Fig. 1. Empathics dancing in the "Star Compulsion" formation
Saya Woolfalk’s installations, performances, and multimedia work imagine the future in the terms of Afrofuturism, extending a tradition that includes “the music of Sun Ra and George Clinton and science-fiction novels by Samuel R. Delany and Octavia Butler” (Johnson). Jonathan Walz, Curator of American Art at the Sheldon Museum, said that her art encourages a dynamics of empathy, which is “needed now more than ever.”
Woolfalk grew up in Scarsdale, New York, identifying as African-American, Japanese, and White. “I was always switching codes,” she said, and her art reflects this cultural hybridity. Her art celebrates cultural convergences and intersections. However, it is not meant to be about her. These pieces and performances are conceptual “tools for the future” and "for her daughters."
Back in 1999, her art took a linguistic approach to body politics and sexuality. She drew inspiration from Roland Barthes’s Mythologies, especially his essay on toys. Barthes argues that children’s toys “literally prefigure the world of adult functions” in order to “prepare the child to accept them all” (53). Dolls imbibe water and simulate digestion. Miniature soldiers use parachutes. Model trains puff real steam. Toys are microcosms of a social world.
Like many artists and cultural critics influenced by Barthes’s writings about popular culture, Woolfalk found a way to intervene in the signifying chain. Her mentor at Brown University, Leslie Bostrom, taught meta-ideological strategies for negotiating powerful sign systems like gender and race. These studies led to multimedia performances in which Woolfalk and gallery patrons engaged each other in dialog.
Fig. 2. “Nostalgia”
Describing performances like “Nostalgia,” during which she lay on the gallery floor beneath sculpted tubes, she told the Chicago-based review, New City Art,
Well, I started to build these environments that people could walk into, exist in for a while as spectators and which would then start to change the code systems embedded in their subjectivity, those complex accumulation of signs.
Speaking at the Sheldon Museum last week about this method of semiotics, she described a process of “objectifying” the symbolic order and inserting it back into society. She places “new bodies back into the landscape.”
Describing her career during the early 2000s as critical engagement with consumerism, race, and sexuality, she said that it was “preparatory work” for three recent multimedia works.
She collaborated with the anthropologist Rachel Lears from 2006 to 2008 on the video, Ethnography of No Place. The “portal” in the video’s beginning, which Amanda Brietbach likened to a “child’s playhouse,” was a composite of readily-available stuff. It reflects artistic motivation that Jaime Brunton finds consonant with Jacques Rancière’s idea of the “redistribution of the sensible.” Woolfalk said that she made the portal from garbage around the house, and meant for it to be a doorway to the “Seven Wonders of the World.”
Fig. 3. Lears and Woolfalk wearing "Darwin" costumes for Ethnography of No Place (2008)
In this travel narrative, Woolfalk and Lears are like psychedelic naturalist guides (see fig. 3). At the Sheldon, Woolfalk explained how they were looking at old Victorian portraits of Charles Darwin, and found his clothing and postures very stylish. So they made costumes in his likeness from materials bought at a local Kmart.
The Empathics (2009-2013) tells the story of plant-human hybrids who can change colors. In order to create an “immersive storytelling experience” about scientists who discover a DNA-altering fungus and then transform into two-headed and winged plant people, Woolfalk consulted and worked with professional dancers and actual biologists. In this science fiction story, researchers adapt to genetic mutations with elaborate rituals and therapy. They deal with “competing sets” of genetic information through “utopia conjuring therapy” (UCT) and develop lucid dreaming techniques.
Her latest work, ChimaTEK, parodies capitalism and tells a story about the Empathics selling hybridizing technology for mass consumption. She partnered with animators, filmmakers, musicians, and videographers to produce “virtual chimeric space” (Seattle). Orchestrating ritual dances and meditation sessions, this chapter of The Empathics attempts to “introduce chimeric being” to the general public. Woolfalk reimagines “psycho-cultural boundaries” in order to “offer insight into our hybridizing world.”
Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1991.
Johnson, Ken. “Saya Woolfalk: ‘ChimaTEK: Hybridity Visualization System.’” New York Times 19 Feb. 2015.