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  • James Lowell Brunton

Humanities on the Edge Preview: “Saya Woolfalk: World Builder”

Saya Woolfalk, ChimaTEK Beta Launch, 2014, installation view,

(Photo credit: ArtMag 85)

On March 3, the Humanities on the Edge lecture series will welcome visual artist Saya Woolfalk to speak about her work. Woolfalk will be the series’ 23rd speaker—and its first visual artist. Woolfalk’s art provides a unique perspective on HotE’s theme for this year, “Posthuman Futures.”

In her artist statement, Woolfalk writes: “My work considers the idea that symbolic and ideological systems can be activated and re-imagined through collaboration, imaginative play and masquerade. To effect this re-imagining objects, bodies, and landscapes are constructed to immerse us in the logic of another place” ("Artist Statement"). Woolfalk’s fictional worlds, composed of multimedia art forms and performers, are worlds in which the boundaries between the symbolic and 'reality' are blurred, confused, made undecidable. This undecidability takes place not just at the level of metaphor or message, but in terms of decentering the sensorium of the museumgoers, some of whom, it’s been noted, have literally had trouble deciding whether they are experiencing a work of fiction or a real-life scientific study. Woolfalk’s work insists on being both at once, operating from the logic of both/and, not either/or. In her worlds, viewers become experiencers—and the fullness of the experience depends precisely on taking that constructed world (and the 'real' outside world from which it constructed) as an agent capable of transforming its inhabitants.

Woolfalk’s 2012 installation, The Empathics, for instance, takes the form of an anthropological display akin to something found in a natural history museum. Visitors first read Woolfalk’s myth of a group of women who find a burial ground in the woods containing bones with chimeric DNA consisting of both plant and animal. The women, through their interaction with these strange objects, are themselves transformed. They study and document their transformations and name themselves “the Empathics.” Woolfalk describes the Empathics' practice as “politicized collective action... informed by what seem to be contradictory positions of a semi-religious commitment to No Place [literally, Utopia].” Through her constructed worlds, she explains, she wishes to recreate (or pre-create?) a “parallel fictional space and how things might come to be” (“Artist Statement”). The fictional space of the Empathics at once plays out a fictional narrative of transformation through contact with an ever-changing environment and enacts a transformation within the brain/body of the museumgoer along with the transformation of the museum space into what feels like an alternate ‘real world.’ This transformation of space and sense has obvious resonances with Jacques Rancière’s notion of the “redistribution of the sensible”—art’s ability to shift the parameters of what is deemed intelligible and available to the senses. Furthermore, Woolfalk’s focus on identity (as human, as gendered, as raced) as an environmental- and context-dependent paradigm promises to add to what has already been a rich discussion of this year’s Humanities on the Edge theme of the “posthuman.”

Saya Woolfalk will give her lecture on Thursday, March 3, at 530pm at the Sheldon Museum of Art. You can read more about her many projects at

-Jaime Brunton

Works Cited

Rancière, Jacques. Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics. 2010. Trans. Steven

Corcoran. New York: Continuum, 2012.

Woolfalk, Saya. “Artist Statement.” Saya Woolfalk.

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