Saturday, November 08, 2008

Art Space Talk: Carolyn Ryder Cooley

Ryder Cooley is a multi-media artist and musician currently based in Troy, NY, (US). Weaving together chimeric visions with residue of daily life, her work reveals a terrain of lost dreams and phantom memories. Working with found materials and personal mythologies, she creates cinematic performances and installation spaces. Public performances, interventions, murals and collaborations are modes that Ryder employs in order to engage viewers in multi-sensory dialogs. Working resourcefully and sustainably while establishing and maintaining art practices beyond the context of industry and commercial culture is integral to her approach. Exchanges with artists and communities in local and international settings are crucial to her practice.

Ryder Cooley has participated in a wide variety of collaborations, public works and educational projects, as well as individual and group exhibits. Selected exhibitions have included: White Box and Exit Art in NYC, Grand Street Community Arts in Albany NY, Feminism(s) Conference at U. Hartford, Theater Artaud in San Francisco CA, Contemporary Artist Center in N. Adams MA, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco CA, Intersection for the Arts in San Francisco CA, New Image Arts in Los Angeles CA, Anno Domini Gallery in San Jose CA, Sama-Sama mural exchange in Indonesia, Numero 8 street mural journal (displayed in France, Morocco, Biennale de la image, and other locations in Europe), Brown Bag Contemporary Gallery and Photo New York in NYC, and community arts workshops in El Salvador. She has completed artist's residencies at Hambidge Center in Georgia, Jon Sims Center in San Francisco, C.E.S.T.A. in the Czech Republic and The Vermont Studio Center. She is a 2006 recipient of a Belle Foundation Artist Grant.

Antlered Doe with Menses, mixed media painting on paper, 14x17in.

Brian Sherwin: Ryder, you studied Sculpture at the Rhode Island School of Design and Combined Media at SUNY. You then earned an MFA in Integrated Electronic Arts at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Can you tell us about your academic years? Did you have any influential instructors? Do you have any advice for current students who are in those specific programs?

Carolyn Ryder Cooley: I came from a family where education was highly valued. My parents were both teachers and there was a lot of emphasis on college. After my first year at college I was ready to cut loose from academy so I struck a bargain with my parents and switched to Art School. I entered the Rhode Island School of Design in 1990 where I discovered an inspiring group of young women artists working with their bodies and exploring materials from women’s folk art traditions such as fabric, hair and domestic filigree.
Displaced within a formal & highly departmentalized institution, I stitched myself into the seams of the Sculpture Department where there was more flexibility to work collaboratively, site specifically and performatively using the body. During that time I began making performances and installations in empty buildings and outdoor settings around Providence, Rhode Island.

The best thing that happened for me at RISD was that I formed an identity as an artist. Unfortunately, I didn’t take advantage of all the great classes and facilities because I didn’t want to be in school. As a working artist, I wish I could afford to take classes now, so my advise to others in similar situations is to wait until you are ready before going to college. Ultimately, art school re-informed my distaste for what I viewed to be a highly competitive, commercially driven, alienating art world, and upon graduating I fled to San Francisco and immersed myself in the underground art and music scenes.

More recently, as an MFA student at Rensselaer Polytechnic I worked with amazing artists, musicians and thinkers such as Pauline Oliveros, Kathy High and Linda Montano. I’m not an electronic artist, which was a challenge at RPI since it’s a technical school, but the program supports multi-disciplinary work, which was great for me since I work fluidly in so many different mediums.
Reconstruction. Exit Art, NYC. April 2007. Three hour performance on a swing with Deer, feather shoes, sound and video projection. (Trickster Theater series)

BS: You have stated that as an installation and performance artist you strive to invent haunted dream worlds that echo political and cultural phenomena of the past and present. Can you go into further detail about the thoughts behind your work? Also, what are the social implications of your art?

CRC: I embrace a methodology focused on inventing new myths, rituals and life expressions which speak to diverse audiences, bringing people and other life forms together in unusual contexts for poetic acts of re-enchantment, thereby provoking thought and inspiring change. Given that we live amidst varying degrees of human destruction and oppression, it’s my hope that through the language of the arts, new levels of ecological awareness, gender diversity and non-violent co-habitation can be encouraged. Exploring ways of working sustainably through creative reuse of materials is a critical part of my work. Discarded belongings, recycled mater and visceral debris (feathers, hair, bones) are transformed into props and garments for installations and performance works.

Masquerade, mixed media painting on paper, 24x30in.

BS: What attracted you to these themes? At what point did you realize that the direction you have been on with your art would remain a strong focus for you?

CRC: The way that I arrive at ideas is intuitive, internal and often based on personal experience. My interest in deer, for example, began with a series of deer encounters, which subsequently led to a fascination with antlers and a bout of deer research.
My art practice began at a young age with a penchant for cake decorating. I enjoyed the impermanence of the cake and the carnal act of eating it. Moreover, I enjoyed inviting guests to participate in the cake eating ceremony (my first efforts toward creating ritual). I began to recognize that it would be preferable to society if I abandoned all forms of creative expression as Ronald Reagan was elected U.S. President in the early 90s. Therefore, from 1984-1989 I dedicated my life to the pursuit of normalcy and the strict avoidance of being an artist.
Over the years I rediscovered my creative voice. As an inter-disciplinary, politically concerned & emotionally driven artist I often find it difficult to operate within the product oriented art world, yet over time I have learned to follow my heart and pursue dreams in ways that are conscientious and sustainable. At times, this involves forgoing comforts such as a stable home, health insurance and a fixed income, but I enjoy finding ways of working around capitalism.
Carcass, mixed media painting on paper, 20x24in
BS: Can you discuss your use of symbolism? For example, in several of your paintings and works on paper you depict wounded or dead birds. Do you intentionally use symbolism in order to convey a message?

CRC: There is personal symbolism embedded in my work, and I hope there is symbolic significance for others who experience it. I don’t intentionally work with culturally constructed symbols, though I realize that my work can be interpreted in that way. Over the past year I’ve been developing a performance, Animalia, which looks at the society of honeybees and other animal creatures in their current struggle for survival within diminished environmental conditions. The Animalia performance uses the symbol of antlers as a vehicle for looking at identity, gender, queerness & interspecies trajectories while exploring metaphors of flight in response to social distress and the reverberations of war.

BS: You are a musician as well, correct? How do you find balance between visual art and music? Does one build upon the other, so to speak?

CRC: My work is multi-disciplinary, combining video, sound, music, text, movement, performance, installation, drawing & painting. I try not to think of the mediums as separate entities, but rather as voices, languages, tools and vehicles for expression. There’s a lot of pressure to compartmentalize and specialize in our culture. I’ve been trying to shift away from fighting against the system by working through the margins in poignant ways. I may call myself an “artist” or a “musician” when necessary, but in my heart I know it is all the same, communication and magic. Recently I injured my hand and couldn’t play the accordion for two months. During that time I was thankful that my creativity was fluid and I was able to express myself, install an exhibit and perform using the rest of my body. A few years ago I went to Indonesia to paint murals. There seemed to be less emphasis on mastery and a broader versatility of skills there. For example,everyone who I met knew how to play an instrument, you didn’t have to be a musician to play music. I admired the Indonesian fluidity, especially in relation to the arts.
Body of the Hive, part one (bees) of Animalia performance. Dec. 2007, Troy, NY. photo by J. Craig Thompkins

BS: Can you give our readers some insight into your current work? What are you working on at this time?

CRC: Currently I’m working on a performance called Animalia, Stories of Collapse, Calamity and Departure. The performance combines live and recorded music on singing saw, upright bass, banjo & accordion. Video, archival film and aerial movement reveal an enchanted fable about a girl who, through her disillusion with the human world, decides that she must develop flying powers. When she joins a circus and learns to fly the trapeze, she realizes that even the idolized circus is a military operation. Eventually, the performer falls under the spell of a deer and revokes her humanity to become an antlered deer creature. She is joined by another antlered character, and together they fly into the clouds on a nocturnal journey. Animalia is available for booking in 2009, for more information please contact me. Rydercooley at

I’m also working on two other ongoing projects. Reliquary is an installation series where groupings of mixed media drawings are mounted on old wood and built into site-specific constructed environments. Suspensions is a series of site-specific duration performances in which I suspend my body, often seated in a floating chair. There are images of all of these projects on my website.
Drawing Room Reliquary, installation of mixed media drawings mounted on found architectural wood with tea bags, framed drawings and feathers. Photo by Carols Vela
BS: Where can our readers view your work in person at this time? Will you be involved with any upcoming exhibits?

CRC: Reliquary (a multi-media drawing installation) is currently on view at Pan American Art Projects in Miami, Florida until early December. I’ll be performing Animalia as part of an artist residency at the Robert Wilson Watermill Center on May 2nd, 2009 in Watermill, NY. I also have a band with musical collaborator Todd Chandler called Fall Harbor. We have CD’s available through Blood Onion Records and we perform intermittently. For more information visit During the 2008-2009 winter I’ll mostly be in artist residencies on the east coast (MacDowell Colony, Vermont Studio Center). Readers can view my work on-line via my website,, where there is a list of events as well as a detailed archive of images and text.

BS: I understand you have been involved with several collaborations including public works and educational projects. Would you like to discuss some of the projects you have worked on? What do you enjoy about collaborating?

CRC: I collaborate with people, animals, environments, sites, histories, communities, dreams and spirits. Animal interactions and collaborations have always been intuitive, with origins in childhood and possibly past lives. A youthful fascination with non-human creatures led me to take up animal portraiture. I worked with subjects ranging from dead birds to spiders and turtles. Animalia was created with living human collaborator Todd Chandler and two previously living deer collaborators. The taxidermy deer are brought back to life in our collaboration. I am packing the rack when I strap the deer to my body. Trough me, my strap on deer re-experiences the living world. Through her I travel back in time. I feel her death in my body as she becomes part of me.

Collaborations have often been challenging for me, you take a lot of risks when you work closely with others and there inevitably are conflicts and intensities. Putting aside the ego can be difficult, however the experience gained by working collaboratively or collectively is invaluable. I have learned more through collaborations than through classes, workshops or books. The work is hands on and intimate, you can really observe your collaborators up close.

Working on site specific and/or public projects such as murals and street theater enables me to transcend the synthetic “neutrality” of museums and galleries. Creating work outdoors and in public space allows for more diverse and unsuspecting audience interactions. Connecting with the nuances and histories of sites, and the various life forms who inhabit them, opens up opportunities for generating living art. Of course, it can be difficult dealing with people’s expectations, conditioning and definition of “art”. Sometimes I find myself self-censoring in public contexts. Though I like to take viewers into consideration, it is also important to take risks and challenge peoples’ expectations.

Animalia performance, Pt. 4, Flight of the Deer, with Todd Chandler. photo by Zulma Aguiar

BS: Can you tell us more about your influences?

CRC: My primary inspirations are the people, animals and environments around me. There are many enchanted places I’ve experienced in the world, and in my mind (the rainforest, the ocean, hidden gardens, old buildings, empty spaces, reconstructed memories, characters who I’ve dreamed up).

There are a number of artists whose work approaches themes of embodiment, environment, ritual and time/duration who have been influential to the development of my practice: the installations of Ann Hamilton, the film-performance works of Rebecca Horn, Ana Mendieta, & Loie Fuller, the Indonesian art collective Taring Padi, the photos of Dianne Arbus, the combines of Rauschenberg, the quilts of Faith Ringgold, silent movies of the 1920’s such as The Wind. Moreover, animals, plants and insects offer more complex inspiration. Honeybees, for example, are amazing creatures. Producing an array of vital inventions, their matriarchal artist communities are composed of mostly “female” workers. Birds are also influential. They engage in an array of astronautics, acrobatics, migrations and navigations.

BS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about your art or the message that you strive to convey?

Bird Spirits, mixed media on found paper, 10x12 in.

CRC: As humans, as artists and as animals we have the power to create and destroy. The body itself can be a navigation device for points of departure and arrhythmic shifts. We all make choices with our bodies. There is a leaping into the unknown, a shattering and suspending of time. I believe it is possible to unearth invisible pasts and restore forgotten histories within an ever-unfolding presence of bewilderments.

Art practice is my never-ending refugee camp of the soul. In this place I seek asylum from the wars around me. The retreat becomes a platform from which I can speak. Practice is a place, a home for my homeless gypsy spirit.

If you are interested in experiencing my work in person, I would like to come perform, speak, install or create in a school, theater, museum, gallery, or public space near you. Please contact me:
You can learn more about Carolyn Ryder Cooley by visiting her website-- You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page--
Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin
Senior Editor

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