Plant Humans of the Future: An Interview with Saya Woolfalk

August 30, 2016 · Print This Article

Saya Woolfalk Installation at the Seattle Art Museum in the Disguise Exhibit, 2015 - Photo by Nathaniel Willson

Saya Woolfalk Installation at the Seattle Art Museum in the Disguise Exhibit, 2015 – Photo by Nathaniel Willson

Saya Woolfalk is a New York-based artist who, for the last decade, has been building an elaborate and multi-dimensional narrative about alternate cultures. Woolfalk’s physical installations document the artifacts of these cultures—specifically the No Placeans (plant humans) and the future human culture that discovered No Placean bones, the Empathics—using ethnography-museum displays strategies that she populates with digital projections, elaborate costumes and mannequins, paintings, artifacts, and totems. With that intersection at play, Woolfalk offers alternative models for cultural exchange, societal hierarchy, and the way they mirrors many own conventional norms today.

Caroline Picard: 
What is No Place?

Saya Woolfalk: No Place is a project I worked on from 2006-2008 with filmmaker and anthropologist Rachel Lears. It was scripted and conceived by collecting the utopian desires of people in our communities. Through a series of ethnographic interviews, the story of No Place emerged. The No Placeans are plant humans who change gender and color, transform into the landscape when they die, and repurpose refuse into usable technologies.

CP: Did that vision of utopia continue to evolve in your work after 2008?

SW: Once this collectively imagined “utopia” was established I began to think about how people in the present could become the plant humans of the future. In 2009, I worked with a group of women dancers to create the first Ritual of the Empathics. Then in 2010, I collaborated with biologists at Tufts University to hash out how humans might actually become part plant in a project called The Institute of Empathy.

In 2012, The Institute of Empathy (IoE) curated and lent an exhibition of objects, dioramas, and videos at the Montclair Art Museum in Montclair, NJ. In this exhibition The Empathics describe how they find a group of No Placean bones into the woods of upstate New York. A fungus on the bones stimulates a physiological mutation that allows Empathics to easily cross species by integrating various genetic materials into their DNA. The nonprofit organization IoE was established to study this new morphology and distill the mutation process into a multi stage system so that any ordinary human can opt into becoming an Empathic.

Screen Shot from Institute of Empathy (IoE) wesbsite

Screenshots from Institute of Empathy (IoE) website

Screen Shot 2016-08-30 at 8.49.11 AM


CP: It seems like you’re talking about cultural exchange, where the fungus becomes a radical agent between Empathics, No Placeans, and the fungus itself. What was it about fungus that makes it a good multi-species ambassador?

SW: When I interviewed the biologists at Tufts, I gave them the backstory for the plant humans of No Place. I then asked what might make people from the present hybridize in such a radical way. One of the researchers offered the example of a fungus that implants itself inside of an ant. The ant is generally risk averse, but the introduction of the fungus alters both its behavior and morphology. Sprouting out of its host body, the fungus eventually kills the ant. When I saw an image of this violent rupture and subsequent transformation, it seemed to be the perfect inspiration for the origination story of the Empathics.

CP: I’m interested in how you borrow scientific, ethnographic, and artistic strategies to build not just new cultural narratives, but also objects and installations. Can you say more about how you incorporate and refract biological, anthropological, and artistic methodologies?

SW: In the visual art program at Brown, we were offered a variety of classes where we could explore combining the methods of art and science. After grad school, I moved to Maranhao, Brazil with my husband, cultural anthropologist Sean Mitchell. We lived in his field site for two years and this is when I began to borrow anthropological methods for thinking about and making my own work. I also got a Fulbright to do research into folkloric performance traditions in northeastern Brazil, which is how I met Rachel.  When we got back to the States, she and I decided to collaborate to create the short film I mentioned, Ethnography of No Place.  That was the first project I made that really blended artistic and anthropological methods into a single project.

CP: One of the things that struck me about the Empathics is that they are described as being plant/human hybrids; they are very adaptive and easily absorb different influences. I loved this idea because in some way I feel like you are articulating a bridge between nature and culture, which is typically difficult for Western philosophic and cultural frameworks to embrace. What was it about plants that made you interested in plant/human hybridity?  

SW: I spent summers of my childhood going to elementary school in rural Japan were there was an emphasis on learning about plant systems in. We nurtured plants, learned about their ecosystems, and relationships with humans.

In 1999, when I was a junior in college, I went to my first Venice biennial. At the biennial I encountered the Kaki Tree project, in which a singe persimmon tree survived the bombing of Nagasaki in 1945. This mother tree emerged out of a catastrophic historic event and its human collaborators stimulated intercultural exchanges using her saplings. On their website they describe how “Art cultivates the imagination to help us feel others’ pain and creativity to build a new world. It goes beyond borders, religion, race and even language, and helps us feel sympathy for each other.” The structure and drives of this project impacted how I wanted to conceive my future work.

CP: What continues to draw you to the Empathics? Do you think of their narrative as a kind of medium?

SW: I always wanted to create a project that would allow me to think about cross cultural relationships and hybridization but did not want to use my personal story or standard tropes of multiculturalism.

CP: ChimaTEK is a corporation developed for the Empathics, by the Empathics, to help with their individual pursuit of self-improvement.

SW: ChimaTEK is the corporate branch of the IoE; through this corporation, the Empathics have patented a multi-step process with home-use technologies that make interspecies and intersubjective hybridization available to all.

CP: Am I right in thinking that the corporation is an ambiguous and even distopic figure in your narrative. Would you say the corporation is kind of dark mirror for the Empathics? 

SW: The corporation is intentionally ambiguous and distopic. When I first conceptualized the project in 2006, ChimaTEK was in my notes as The Land of the Pleasure Machines. In this early iteration of the project, the Pleasure Machines are humans who give up their flesh and take on robotic bodies. As No Place and the Empathics developed their own logics, I revised the story to explore what happens when research that seems to be utopian gets coopted into a corporate logic. ChimaTEK allows users to wipe their identities clean and download specially configured identity algorithms. What do we self-select if we are capable of this kind of transformation?

CP: That makes me think about the power of fictional narratives, somehow, as a method to imagine alternative realities and  mirror one’s own reality, without implicating a specific, individual biography. Still, I think it’s interesting that empathy plays such a big role in your work. Why is empathy so important?

SW: In graduate school I was inspired by Afrofuturist feminist Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis series. In these books a race called the Oankali go through the universe seeking organisms to trade genetic information with. Empathy plays a complex role in this story, from the perspective of the Oankali they are being empathic, they are saving humanity from the brink of destruction. However, humans lose their autonomy once integrated into the Oankali genetic order. The protagonist, Lilith, establishes a blended family out of her relationship with the Oankali and the books trace her personal and social conflicts with being a trader to her humanity as well as a desire to integrate into a new genetic and social order. The series has been described as an exploration of the trans-Atlantic slave trade; Butler uses science fiction to consider forced familial relationships forged out of slavery that resulted in generations of African Americans having conflictual relationships with their integration into American culture.

CP: It seems significant that you haven’t written a novel (as yet) but instead make objects, installations, and performances, almost as secondary artifacts that viewers apprehend like archeologists…we don’t access the direct text-narrative, but instead connect the dots via artifacts that narrative produced.

SW: Octavia Butler’s fantastical and psychologically complicated myth fueled my desire to tell a story. As a visual artist, I knew it would not only be told through words but through a physicalization of objects, places, and by building new realities. So, for me, the objects and installations are very important, they are the material manifestation and physicalization of another place. They are the things that make the place real, that allow us to have access to that place.

ChimaTEK Beta Launch by Saya Woolfalk at Smack Mellon

ChimaTEK Beta Launch by Saya Woolfalk at Smack Mellon

CP: You are able to hit a lot of registers at once and seem comfortable with the seams between digital/material/nonhuman/human mediums; that’s part of what makes your work take on such a cohesive feeling of artifact. How did you develop that process? 

SW: I started playing with digital technology early on in my work. I made digital collages with costumed figures using early versions of Photoshop in the 90s. I was trying to use the newly available digital technologies to combine real people and places with new imagined possibilities.

CP: What about the difference between mannequins and live bodies? Does that difference matter?

SW: I gravitate towards the utopian potentials of digital space (post race, post gender, post human etc.), but understand that people live in real bodies that experience real consequences based on how they are gendered, sexed, raced and classed. As I currently explore things like augmented and virtual reality, I constantly bring us back to actual bodies in space, real dancers that have physical manifestations not just phantoms that exist in digital space.

CP: What would the Empathics say about the Anthropocene?

SW: The Empathics are initially ordinary humans and do their work in human centric systems. I imagine they would not be opposed to the current geological epoch being characterized as the Anthropocene. However, I don’t think they would want ChimaTEK or the work of the IoE to be limited by a human centric vision of possibility. I teach at Parsons the New School and a number of mu students last semester worked on projects that centralized birds or rocks as the consumers of the work. I think that the Empathics would be interested in this kind of exploration.

Seeing with Three Eyes: An Interview with Fern SIlva

February 11, 2013 · Print This Article

Even though we call them motion pictures, moving images, movies, not everything committed to celluloid or quicktime has motion at its locus. In the idiosyncratic, stirring body of filmic work that Fern Silva has produced—and will be screening five recent works to inaugurate Conversations at the Edge’s spring season this Thursday—movement is integral. The sumptuous and silent Passage Upon the Plume (2011) finds its rhythms in the coupled vertical impulses of hot air balloons and baskets being lured up and down the faces of buildings. Concrete Parlay (2012)—his latest as well as the source of the evening’s title—uses the trope of the magic carpet ride to guide us through cities and bodies and concepts both foreign and domestic. 

Showing a preference toward making/taking footage while traveling, the films are filled with nods to the histories and aesthetics of home movies, ethnographic film and experimental film. Through a variety of collage-techniques and sophisticated sonic strategies, the works retain an alluring density that compels repeat viewings. Beyond the density, they have great levity and are propelled by their own internal rhythms. Busted pop songs and radio fuzz keep the party moving even if its attendants may not be sure where. 

Fern holds a BFA from Massachusetts College of Art and an MFA from Bard College. He teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago (where I am an MFA candidate). His films have shown widely in film festivals, galleries and museums and in 2010 he was named one of the “Top 25 avant-garde filmmakers for the 21st century” in Film Comment. Concrete Parlay: An Evening with Fern Silva takes place this very Valentine’s Day at the Gene Siskel Film Center at 6:00 pm. Fern will be in attendance and ready to answer any lingering questions you may have. Perhaps something about a minidisc player and a bullet.

I am always interested in learning more about an artist’s background and the ways (subtle and overt) that one’s biography shapes one’s artistic output. I’m hoping you might say a bit about where you’re from, the first films you saw (experimental and otherwise) that impacted your aesthetic sense or made you want to make your own work. 

I was just listening to this Terry Gross interview with Tyler Perry on NPR and a large topic of conversation was his biography and how it influenced his creative process and now manifests itself into his films. I absolutely identified with him and his experiences. I’ve never seen a Tyler Perry movie although I think Why Did I Get Married is a great title for a film, but I do agree with him in making films through catharsis and hopefully having an audience face them that way. George Kuchar says something like, make sure to have a past otherwise your future will be bleak in his message to the people of the future. This is something that I’ve been thinking about lately, humorously.

I grew up in Hartford, CT which at the time was very depressed and dangerous but just like my parents who had immigrated from fascist Portugal, there were other immigrants who were also fleeing from dictatorships and war-torn countries at that time in the 70’s. Not sure why they went to Hartford though. My class all throughout grade school was like a mini-UN, we were from everywhere and the US at the same time and fairly confused about our identities and being American. Most of us were just learning English and were back in our respective motherlands once we got home after school. Sharing stories and cultural experiences with one another heightened my curiosity for travel. I wasn’t really allowed to watch movies or go to the theater until I was a teenager, if I saw any movies, they were mostly in school.

I do remember going to a yard sale with my mom when I was a kid and buying what may have been a foot of 16mm film with the image of a china girl on it. The guy told me it was a movie but I had a hard time believing that since I had no knowledge of how film worked and the image itself was so still and there were just multiple frames of it. I did carry it with me for a while asking random strangers who the actress was and the name of the movie I was holding. Little did I know, she was in every movie in one way or another. I lost it once when I went to a friend’s house and ripped open a VHS tape of Howard the Duck to make comparisons and noticed no images on the tape. I was perplexed and then just moved on to continuing to paint and draw. So to fast forward, it wasn’t until later in high school after experimenting with other things that I started to watch lots of movies and so filmmakers like Dreyer, Cocteau and Vertov were very influential in my interest to pursue films closely. Our public library somehow had an amazing collection so often I’d come home with stacks of VHS tapes and watch at least two features a day. I soon after learned about artists making work on a more personal and creative level like Brakhage, Deren, and Mekas but it wasn’t until I started going to MassArt and spending time with Saul Levine, Mark Lapore and Ericka Beckman that a profound impact would be made on my pursuit to be a filmmaker. I remember feeling a sense of euphoria, many times, during multiple screenings and wanting more.        

Relatedly, you and I and many others have come of age at a time when many of the big names in (I hesitate to use this phrase but) the first wave of experimental film had either passed or were reaching that stage. Our mentors have primarily been a mix of those taught by that first generation of impactful makers and a mix of their progeny and the occasional glimpses of their ancestors. Now you’re teaching and I’m interested in a few questions around this: how do you imbue your classes with the vitality and interest of works that are (by now) fifty years old, how have the lessons of these older generations impacted your pedagogy and what do you think are the historical lessons we can glean from them?

Well nowadays a lot of the work from those canonical filmmakers that both you and I were exposed to in school are readily available through digital technology and even viewable on the internet so I often just have my students watch and write about them on their own time unless I have access to a print. I try to show as much work that I think is as important and less accessible, in comparison, during class time. Experimental films that were made 50 years ago can be as fresh as films being made now in a classroom setting. I like to show films that I found inspiring and share stories about the filmmakers who we’re watching. For example, when I show Meshes of the Afternoon, I’ll tell the story of when Maya Deren threw a fridge across the kitchen while she was possessed in her West Village apartment that Brakhage writes about in Film at Wit’s End. Sometimes, I’ll also come in with multiple films and sense the energy in the classroom and then make a decision on what I think everyone is ready for, they’ll all watch them at one point or another in class. Over all, I try to teach from a sociological standpoint as I feel a large part of cinema literacy lends itself to that very essence.

Much of your work is shot while traveling. It is also, in some cases, concerned explicitly with travel, movement and means of conveyance (magic carpets, hot air balloons). This is perhaps a broad question, but I’d like you to talk a bit about what travel means for you creatively and how you conceive of the traveling you do. To what degree do you seek out situations that you think might make for interesting filming opportunities? How do you choose where you’re going and when? How do you see travel functioning metaphorically for aesthetic/cinematic experiences (or, even, do you)?

I’m interested in travel as much as I’m interested in understanding the inevitable paths that living beings take for one purpose or another, either through immigration or migration or just plain leisure and the expectations and outcomes of those experiences. I also utilize travel as a means for self-examination that in turn allows me to disconnect from practical or theoretical assumptions of origin, priority, essence, etc. I always go into making a movie with an overall agenda but use the production stage as an exploratory process so that I can work intuitively. Having ideas and searching for their articulation continues throughout production up into the post/editing stages. Overall, outside of travelling and making films, I’m visiting friends and my interaction with them often informs the outcome of the films.

There is a long and fruitful history of poets and avant-garde filmmakers working together, reflecting on each other and informing each other’s practice. The mutual friend through whom we first met, Charity Coleman, is an excellent poet and thoughtful, passionate cinephile. You use poems by Fern(ando) Pessoa and Luís Vaz de Camões in Servants of Mercy (2010) and I know that you have been engaged in various ways with poetry and poetics. I’m hoping you might elaborate on these relationships and also how you see you work functioning in a poetic dialogue. 

Charity makes great use of the word dreamy.

There is, or rather was, a long fruitful history of poets and artists alike working together in a way that at one point may have been called “parallel poetry”, but it seems as if it’s less common nowadays. Or, at least it seems that way between poets and filmmakers working contemporaneously on a sort of one-to-one level. As a personal filmmaker, the possibilities of working with other poets adjacent to filmmaking is something that I’m interested in continuing for as long as I make work. There are several poets or poems that I re-read before I start edits. For example I always read/listen to Of Being Numerous by George Oppen which is one of my favorites and once I get down the line a bit I listen to Reign in Blood by Slayer, always. Pessoa and Camões are two of the most celebrated Portuguese poets, I read them in Portuguese for practice when I was a child. There was a saying that won’t translate so well in English but it went along the lines of “Luis de Camões can see better with one eye than we can see with three.”

Your use of sound is really wonderful and startling. In particular, I think you do a really interesting of job of allowing the sound to complicate and mystify (rather than simply double or reinforce) the image. There are moments of (apparent) synchronization and others when the clarity of a sound, in particular its source within the diegetic space, begins to wander and, finally, leads to an entirely new set of image concerns. At what stage in your process is sound introduced? How do you select the songs you’re using and they function they’ll play, both conceptually and emotionally?

I record all of my sound during the shooting process. Lots of it. All of the time. But it’s never in an abusive sense. I house it, store it, label it and pay close attention to it. My approach to recording sound is different from shooting in the way that I collect hours and hours and hours of it and will often create foley in post-production and build libraries. In some ways I obsessively collect it. I love how malleable it can be sometimes and how specific it can be other times. All of this through multiple forms of manipulation creates a certain flavor I seek in my sound/image relationships. Even the songs, pop plays everywhere and I always stop and record it wherever I go with the means that I might use it. For a long time I was recording with a mini-disc player, up until recently. It finally stopped working after a bullet got lodged in it through my pocket. It actually saved my life.

In the Absence of Light, Darkness Prevails

In conversations we’ve had, you’ve gone into great length about the necessity of sitting and watching—both actively and ambiently—your footage dozens (if not hundreds of times) before beginning to edit. I think your process is unique (though perhaps discovering a unique process is the key to becoming a unique artist) and I’d like you to share it. Did you always work this way? Is this one of the (useful) limitations of 16mm? 

Well overall, I think it’s important to study your footage and to really take it into consideration on every possible angle or direction at various speeds and single frames. It’ll often be months before I get my footage back from the lab so during that time I try to exercise by memory and often edit in my head from what I remember. Once I do get it back, I feel the need to burn it into my brain so that I’m constantly thinking about its possibilities to exist as a sort of encapsulation of multiple thoughts, sounds, and images from a specific period of time. So I have to watch it at least a hundred times before I start cutting. It’s an ongoing process on how I get to that point and it always changes so it’s hard to gauge. One thing I can say is that it becomes a ritual in itself. I always did this to one degree or another but it was because I didn’t shoot much, I still don’t really. I’ll usually use 2/3 to 1/2 of my footage for the final edit and sometimes I’ll be close to 1/1. I also edit while I shoot, sometimes marking rolls, rewinding them and popping them back in. The last movie I made, I got my film back and then decided to shoot some more in a controlled studio, this is something I might be interested in exploring in the future, adding overtly fictional elements to accentuate a certain theme.

This is a question about structure, about (non-)narrativity and about collage. Or, maybe, this is a prompt to hear your thoughts on these words together and perhaps in that order and most certainly in reference to your own work.

All of those words mean the same thing to me.

Episode 321: Pablo Helguera

October 24, 2011 · Print This Article

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This week: More Open Engagement “SoPra”! This week we talk to Pablo Helguera!

Pablo Helguera (Mexico City, 1971) is a New York based artist working with installation, sculpture, photography, drawing, and performance. Helguera’s work focuses in a variety of topics ranging from history, pedagogy, sociolinguistics, ethnography, memory and the absurd, in formats that are widely varied including the lecture, museum display strategies, musical performances and written fiction.

His work as an educator intersected his interest as an artist, making his work often reflects on issues of interpretation, dialogue, and the role of contemporary culture in a global reality. This intersection is best exemplified in his project, “The School of Panamerican Unrest”, a nomadic think-tank that physically crossed the continent by car from Anchorage, Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, making 40 stops in between. Covering almost 20,000 miles, it is considered one of the most extensive public art projects on record.

Pablo Helguera performed individually at various museums and biennials internationally. In 2008 he was awarded the John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship and also was the recipient of a 2005 Creative Capital Grant. Helguera worked for fifteen years in a variety of contemporary art museums. Since 2007, he is Director of Adult and Academic programs at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

He is the author, amongst several other books, of The Pablo Helguera Manual of Contemporary Art Style (2005), a social etiquette manual for the art world; The Boy Inside the Letter (2008) Theatrum Anatomicum ( and other performance lectures) (2008), the play The Juvenal Players (2009) and What in the World (2010).

Episode 251: Mark Dion

June 20, 2010 · Print This Article

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Mark Dion

This week: We talk to artist Mark Dion, about social practice, the Museum of Jurassic Technology, cabinets of curiosity. The word “taxonomy” is bandied about at great length.

Mark Dion was born in 1961 in Massachusetts; he lives and works in Pennsylvania.

Dion is known for making art out of fieldwork, incorporating elements of biology, archaeology, ethnography, and the history of science, and applying to his artwork methodologies generally used for pure science. Traveling the world and collaborating with a wide range of scientists, artists, and museums, Dion has excavated ancient and modern artifacts from the banks of the Thames in London, established a marine life laboratory using specimens from New York’s Chinatown, and created a contemporary cabinet of curiosities exploring natural and philosophical hierarchies.

His approach emphasizes illustration and accuracy but is charged with a biting undertone. Dion has a longstanding interest in exploring how ideas about natural history are visualized and how they circulate in society. Dion’s work has been presented at many U.S. and international museums and galleries, including solo exhibitions at the Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver; Galleria Emi Fontana, Milan; Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York; and Deutsches Museum, Bonn. Dion has been commissioned to create works for Aldrich Museum of Art, Ridgefield, Connecticut; the Tate Gallery, London; the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco; and The Museum of Modern Art, New York.