Tuesday, August 3, 2010

C. Ryder Cooley & The Aesthetics of Empathic Hybridity

Carolyn Ryder Cooley is an inter-disciplinary artist working in a variety of mediums, including painting & drawing, installation, video, music, and aerial performance. My first introduction to Ryder's work was her songwriting and accordion & saw-playing for Fall Harbor. I was lucky enough to find myself sharing a show with her in Troy, New York, at the 51 3rd Street ArtSpace deep in the summer of 2009. Though Fall Harbor usually performs as a duo (Ryder and Todd Chandler, video artist/filmmaker/bass player for Dark Dark Dark) Ryder was alone that evening. The lights were dim and she haunted every soul in the room with her throaty vocals and accordion, sometimes accompanied by looped samples she'd crafted of bird calls and rustles of wind through the trees.

Since then, I've had the lucky pleasure of being able to share a few more nights of music with Ryder, and the honor of visiting her studio in Hudson, New York. The room was packed tight with drawings and paintings, some finished, some in a kind of primordial-soup phase, papers shuffled about, pens and pots of paint in jumbled places that had a secret order they kept to themselves. Ryder handed me things, giving me things, cards that she'd drawn, cut, and folded by hand, prints of video stills, she kept filling my arms with beautiful works that she'd made. In this way, she's like a mother animal, nurturing, sharing, generous with her craft, her time, her music, and her listening. Which makes a lot of sense once you begin to enter the haunted dream worlds that she creates: post-apocalyptic narratives populated by hybrid animals and semi-human forms that exist in an empathic future where, in order to survive, one must take dangerous leaps of faith and nourish the animal first.

There is pain in Ryder's work, something most obvious in past performances where she and her collaborators would embed feathers in her skin to allow Ryder to become the creatures she envisions. Her aerial work is demanding and sometimes dangerous, suspending herself hundreds of feet above running water from the edge of a bridge to serenade the nesting pigeons with her accordion. Recently, she walked 20 miles from Hudson to Cairo, New York, hefting the taxidermied head of a deer, documenting and collecting the roadside dead for a group burial at the end of the map, a Faulknarian journey along the twisting roads of industrial upstate New York.

Like those roads, Ryder's work is dark and winding. Experiencing her world is like finding a message in a dark glass bottle at the far edge of the farthest tidal pool. Hidden by kelp and barnacles, snug between broken mollusk shells, you pinch the treasure from where it's been lodged for a hundred years. Whoever lobbed that message is long gone, you couldn't even be a figment of that man or woman's imagination, all the wires and asphalt buzzing behind you, behind the parking lot at the seashore. You pull out the cork, press your eye against the opening to see what's inside, then slowly fish the message from the neck of the glass, unravel the paper, and begin to read...

Six Questions With C. Ryder Cooley

JDW: As a multi-media artist who has worked extensively in painting, drawing, sound, performance, and songwriting, is there any one artistic mode that you are most strongly drawn to? Is there one mode that supports the others - for example, do you begin drawing and work towards performance or songwriting as a branch sprouts from a tree? Or do you work within a spiderweb of equal but connecting strands?

CRC: My parents were English teachers and my father is a writer, so my background is language driven. Narrative is the thread that connects and collects all of my work into one vision. I used to be drawn to written words, but as I started making music, drawing and performing, these visceral forms took over, which was a relief because I think in pictures and I write phonetically. Over the years I’ve also become interested in live interactions and exchanges. In the 90’s I made a lot of zines, which were eventually performed, making way for embodied manifestos and investigations into presence/absence as experienced in fleeting time and intimate, feminine spaces. All of my work retains threads of narrative; I bring text to images and I draw on discarded book pages. It’s all a departure from the writers, thinkers, poets & hippies who I grew up around.

JDW: Your work is often concerned with environmental issues and animal themes. Why do you think images of animals in distress or in hybrid states are so emotionally compelling to the contemporary human viewer?

CRC: This is a question I ask myself all the time!

What is it about animals and hybridity? They are everywhere, in the mainstream and the margins. Is it a response to genetic modifications, cloning and animation/technology? Perhaps it is a form of post-essentialism. We’re finally in the age of Frankenstein, Mary Shelly was way ahead of her time, science fiction isn’t fiction any more, we’re in the future. Have you ever read Shelly’s other other novel, The Last Man? It relates to topics of Extinction.

Ultimately I think that we ourselves are distressed, hybridized cyborg-ish mutants. Many people share a longing to escape humanity and to project themselves into other bodies, places, genders and identities. Humanity seems to be devolving. We’ve reached a saturation point and now we’re wallowing in the residue of pollutions and diseases. It’s our reckoning time. The United States is a first world distopia. Now we are facing the repercussions of our parasitical lifestyles. There’s a need for new utopian visions. Artists and activists are envisioning new lifestyles. These blueprints may not be entirely applicable, but it’s a spark in the right direction.

JDW: What role do you think animals play in our contemporary, post-industrial, global narrative? How do these roles (or these ideas) surface in your aerial choreography?

CRC: Animals are a connection/reference point for us. They remind us that there is life beyond our media-driven, manipulated experience. Animals need environments to live in, they need trees for nesting and plants and other creatures for food. They don’t have a shopping mall to go to for groceries, or air conditioners, and they can’t drive cars. We observe animals, we use and abuse them in laboratories. Animals exhibit evidence of the effects of industry and pollution. I don’t have any pets myself, but I take care of a lot of pets. Caring for a dog in NYC is a big reminder of how important it is to go outside, to run and play. If the dog doesn’t go to the park, she is instantly depressed. The dog doesn’t have virtual reality to escape to, she can’t distract herself with travel plans, there’s no doggie gym or yoga, and if she runs into the street, she gets hit by a car, a reminder of how dangerous our streets are! When a dog eats garbage on the sidewalk, we’re reminded of how much trash we generate and how dirty our fabricated landscapes have become. Animals are a great reality check.

Animals hold a space of innocence. I’m drawn to the innocent, my work is very sincere.

During outdoor performances I enjoy interacting with animals, and when there is an aerial element, I feel like I’m joining the creatures of sky, bridge and tree. Spiders, squirrels, bats, birds, insects, fish… they make great audiences and collaborators and they are amazing performers. The animals are my muses, as they have been for so many people through the ages. Animals have inspired us for centuries.

Death plays a big role in all of my work. Right now I’m working on a series of drawings, performances and songs focused on extinction. There seems to be a growing concern about human-caused extinction. Stay tuned for ANIMALIA 2, featuring extinct animals such as the Dodo, the Passenger Pigeon and the Pyranean Ibex! This music and aerial-driven show is scheduled to debut in the spring of 2011.

JDW: The aerial performance component of your installations is physically challenging. How do you prepare for this kind of performance? Do you believe that art should challenge the human body as well as the mind?

CRC: As I mentioned earlier, my background is narrative-driven. It’s certainly been a challenge to learn how to work with my body. I’m shy and I can be quite the masochist, but you can’t trash your body and do aerials, at least not at my age. I’m an introverted performer. Sometimes the shyness gives me an edge, and other times it backfires. I never know if I’m going to pull the performance off or not. This keeps everything very real, very honest. In this age of high production/fabrication, I like to push the precarious elements, the vulnerability and emotion. My work is old fashioned, everything is handmade.

I tend to reject things that come naturally and embrace difficult things, like trapeze. It was hard learning to go upside down and hold my body weight from a bar. I haven’t studied aerials (too expensive!). Most of what I know I’ve figured out on my own or through friends and collaborations. The aerial work is about flight, pushing through limitations and defying gravity. This work is often site-specific. It began with a 6 hour installation-performance in a chair that was suspended over a stairwell. This evolved into explorations in trapeze, harness and rope work. I like to interact with architecture, environment and vertical spaces. I have an obsession with bridges, and I love vaulted ceilings, beams, corners, stairwells and passageways. I love looking up. I work with circus metaphors as a way of seducing and confusing viewers, not quite giving them what they expect. Body and mind are symbiotic to me. If you tap into one you’re inevitably touching on the other. I’ve been drawn to working with bodies in response to my fairly disembodied youth. Ultimately I think that it all about energy, will and desire.

JDW: What, in your day to day life, grounds you as a person and as an artist? Where do you consider yourself truly at home or at rest?

CRC: I’m at home when I have a good studio to work in, a place to hang my trapeze and to draw/paint/write songs. It needs to be a place to collaborate, make noise and create. I recently moved out of an incredible studio at Contemporary Artist Center in Troy, NY and now my only work space is the stuffy attic in my small apartment, so I’m feeling a bit ungrounded. If anyone knows of an affordable/work-trade studio in the NY Hudson Valley let me know! I’m lucky to have a living space right now. I’ve been working with a non-profit called Time and Space ltd. in exchange for housing. I prefer the barter system. Before this I was traveling from place to place, making art and music but unable to pay rent. I went to a lot of artist residencies!

JDW: As a viewer steps away from your aerial performance or multimedia installation (or both) for the first time, what do you hope he or she has gained?

CRC: My work is cinematic, and sometimes haunting. I like to inspire people to use their imaginations. If viewers step away feeling transported, as though they’ve been on a journey, then the work is successful. Sometimes there is a political message in my work (ecological, anti-war, gender-queer). I never intend to beat viewers over the head. These messages are more poetic and speak to the subconscious. Sometimes I perform with taxidermy deer. Deer are apparently considered pests to homeowners and car drivers because they graze in the garden and run across the road at dusk. After shows people have told me that the deer performance made them see deer in a new light, which makes me very happy. Anything people can take away, even if it’s unconscious, is great. Ultimately I hope everyone can have their own unique experience that they will remember.