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.
August 22, 2013 · Print This Article
Introduction: Laying the Floor
This July, I participated in the gloATL Summer Intensive. gloATL is an Atlanta-based dance company that creates physical installations for the public. During the Intensive, there were six of these installations that focused on the concept of utopia for a series of â€œutopia stationsâ€ that was part of its seriesÂ Liquid Culture: a collection of gestures and sensations from an asphalt perspectiveÂ that had occurred during the summer for the past few years; this summer was the last of these installations. Lauri Stallings, the choreographer and founder of gloATL, considers these performances installations – physical and public installations; the series is described as â€œphysical installations [that] are unveiled as public utopia stations for arriving, leaving, and staying for awhile.â€ 
During the first weeks of the Intensive, Stallings described to us her interest in utopia, referencing Thomas Moreâ€™s book UtopiaÂ (Of a republic’s best state and of the new island Utopia (DeÂ optimo reiÂ publicaeÂ statu deque nova insula Utopia)), published in 1516. What seemed to be impelling Stallings to the notion of utopia is that the word utopia has multiple and somewhat contradictory meanings. The statement for this summerâ€™s series of utopia stations describes that â€œ[t]here is a double-meaning in the term â€œutopia,â€ being both a good place (eutopia) and a no place (outopia).â€  The perplexing concepts of â€œgoodâ€ and â€œnoâ€ together propelled me to enter the work. During this discussion with Stallings, the company, and fellow intensive participants, I mentioned that it seemed that â€œno placeâ€ had to be impossible. Wherever there is being, there is movement. Even between two atoms, there is an ever-so-slight vibratory motion. Animate form, or life, is exactly that, animate. It moves.  If â€œno placeâ€ cannot possibly exist, then what of the â€œgood placeâ€?
All of the installations involved swings, swing sets, and the encouragement of public engagement with the swings. For Stallings, this is a gesture of ultimate freedom; the ability to partake in the childlike joy of swinging within public space. Each installation also had blue astro turf designating a stage of sorts that at most times separated the dancers from the public. However, Stallings said that even this space should not be maintained as an eternal divider. She keeps in mind that a member of the public could always step over the edge of the floor and enter the space of the stage.
In looking back on this Intensive experience and observing the installations while reading Plato’sÂ RepublicÂ for my PhD comprehensive exams, I find myself in a rather perplexing state of body-mind. Both Thomas More’sÂ UtopiaÂ and Plato’sÂ RepublicÂ describe a space where all would be good – proper governance, happiness, order, common property. Both of these spaces are fictional, however, and cannot possibly exist in the real world; a confluence of the double-meaning – a good place that is no place. In encountering a work that attempts through dance to create a utopian space in the current world we live in, the troubling passages in RepublicÂ become more clear instances of the perceived dangers of artistic freedom.  However, maybe the utopian installations illuminate these same passages in terms of a Platonic sarcasm; since the idea has been so pushed to the edge, it has become ridiculous.
As a participant in the making of the work and also as a viewer, my experience of the series of installations straddles multiple spheres of engagement, perception, and bodily recognition. I have to admit that those three weeks of July were among the hardest I have lived yet. The physical exertion of dancing for hours six days a week was taxing. The emotional investment was more than I had expected. The mental exercising was beyond what I had encountered before. Being in a PhD program at Emory, I donâ€™t often have the opportunity to use my body as the material of my thought and production of work, so putting myself in the mode of bodily “thought” was an exercise in mental gymnastics.
Inhabiting anotherâ€™s work was something I had not experienced before. Taking on someone elseâ€™s idea as my own and incorporating it into my own body was more of a challenge than I could have imagined. The ability to fully take on the choreographerâ€™s concept as inspiration for oneâ€™s own bodily experience is a skill that I fully respect. It amazes me to see gloATL dancers express these concepts with their whole bodies; each finger is doing something special; each facial twitch is a culmination of an entirety of being. As Stallings says, â€œthe movement is in your fingers.â€
Stallings process is an incredible one to witness. Starting with an idea, it traverses into often unexpected territory, blossoming into full body expression. This part of the process, called â€œProcessâ€ by gloATL, usually came after a warm-up led by Stallings or other gloATL dancers. This wasnâ€™t any sort of warm-up though. Called â€œTools,â€ it was an exploration of internal bodily connections that make movement manifest externally. All movement generates from the inside and radiates towards an external form that can be witnessed. Coming out of a Gaga tradition, a dance technique and vocabulary formulated by Israel choreographer Ohad Naharin, â€œToolsâ€ is a way to connect to the pleasure of movement. Even when difficult, the ability to move is a pleasure in and of itself. One of the goals is to constantly search for the unexpected places in the body that initiate movement. Stallings often said that if you feel you are comfortable with a particular movement, itâ€™s time to move towards something previously undone, unthought, un/not-moved.
After finishing the intensive and going back into my usually more stationary world of reading books and writing words on a screen, I feel that the world of movement has infiltrated my world of stationary contemplation. I realize that the movement was there all along and that itâ€™s just that I have begun to accept it more fully into the life I am living.
During the last installation I participated in with gloATL, I felt something inside come up into my throat. Maybe a purely physical experience, but something tells me that it was more. At the end of the installation, we invited the audience into the middle of the blue astro turf floor by leading them using our elbows as the anchor for them to hold onto. There, after looking into each otherâ€™s eyes, we decided as a group to speak: â€œYou have only to say yes.â€ With childlike wonderment and excitement, about the beautiful swing sets, about the blue of the astro turf, about being there moving, the group performing in the installation let go with screams, laughter, and every other kind of expression that erupted from the core. At this point, something inside my body crept up to the top of my throat, something was attempting to escape through my mouth. I stopped still. If I moved anymore, that thing would exit my body onto the astro turf. I couldnâ€™t fathom that happening. It was a purging that I couldnâ€™t handle happening at that time.
I went home that night after the installation and tried to process what had happened to me. The next morning during process, we went over that moment. The same thing kept happening. Whatever was in there wanted to be let go, but, for some reason, I couldnâ€™t let it. I sat down in the hall outside the studio. My body couldnâ€™t accept what it was saying. The connections between my body, my mind, and my internal emotional existence were confused with each other. It seemed that my mental thoughts couldnâ€™t keep up with the internal movements of my emotions and body. I couldnâ€™t keep it together. I couldnâ€™t participate in the last installation. Of this, I am deeply regretful. I wish I could have made it through, but something, Iâ€™m not sure what exactly, kept me back.
Maybe it was the thought of utopia, a freedom I couldnâ€™t comprehend. That feeling deep in my belly that rose to my throat threatened me simultaneously with the â€œgood placeâ€ and the â€œno place.â€ Something in my unconscious body-mind didnâ€™t understand what that even could mean. How could I occupy that position of â€œgood placeâ€ and â€œno placeâ€ at all, let alone at the same time? Maybe this is what Plato was warning against: a radical disorder. If the body, mind, and soul cannot be easily divided and categorized, what happens to that being and the rest of the world she inhabits? Music and gymnastic together as dance brought be to that precipice of disorder that was begging to erupt. This eruption of bodily order holds within it the potential for ultimate freedom from restraint, but also ultimate devastation of a creeping chaos.
This is the experience that Stallings created – for me, for the public, maybe for the other dancers themselves. Though these installations are meant for public interaction, it is rare that you see an audience member claim the space as her own. The dance floor remains a dance floor for most of the time until glo explicitly invites the public to join them. There is a timidity to dance and art viewing even with the explosion of socially-engaged and participant-driven art. However, during one of the performances at The Goat Farm Arts Center, one of the participants decided to take control of the space. He took on one of the swings hanging from the rafters as his own. He did not want to get off the swing, even when approached by glo dancers that needed the swing to perform the choreography. Eventually, with some silent, eye coaxing he got up and off the swing. In the public sphere, it is impossible to claim a particular space as purely your own. Part of the freedom the series of installations points to is the freedom to not grasp so tightly.
During the ending section performed at The Goat Farm Arts Center and The Woodruff Arts Center, we played a game of switching and racing for swings. It was so satisfying to attain the glory of the swing, but at a certain point, while swinging with pride, watching the other dancers in the middle of the floor fidget with anticipation and wide eyes, I decided to jump off the swing, give it over to another to enjoy. That might be the space of utopian contradiction – both the â€œgood placeâ€ and the â€œno placeâ€ together; the space suspended in air where you joyfully float, exiting the swing in order for another to occupy it.
For more images of the installations, check out BURNAWAYâ€™s flickr sets for gloATLâ€™s Liquid CultureÂ installations atÂ Historic Old Fourth Ward, Goodson Yard at The Goat Farm Arts Center, and Woodruff Arts Center.
For a great review/write-up of the 2013 Liquid Culture series, check out Cynthia Bond Perry’s article “gloATL’s “Liquid Culture” series finds breath, simplicity, and freedom” published on Arts ATL.
 Statement for Liquid Culture: a collection of gestures and sensations from an asphalt perspective, gloATL, http://gloatl.org/upcoming/whats-next/ (accessed 8.21.2013)
 Statement for Liquid Culture: a collection of gestures and sensations from an asphalt perspective, gloATL, http://gloatl.org/upcoming/whats-next/ (accessed 8.21.2013)
 Maxine Sheets-Johnstone, The Primacy of Movement, 2nd edition (Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2011).
 See for example Plato’s treatment of music and gymnastic as the best tools for educating the body and soul to be temperate, courageous, and good. However, there are stipulations attached to these training methods; no innovation is allowed. Since music is claimed to be the most mimetic art, it comes with a certain power that must be controlled. I don’t think it is surprising that this art form is paired with an art of the body, gymnastic. (Plato, Republic, Book II, 376; Book III, 410; Book IV, 424; and etc.) Also consider the discussion of music and gymnastic in relation to the proper form of narrative in poetry, pure third person narration, which does not inhabit the person of a character and speak through him or her. In Book II, section 377, Plato asks whether music also includes literature, and further, whether this literature is true or false. This leads the members of the dialogue to a discussion of what stories should be allowed to be told and which ones are dangerous to the ears – too influential.
I keep trying to trace emergent themes at Open Engagement. Our organizers have done a good job of marking three umbrella categories, under which each panel, presentation or discussion resides. These headings, Publics, Contexts, and Institutions, feel like hubs through which a larger, interconnected current runs. One conversation bleeds into the next. Institution could be one example of a context, for instance. An institution could also be populated by a Â public, but neither “Contexts” nor “Publics” rely exclusively on “Institutions.” The project of this particular conference, one might say, is to investigate the way socially engaged art practice runs through (or negotiates) those headers.
That said, I am hunting around for additional trends, for theoretical concerns that crop up continually in the subtext of various presentations, reflecting perhaps on a collective undertow that Social Practice artists are preoccupied with. There is something problematic about my efforts. It’s an artificial exercise in a way, especially when the subject of presentations â€” not to mention the styles of address â€” are so broad. My insights are additionallyÂ subjective, stemming from what panels I’ve seen and how the concerns therein stick to my ribs.
Still, I persist. Obviously this is a post that I deliberately published. Obviously I am interested in failing a little bit. I’m emboldened by the fact that failure, as a topic, is one of those recurring themes. Failure and the equally nebulous question about ethics. These subjects bubble to the surface not only in talks themselves, but also in audience questions. For instance, “I feel there is a danger that the projet you described could waste someone’s time. Someone in your intended audience for instance. How can you be sure you’re not doing that? What can you guarantee your public?” It suggests the artist ought to deliver something, and ideally that whatever is delivered is good, or worthy of (in this instance) one’s time. Ethics and failure are linked up with responsibility in this regard â€” conveying a feeling that something in works of art that rely on audience participation ought to offer or fulfill something.
First let me make a case for the #EthicsTrend. In an account of Friday’s panel, “Sociology (of and) for Socially Engaged Practice, Institute for Art Scene Studies” I was told Pablo Helguera, Barbara Adams, David Peppas, and Adeola Enigbokan staged a kind of reductio proof of what not to do as a social practice artist. I missed it, unfortunately, but heard that someone posed as an artist, presenting a series of ill-advised projects to the panel, pretending to be an artist. (For instance, the acting artist claimed to have done a project where s/he gave up all possessions in order to see what it was like to live under the poverty line.) The panel then critiqued these projects, highlighting what exactly was ill-advised about them. (Using the same example, the panel pointed out that the artist was able at any time to reenter her/his life of material stability). This was relayed to me by a rather horrified member of the audience who, at the end of her account, leaned in conspiratorially and whispered “And it was all a hoax! The ‘artist'” (she used scare quotes) “was making it all up!” seeming at once relieved and frustrated that she had been duped.Â In a later panel that same day, “Whatâ€™s the Harm of Community Arts and Social Practice? The Ethics of Engagement and Negative Value,” Marnie Badham, Amy Spiers, Claude Schryer, and Dr. Kathleen Irwin wrestled with questions of how and when artists intrude on a public. In her opening remarks, Badham noted first, “this turn to community is rarely explored critically,” and then asked “is social change always good?” An ethical approach is often taken for granted in socially engaged art. There is an implied use or service tends to go hand in hand with these social experiments. A desire to save the world, or at least some very small piece of it.
Here the idea of failure comes in â€” because, in a way it is impossible to save the world. However in articulating an attempt, I would argue, the art project sets out to “do” something. As such it becomes easier to measure and assess. Â Rakowitz rebuffed this point yesterday when he suggested that art didn’t necessarily have toÂ doÂ anything. But if that’s the case, one’s ability to measure success and failure becomes more difficult. And, perhaps, more interesting. For instance, this morning at “Craft + Social Practice: A Roundtable Conversation” at the Museum of Contemporary Craft, a group of panelists (Gabriel Craig, Ayumi Horie, Stacy Jo Scott, Michael J. Strand, moderated and organized by Sarah Margolis-Pineo) described their relationship to failure. Many suggested that failures provided new opportunities for insight â€” Gabriel Craig talked about “Slow Gold,” a project based on ethical metal sourcing, where he and four collaborators went to the Black Mountains in South Dakota to find gold for a couples’ wedding bands. (The betrothed couple participated in this project.) They could only find .4 grains. His conclusion, “Mining, no matter what scale it’s on is absolutely catastrophic for the environment.” On that same panel, Stacy Jo Scott of the Craft Mystery Cult confessed, “Occult is always dealing with failure. That’s because we have this desire to speak of ideals, in terms of an ideal poetic space, but also in terms of utopic vision. Knowing the failures of past utopias, but still desiring Utopia. What results is the absurd: optimism in the face of futility.”
Keep this idea of ethics in one hand. Hold in your other hand the idea of failure. Now imagine yourself in the Shattuck Annex, sitting (like I was) in chair with a small desk attached. It is the sort of desk students often use. The sort of desk I haven’t sat in for years. Keep in mind it is raining outside and the opening bars of Woody Guthries’ “This Land is Your Land” is playing on a loop. People shuffle in slowly. Some are ushered to an overflow room when the room is at capacity. In that room this afternoon, Claire Doherty gave a fantastic keynote, opening with an observation that keynote speakers have the ability to highlight and anchor conversations in a conference. The keynote provides a kind of watering hole â€“ a central point in the middle of the day during which most conference-goers sit in the same room, sharing the same experience, after scattering out again to different panels, rendez-vous, and performances. Doherty hastened to remind everyone about the underbelly of social practice â€” that many projects, while on the one hand providing photographs of an engaged and happy public digging ditches and/or eating ice cream often come out of duress or protest. These works have the ability to engage a collective, public imagination because they tend to address points of tension. She went on to discuss Nowhere Island, a project by Alex Hartley produced by Situations â€” the organization Doherty directs. As a travelling landmass, self-designated as a site belonging to no-country, Nowhere Island became another version of Utopia. Pulled by a tug boat through international waters, it visited many ports, acquiring 23,003 citizens over the course of a single year. There is much more to the story, of course, but I like situating this island in this post because the land mass in an of itself is what Doherty might call a “charismatic object,” a physical object both engaging and alluring to a public imagination. This object was capable of, again in Doherty’s words, “Nourishing the capacity for creative illusion, [such that a public was able] to act and think as though things were different.” In and of itself the island is not ethical, but it enables a public to explore their own Utopian expectations thereby exploring the problems that such ideals might subsequently create.
Now, open your hand.
In Tim Etchells words, “A Utopia of dispute might be better:”
Dear Citizens of Nowhereisland
as we stop in the shelter of a doorway in the thunderstorm
S. holds out his hand to check the rain.
The hand. The flatness of it. The open-ness. The question of it. The directness. The simplicity. The pragmatism. The straightforwardness. The sunshine.
And maybe just the repetition of this gesture, which must be as old as the hills, as old as the co-presence of hands and rain.Â
As I mentioned yesterday, there is a great performance festival taking place called IN>TIME. Organized by artist Mark Jeffrey,Â IN>TIME features both international and local artists exhibiting in 14 diverse venues across the city between the months of January and March. Bad at Sports will be posting a mini-series of interviews and essays about this festival, including an upcoming interview with Mark Jeffrey himself. This particular post is dedicated to two concurrent exhibits atÂ threewallsÂ that are also part of Jeffrey’s festival. On January 11th,Â Mary Patten’s performance/sound/video installation,Â PanelÂ opened in the main space.Â Mathew Jinks’ began screening his new 73 minute, single-channel HD video,Â The Unreliable Narrator,Â in the project space. While these artists are distinct from one another, exhibiting independent projects, I was interested in facilitating a conversation between them, particularly as both negotiate film, performance, history and collaboration. These exhibits will be on view until February 23rd, with an artist talk from Jinks on January 31st at 7pm,Â as well asÂ a performance,Â SCHIZO CULTURE: A Collaborative Reading, and publication release of the catalogue associated with PANEL.Â On February 9th, there will be another performance,Â SCHIZO PANEL,Â at 7 PM.
Caroline Picard:Â You both call on speculative fiction in your respective projects. What does it mean for each of you to employ the fantastic?Â
Mathew Jinks: The idea of alternate histories is very resonant for me, not necessarily in the reconstruction of various alternative spaces, but aiding in imagining that sense of an â€˜otherâ€™ space that can be inhabited by a narrative. Fictive narratives do not interest me. They seem too comfortable as a source of abstract inventionÂ in some way,Â which I see as an escape from reality and a dead end street; a more complex and evocative device for me is to sow seeds of doubt, to introduce situations and characters with a set of dynamics which have been loaded from the start and see how they play out. The origination in my practice was at the point of departure from personal histories and the evolution of expansive political histories.
Mary Patten:Â Mathewâ€™s articulation ofÂ alternate histories,Â his desire toÂ â€œsow seeds of doubt,â€ the leaking or trespassing of â€œpersonalâ€ histories into the territory of â€œthe politicalâ€ are all-compelling to meâ€¦ and describe sensibilities or impulses that have shaped my own work for many years. Itâ€™s very difficult, maybe even pointless, to draw an easy divide between â€œfactâ€ and â€œfiction,â€ despite persistent claims of â€œobjective journalismâ€ or â€œscientific truth.â€ This is well-trodden territory: what â€œweâ€ (in the most capacious sense) collectively and cumulatively â€œknowâ€ is subject to constant revision and reconstruction. We understand that â€œfacticityâ€ doesnâ€™tÂ equal truth, and that what passes as fiction is not a series of falsehoods. One of the oldest cultural practices, the oral tradition â€” often taking the form of what we call fables or myths â€” has been a crucial element in constructing â€œhistory.â€ And yet â€œtelling storiesâ€ is still a euphemism for telling lies.
â€œSpeculativeâ€ introduces the possibility of wonder, a wandering imagination, the work of invention to heal or bridge inescapable gaps in any historical record. It is a kind of affective, archaeological process to make empirically un-provable connections between obscure, unknown or little-known histories. â€œSpeculativeâ€ need not connote the fantastical, however â€” at least not in the â€œspectacularâ€ sense. These words are funnyâ€¦ so interconnected, but full of paradoxes.
In the case ofÂ Panel,Â I was drawn to an obscure transcript, photocopied many-times over, given to me by the only participant still living, my friend Judith Clark,Â herself a survivor of a barely-remembered radical history, serving a 75-to-life sentence in Bedford Hills prison in New York State. (Judyâ€™s story deserves its own independent telling; I would ask readers to please check out judithclark.org.)
Judyâ€™s memory of the â€œpanel on prisons and asylumsâ€ at Schizo Culture is that the three men â€“ Foucault, Harp, and Laing â€“ did most of the talking. Thatâ€™s contradicted by the transcript, which is itself very odd, characterized by breaks and ellipses. We know from SylvÃ¨re Lotringerâ€™s accounts that the entire Schizo Culture conference was rife with outbursts and interruptions, including this panel discussion, although thatâ€™s not evident in the transcription.
In attempting to re-stage a little-known but somewhat exotic event, I wanted to resist any impulse to reconstruct or â€œnarrativizeâ€ the episode in any kind of â€œrealisticâ€ way. I didnâ€™t want a performance designed to dissolve the distance between the â€œoriginalâ€ event and its contents, both very marked by that moment of the mid 1970s, and yet eerily (and depressingly) prescient of our current traumas of the â€œsocieties of controlâ€: diagnosis, punishment, imprisonment, and torture. I didnâ€™t want to blend or unify these four amazing characters and social actors, two of whom (Foucault and Laing) possess an iconicity shimmering with all kinds of aura, with the people reading and inhabiting their words now. I am compelled byÂ bothÂ the â€œconnectsâ€ and â€œdisconnects.â€
CP: You share an interest in collaboration, but also work independently.Â How do you negotiate the role of an author who is also dedicated to fostering relationships in your work?Â
MJ: I have always felt uncomfortable in a lonely practice, with the idea of the studio Artist who appears after years of hermetic work with a portfolio under the arm. I began working for other artists in Chicago because I had always been a part of a DIY scene which to me was about skill sharing and enabling others to achieve their goals whilst you achieved yours, doing this I witnessed the evolution of a work through multiple creative minds first hand and this stayed with me. I introduce performers and artists into my works to have them re-interpret my ideas, for them to take the work in directions unknown to myself or to the work. It is quite stressful in many ways to work with others, although I am not precious about my projects I do have creative demands and I like to try to keep the overall affect of the work under my thumb. In return I try hard to become a tool for them to use, whether I am recording sound as I did for Maryâ€™s Piece, working as a Cameraman for Kirsten Leenars, or doing sound for Melika Bass. I simply try to gel with the process at hand.
The most important elements of my practice that I feel need to be under my control I will do myself, The Unreliable Narrator was shot, edited and mixed by myself, with voiceover recordings, studio shoots, post image production all done in my studio. I decided to use a colorist to step up my game a little and he really did a great job, I wanted some animation work for the chapter titles and again I used a great animator Han Han Li â€” the big key for this work was to employ a Producer, Parveer Singh Sohal. Without Parveerâ€™s connections in India the work would not exist, so that was an integral decision. I needed access. But Parveer is not a Producer, he is a Graphic Designer and so there were many discussions about what I needed and what he was bringing to the project.
MP: Mathewâ€™s discomfort with the notion of a lonely, hermetic studio practice and artistic identity is of course very much in sync with my own ideas, feelings, and historyâ€¦ although not without risks â€”Â losing oneself in the collective, for example. A good friend who shares a similar collaborative history once commented that itâ€™s possible that no one will know or remember that her labor and creativity helped form some of these projects, since individual authorship is so often dissolvedâ€¦ Iâ€™m obviously not talking here about the art worldâ€™s current embrace of â€œrelational practicesâ€ and the career building that goes along with that. But as Iâ€™ve said elsewhere, I continue to be drawn to collaborative ways of working, such as the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials Project, because itâ€™s urgently needed, and impossible to realize by a single or even a handful of authors. Most importantly, collaborations embody the kind of collective labor and passion necessary to any project thatâ€™s trying to makeÂ change.
As you, Caroline, and Mathew make very clear, the project of film and videomaking, like so many art forms, isÂ necessarilyÂ collaborativeâ€¦ Chris Marker makes this point beautifully during the ending credits of â€œGrin without a catâ€ which he dedicates to the anonymous and unnamed artists and technicians without whose clips, shots, sequences, and documents that epic film would have never been realized, seen, or distributed. To that point, I would like to acknowledge the thoughtful labor, participation, and support of performers Darrell Moore, Mikal Shapiro, Matthias Regan, andÂ Mark Jeffery; Directors of Photography Yoni Goldstein and Meredith Zielke; Mathew for such great sound engineering; Alex Brown for assisting with camera; Ilan Gutin for helping with the large prints; and the lovely, hardworking, and brilliant Joey Carr who has worked as producer, compositor, and hardware/software engineer.
CP: You call on various histories, whether philosophical or psychological traditions, fortune telling traditions, Â â€” is it possible to collaborate with disciplines? Or do you think about the way you engage those traditions differently?
MJ: This is a wonderful question; tradition by nature is a stubborn legacy and confronting it head on is an antagonistic strategy. If you lay the threads down together: personal history and its discipline of remembrance, familial oral history, musical traditions as in Jazz, Cheiromancy, Homeopathy, Metallurgy, then these lines will touch and intersect like magnets picking up each other. It is a naÃ¯ve want to reshape these lines to any sort of permanence. I think of Francis Alys work,Â The Collector â€”Â with the magnet on wheels that he pulls behind him collecting metal from the street as he goes â€” the street will fill up once again with shards and paperclips. Francis creates a moment of being present, and itâ€™s this re-presenting and laying down with traditions in new almost aleatoric ways.
MP: I consider myself a visitor, a curious student, an interloper or trespasser in many disciplines, an auto-didact, or rather someone who has learned from many teachers and texts, â€œnegativeâ€ as well as exemplaryâ€¦
CP:Â How do you all think of beginnings and endings? Are those narrative touchstones useful to you?Â
MJ:Â No, I instinctively move away from creating narrative structure, arcs and so forth. I find the idea of conclusion quite arrogant in non-fiction. The episodic device is interesting because it introduces the idea of the â€˜false startâ€™, or the hidden track at the end of an album, or the prologue as in Bergman’s Persona, or â€˜rewindâ€™ in Jamaican dance hall, the stutter. This is why gallery installations are so useful: people enter and leave as they wish; this is a very considered position for my work, the ideal position.
MP:Â There are no real beginnings. Weâ€™re always starting in the middle, picking up someone elseâ€™s traces and tracksâ€¦ For me, in the realm of ideas, relationships, as well as many projects over the years, there are so many interruptions and breaksâ€¦ things are â€œleft for nowâ€ and unfinished or deferred. I find it much more habitual to abandon something, rather than â€œendâ€ it. Like Mathew, I am drawn to the episodic, to â€œfalse startsâ€ and â€œstuttersâ€â€¦ but when Mathew talks about resisting narrative arcs, I think he is perhaps referring to â€œmainstreamâ€ or what we used to call â€œHollywood narrative cinemaâ€â€¦ for me, there are so many wonderful, rich and complicated examples of â€œnarrative fictionâ€ that escape these constraints â€“ the films of Robert Bresson and Chantal Akerman, for example, but also so many more â€“ in cinema and literature, in expanded forms of the essay, in experimental non-fiction and media formsâ€¦
CP:Â How do you conceive of utopia? Is such a thing possible? Is it a condition of being? Or a place?Â
MJ:Â More than a construct, a Modernist ideal, pathological, LSD induced? I never conceive of utopia. Utopia and dystopia to me are devices, but they are not very interesting devices. They suggest spaces of utter happiness or utter sadness and isnâ€™t that a psychological state? Bi-Polar? There is no tension in these extreme spaces and it is too easy to create heroics from such static dynamics. This is exactly what popular culture thrives on. The fine-line-in-betweens, and the slippage that occurs within those minimal gradations is what art production responds to. The Â entertainment industry responds to thoseÂ other extremes. Even in a spiritual sense â€” in Buddhism, for instance, elements are in a balance, whereas in cults, the utopian ideals are offset by the leader sexually prowling its herd for ultimate control. Conceiving of utopia maybe undermines an art making practice? Desire is a more interesting space to work from for me. It has the same goal as utopia â€” the perfect space â€” but it is much more psychologically complex. Desire is fixated on process, and the moment. There is presence in desire without conclusion.
MP:Â Unlike Mathew, I donâ€™t think that utopian impulses can be reduced to mere devices, or that they areÂ necessarilyÂ tied to dangerous heroic narrativesâ€¦ maybe this is just a difference of language, because I find that his conception of desire as a transformative force is very akin to what I would call utopian longings.
Until fairly recently, itâ€™s been fashionable to dismiss â€œutopiaâ€ because of its attachment to so many terrible and failed agendas that promised brave new worlds and then delivered totalitarianisms. We know now that we should dislike and mistrust master narratives, totalities of certainty, and teleological schemes. However, I am drawn to utopian impulses not just because I was formed through my engagement with them â€“ to the point of political lunacy, perhaps â€“ but also perversely because they have been a despised or at best suspect category for so long.
Contemporary social movements and revolts against globalized capital, the fleeting â€œoccupys,â€ the movements of the squares, the queer utopias of so many interesting artists today, all embody what people call â€œprefigurative politicsâ€: â€œBeÂ the change you want to make.â€ The emphasis is on the here and now,Â againstÂ telos, embracing not only possibility, but doubt. Recognizing that we, and all matter, is/are in a constant state of becoming, that small and invisible shifts and changes are always (potentially) occurring, whether or not they are seen or recognizedâ€¦ this is what intrigues and provokes me. Brian Massumi is an extremely useful thinker and writer here.
Paradoxically, thereâ€™s a lot of interest in reclaiming utopian thinking now because of how hopeless and scary the world has become, how reduced and flattened to information, to bits and bytes everything seemsâ€¦ and all the ways that capitalism forecloses the imagination and desire, except as an instrument of and for the commodity, no pleasure outside of consumptionâ€¦ or the deadliness of an actuarial life, with its endless assessment debits and creditsâ€¦
CP:Â What does it mean to come from somewhere? What role does memory play in that reality?
MJ:Â The transition is interesting, to come from somewhere to go to somewhere else, and the translation from one meaning to another. There is a great deal of nostalgia and longing for previous inhabited spaces, especially if you have been formed by them in some way; that complicates memory. A new space can act as a lens from which to view the previous space and this is truly a unique position. You no longer belong to that place but the memories are attached to you, somehow the filtration from one’s current position gives a sober screen. I think it is essential but painful, and again that tension of knowing you need separation while at the same time being in touch with a sense of longing is the drive for this â€˜otherâ€™ space to be imagined in my work.
MP:Â Again, we return to the problem of originsâ€¦Years ago, I made a piece provoked by Courbetâ€™s â€œThe Origin of the World.â€ I was very influenced by Linda Nochlinâ€™s pivotal essay on that infamous painting, and the difficulty, if not impossibility, of locating an originary point â€” whether in relationship to that picture, which existed in several versions, disappeared, and re-surfaced over a long stretch of timeâ€¦ as well as the funny ridiculousness of imagining the universal vulva-cunt as the origin of us all, the Great Motherâ€¦ how much better to use the term â€œbeaverâ€? or just ordinary womenâ€™s names: a succession of beaversâ€¦
A more recent project was instigated by theÂ notes, translated from Arabic into English, allegedly written by Mohammed Atta in preparation for the hijackings and attacks of September 11, 2001.Â When I read these, all sorts of problems immediately presented themselves. Was this an actual document? Were the notes, in fact, â€œfoundâ€? or were they a fiction, invented to â€œproveâ€ a rationale as incomprehensible as the acts that followed? Was this a reliable translation?
The idea that translation is often slippery and inexact, and sometimes impossible, is widely acknowledged. Yet we like to pretend that complete transparency is within our reach, that vast differences of culture, language, and history can be breached, if only the right tools, technologies, and â€œmindsetsâ€ are available. And translation, like everything else, has undergone a renewed politicization in this ever-encapsulated world.
In a lot of my work, I explore spaces and distances between a â€œhereâ€ and a â€œthere,â€ a presumed â€œcenterâ€ and its â€œperiphery,â€ to work off the grid to the point of falling off a map completely. I work with images drawn from public, although possibly ephemeral archives â€“ things like newspapers, outtakes, margins of the marginsÂ â€“ to fictionalize them, at the same time as undermining the authority of â€œauthenticâ€ or alleged autobiography. Like Mathew, Iâ€™m preoccupied with the instability of memory,Â very enamored of the idea, the necessity of the unreliable narratorâ€¦ or the mute, opaque, or invisible one.
â€‹This week: Brian and Patricia talk to Artist Natasha Wheat.
As part of the ongoing collaboration betweenÂ Bad At Sports andÂ Art Practical, as well as the summer series exploring social practice, this week Brian Andrews and Patricia Maloney sit down with Natasha Wheat as she prepares for her upcoming exhibition and temporary restaurant â€œSelf Contained,â€ which opens at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago on July 13.
Currently based in San Francisco, Wheat is an American artist whose work attempts to understand and interrupt the way that human beings exist together. She is interested in the social hierarchy of space, utopian attempts, and the tension between exclusivity and inclusion. Wheat founded Project Grow, a Portland Oregon based Art Studio and Urban Farming Project that includes people with mental diversity. Her recent work examines agriculture in relationship to human culture, distribution, and control. She received her BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2008.
Wheat has exhibited collaboratively and individually at The UC Berkeley Art Museum; The Pete and Susan Barrett Gallery, Santa Monica; Rogaland Kunstsenter, Stavanger, Norway; G2, Mess Hall, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.
Check out the text version of this interview, starting July 1, in Issue 18 ofÂ Art Practical.