Evan M. Lopez
The tomatoes, it seems, were grown for one reason only: to throw at people. Their outsides are firm, just right for wrapping your fingers around tightly and chucking; and yet their insides are the opposite lumpy, soupy and mere hours away from going bad, which means they stain and splatter generously.
The 2,000 attendees throwing them were supposed to wait until instructed by the event's coordinators to rip open the boxes of red fruits. But just as the shot heard 'round the world tossed our virgin nation suddenly into war, a single tomato flung into the sky jump-starts the night. Dressed in mandatory togas and gladiator sandals, the attendees are hollering and flailing and unleashing their seedy weapons onto no one in particular, while Black Sabbath's "War Pigs" plays loudly from speakers. Then, in a pool in front of the crowd, four 20-foot-long ships, each one manned by employees from a different New York museum, crash into each other. Fireworks shoot off in every direction. Another ship enters the pool, filled with Roman candles, and bursts into flames.
In the end, Those About to Die Salute You this performance art spectacle orchestrated by Duke Riley in Queens, N.Y., last August, for no reason other than to have fun had been nearly as chaotic as the ancient Greek naval battles that inspired it.
New York magazine later guessed that Riley's host institution, the Queens Museum, had "either got every type of permit in the book or violated every city code imaginable."
José Roca, the Colombian artistic director of Philagrafika 2010 (see sidebar) a local, brand-new printmaking festival that opens Jan. 29 was there, white cloth wrapped around him and red tomato in hand. He'd met with Riley once before, to ask him to participate in Philagrafika; he went to Those About to Die Salute You for the thrill.
"There was a platform with a mic, so someone could have been electrocuted. Someone could have gotten hit with fireworks. Many things could have happened," he says. "But I loved it. There was a sense of impending disaster that you wouldn't expect to have in an environment as controlled by fear as the United States. You felt that something real was going on."
Plus, there were copious amounts of free alcohol. "I gave 'em a lot of booze," says Riley, his Boston accent spilling out. "A lawww-da booze."
On Feb. 4, Riley will debut his newest work at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, at 13th and Locust streets, as part of Philagrafika. His subject is Petty's Island a 400-acre, fin-shaped piece of land that sits on the Delaware River between Philadelphia and New Jersey. Never heard of it? You should have. It's a place littered with well-known and colorful characters Pennsylvania founder William Penn, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, a man who declared himself the island's king, and even the pirate's pirate himself, Ol' Blackbeard. It's been the epicenter of a battle between developers, politicians and environmentalists since 2003. It's a place that two endangered bald eagles, guarded by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, now call home. And here's Duke Riley, this rapscallion New Yorker, coming down I-95 to do God knows what with it.
Riley loves the sea, and everything related to it: pirates and hidden treasure, maps and shipbuilding, islands and tattoos. It began when he was a kid, working for his uncle on a fishing pier in Boston and hanging out on his grandfather's boat. Then, as a teenager, Riley left home and a serendipitous thing happened. "I ran away several times. There was a while when I lived in different abandoned buildings, but this one was a boathouse in downtown Boston," he says. "They had a fence, but you could walk from island to island and then go in through the porch."
He pauses, beaming. "Whenever I squatted, I squatted in style."
Now, as a sinewy, fresh-faced 38-year-old, Riley relives his childhood by boating on the Hudson River. He also builds his own ships, and gives his art projects names like East River Incognita, Seaworthy and Night Swimming.
Almost all of them are about the sea.
In the 1917 book The Romance of Petty's Island, author John L. Morrison wrote passionately about Riley's current maritime muse. He described Petty's Island as mythical and beautiful, and thought it a crime that Philadelphians ignored it. "Notwithstanding its proximity to the heart of this great community of two millions of people, Petty's Island is virtually an unknown land to most Philadelphians," he wrote. "A search through the musty tomes and papers of the past 250 years demonstrates that the big triangular island off the Kensington coast is saturated with the romance of the river, the sea and forest."
Morrison's words ring just as true 93 years later. Though Petty's Island has been the subject of CNN reports, a New York Times article and even a Danny Glover-narrated documentary, most Philadelphians have never even heard of it. In part, cartography's to blame: Petty's Island isn't in Philadelphia it's in Pennsauken, N.J. But, really, that's no excuse: Our ignorance of Petty's Island is so great that most of us have looked straight at it, and never even realized it. If you've ever visited Penn Treaty Park, walked out to the edge of the Delaware River, and looked across to the left, that wasn't just New Jersey. That's Petty's Island.
Riley first came across Petty's Island while digging up old documents about the waterfront. "The waterfront is the area of the city that I'm drawn to in any given situation," he says. "Typically, the waterfront made up the periphery of urban society. So the sketchy stuff happened there."
As he researched the island, beginning at the Historical Society and then seeking out more arcane treasures in Northeast graveyards and 19th-century newspapers, he began to sense what so many people before him have that Petty's Island is an epic microcosm of America. And, like most stories of America, it begins with Indians.
The Lenape tribe lived on the island for many years making clay pots, foraging for roots and living in log lodges until, of all people, a woman purchased it from them in 1678, for 600 guilders (about $20,600 today). According to several secondhand sources, William Penn then obtained it as part of his land charter in 1681; it's unclear what transpired between those two events. From that point up through the 1730s when it was obtained by John Petty, whose name the island retains it was likely a slave depot, liked by traders because of its scant taxes and proximity to Philly. (The presence of slaves on the island is supported by documents, but contested by some historians.) It was also where, free from law, Quakers went to gamble. Later, these Quakers partook in a nobler form of lawbreaking they helped Petty's Island slaves escape from bondage.
Like any historical site worth its salt, the island also breeds legends and tall tales. Some claim that Ben Franklin slept over once. (A chapter in a Petty's Island historical pamphlet is actually titled "Ben Franklin Sleep Over.") Others insist that pirates even Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard paid a visit.
Sharon Finlayson, chairwoman of the New Jersey Environmental Federation, wasn't too interested in history until she found Petty's Island. "I was just reading this history to my son the other night because I thought it was so interesting," she says, summoning her best bedtime-story voice to read from the book Camden County, New Jersey, 1616-1976: A Narrative History. "The island had at various times contained an Indian trading post, an embarkation point for African slaves brought for sale in the Philadelphia market, and an amusement center."
Then she reads from a pamphlet about Elizabeth Kinsey, the anachronistic, tolerant woman who purchased the island from the Lenape Indians in 1678. "Elizabeth Kinsey recognized the Indian viewpoint and agreed that the aborigines might continue to hunt and fish on the island, and dig for tuckahoes, an edible root which was an important part of their diet," reads Finlayson. "In return, the Indians promised not to kill her hogs or set fire to her hayfields."
Finlayson laughs. "Don't you love it?"
Strangely, it wasn't these Petty's Island scallywags, heroes and hedonists who captured Riley's attention not Kinsey or William Penn or Ben Franklin or even Blackbeard. His focus is Ralston Laird, the king of Petty's Island.
In the middle of the 19th century, the Irish were not yet white enough to earn mainstream America's stamp of approval. Ralston Laird, arriving in Philadelphia from the Emerald Isle in the early 1850s, may have felt defeated by this. Or maybe he was just a born misanthrope. It's hard to pinpoint, from 150-year-old newspaper reports, why, exactly, he tired of Philly so quickly. Whatever the case, only months after docking in the Delaware, Laird fled from the city and found a 52-year home on Petty's Island.
Or, better put, a 52-year kingdom on Petty's Island.
In newspaper article after newspaper article, Laird is referred to as the "King of Petty's Island." And yet, he didn't look or behave majestically. Laird married, raised cattle, grew a long, white beard and had 10 kids, four of whom were born deaf. What made him exceptional was that he had an island all to himself, save for the few people he invited to join him because a land company paid him $40 each month to look after it. And that was reason enough for Laird to declare himself king.
Laird's great-grandson, 67-year-old Marylander Anthony Sariti, told Riley that he'd grown up hearing that Laird was "weird" and "homeless." But talking to Riley, you'd think Laird descended from King Henry VIII. "There are a lot of articles he pops into 'cause he was just an extremely popular guy," says Riley. "There was a bunch of people who lived on the island, but whenever something happened, he'd be the guy reporters would talk to."
Riley also thinks that Laird was just a genuinely good man. "Other immigrants who were, you know, struggling in Philly Laird invited them to come out to the island and start a new life there," he says. "He set up a farm for them and helped them get on their feet. So people really liked this guy, ya know?"
Riley must really like him, too enough for him to trespass onto Petty's Island and commit a crime in Laird's name that could land him in legal trouble with a pretty intimidating guy: Hugo Chavez.
It wouldn't be the first time he ran afoul of the law to make a statement.
It was 2007 six years after 9/11 and, as far as Riley was concerned, security in New York City was still laughable, inconsistent and a paradigm of government waste. Sometimes the cops would stop him for merely operating a video camera in the city; other times, he'd ride a helicopter over the Hudson River with no ID, several black steel cases and two frighteningly buff friends, and not even get questioned.
He wanted to prove that security like this fickle and too focused on the unimportant stuff was futile. So he came up with a plan: He'd take a submarine out to the Queen Mary II, a luxury cruise ship docked in the Hudson River. He'd get close enough to the ship to be able to attack it, to document that it was possible to do so without getting caught. Then he'd show everyone what he'd done later at a gallery exhibit, to be titled After the Battle of Brooklyn. Oh, and one more thing: He'd build the sub himself, and it would be a replica of the first submarine torpedo boat ever made, in 1776, by a Revolutionary soldier named David Bushnell.
Riley made the best of the soldier's rough notes, full of vague measurements like "an arm's length" and "the width of a very big tree." He submerged, a little tipsy on beer, on Aug. 3, 2007. Thirty minutes later, the crank-powered sub was spotted by a police officer and then dragged out of the sea by the Coast Guard. This set off a "terrorism response," wrote the New York Post, and Riley and his two comrades were arrested.
In the end, all Riley faced were local charges for unsafe towing, operating an unsafe vessel and disturbing the peace. He was never brought to court by the feds, though they told him they'd be "keeping an eye" on him.
"They just kind of left the case hanging, so they could compound charges later," he says. "It's partially to keep me from doing something crazier, I guess."
When José Roca, artistic director of Philagrafika 2010, first met Riley, he asked him how he'd describe his art practice. He expected Riley to say "printmaking" or maybe "performance art."
"Instead," says Roca, "he said, 'breaking the law.'"
Still, it's hard to imagine why, with terrorism charges from his After the Battle of Brooklyn stunt still lingering over his head, Riley would do what he did.
On the weekend before Thanksgiving, Riley rowed a small boat to Petty's Island. It wasn't his first trip: He'd been there a few times before, dropping off paint and other art supplies that he'd need this night.
Now owned by Venezuela's CITGO Petroleum Corp. which used it as an oil refinery until 2001, and now rents it out to the Trailer Marine Transport Corp. Petty's Island can't be accessed by the public without permission. There are guards stationed around the island. But Riley trespassed anyway, entering at the island's western tip and walking through dense forest to CITGO's oil tanks. When he reached one, he pulled on a pair of rubber pants, walked through the water surrounding the tank, and climbed atop it. Then he painted, on all 11,000 square feet of the top of the tank, a portrait of Ralston Laird. In inky blue, it depicts Laird in a popped-collar suit, curly beard and bowtie, with flourishes encircling him.
"It's supposed to look like one of those commemorative plates for royal families, like for Princess Diana and Prince Charles," Riley explains.
Below Laird, it says "King Ralston." Above, "1825-1911."
Riley was thrilled when he first saw the finished product. "I couldn't really see what I was painting. And even if I could, it wouldn't have made any difference 'cause there's no way to step back from the tank and look at it. So I was like, eh, if it's a little off I'll live with it," he says. "But when we rented a helicopter and flew over it, I was like, holy shit! It came out perfect!"
(Asked how he can afford a helicopter, and whether or not he's a secret Wall Street billionaire, he says, "Like with any of my projects, I knew I'd need to set aside a piece of the budget for documentation, and I knew a helicopter would be the only way to view the piece.And, like all of my projects, I went over the budget provided by Philagrafika and dug out of my own pockets. Wall Street billionaire? Hardly. I sleep in my drawing studio on a cot-size bed.")
Riley plans on exhibiting a photo of it at the Historical Society show. Asked if he's scared of getting arrested or fined, he's incredulous: "It does sort of look similar to the way I would paint something, but that doesn't mean I painted it."
Then he talks about a letter he wrote recently to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who, since CITGO is a fully owned subsidiary of Venezuela's national oil company, is the de facto head of CITGO, and thus, owner of Petty's Island. In it, Riley identifies himself as a liaison for the Laird family specifically, a liaison for the dreamt-up "Laird Kingdom Liberation Army," a group of imaginary freedom fighters who descended from the king of Petty's Island. Riley's letter demands that Chavez "place the [island] under the care of the City of Philadelphia. The island originally belonged to Philadelphia and it is where the majority of the exiled Lairds are buried."
That is not, in this universe or any other one, going to happen. New Jersey fought for its rights to Petty's Island, and now that it's got them, it's not letting go.
Petty's Island is a strange, paradoxical place a place where women could buy land in the 17th century and, in 2009, CITGO somehow ended up being the good guy.
Prior to 2003, CITGO didn't seem to care much about the well-being of Petty's Island. It had, after all, run an oil refinery and stored underground tanks on it for nearly 100 years, and it was rumored that the company was thinking about developing it with homes. But when a pair of endangered American bald eagles was spotted on the island, that all changed. CITGO paid for an environmental assessment of Petty's Island, which found that it's practically a beleaguered species refugee camp: The threatened osprey, endangered Northern harrier and endangered peregrine falcon all live there. Since more than half of it has been nearly untouched by modern man, Petty's Island is lush with non-endangered species, too. It's home to green herons, Eastern garter snakes, turkey vultures, red-bellied turtles, horned grebes, fowler's toads, deer, merlin, great-horned owls, butterflies, meadow voles and dragonflies. All this, nestled between two American cities.
In March 2004, CITGO made good. The company informed Bradley Campbell, then-commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP), that it would hand over the island to the state of New Jersey to be developed into an environmental refuge. Campbell says he initially favored the deal.
CITGO's decision wasn't completely altruistic. It made the company and Chavez look good in the American press. According to Jeff Tittel, director of Sierra Club's New Jersey chapter, the Endangered Species Act would have prevented CITGO from developing half of the island anyway. Tittel also says that transforming a polluted site into a residential area requires a laborious, expensive remediation. By choosing to make it an environmental refuge instead, CITGO was required by law to clean it up less.
Environmentalists didn't mind if CITGO's intentions were pure or not. "Quite frankly, if the island is saved and preserved, I don't care if there's an advantage for CITGO," says Finlayson, of the New Jersey Environmental Federation. "This is still a great example of how a polluting industry took an interest in what they had around them, and worked to bring it back."
Courtesy of Historical Society of Pennsylvania
But New Jersey politicians had different interests. By the time the bald eagles were found, the city of Pennsauken was in the midst of a huge redevelopment plan with Cherokee Investment Partners, which envisioned a Petty's Island sprinkled with a golf course, conference center, 2,700 homes and 500,0000 square feet of office and retail space not an environmental refuge. In September 2004, the New Jersey Natural Lands Trust voted on CITGO's offer. Though the trust's board voted 5-3 to accept the island, all three of the trust's state employees voted against it and, according to the trust's laws, at least one state member must vote affirmatively for a motion to pass. Campbell says then-Gov. James McGreevey told him to instruct all state employees to vote against the offer.
Pennsauken officials assured Cherokee that they could take the island by eminent domain, and moved forward with plans to develop it. But in late 2004, the Cramer Hill Residents Association (CHRA), a neighborhood group that has long battled Camden's redevelopment plans, filed a lawsuit against the city of Camden, challenging the redevelopment. Two years later, Camden lost, but only on a technicality the Camden Planning Board hadn't sworn in witnesses at a board hearing.
Still, the state showed no signs of slowing down. But then, something miraculous happened. The economy crumbled. "Development was at the heart of their plan," says Finlayson. "So it just made all parties involved step back and take a second look and say, 'Wow, what are we doing here?'"
On Earth Day 2009, then-Gov. Jon Corzine announced that the Natural Lands Trust would accept Petty's Island from CITGO.
The title transfer won't occur until 2020, but in the meantime, CITGO will be busy cleaning up the site at an estimated cost of $15 million to the oil company. On top of that, CITGO agreed to give the state $2 million to maintain the island and an additional $1 million to build an educational center, bike paths and hiking trails.
"This will be a tremendous resource for people in the area it's a green space in one of the most developed areas in the country," says Tittel. "And it taught an important lesson to citizens: that David beats Goliath. Citizens stopped one of the most powerful groups of politicians in the country."
A year later, the cleanup is on schedule. Lawrence Hajna, spokesman for the NJDEP, says CITGO is currently removing the tanks, doing a soil investigation and conducting groundwater treatment. He also says that, sometime this year, the Natural Lands Trust will invite the public to a discussion of what the Petty's Island education center will entail.
Riley has his own plans for Petty's Island's education center.
In his letter to Chavez which hasn't yet been answered he argues that Laird must have a role in the island's future. (In fact, this is not Chavez's call. The Natural Lands Trust will decide what the island's educational center looks like.) Riley writes, "A permanent public monument of Ralston Laird must be included in the historical redevelopment plans for the island. Special programming for the hearing impaired must also be incorporated, in memory of the four Laird princesses who were born deaf."
Riley's letter is funny, but it's no joke. Like Finlayson, Tittel, Chavez and all the other hundreds of people who've invested themselves into the island, Riley cares deeply about its future. "The LKLA," he writes to Chavez, referring to his fictional Laird Kingdom Liberation Army, "also shares your concern for the environment and fully supports your decision to turn the island into a nature reserve and education center."
On Feb. 4, Riley will display this letter at the Historical Society exhibit. He'll also reveal an aerial photograph of the painted oil tank, which will sit above the Society's fire mantel. Below, a set of commemorative plates honoring the living Laird descendants will hang on the wall. A hand-drawn Laird family tree, artifacts that Riley found on the island and a family timeline will be featured, too.
One thing that Riley had originally hoped to include, though, won't be there. Months before he climbed atop a CITGO oil tanker and immortalized his king, Riley had planned to track down the "craziest Laird descendants" he could find and crown them prince and princess of Petty's Island in some elaborate, nutty ceremony, à la After the Battle of Brooklyn.
But that fell through or at least that's what he's telling everyone.
"We've been surprised throughout the process," says Lauri Cielo, program director at the Historical Society. "We're prepared to do whatever he wants, but so far he doesn't have anything planned for the evening.
"That we know of."
Duke Riley's opening reception Thu., Feb. 4, 6 p.m., free, through April 11, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1300 Locust St., 215-732-6200, hsp.org.