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Preparing a “dystopic tableau”: (l-r) Cooley and Chandler.

PHOTO: Shannon DeCelle

Crossing Boundaries

Artist-musician C. Ryder Cooley caps a few years of work with a thesis project that aims to make you feel the connection between human and animal

By Shawn Stone


If you’ve seen C. Ryder Cooley perform, you won’t soon forget her. (And you’ve had numerous chances to see her, as she’s performed all over the Capital Region in venues large and small over the last two years;this Sunday, she’s giving her iEar-MFA thesis performance at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.) You would remember her not just because her songs seem haunted, filled with often unnerving imagery that evoke powerful emotions. It’s not even because she’s compelling and entertaining. It’s because she’s the woman with the accordion—and the deer head. An actual stuffed deer head, which is, inevitably, a visual focal point.

While the artist herself provides a longer answer to the obvious question—“Why a deer head?”—this description supplied by the New York City gallery-performance space Exit Art about a 2007 Cooley show is pretty good shorthand: “C. Ryder Cooley performs with her collaborator, a disembodied deer who once hung as a trophy on a hunter’s wall. Together they . . . construct a third body, a post-gender antlered being who hovers chimerically in a space betwixt forest and civilization.”

“I started with the deer a couple of years ago when I was on an artists’ retreat Northern Vermont, in the winter.” Cooley remembers. “I had been living out on the West Coast for a long time—in the city, San Francisco—so I hadn’t had a lot of extended time just out in the wild, in the middle of winter.”

“I found these deer—they were actually on a deer farm,” she adds. “I got kind of obsessed with them, and I visited them everyday, and observed them. I talked with the deer farmer.”

Her first reaction—remember, this was during the height of the first wave of pro-Iraq War feeling—was to make a connection to violence. “I got very interested in the growth and the shedding of the antlers . . . [and] the violent implications of the antlers.”

In her vision, Cooley connected the shedding of the antlers with disarmament—but this didn’t last long.

“It turned into this internal fairy tale for me,” she remembers, “with these deer characters and thinking about becoming a deer.”

Now, many of you are probably wondering, um, what could this person possibly be thinking? You should try to keep an open mind, because it’s a compelling dream world that Cooley has conjured up and translated into art, a world that is both appealing and off- putting, amusing and baffling. And part of what makes it work is that there’s nothing ironic about her point of view, which is suffused with a disarming sense of wonder.

Case in point: A video Cooley made of a journey she took along Route 2 in Western Massachusetts last summer, and in and around North Adams. The video captures Cooley (wearing deer-antler headgear and carrying her accordion) singing trackside as a Boston & Maine freight goes by; next to a seemingly abandoned warehouse; and in the MASS MoCA parking lot, where, amusingly, security shoos her away. (News flash: Internationally oriented avant-garde art space chases away avant-garde artist.) Sometimes you can hear her; sometimes she’s drowned out by environmental sounds. Nothing fazes her, however; she’s completely into what she’s doing. When she poses by a road sign for the monthly meeting of the North Adams Elks, with its antlered logo, it’s a very amusing juxtaposition.

“That day of playing the serenades around North Adams,” Cooley says, “it’s so much in the moment, having to do with the environment and happenstance.” It doesn’t matter, she says, that no one is there to see her: “In a way, those performances seem more magical.”

At one point in the video, Cooley climbs what seems like a rickety train-signal catwalk over the railroad mainline. It’s actually kind of scary—and someone must have noticed, because some railroad workers arrive to force her back down.

Asked about this, Cooley says, “I don’t know why I feel compelled [to do those things].”

“It didn’t feel rickety,” she adds about the catwalk, “it just seemed like a magical spot. I really like being up off the ground.”

Fascinatingly, Cooley turns this back around to theme of transcending the line between human and animal: “I see all these animals, and they’re up off the ground; even the squirrels. Squirrels run through the building here at RPI. They’ll be almost completely upside down, scurrying along the ceiling. . . . They have a completely different sense of gravity. It’s so compelling.”

Asked about her thesis show, Animalia: Stories of Collapse, Calamity and Departure, Cooley explains that “the trick right now is creating a performance for a theater space that still has these moments”—meaning the kind of “magical moments” that she found, by herself, in out-of-the-way places.

It’s a multimedia show, with performance and video: “I’m working with a lot of video footage that I’ve shot at different times and on different adventures.”

“It’s embracing this whole body of work that I’ve been building on over the past two years,” she says. “It’s like an interspecies fairy tale that I’m weaving together from all these small performances into a longer, 40-minute feature-length narrative.”

“I’m collaborating musically,” she says, “with another graduate student here at RPI, Todd Chandler; he’s a big part of the performance.” (They’re also in a band together, Down River.)

Asked what it is, exactly, that she does, she pauses.

“I feel like it’s not totally performance art—I mean performance art is pretty loosely de fined—but it’s more abstract.”

If you think about it, you see what she means. Much performance art—at least as it’s often perceived—is more directly revealing. Cooley’s is not.

What should an audience expect Sunday afternoon at RPI?

“The performance is actually in a building which is a bit hard to get to,” she says. “So I’m inviting people to meet in the parking lot of West Hall. The performance will almost have started in the parking lot; even though I won’t be there, there will be some special ‘characters’ there to meet people and escort them to the performance space. So, it will be a kind of journey. And there should be some enchantments along the way to the performance.”

“I really like to do these kind of performances or installations where people can really be a part of it,” she says “and experience it on more of a visceral level, as opposed to it being more passive [for the] audience.”

Animalia will be presented in the RPI Darren Communications Center, Room 174, 8th Street, Troy, on Sunday (March 2) at 5 PM. Meet at 4:30 PM in the West Hall upper parking lot; admission is free. C. Ryder Cooley’s thesis exhibit is on view in the RPI West Hall Gallery through Sunday; a closing reception will be held following the Animalia performance. For more info, call 276-4829. 

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