Leech House is a bio-art performance series
exploring parasitism as symbiotic exchange

Produced and performed
by Ryder Cooley
in collaboration with
a selection of photographers/artists

Leech House is a
photo-based series
of bloodletting rituals
performed for the camera
with occasional live viewings

The Leech House Series is a symbiotic transference ritual whereby the human parasite becomes guardian host to the hermaphroditic leech, inviting the leech to feast upon and cleanse her blood with hirudin venom and gender neutralizing verve.

In these rituals and exchanges, the performer subverts her gender by opting to feed medicinal leeches, suggesting a departure from the conventional gender mandate to nurture the human infant/parasite. In turn, the leech offers the medicinal hirudin peptide in this re-presentation of parasitism as a symbiotic exchange.   

The Leech House Performance

Leech House falls within the contemporary practices of physical performance and visceral body art. Consider Anna Mendietta’s Body Tracks series, where the artist smeared bloody armprints onto gallery walls, or  Gina Pane and the “Art Corporel” movement, where  artists explored body carving, piercing and transformation as performance. Like these artists/practices, Leech House pushes the boundaries of art, science, body and performance.

Similarly, the Leech House Series joins the milieu of artists who collaborate with animals and insects, such as Joseph Beuys in his famous coyote performance, or artists Aganetha Dyck and Garnet Puett, who work with honey bees to create waxen sculptures. 

As humanity lunges further into virtual and simulated experiences Leech House offers a counter-narrative of extreme embodiment, harkening back to a time when medicine was ritual, remedies were extracted from leaves and roots, and leeches were not feared as parasites, but coveted as healers. 

Hirudo Leeches, Humoural Medicine & Blood Letting

Hirudo leeches are unisex aquatic creatures who feed upon mammalian blood. For centuries they were used in medicine for their anti-coagulant, anesthetic and anti-inflammatory secretions.

Hirudo Leeches are classified as clitellata (segmented worms), with suckers on both ends and strong abdominal muscles that allow them to advance like inchworms. Hirudinida are extremely flexible, expanding from short, chunky ovals to long flat ribbons (like eels). Their anterior suckers (heads) have three jaws, which are lined with sharp blades.  These blades allow the leech to pierce the skin of the host and drink the singular nutrient that they seek, blood. Once they are sated, the leeches release their clutches and begin to digest their feast. They can subsist for 3-6 months between meals, and they can live for 6-8 years.  Leeches are extremely sensitive, sophisticated and wise. Perhaps this is because they have 32 segments of their brains, correlating to the 32 segments of their bodies. 

Leech bites can bleed for up to ten hours due to the hirudin anticoagulant, which the leech releases into the host. The bite marks linger in the shape of a Y, reflecting the three mandibles of the leech mouth. The bites swell into large itchy lumps for 2-3 days after feeding. Over time the bites fade and become part of the tapestry of the host’s skin.

Historically, illnesses were drawn out of the body by exorcism, magic, bloodletting, purging and other expurgatorial treatments. In medieval medicine, blood was one of the four ‘humours,’ or body fluids, which were linked to the elements (earth, air, fire, water), as well as to the seasons and a variety of physiological, neurological and mental imbalances. For example, blood was classified as ‘sanguine’ and was associated with spring, warmth, air and optimism, while black bile was ‘melancholic’ and associated with autumn, cold, earth and pessimism. Some medical practices are still rooted in this humoural philosophy today.

In contrast to these natural and historic doctrines, mainstream contemporary medicinal practices promote the consumption of medicine via pharmaceuticals, vaccines and often “invasive” treatments. Today, bloodwork is sent out to laboratories for analysis, but in the past it was collected and examined directly by doctors, largely during bloodletting treatments.

Parasitism, Mutualism & Symbiosis

There are many varieties of parasites. Mutualistic parasites nourish their hosts, while destructive parasites deplete them. In an existential effort to understand her own parasitism, and to examine the possibility of a more synergistic lifestyle, artist Ryder Cooley decided to embark upon a more embodied exploration of bloodletting. Her research has developed into a creative investigation, positing bloodletting as a conceptual antidote to modern consumer medicine.

Leech House Trajectory

The Leech House Series was initiated in 2019 when Ryder adopted six Hirudo medicinal leeches. The leeches that she selected were larger than standard medical leeches; they were bloodletting leeches.  As leech doctor/patient, Ryder set out with the intention of treating emotional and mental distress, joint discomfort and poor circulation. Although the physical results of the leech treatments have been subtle, the bloodletting rituals have had positive psychological/cerebral effects.

Since procuring the leeches, Ryder has been collaborating on a series of  photo-based rituals and exchanges with a selection of artists, and with the leeches themselves.  Each artist/photographer has contributed their own ideas, styles and techniques to the project, creating a very eclectic portfolio of images. Additionally, musicians have interpreted the project sonically and videographers have captured the motion and duration of the rituals. 

The set and location for each bloodletting ritual is selected based on the joint vision of the performers and collaborators. In some instances, the sites inform the themes and narratives of the images. In other instances, the locations are secondary to the overall theme and/or vision of the rituals. 

The Leeches 

Hirudinea are sexually complete beings (hermaphrodites) and shape-shifters, with unique markings and personalities. They are very curious and shy,  and they bite only when the mood is right, the skin is pierced and the blood is warm.  Over the course of this project, the leeches have become a part of Ryder, and she a part of them via this visceral and mutualistic exchange.  

The images and videos on this site
belong exclusively to the
Leech House artists/project.
To request permission to use these documents, 
 or for more information about the project, please contact

rydercooley at gmail.com

Please do not copy, share or post any of the
Leech House documents without permission. Thank You

©RyderCooley & the Leech House collaborators, as credited throughout leechhouse.com. 2024. All rights reserved.