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.
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.
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.
At first glance, Essi Kausalainen’s performances are deceptively simple: a woman leans back in an office chair as another figure crouches under a blanket; a child drags another child with a potted plant across a plain stage; a small sprig of grass is lit on fire where it has been positioned around a banana. These gestures are almost mundane. With careful attention, however, complex dynamics start to unfold: why do these figures repeat the same gestures? Their unflinching concentration admits a determined but inaccessible logic, as though we do not sense the constraints they operate within. It seems fitting therefore, that Kausalainen’s is especially inspired by plants and fungi, working through the medium of performance to encounter, explore, and potentially embody more-than-human worlds. Kausalainen is a Helsinki-based artist who studied performance art and theory at Turku Arts Academy and the Theatre Academy of Finland. Her work has been exhibited and performed in venues including KIM? Contemporary Art Centre, Riga; Malmö Moderna Museet; Frankfurt Kunstverein; Museum for Contemporary Art Roskilde; Nikolaj Kunsthalle, Copenhagen and Kunstraum Bethanien, Berlin.
Caroline Picard: What is it about performance that inspires you as a medium?
Essi Kausalainen: My way of thinking is rather physical. I read a lot—I need all kinds of texts from philosophy to science to poetry to make my work—but I’m very slow with that as I’m reading with my whole body. The text needs to reach the breathing, the pulsating, the flowing—I really have to embody the knowledge to accept it, and to be nurtured by it. Performance practice is very helpful in this. It is a way to gather understanding, to digest, to connect with things I cannot reach with words or intellectual abstractions. Through gestures and actions I can make sense of the world and my own place in it. As a medium, performance can guide our attention towards our sensitivity, and the uttermost susceptibility with which we can read other bodies. I’m also inspired by the ephemerality of performance, the fact that the work appears and disappears without producing any “thing.” I’m inspired by bodies doing things: the fantastic silliness of our existence that this media embraces!
CP: What does it mean to view the world as a single organism? How do conceive our experience of individuality within that frame?
EK: For me it is a question of “us,” and the fact that there is no outside of it. It is a question of responsibility and respect. This is one of the key things the plants have taught me. When studying and observing them I’ve realized that when looking at a plant body I’m always looking at the whole ecosystem, the surroundings, the weather, the climate—all of that is inseparable from the plant body. The same goes with us. The “I” making the work is actually the world around me: it is the plants I live with, the plants I eat and drink that build my body and its bacterial terrain, the people around me, the books I read, the society and its values…I am just a compost trying to create fertile ground out of this all. A bug among millions of others, nothing special. But since the being of this bug belongs to the whole ecosystem it is in no way insignificant or irresponsible: it resonates in unexpected, uncontrolled ways in all the life around it. And this brings it all back to the question of being together—how do we think, approach, be, with this great diversity of others? How do we treat the other and ourselves?
CP: What connection or parallels do you see between performance and plant growth? Do plants perform? How has that connection manifested in some of your works?
EK: Oh there are so many strategies plants have in their growth! There are the slow and cautious, the risk takers, and everything in between. But they all throw themselves towards the openness, towards the light—and they don’t really need a witness for this growth, instead they need companions. In that sense performance is quite something different. Yes, it is about throwing your body towards the open space, towards the light, but it has all these different levels of meaning making and sharing… I guess it is the difference between being and doing. Performance always seems to fall into the latter category even when it attempts to fall into the first one. Despite these differences the plant body, and the movement of growth in it, has been a great teacher and inspiration in my work. I guess the plant being is a kind of an ideal that is impossible to achieve as a human body—but momentarily, through a gesture, a performance I can set myself and my co-performers into a situation that resembles it. And gives us thus a great pleasure of being the bodies we are.
CP: I’m also interested in this idea of translation—you talk about translating experience or philosophical knowledge into performance. What does that process entail?
EK: Yes—I feel my artistic practice is a lot about that: my personal process of embodying the knowledge, the theories, the science, the being itself. I am making my work to be able to understand something, some phenomena or experience or relation. To explore the ideas of resisting and surrendering and coming together, the opening and nurturing… I just need the capacity of my whole body and its sensitivity to understand the philosophical—and scientific—thinking. A good example is Michael Marder’s concept of “plant thinking,” which I explored first in a dialogue with a plant biologist and then through a series of performances. It made a great difference to actually act out the plant logic—the attempt to situate my own living, breathing body within this logic. At the moment I’m exploring Luce Irigaray’s thinking on and around love and the concept of (sexuate) difference with the help of mycorrhiza. So far it has taken the shape of a (love) song, a video and performance. And more seems to be on its way!
CP: I’m suddenly reminded of hearing you talk about how scientists learned about your performance and instantly recognized what was going on.
EK: I have been really surprised by the generosity and the openness of the scientists I’ve talked to and worked with. They have taught me a lot about curiosity and creativity. I’ve understood that to be a good scientist you have to be open and not too fixed on your presumptions. Instead you need to keep asking questions, to keep moving in search of new viewpoints—keeping your senses alert. I guess this is also what enables them to look at my work with such fresh and observant eyes, and to recognize patterns and logics. Their gaze, and their company, has encouraged me to develop my own practice further and to trust the viewer’s intellect and sensitivity. These dialogues have also made me aware of the conservative and exclusive features of the art world—and in my own thinking!
CP: You also work quite regularly with children?
EK: Children are so great to work with because they are still connected to their senses. They have great flexibility, openness and understanding of our bodily being. A child is with the world through touching, trying things out—it is a very creative and candid relation. The analytical reasoning does not overrule the sense of wonder, the pleasure of sensing, the imagination. Therefore they are brilliant performers and great fun to work with. And when there are children in the group it is also easier for the grown ups to soften, and to be a bit silly. I find a great importance in that.
CP: You ask this question, but I also want to re-ask it of you—what does it mean to have a body? How has your answer to that question changed for you over time? What insights or moments changed it?
EK: It has been a long journey with this question! I guess in my early works the focus was on identity: Who is this particular body and why is it what it is? Through the years I have slowly been able to open it up. Moving from my body to a larger ecosystem, a relation between the human and the plant body, and very recently also with the fungi. The collaboration with the plant bodies has been crucial in the process of understanding my own body, the ego, and all of that. It has changed my way of being and thinking and making the work. Therefore I’m very curious to see what the fungi will do!
At the moment being a body means for me being a sensing, sensual, sensitive being. It means an amazing capacity of abstract thinking, of theorizing, of creating and solving problems. Being a body means constant movement, constant change. It means the greatest pleasure and joy—a place to connect, to care, to touch the other.
The following interview was originally published on Bad at Sports in March, 2014. It has been reposted here as part of the August in the Anthropocene series.
In a 2007, Art Orienté objet, a French collaborative group comprised of Marion Laval-Jeantet and Benoît Mangin, began a series of body modification experiments intended to communicate with animals outside of language.”Basically the project was to artistically adapt Jacob von Uexkull’s Umwelt theory, which argues that the meaning of an environment differs from one animal to another in relation to its sensorial system” (Marion Laval-Jeantet, Self-Animality, Plastik: Art and Science, June 2011). The project began with an investigation of cats, and eventually culminated in a single piece, Felinanthropy, where Laval-Jeantet put on a pair of cat-like prosthetic hindquarters; by transforming her status as a bi-ped, she was able to change the hierarchical relation between herself and the cat. A subsequent experimental work led Mangin to put on a prosthetic giraffe head and engage giraffes in a zoo, exploring the giraffe’s ability to recognize Mangin not as a human, but as something almost giraffe. More recently, AOo embodied an equine perspective; Leval-Jeantet built up a tolerance to horse blood by injecting a small bit of the animal’s plasma into her system over the course of a year. She subsequently staged a horse blood transfusion performance with her partnerBenoît Mangin. What remains of Que le cheval vie en moi!, is the “relic,” a small, innocuous petri dish, with human/horse blood. In the following interview, (originally conducted for Paper Monument where an affiliated essay, “Humanimals” was published), I asked Laval-Jeantet a few questions about this work. All answers have been translated into English by Basia Kapolka.
Caroline Picard: What were you anticipating the affect of injecting horse plasma into your blood steam would be? How did you expectations measure up with the reality of your experience?
Marion Laval-Jeantet: In a certain way, I knew what to expect from the injection of the horse plasma since I had received injections of the horse antibodies one at a time during the preceding months. But it was still difficult to imagine what the effect of receiving all the antibodies at once would be. In actuality, my body’s reaction was much more unruly than predicted. I think the families of antibodies increased each other’s effects, so that the final reaction was very complex, affecting even my metabolism, my endocrine glands, my nervous system, as well as my sleep and appetite.
CP: Also, did you use the blood of one specific horse? Did your relationship with that horse change at all?
MLJ: I used the blood of three specific horses that belong to the laboratory I worked with. You couldn’t say I established genuine contact with the horses. On the other hand, I wasn’t specifically familiar with the horses before the experiment. The experiment changed my psyche so that I saw the horses differently after it, with a different appreciation. A familiarity.
CP: Can you talk a little bit about your horse-stilts? How did your experience of your own body change?
MJL: The stilts were mostly there to allow me a different way of communicating with the horse who was present during the performance. I was a little afraid of horses, actually. And it seems like horses attitudes change completely when your eyes are at the same height as theirs. With the stilts, my eyes were the same height as his, and I could see that the horse was calmer. It was also a way for me to be aware of the reversal of roles between me and the animal. And naturally, it was a way to distract myself from the possible anxiety that might arise because of the infusion. Because I was on stilts, I could only think of the goal: to join with the animal, and not of the psychological problems that might come out during the performance. Experiments with prosthetics always affect your fears about your body, and in the performance it was necessary that I have a strong sense of a double transformation, mental and biological.
CP: Do you feel like your “self” has been forever altered? In other words, there is an idea I believe I, at least, take for granted: that is that my self is continuous and sustaining throughout a linear experience of time. This assumption is challenged by ideas of drastic plastic surgery, transplants and cloning, for instance—the self as it was defined before is fundamentally no longer the same self it was before. It seems to me your work poses similar a question: how can a distinctly human self sustain its identity when it has become, also, part horse?
MJL: Your question about fundamental change is completely fair. At the moment, I have a very strong sense that my body, and also my identity were deeply changed by the experience. In a physical sense, it’s true. I will always have within me biological markers that bear witness to my meeting with the horse. The problem is that the external physiological effects seem to have only lasted a few months, and were strongest in the first four weeks. So today, even if there are some delayed reactions or long-term consequences, I can say that the transformation remains more in the mental structure than in the physical one. I have the sense of not having been completely human for some time. The experience changed my inner self forever. But this is also the case with previous strong experiences I’ve had, like my introduction to the pygmies of Gabon, who made me see death. Each of these experiences makes my thoughts and my existence more complex, the more they change them. I believe deeply in the adaptation of the human body. More than in homeostasis. Existence itself is a permanent transformation, a constantly-evolving system. You speak of changes made to the body, but I think grief, for example, shakes up identity much more. My aim is not so much a transformation of my essence, as the wish to respond to an eternal frustration: to finally feel the animal otherness in myself, but also to stop thinking from a purely anthropocentric point of view. Already, the pygmies succeeding in making me feel the spirits in the forest, during a trance. I think that I am less and less purely human, which is to say that I am fundamentally more and more human, in the utopian sense of philosophical humanism.
Last fall New York-based artist and theorist, Katherine Behar presented High Hopes (Deux) a more-than-human performance that involves two Roombas (each with its own rubber tree), the Karaoke version of Frank Sinatra’s High Hopes set on repeat, and a large square of astroturf installed at Sector 2337 in Chicago. For about 30 minutes, the Roombas appeared to be dancing around the gallery while they cleaned the space as visitors came and went. More recently, Behar sent me a transcript of a conversation she had with the mutispecies ethnographer, Eben Kirksey about the same work. What follows is an edited version of that discussion. High Hopes (Deux) was curated by Every house has a door in Wasted Hours, an evening of performance that also featured Joshua Kent. Kirksey and Behar’s conversation will appear in an upcoming Green Lantern Press catalogue, Imperceptibly and Slowly Opening, for which the performance event was curated. Behar recently co-authored And Another Thing: Nonanthropocentrism and Art (Punctum) with Emmy Mikelson; in addition to finishing a book about decelerationist aesthetics last spring Bigger than You: Big Data and Obesity (Punctum), her latest book Object Oriented Feminism is forthcoming from University of Minnesota Press and her first solo show, Data’s Entry, will open this September at the Pera Museum in Istanbul.
Eben Kirksey: Where is the hope, or is there hope, in these cyborg phytological assemblages?
Katherine Behar: The “hopes” in the title come from a children’s song about a little old ant who’s trying to push a rubber tree plant. Why does the ant think that he can move the rubber tree plant? It’s because he’s got “high hopes” and he thinks he can accomplish the impossible.
Of course, the ant is a symbol for the worker. On the one hand, it’s a hopeful message about overcoming impossible odds if an ant can move a tree, but on the other hand, in my view it’s pessimistic or perhaps dystopian to teach kids to identify as the ant and grow up to be good little workers.
EK: One teleology of capital and machines is the end of work, as in the fantasy that a new appliance will get rid of a whole regime of labor. But going back to Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, that fantasy often spins out of control and results in all sorts of cataclysms—people unemployed, factory workers, and whole categories of people that no longer have meaning or an economic place in contemporary society. High Hopes (Deux) seems to grapple with similar ideas.
KB: Robots like the Roomba are a form of the automated labor you are talking about. The etymology is from the Czech word robota which translates as “forced labor” or “serf labor.” This means whenever we talk about robots, we are really talking about social relationships because we are employing the metaphor of slavery.
So who gets to enjoy the end of work? If we fast-forward to the contemporary moment, automated labor might be better understood not as machinic labor but as dehumanized labor. Today automation either still means forced labor—slave labor, or maybe prison labor—or it means offloading jobs that have traditionally been done by humans to machines, leaving humans unemployed and vulnerable.
At the same time, it’s important to distinguish between dehumanization and the nonhuman. Nonhumans—like the plants and machines in this project—can counter dehumanization by expanding the possibilities for solidarity which dehumanization forecloses.
EK: It seems like in this domestic context or in conventional patriarchal relations, the labor of cleaning often gets done by women, but also often by undocumented workers in elite U.S. households. How are Roombas changing these roles and the hopes of folks in such entangled situations? It seems like in some ways the Roomba is a hopeful, liberatory technology, but in other ways it is problematic.
KB: With this project, I’m trying to draw solidarities between all of these roles, between the middle class mom, the possibly undocumented domestic worker, and the machine—not to mention the plant. Machines are one of my focal points because they represent an extreme case. We don’t need to think of machines as having any kind of humanity because they’re not human. For me, the question is, is the undocumented worker closer in kind to the machine or closer in kind to the mom? There’s something about how we treat machines that I think prefigures how we treat entire classes of people.
The same could be said for our relationship to plants and nature, which we exploit on similar grounds. Initially I imagined High Hopes (Deux) as a way of drawing nonhuman solidarities between a houseplant and a housekeeping robot, both of which are usually cast as existing for human enjoyment. Although human interaction emerged an important factor, my first response to the concept of this show was to create a nonhuman system for plants and machines to play and care for each other, an experience that would be censored in the typical domestic setting.
EK: Relations of care are key to this piece. In fact, in one way or another many relations of labor and cleanliness are about care. The fantasy is that machines don’t require care. The Roomba seems to be an indestructible prosthetic, its own little war machine combating dirt and making cleanliness happen. This is the disembodied image of remote control. But in reality you’ve got to care for the machine in certain ways, just as you have to care for your wife, or maybe you don’t. In this context humans and machines are engaging in all sorts of relations of care, going both ways, but that may be uneven or unreciprocated.
KB: Uneven and unreciprocated care are critical notions for me. I’m interested in how we care for machines, and are cared for by machines, and why. In the case of the Roombas, they’re very charming. On Roomba list serves, you find people talking about just wanting to watch their first Roomba clean, like proud mamas and papas. Even pets want to play with Roombas. They’re very endearing devices. Yet these transpecies relationships are complicated because we’re mirroring how we interact with humans. We work for them and they work for us, and part of that work involves making ourselves care–for–able, and learning to expect certain kinds of care in return.
EK: In the gallery, as the Roombas interacted with people, it seemed like they were soliciting things. There were moments of corporeal interaction where the Roombas sort of snuggled up to people. What affective exchanges were taking place in those moments?
KB: Those moments were one of the really lovely surprises of the piece for me. Roombas are programmed to try to understand the perimeter of a space and learn to travel through the space to fill that perimeter. When they are in an empty gallery, the Roombas do a very geometric dance. Choreographically speaking, it’s very expansive; they really traverse space. The presence of people introduces organic clusters, and the perimeter of the space becomes much less rectilinear and predictable. The Roombas become confused by organic shapes, especially moving ones, and try to figure them out.
What’s surprising and can’t be explained by the algorithm is that the interaction feels very interpersonal. It feels as though the Roombas are trying to have a relationship.
EK: In some ways hope occupies an anthropocentric or zoocentric space. How can we think about these things as desiring machines that might orient towards an object and try to bring that object into contact with reality?
KB: Perhaps we would need to eliminate the desire part of hope, which may be hope’s zoocentric aspect. Assimilating to plant temporality, hope becomes a stand-in for futurity. A futurity without desire might mean orientating towards a species future, or even remapping hope and pessimism toward a future that includes species extinction.
EK: The Roomba really isn’t a species as such. A Roomba can’t fuck another Roomba and make baby Roombas. In that way a plant is different from a Roomba.
KB: Maybe the Roomba is closer to being a species than we think. I don’t know whether I want to say plants fuck, but plants reproduce and cross-pollinate and changes happen between generations of plants. A similar thing happens between models of Roombas. For instance, there’s now a more advanced Roomba that doesn’t have bristles on its brushes. For Roombas evolution occurs in design, not genetics.
EK: Thinking about evolution as a teleology—in botanical or technological realms—just maps on to one possible vector of change. Things are constantly becoming beside themselves with dissolution and glee, to paraphrase Brian Rotman. In some ways what you created is this shared space of hope and happiness, where the Roomba is enabling the plant to actualize desiring teleologies that could rarely happen otherwise. Certain plants move. There’s a walking palm that can slowly put out another prop root in Costa Rica. But having a Roomba enables all sorts of wild possibilities that a rubber plant might not have imagined before.
KB: If a rubber plant has to wait around for an ant to push it, it’s not going to get very far. But as an interspecies collaboration, or perhaps a symbiotic relationship, the Roomba and rubber tree as a unit are able to dance. They’re able to traverse space, they’re able to be aesthetic, and they’re able to solicit relationships with the humans who keep getting in their way.
Heather Lynn is a Chicago artist best known for the band Pure Magical Love, the opera Templehead, and running Church of Templehead gallery with her partner, Michael Perkins. Her newest project, Genesis and Nemesis, set to open in September, is a three-act play that blends elements of traditional theater, performance art, video, installation, ritual, music, Reiki, classic special effects, and dance. Staged in an immersive environment, the audience is invited into a post-apocalyptic compound for an experience that is part celebration, part cautionary tale.
Genesis and Nemesis video stills courtesy of the artist.
Although Lynn is the writer and co-director of this piece, and plays the role of Mary Malachai, it is by no means a solo project. The work is being developed in collaboration with a group of Chicago-based artists, musicians, healers, and activists, including Efrén Adkins , Kaycee Conaway, Sky Cubacub, Zach Hebert, José Hernández, Zachary Hutchinson, Veronica Hyde, Andi Jane, Paul Klekner, Bret Koontz, Kalina Malyszko, Sarah Marie, Isabelle McGuire, Ariel Mejia, P. Michael, Michael Perkins, Jon Poindexter, Travis, and Julia Zinn.
In anticipation of this forthcoming production, I sat down with Lynn to ask her a few questions. Imagine a backdrop of shining, multi-patterned tapestries being meticulously constructed from dollar store treasures, mismatched fabrics, glitter, trash, glue. They are beautiful, in an obsessive, maximalist way. Heather and I sit at a small table on chairs she has reupholstered with dark and glittering fabric.
Can you tell me about your background as an artist?
There’s really no one defining thing. I feel like by the time I’m known as “that girl who does that thing,” it’s time to move on. I’m an untrained artist; I dropped out of high school. My only training really is dance, and I think that influences a lot of the way I work. I had my own dance company for a while. When I was younger, I was in this band that got a lot of attention. I went through a phase where I did watercolor paintings. [Now,] people keep asking me how the new opera is going, like “oh, she’s the girl who does the operas.” I believe that the best of us comes out when you’re creating a structure that you need to exist. And for me it’s about changing the context.
How has your dance training influenced other aspects of your practice?
Take ballet: you learn these really repetitive mundane things, but you learn them to shape your body into the type of machine that can make these amazing things. It’s that idea that if you do it every day, you put the work in, that’s what matters. I’m very work-oriented. The work I like best is work where I can see the effort behind it, effort is often more interesting to me than a beautiful result.
My favorite job was when I worked at Fannie Mae. When there was nothing to do, there were just pans and pans of chocolate in back, they all need to go in little white cups. There’s no way you’ll ever get them all done, but there’s always some to do. So you just do it, and it’s about finding pleasure in the task. You can put art into anything you do, even if it’s just a game you play in your head. You do the peasant work, but you act like a goddess.
If my brand is anything, it’s relentless sincerity and hard work. I’m never really worried about anyone ripping me off. What are they going to steal? The hours of intensive work I do myself? The feminism and politics? Please, steal that!
Do you feel like there is a common denominator across your shifts in medium?
Community-based, a lot of work, constantly topping myself, really DIY. Creating my own world. I have a world in my head, and I feel very at odds with the outside world. Another defining thing was sorting out my mental illness—or what we call mental illness. I think a lot of it is just being sensitive in a world that doesn’t stop to acknowledge all the ways it’s fucked up. And [art] is my way of sorting through that and surviving. A lot of my mental health stuff sorted itself out when I started really manifesting the things I see in my head with [the band] Pure Magical Love. I wrote these mythologies that were about expelling certain demons. Everything I do is me trying to be normal, but everything in my head is so crazy it comes out all fantastical.
The way I work it’s usually about transforming something, whether it’s myself, the space I’m in, the pile of garbage into something beautiful to worship. We make choices all the time, every day, and we are constantly transforming things. I like to take control of that—being mindful of the transformations I make.
You do a lot of community work in your gallery, and much of your artistic work is driven by community and social issues. How does that fit into your artistic practice?
I’ve always been really sensitive about social issues. I had a lot of spaces when I was younger where I didn’t feel safe. If you can’t change the world, change what’s in front of your face. For me the biggest tragedy is any living thing unable to follow its own design, and I grieve for all the living things that don’t get to do that. A lot of my work is a response to displacement. Making a space where you can. I feel like for so long no one wanted me to do anything, so just that act of being visible, of taking up space, was very defiant. You’re part of a sexist scene? You’re part of a bunch of shitty stuff? Put more of you in the room than them. There’s this crazy sincerity about what I do, and it makes some people so nervous.
So can you talk a little bit about this new project?
I feel like this is a companion to [the post-apocalyptic opera] Templehead. I didn’t feel done with it. Templehead was about these people who have been displaced. They’re about to go extinct, but they find beauty and meaning when they can. [Genesis] is more about who survives, who benefits, who knows this is gonna happen and doesn’t stop it. People with money access would end up safe. When you’re dealing with money, it becomes abstract, and you’re not thinking about how having an extra three points on your stock is going to affect a town, because you’re not thinking about the community. Money can become a mental illness.
I wanted to reimagine [the Templehead story] where we don’t have to die, and we can evolve to meet the challenges that we’ve created for ourselves. Templehead ended on this sad, bittersweet note. This is going to end on a very uplifting, empowered note. One our collaborators practices Reiki, and at the end we do this ritual spell to activate the entire room. A bunch of people in a room, caring about the same thing, can have a positive impact. That’s kind of what this play’s about: the different gifts we have, how they can come together and fight something.
Where does the title, Genesis and Nemesis, come from? In your work there is often creation and destruction occurring simultaneously, and that title feels like a good encapsulation of that.
In this world in the future, there’s this fable about a boy named Genesis and his sister Nemesis. After the Unrest, they find this beautiful beach with all these minerals that could be used to rebuild the world. He wanted to find people to help them transform the minerals into materials, and she thought the beach was beautiful and wanted to protect it. They fought. He went off to find people, she warned him not to come back or she’d have to kill him. He comes back and she’s dead, she didn’t have anything to eat. It’s this story to instruct people to value the greater good over nature, a way of making people think about things a certain way. [But] Genesis and Nemesis were actually one person, turned into two. The way we remember always has an agenda.
We wouldn’t need to create if there was no destruction. But this is the world I live in, so I create and destroy with equal joy, and I’m very upfront about it. Collapsing the binary, for me that’s what it’s about. I don’t want like a nice story that wraps up neatly, I want a good story where we dig into this shit about ourselves that we’re constantly learning.
At the end of the day, in spite of it being about all this global stuff, it’s really about my journey. I see things that aren’t there, I constantly have to second guess what I’m seeing and feeling, but that actually worked to my advantage, because I’m not afraid to not know. I’m not afraid of what a mess it is; you’re part of the mess. Anyone that says artists shouldn’t be narcissists doesn’t really know what it means to tell yourself that you’re good enough to send something into the world. You have to start with the ego, you have to know what you want for yourself. You start with the things you care about, and it spirals out. I think you connect systems of oppression when you start with yourself.
Looking at the visual aesthetic of the things you make, there’s certainly a sort of controlled chaos.
For me it’s creating new ideas of luxury. Because it’s not all about money. Capitalism wants you to think it is, we have this idea that there’s not enough to go around, and if we want beauty we have to exploit someone, and we think it’s worth it. But you can make something special out of nothing. It doesn’t look like luxury like Versailles, but there’s something elegant about my little reupholstered chairs with my favorite fabric. It’s my own type of luxury, not waiting around for someone to tell me that I can have something nice. I can make nice things. We’ve created such a surplus of bullshit, both physical, emotional mental and it’s time to transform it. That’s where I’m at with this play; I really do have hope for the future. I know because I’m so scared all the time, so I must have hope.
How has this project been collaborative?
Before I fleshed out any of the characters, I got [the performers’] permission to write them into the story. Not to say that every little thing is literally what someone would do, but I really did try to think about giving them choices to naturally commit to. We do a lot of workshopping. Everyone has say. I love this, because it’s a room full of people talking about characters that I wrote, it’s like playing Barbies, but with my brain.
One of the workshops we did, I had everyone come in and tell me: what is it about your character that makes them both awesome, and suck. The thing that makes you awesome is the thing that makes you suck. That’s something with this play I’ve really tried to emphasize: there are no villains. If there’s a villain, it’s a system that is the result of human error. I don’t believe in evil people. I think the minute you’ve decided that someone is just the bad guy, you’re not going to figure anything out. I’m a little nervous about this play, because people want a strong hero and a strong villain, and this isn’t that. There’s definitely a force that needs to be destroyed, and another force that needs to be protected, but you can’t walk away “yeah, these bad guys totally got their asses kicked.”
My friend Sky (Cubacub) is helping with some of the costumes. In the story, I do all these crazy costumes, and I’m not skilled, but people see me doing it they start making these mass-produced really nice costumes. That’s what I feel like I do so often—I’m not really technically good at anything, but people like that I’m obsessed.
And how do the video segments fit in?
There are a few different ways we use them. There are these transmissions that are happening between this giant government that’s in control of everything, and this small group of people in hiding. It’s kind of uncanny… I got this idea for this, and after I started writing it I started hearing about ISIS, and in the months after that they really kind of developed that war through social media.
Working with video is very challenging for me, it’s sort of the opposite of what I do, but I have enjoyed working with video. As a dancer, I’m getting older, my body can’t do all the things it used to do, which is so hard for me to accept because I’m a hundred miles an hour no matter what. But as I can do less, maybe I can make video choreography. I’m interested in exploring it, but I don’t think I’d ever make a straight-up movie. I am really invested in doing work you have to experience live. I think it’s in reaction to the Internet and it being so easy to generate, repost stuff. I want to make things where you have to be there. This has to happen at this point in time because these videos are with these people, these people have busy lives, when this is over we’ll probably never do it again. It has to be seen in person.