Joe Riley

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What is my work about?

My work shapes anecdotes into material form. I seek out histories of obsolete technology and forgotten space as source material for my practice. My research finds focus in such technologies as railroads and radios, ships and semaphores — things we build, use, and romanticize — with which we exchange our experiences and signal our existence. Moments where these sources illuminate contemporary political, cultural, and economic conditions become the coordinates I use for mapping my work. From there I build sculptures, make prints, rig installations, and navigate performances which recontextualize these sources by reviving an old idea and propelling a new tale forward.


Artist Statement

The half hitch is a simple knot that recurs throughout human history. It was used aboard ancient Egyptian funerary vessels and ties bundles of cables on NASA’s Mars Rover. This same knot that ferried pharaohs across the river Styx now traverses the surface of another planet, a simple technological fragment travelling through time and space, across memory and utility.

I am interested in the way such fragments from stories link mythology and topography. The persistent telling and retelling of stories weave threads that connect humanity through time. As an artist I seek to crosswire those threads connecting me to people across time and space. Notions of itinerancy and trespass in time guide my process. I look for moments and locations where stories may converge and position myself and my work close to that meeting place. My recent work has focused on technology and rudimentary forms of communication:  passing a story or rumor from one person to the next, sailing a ship over the horizon, the history of printed matter, of pedagogy, and of radio.

For the project Parallel Cases (portfolio 01, 02, 03) collaborator Audrey Snyder and I used the modalities of the tramp printers — peripatetic cultural producers of the early 20th century who traveled by freight train, moving news and ideas from one small town newspaper to the next — to unearth forgotten railroad infrastructure and commercial printing history. We traveled abandoned railroads on bikes outfitted to ride atop the rails, printing along the way with a small letterpress and metal type. In doing so we acted as a synapse between the romance of the railroad and the American West by connecting with its technological and cultural detritus.

My process of uncovering stories often calls for collaboration with individuals and communities. The broadening encounter of collaboration engages collective memory and allows the work to reverberate, independent of my body and actions, those of fellow collaborators. My recent work with artist Amy Franceschini and the collective Futurefarmers, engages resonant storytelling through time, space, and phylogeny. Seed Mast (portfolio 08, 09, 10) is at once a traditionally built sailing mast, a library, and a silo for eight varieties of grain, each sourced with a specific story of rescue or resistance. One variety was discovered between the cracks of an old sauna in Norway, another from a seed bank in St. Petersburg where it was saved by scientists who starved during the siege of Leningrad to protect the grain. Beginning in 2017, a hundred-year-old sailboat will carry these ancient grains — these stories — from Oslo to their place of origin: the Fertile Crescent in present-day southeastern Turkey.

My research practice focuses on anecdotal and transitional moments which inevitably change and sometimes undermine a political environment. I draw on such histories to build context around the work and organize myself in a wider net or unfamiliar system. In 2014 I was invited by Izolyatsia — an arts foundation recently raided and exiled by separatist militia in Donetsk, Ukraine — to participate in a curated series of art works conceived as seizures of public space in Kyiv. My strategy for understanding this conflict began with tracing past collisions of broadcast media, human and political bodies throughout Eastern Europe.

The longest human chain ever formed was organized over broadcast radio. “The Baltic Way” occurred on August 23, 1989 when approximately two million people joined their hands to span across the three Baltic states — Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania — to protest USSR occupation and control of the region. For years leading to that moment, the USSR’s radio spectrum was a battlefield of radio propaganda. Soviet radio jamming infrastructure used powerful signal interference to garble Western radio broadcasts. At the time it was more common for people in the USSR to hear noise over a radio than clear speech or music. This noise was the fabric of audible experience and many individuals attempted to unravel it by illegally modifying radio receivers and building homemade antennas. Through such action, radio signals transition from the realm of the ether to the visceral and listening becomes a form of speech.

Radio Chain (portfolio 07, 08) reasserted this relationship of the body and radio within the current human and political context of Ukraine. I worked alongside artists Yulia Kostereva, Yuri Kruchak, and journalist Maria Prokpneko to produce audio interviews with Ukrainian soldiers and refugees about their daily routines and commutes before and during the war in Eastern Ukraine. A chain of participants were linked together by individual FM radio units modified to simultaneously receive and re-transmit the audio interviews from one participant to the next. During the performance, participants traveled through the city connected only by radio waves, navigating their route based on the clarity of the soldiers’ voices. If at any point one of the participants had lost all audio, the chain would have been broken and every subsequent participant lost.

I find anachronistic forms of media to be useful tools for engaging conflict while escaping reflexive modes of consensus. The accessibility and familiarity of outmoded forms allow for intersection between individuals and interrogation of collective memory where contemporary networks (internet, social media) otherwise fail.  Whereas digital networks only imagine infinite space — the expansion of the internet, cellular networks, cloud storage — radio transmissions are actually infinite physical phenomena, imbued the same hope as a message in a bottle.

Intervention in political space and social struggle connects my work to activism. For several years I ran an unlicensed FM radio station (portfolio 14) broadcasting in lower Manhattan from the top of Cooper Union. The station became a discursive meeting and organizing space for the Cooper Union community during the school’s unraveling financial crisis. On-air public discussions and personal connections formed around the station contributed to the longest student-led occupation in the history United States: a protest to the implementation of tuition at the school (portfolio 20), which has been free to all students for over 150 years.

Art has the ability to detach from systems of power that govern us — a way of resisting and fighting back that can be more effective than other means of social and political change. I cross wires and stories in an effort to create tools for enacting such change. I think of my work like an intentioned bug in the machine: to confuse, irritate, subvert, and persist against the rigidity of a system. This strategy leads my practice to confront the limits of participation while moving toward renewed understanding of community, telling new stories, and demanding new forms of poetic and political consciousness. In this pursuit, my art work proceeds with the same hope as the half hitch knot — a simple, nearly invisible gesture which may hold just as fast on an ancient sailing ship as a future space ship.

Cooper Union School of Art
BFA, Service to the School Award


Selected Projects and Exhibitions
Flatbread Society: Seed Journey, Oslo, Norway (

Left Coast: California Political Art, Collaboration with Futurefarmers (, CUNY Center for the Humanities James Gallery, New York, NY

Ukraine Report with Clemens Poole and Olena Chervonik, 266w25st, New York, NY,

Work Day: Artist audio compilations, Curated by Sara Hayley, Wanusay Gallery, Montreal

Our Education! Is College Worth the Cost? Screening and exhibition of works from Free Cooper Union protest movement
Pioneer Works, Brooklyn, NY,

ZAHOPLENNYA, Izolyatsia, Kyiv, Ukraine,

99 Cent Plus Art Shop, 99 Cent Plus Gallery, Brooklyn, NY,

Free Ride, Thesis Exhibition, Cooper Union, New York NY, Voyage of the Hippo 2 with Clemens Poole and Shane Kennedy Standard Toykraft

The Politics of Destruction, Performance with Free Cooper Union, e-flux, New York, NY
Step Down! Free Cooper Union Salon, Cooper Union, New York, NY

Tap Dat Capital, IDEAS City Festival, La Mama Galleria, New York NY.

Parallel Cases: A Presentation, with Audrey Snyder, Cooper Union, New York, NY.

Reading the Rails, Art Folk GalleryBirmingham, AL

Brucennial, Bruce High Quality Foundation, New York, NY


Awards and recognition

Benjamin Menschel Fellowship, Cooper Union

Irma Giustino Weiss Cultural Fellowship, Cooper Union


Residencies and fellowships

Izolyatsia Platform for Cultural Initiatives, Kiev, Ukraine

Social Studio Fellow, Bruce High Quality Foundation University, (


Parallel Cases: a story, Joe Riley and Audrey Snyder, Boneshaker Magazine, July 2013, United Kingdom

Parallel Cases, Joe Riley and Audrey Snyder, Letterpress printed artist book, Edition of 50


“Parallel Cases” Article and interview by Caroline Frayser, Treadlie Magazine, December 2012 Australia