XMALIA: A Graveyard Cabaret

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Interview by Valeria Federici

C. Ryder Cooley is an inter-disciplinary artist, musician and performer.  Weaving together found materials with chimeric images, her work reveals a terrain of lost dreams and phantom memories. Ryder received a BFA from RISD in Sculpture and an MFA in Integrated Electronic Media from Rensselaer Polytechnic. She has been exhibiting, performing and collaborating for twenty years. She currently lives in Hudson NY.


 Photo by Louis Tortora

I know you play several instruments, but tell me how you came to play the saw?

I was living in San Francisco and a few saw players were floating around, so I was familiar with the phenomena. One night my band, The Darklings, played a show at City Lights Books with another band who had a saw player. I don’t remember the other band, but the saw player was Enzo Garcia.  Enzo played a mean saw. We talked after the show and it turned out we were neighbors from a past life in the Mission, so I asked him if he could get me started on saw. Enzo sent me to Charlie Blacklock’s in Alameda. Charlie was a saw celebrity who made his big shebang in the 50’s and 60’s in show biz (Hee Haw Show, I believe). Charlie was on his last legs and died a few years later. Anyway, the journey to Blacklocks’ was both charming and dismaying. I remember Alameda as a surreal working-class island community in the East Bay. I was a quirky queer girl trying to re-define everything everyday including music, and myself. Charlie wasn’t available to guide me on my journey to inner saw-dom. He had rigid ideas about what was the

authentic way of playing the saw (vibrato via leg versus hand, bow every note, etc) and he was more interested in demonstrating his expertise than teaching me to play. Nevertheless, he was a character and his saws sounded divine, plus his wife made these great naugahyde (artificial leather NDR) saw cases, I still use mine today. Once I made it through the rites of passage and had my Blacklock saw in hand, Enzo built me a wooden saw handle and told me the best way to learn was to play play play because it’s intuitive, you can’t really learn it, you have to feel it. That was perfect for me! I love singing the saw.


XMALIA, your most recent multi-media performance, is a Graveyard Cabaret where a maniacal graveyard keeper brings back to life the Tasmanian Tiger, the Pyrenean Ibex, and the Xerces Butterfly. What makes you think of those animals and why are they relevant to you and to your work?

The extinct animals I’m working with in XMALIA are archetypes. I choose many of them because I have taxidermy animals who I perform with, and I try to match the dead with the dead, which is a lot of death. I’ve read a fair amount about the Tasmania Tiger before I started to work on the tiger piece. In Song of the Dodo there’s a whole chapter dedicated to Thylacines, so when I traded some drawings for a decapitated tiger-head (who goes by the name of Tiny), I knew I wanted to make a tableau about the Tasmanian Tiger. I wanted to work with the Thylacine because the death-narrative paralleled a lot of things happening in the world today. The Thylacines were targeted for killing

domestic, imported sheep. They killed the sheep for survival, because there was nothing left once their habitat was converted to pastures. Also, imported dogs were responsible for numerous sheep deaths, but the Thylacine was blamed because it was considered a “wild” animal. The xenophobia, profiling, bounty-death squads (mercenaries)

government-endorced hunts (terrorist hunts), massacres, famine, it all feels so relevant. There is also a colonization-destruction story, and a prison piece since many extinct animals died behind bars (death row) and are now on display in museums (savages, natives). The story of these tigers is so culturally relevant.

I’m trying to work with animals and ideas that are familiar and easy, as entry points to a difficult subject matter. The dodo is an icon. Most people have heard of the dodo, and we still use the word derogatorily. In XMALIA, dodo is diva. By re-framing the fat, stupid, ugly bird who couldn’t fly as a glamorous acrobat, a circus performer, a migrant gypsy who discovers nirvana, an inter-species lover who partners with a tree. I was interested in the co-extinction story, where a tree species goes extinct (Calveria) in the absence of a bird species (Dodo). The story exemplifies the domino effect of extinction, how the loss of one species affects the entire eco-system in subtle ways, revealed over time.

The Pyrenean Ibex was similarly selected because I have a taxidermy goat (named Seven after the seven minutes that the ibex was resurrected). This extinct Ibex was DNA cloned and injected into a number of laboratory goats, one of whom birthed a mutant ibex-creature that died after a few minutes. The cloning and genetic/modification story felt poignant.

The extinct California Xerces Blue Butterfly beckoned me because of the symbiotic relations between certain  butterflies and ants; the extinction could be connected to the vanishing of ants. I’m interested in evidence of inter-species relations, co-habitations and reciprocity. All these sub-plots embedded in the extinction stories, and how they relate to social structures and current events, are what really intrigues me.

Beside animals and fantasy creatures have you ever thought about representing the possible extinction of the human race in you work? What role as the human being in your representations?

The main character in XMALIA is a traveling musician who lands in a ghost town full of extinct animals. She decides to serenade the dead animals, and bring them back to life for her graveyard cabaret. When she realizes she’s been missing for some time, there is no way for her to leave, and she stays to tend the dead animals.  XMALIA is a little twilight zone, but in this narrative, it does imply the possibility of human extinction.

People primarily play the role of extinctor in my work.  Yes, I believe that in destroying the world we live in, we destroy ourselves. The thing I wonder is, will we be the last to go, like in Mary Shelly’s The Last Man? She sure had it right with Frankenstein. Once you bring a monster to life (A-bomb, nuclear power/war) you have to live with it, or die with it. Anyway, XMALIA is my way of dealing with the angst of being an extinctor. This is my medicine, and I offer it to the world. I don’t know what else to do. It’s visual, multi-sensory philosophy.

Your current exhibition of XMALIA involves everything from drawings to performance to trapeze art, how do you categorize yourself as an artist and how difficult is to create an artistic identity and stick with it?

I’m an inter-disciplinary artist, musician and performer, and I don’t like to be reduced to any single or prescribed entity. I think it’s radical, queer and feminist to be complex and expansive. But, the social landscape is reluctant to support our plurality, and as a result, it isn’t always easy, or fun. The art-music-performance worlds can be so market driven and celebrity oriented, I get heartbroken (insert Peggy Lee song “Is That All There Is”). So, to answer your question more succinctly, I would say my artistic identity is not difficult to “create” because it is so deeply me. What is difficult for me is figuring out how to deal with the pressure to package, promote, market and sell my/your/our artistic identities. I really hate that stuff, but sometimes it has to happen, and that’s the heartbreak. My work is so melancholy as a result, but I try to insert humor and whimsicality. Being a grown-up artist is not all that I hoped for, it’s not always about being free and expressive. But there is passion, and there is potential, and there is the unknown, and so I/we persist.

What are you working on next?

XMALIA is my main labor of love these days. I’m planning to do a series of XMALIA performances in the spring at theaters and spaces; it would be great to take the show abroad, too. The project is so expansive: a stage show, a drawing series, a song cycle, a circus act, a research project, a taxidermy second-life explosion, I expect to be working on this project for quite some time. I’m also hoping to make a recording of the XMALIA songs this winter. We’ll be performing XMALIA with the full cast and aerials on January 25 at MCLA Presents! in North Adams, (Massachusetts) among other places, so please stay tuned!

As always, I’m also doing lots of side-projects and collaborations. I’m working on a flying bicycle act for a group show at Dixon Place, NYC in November, and I’m excited to be presenting a number of visiting artist lectures/seminars this fall.

Folks can always find out what I’m up to on my website http://carolynrydercooley.org/ or on the XMALIA blog http://xmalia.tumblr.com/

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