‘Animal Skin’: Your Ticket to Interdimensional Travel

To add to the list of unconventional things to see in a museum: Animal Skin, a multimedia live performance happening at the Burke Museum this Friday. Part of the Burke’s newish NiteLife series, in which the museum opens its doors after-hours and adds booze and music to a night of special programming, Animal Skin is a collaboration between visual artist Aaron Parker and musician Chris Cunningham, who’s best known as the main man behind feral stomp-folk band Ravenna Woods. Parker will be painting live while Cunningham crafts a soundscape, all while a short, experimental film directed by Cunningham and art-directed by Parker plays on an enormous screen behind them. For this piece, Parker’s painting will extend from his Makah heritage, and the film also riffs on the “darker side” of Makah mythology. Expect eerie vibes and sensory overload. 

Parker, a Makah tribal member born and raised in Neah Bay, met Cunningham years ago, when they were both first stepping into their respective crafts. Parker went on to major in painting at UW while Cunningham studied anthropology; by chance they were both enrolled in the same Pacific Northwest anthropology and art survey course. That’s when they discovered their mutual fascination with the Makah’s depictions of the spirit world. 

Parker describes the Makah’s traditional masking and unmasking ceremonies as literally transformational; donning a Makah mask, one becomes a different being altogether. Same when one removes the mask. He describes “entities” in a spirit world that coexist with the human world “in what amounts to transdimensional travel between the two,” beings like the Wild Man, a drowned whaler revived as a sort of “zombie fish-man,” and a giant cannibal woman who kidnaps children to eat. 

“I knew stories from my hometown, but when we heard these other stories about Pacific Northwest lore we were like oh my god, these are amazing!” Parker says. “We were picturing how cool would it be if there was a Hollywod-budget-type Pacific Northwest-themed movie—not Twilight—bringing to life these old stories in a living way.” 

Enter the film component of Animal Skin. While falling way short of a Hollywood budget, the moody art film translates a certain otherworldliness in striking visual terms. Parker says the live painting and live scoring, which Cunningham will produce on the fly with a host of electronic instruments, keyboards and guitar, were meant to be the focus of the performance. “It’s first and foremost a live artwork demonstration,” he says, fitting in with the Burke NiteLife theme of “maker p(ART)y.” But once he and Cunningham delved into the film it took on a more central role, and it’s given prominent placement during the performance projected onto a massive screen.

“This is me being able to take ancient tradition and re-express it in a contemporary way,” Parker says.

The trailer they’ve cut to preview the film conveys its strong visual sensibility, with masks designed by Parker projected onto his face alternating with somber landscape footage and dancing firelight. Watch it below, and then check out the full experience at the Burke on Friday. 

Animal Skin runs as part of the Burke Museum’s NiteLife program on Friday, May 19. Find more info and tickets here.