build a loft on the island of Key West and spent eight months training 50 homing pigeons. The birds were either “smugglers” carrying contraband, and named after historical smugglers, or “documentarians” wearing customized cameras, named after filmmakers who have had brushes with the law. Eleven pigeons successfully completed their mission. One documentarian landed on a yacht and quickly became the subject of conversation.