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.

Layering of Slices: ATOM-r Presents The Operature

March 25, 2014 · Print This Article



By Autumn Hays

This past Friday I attended The Operature an exhibition by the collective ATOM-r (Anatomical Theatres of Mixed Reality) at the National Museum of Health and Medicine Chicago. This exhibition was held in two parts an interactive installation and 90 minute performance showcase. ATOM-r’s participants include Mark Jeffery (choreography), Judd Morrissey (text and technology), Justin Deschamps, Sam Hertz, Christopher Knowlton, and Blake Russell (collaborators/performers). The ATOM-r collective explores the application of forensic science and anatomical mapping, as viewed through the through the scope of performance, technology, and language. What struck me most about the exhibition was the poetic consideration of the body and the layering of segmented perspectives visually, technologically and through dance. This is especially true of the performance where the dancers bodies move like they are being examined for medical display, like they caressed with love or sex, like in battle, and like the ritualistic laying out of the dead all in one sequence. When combined the layers of sourced gesture seem not as if disjointed but in an embracing collaboration of movement. I feel my observation of this exhibition is like looking through a magnifying glass peeping in to catch glimpses at what is a large body of accumulated research.


The installation included a 15 monitors that displayed the interactive exhibition’s language poetry and digital art that seemed like entries dense with interconnecting references selected from an accumulation of archived materials. The Operature. Attendees are able to pick up cards with medical and anatomical imagery and show the QR-code to a camera provoking a response and changing the exhibited material as a corresponding text begins to dance across the screen blinking in and out. On other screens images of head cut into thin slices spin resembling the process of cross-sectional scans of bodies under anatomy study, or the presentation of anatomical evidence on glass slides. The dissection of slices is also seen in the exhibitions use of language fragmentation and the multifaceted perspectives created by technology that includes both in the installation and performance.


Upon entering attendees are prompted to download an app that allows them to interact using their smartphones during the installation and performance. Audience members found themselves taking on the roll of investigators drifting around the exhibition looking for signs, images, and codes that they could scan using their camera phone. Once scanned, these images display technological overlay ghost images and text that seem as if they had already been there, invisible, waiting for you to discover them. Often I find technological interactions to fall short but there is something consistent about the concept of a phone app that allows you to view an augmented reality layer in an exhibition based off anatomical theaters, where the audience becomes an investigator of anatomy. It was one of the best uses of interactive technology I had experience in an exhibition. This inclusion of the technological other worlds slips in and out of the subjective, pushing realties/non-realities together and is an integral interaction when used during the performance piece.


image from phone application

The collective stratum of reference is something you encounter in every aspect of ATOM-r’s performance. One can view the piece from multiple vantage points choosing to sit in pews, walking among the performers, or standing above the performance looking down on it as in an operational theater. As the performers dance Judd plays the role of conductor, controlling projected displays of text reiterating those used in the installation, and reading them aloud as he performs.

ATOM-r - The Operature (image provided by artist)

He also provides the attendees with a technological viewpoint, displaying his live video of the performance showing the virtual reality ghosts we first encountered in our own investigations of the installation. The spoken language of the piece was delivered in the same cold cut tone as a scientific manual but had the touch of deeply personal poetics of the struggle with the body. The text provides us with many concepts such as the examination of the body as house, the treatment of the dead, and the histories of anatomical theater. One of the most interesting sources is the text sourced from the “stud file” of writer Samuel Steward describing details and observations about his various erotic encounters with men. These excerpts when juxtaposed with the anatomical body texts create an interweaves narrative of the gay male body.


The expert choreography composed by Mark Jeffery and his collaborators holds the audience captive while working in correspondence the technological devices. The all male group of performers embraced, wrestled, fell, carried one another around the room like corpses, posed for examination, removed and readjusted each other’s buttons and zippers, each performer functioning simultaneously as the displayer and the displayed. Even the lights become dancers moving around the room and repositioned by performers. Observes peer into the dancers bodies, guided by the ever-present examiners lights. As the scenes are constructed I am reminded of the painter Thomas Eakins and his paintings of medical theaters. The audiences enters ATOM-r’s The Operature like a crime scene, attempting to paste together all the clues given through the use of dance, poetry and art as evidence. To quote text from the exhibition, “the evidence looked back at you awkwardly and defiantly”, asking you investigate the margins of these clues. Your reward for your exploration is an involved and richly layered experience that speaks to the poetics of anatomy and left me feeling touched to the bone.


If you would like to see it for yourself the exhibition continues till March 29th. There will be two more shows this coming weekend on Friday and Saturday. The interactive exhibition is open at 6pm and performance begins 8pm. National Museum of Health and Medicine Chicago, 175 W. Washington, $15 at the door. Here for more info.

(images provided by ATOM-r. Photo Credit: Katie Graves Photography)

Anatomical Theatres of Mixed Reality: The Operature

January 29, 2014 · Print This Article

Last year I was invited by performance company ATOM-r (Anatomical Theatres of Mixed Reality) to sit in on several rehearsals while they worked on their latest piece together, The Operature. Since that time, the work has had a showing in York, they have produced a book with Pinups Magazine, recently opened a two person exhibition at Julius Caesar in Chicago, and continue to work towards the Chicago premiere of The Operature at the National Museum of Health and Medicine (175 w Washington, Chicago IL) March 21st, 22nd, and 28th 2014. A collection of notes from their rehearsals follows.


1. Chris’ Back and Thigh

The theater holds between 200 and 300 spectators in six concentric galleries of narrow rows that provide standing room only. The bodies of the recently deceased are laid out as actors, like the dancer to the choreographer, the corpse submits itself to the movements of the doctor. The body following the request of the scalpel, as eager to articulate the interior secrets of the body as the doctor is to discover them.


2: Justin’s Kidney and Chest

From where I sit in rehearsal I can easily make out the performers as they move about the table. Even as they tower above me, dancing from corner to corner. I need only lift my head slightly to keep them in my full view. The table is to my left. I am thinking about watching, about the pleasures of looking at bodies, and of the duets that emerge from my gaze. The duet between these men, their fingers nimbly grazing their partners torso, weight shared across thighs, every movement mirroring the duet of scalpel and chest, doctor to corpse, witness to theater, and beyond to the dimly lit corners of the farthest circle, where the excitement of discovering the interior of oneself is imagined with each brushing shoulder.


3: Sam’s Ankle and Neck

Professor, tattoo artist, writer, and sexual misfit Samuel Steward kept a deeply coded and painstakingly noted account of his sexual encounters. Penile measurements sit alongside anecdotes and the occasional picture. A box of approximately 900 cards, the stud file is an archive of sexual experience and an attempt at exerting ownership over one’s body. Stewards thirst is that of the anatomical doctor, both delighting in the bodily pursuit, in the ecstasy that comes from leaning against the submitted frame.


4: Blake’s Pubic Bone and Shoulder

In rehearsal, at the moment, we are oscillating between the record of Samuel Steward and the technology of the anatomical theater. Movements are derived equally from sexual and surgical acts, both having striking similarities conceptually and visually. Through each week and each iteration of the work, I am left to ponder the watching of bodies as they are laid out before eager spectators, however they might be displayed in private or public exhibitions and however large or small the audience might be. This is how I understand the performance to function: as a technology of looking. The way a photograph captures a submitted partner or the way a surgical table in the center of an audience can amplify the form.

*Images courtesy of Christopher Schulz, Christa Holka, and Stephanie Acosta

Anatomical Theatres of Mixed Reality (ATOM-r) is a provisional collective exploring forensics, anatomy, and 21st century embodiment through performance, language and emerging technologies. Participants include Mark Jeffery (choreography), Judd Morrissey (technology & dramaturgical systems), Justin Deschamps, Sam Hertz, Christopher Knowlton, and Blake Russell (collaborators/performers).  

BAS Panhandles, Will Work for iPads.

April 3, 2010 · Print This Article

Memo: To Whomever It May Concern
Re: Acquisition of an iPad
From: The Bad at Sports Team

Okay, it has come to our attention that we can’t afford an iPad, either collective or individually. And while we are neither a formal non-profit at the moment, or a worthwhile cause, you can’t get help if you don’t ask.

We want an iPad(s). The art potential here is big big big! There is all sort of amusing shit we could do with one of those bad boys. We’ll take donations of any recent technology for that matter, computers, audio gear, advanced military weapon systems. Send us your working discarded wazmos. You’ll be contributing to … a cause, not a good cause mind you, but a cause none the less. And with the growing numbers of BAS folks with kids, or kids on the way, we surely could use some entertainment. If we’re jolly, we’re funnier, and who wants to listen to a bunch of cranky jerks. Well, you probably, as you are reading this instead of something meaningful, but you catch my drift.

Call our hotline (312) 772-2780 with details. And thank you!

Image below from lunchbreath (via).

Beautiful Wearable Dress Has Over 24,000 LEDs

November 13, 2009 · Print This Article

The Galaxy Dress is the center piece of the “Fast Forward: Inventing the Future” exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. The museum is celebrating its 75 years and has commissioned the GalaxyDress for their permanent collection.

The wearable dress made up of over 24,000 full color super thing LEDs, 4,000 Swarovski crystals & enough bateries to keep it on up to an hour at a time is something to be seen first hand and no photo or video recording does it justice. All this makes The Galaxy Dress the largest wearable display in the world.

Designed by Francesca Rosella and Ryan Genz, the London-based design duo behind interactive clothing company CuteCircuit