Imagine, hypothetically, you were driven to engineer a bedbug outbreak in the nation’s capital. You’d need some bedbugs, first and foremost, plus a few canisters for transport, maybe some hazmat gear, and a suitable target. For those set on infesting the halls of power, the White House seems like the obvious choice. But the logistics are challenging. Perhaps a nearby luxury hotel, teeming with lobbyists and diplomats and corporate chieftains jockeying for access to the president’s business empire. That wouldn’t be too difficult, would it?

Such is the premise—or at least one of the premises—of Duke Riley’s latest work, Non-Essential Consultants, Inc. On view at Pioneer Works in Red Hook through November 24th, the multi-media exhibition features footage of a person who appears to be Riley letting loose a bunch of bedbugs in what appears to be a room of the Trump International Hotel in D.C. Presented alongside this fragmented video is a medically retrofitted suitcase—the same one from the video—crawling with live bedbugs.

On a conceptual level, it reads as commentary on the easily penetrable nature of the current administration. On a literal level, it’s hard to shake the question: did he really do it?

Riley—who you may remember as the guy who unleashed thousands of pigeons from a decommissioned naval ship in the Brooklyn Navy Yard—spoke to us by phone on Thursday about his latest skin-crawling, head-scratching work. (A spokesperson for the Trump Hotels did not respond to Gothamist's inquiries.)

Let’s get this out of the way: Have you ever put bedbugs in a Washington D.C. hotel? I basically licensed out my name to a production company and I'm not familiar with all of the processes of how the production went down. I personally don't ever recall booking any rooms in that area.

So it’s not outside the realm of possibility? It's possible you did infest a hotel owned by the president of the United States? You know, I'm not really up on current events. I don't watch the news. I'm not on social media. I don't really stay up on that stuff.

I would never personally encourage a person to infest a hotel with bedbugs and I never have. I would imagine that there are probably people out there that think about doing things like that. There are probably people out there that don't think about doing things like that. I'm sure that there are some very fine people on both sides.

A still from Duke Riley's film, now on view at Pioneer Works

The exhibition’s title seems to be a riff on the name of Michael Cohen’s shell company, Essential Consultants, LLC, which was used to pay off Stormy Daniels ahead of the 2016 election. Can you talk a bit about your approach to politics and art, and how that may have changed in the Trump era? I think that there's an underlying feeling in the film that is very reminiscent of late 1960s, early 1970s spy culture. There was a particular amount of distrust in the government and the media—with Watergate, the end of Vietnam, rapid advances of technology, the idea that someone could destroy a city with something that fits into a suitcase. These ideas were all kind of indigestible at that period of time. I think we're in a similar time period where it's almost too much for people to fully process yet. I think there are reflections on that in this piece. I would say I'm looking at history to understand the time we're in.

After your opening on Saturday, I actually spoke with someone who was extremely freaked out that she was going to get bedbugs. I guess because of the ambiguous nature of the film, combined with overhearing some rumors as she was walking out, it left her feeling she’d just walked into a den of bedbugs. Should this person be concerned? I think that, you know, anybody can get bedbugs anywhere or anytime. It's New York City. I can't say that person is not going to have bedbugs because they could have gone to a bar or a restaurant or ridden the subway that same day and maybe gotten bedbugs. But I don't think there's any reason for anyone to think they would ever get bedbugs in the location that we're doing the exhibition.

To be clear, this work does involve live bedbugs though, yes? Yes.

Does that feel like especially provocative territory to you? Does it seem like bedbugs are, if it's not off limits necessarily, something that people typically don't mess with for art or entertainment? I don't know if there is ever a line you don't cross in art. I think that's part of an artist's job. I think there are probably very few people that don't find bedbugs disturbing, including myself.

I assume you spent a good amount of time with bedbugs for this project? Yes. I would say that reading, doing a lot of research about bedbugs and even working with them in a super secure and a controlled environment, you are constantly affected by it. I have nightmares about them. They're essentially a human predator. They can't reproduce without coming into contact with living human blood.

The suitcase seen in Riley's film, which is also part of the Pioneer Works exhibition

How does one come to own live bedbugs. Is there like a website? I’d say that if somebody was trying to acquire bedbugs, for some reason, they could probably find them just about anywhere in New York City. If you just look for a pile of mattresses that somebody is throwing out from a building. It wouldn't that hard.

You’ve done work with live animals in the past. Most recently the pigeon piece, and you’ve also staged races involving real life animals. What keeps drawing you back to urban wildlife? In general, my work tends to draw correlations between the geography and environment and the kind of transgressive behavior that sometimes arises in those areas. There's an aspect with things like pigeons or bedbugs where they're definitely creatures living within the margins. And my work often investigates permeability. Bedbugs are clearly an example of permeability.

The stuff you produce tends to get described as boundary-pushing, punk-inflected, occasionally unlawful, etc. We hear a lot about how the city is losing its edge, but do you still see a space for that sort of art in the city? I think there are certain waves. I would have to say that my long-term projection for this city is that there will probably be a point of time in which there will be endless amounts of space for artists to work and people will be able to do whatever they want.

I think that at some point there will probably be a large shift where people will be moving out of the city, maybe at that point there will be places where people who live more, you know, transient lifestyles will find that there's plenty of spaces they can occupy to do whatever they want. I can't tell you when that's going to be but I feel pretty confident about that.

UPDATE: After publication of this article, a spokesperson for Riley requested we add the following disclaimer: "On advice of counsel, all of the events depicted in this exhibition are a speculative dramatization and do not depict actual events."

Non-Essential Consultants, Inc. is presented by Pioneer Works as part of the Performa 19 Biennial, on view through November 24th at Red Hook Labs, 133-125 Imlay Street, Brooklyn. More information here.

This interview has been edited and condensed for (some) clarity.