Photo:  Natalie Conn

Joe Riley (b. Richmond, VA in 1990) is an artist, researcher, fabricator, and educator. He has participated in the Whitney Independent Study Program (2016-17), Art & Law Program (2018), and was a student organizer with Free Cooper Union. He has a BFA from Cooper Union (2013) and teaches at the Cooper Union School of Art and Steven's Institute of Technology. Alongside Audrey Snyder he is a current participant in the Fresh Kills Field R/D program, a fellow of the Socrates Sculpture Park Emerging Artist Fellowship (2018-19), and participant in the Interdisciplinary Art & Theory Program (2018-19). He collaborates with the collective Futurefarmers and is a Master of Yachts 200-ton Mate.


The half hitch is a recurring, simple knot. It was used aboard ancient Egyptian funerary vessels and ties bundles of cable on NASA’s Mars Rover. The very same knot that ferried pharaohs into the afterlife also traverses the surface of an extraterrestrial planet: a multi-authored technological fragment traveling through time and space, spanning memory and utility.

I am drawn to fragments that combine the poetic, political, and practical. I locate this constel- lation in reappropriated media and technology, with the understanding that technologies are stories we tell ourselves about the future and signals of our existence. I am interested in the way these stories link mythology, biology, and history through persistent telling and retelling—a weaving of threads that entangle bodies and beings through time. Guided by ideas of trespass and itinerancy I crosswire those threads in my art work as a way to reimagine specific moments of interaction between the technological, social, and political.

My interest in multidisciplinary and collaborative modes took hold as a student at The Cooper Union. In 2011 the school’s board and administration announced a plan to implement tuition at the school—laying to waste the institution’s mission of free education. I became a founder and organizer for the activist group Free Cooper Union, and from that moment on my undergraduate experience was as much a political education as it was an academic or arts education—bringing into sharp relief tensions between theoretical frameworks, art practice, and political action.

Holding tension across practices and disciplines has motivated my work and studies since then: as a participant in the Whitney Independent Study Program (2016-17), Art & Law Program (2018), Interdisciplinary Art & Theory Program (2018-19), numerous fellowships, and residencies. I currently teach at The Cooper Union, Stevens Institute, and collaborate with the collective Futurefarmers. In the wake of these experiences, I want to move forward with developing my own agential practice: shaping solidarities through the multivalent conditions of possibility for sculptural form and collective action. These desires, alongside my commitments to continue learning and teaching in the field, are sources of energy for my practice.

Ecology, infrastructure, and post-industrial sedimentation are key areas for my current work and research. Built on residues of the past, infrastructures—railway, oil pipeline, data net- work—are embedded technical forms haunting our present moment and imagination of the future by forming new internal connections, enclosures, and borders. Into the ground, responds to this entrapment by taking on themes of autonomy, mobility, and disposal. The project uses corrosion, the form of a covered car, and public dyeing workshops to reflect on how urban ecologies uptake and transform contaminants, and collective bodies realize agency through ground-up organizing.

My work often finds expression at the conjuncture of sculptural and collaborative forms which proceed with the same hope of the half hitch knot: holding just as fast on ancient sailing ships as future spaceships. It is the internal tension of the knot which ensures its grasp. I consider this grasp—a knotty interstices of material, being, knowing, and ethics—to be an organ of perception. It is an implement I have worked to make available to and through my practice: such that art might grasp the past in order to excite the present and future.