The New York-based artist talks cultural mixes, utopia and her new collaboration with Daata Editions and POSTmatter.
Saya Woolfalk is a New York-based, Japanese-born interdisciplinary artist. Using science fiction, fantasy, anthropology and semiotics, she explores the alternative utopian possibilities of identity. Melding dance, video, animation and sculpture in a number of ongoing projects, she offers fantastical narratives of cultural hybridity to expand traditional visions of the present and ideas of the future.
In a recent public performance piece that took over New York’s Fulton Centre, she paired performance with interactive app technology to offer passers by a glimpse into her kaleidoscopic imagination. It is one in a series of pieces that builds the story of the Empathics, a fictional race of women who Woolfalk is writing as unbound by the limits of genetics.
In collaboration with Daata Editions, we preview one artwork from Woolfalk’s upcoming 2016 series Color Mixing Machine. In it, she continues to build the story of the Empathics through ritualistic digital creations that reimagine what it means to be human. The full set of artworks will run in POSTmatter from 29thSeptember, and are available to buy on Daata Editions, an innovative digital platform representing contemporary moving image and sound artists. Our preview and interview with Woolfalk is presented in association with WeTransfer.
PM: What is the mission of your fictional future female species, the Emphatics, and the space they inhabit, ‘No Place’?
SW: ‘No Place’ is a project I worked on from 2006 to 2008 with filmmaker and anthropologist Rachel Lears. The No Placeans are plant humans from the future who change gender and colour, transform into the landscape when they die, and repurpose refuse into usable technologies. The Empathics are people in the present who establish something called the Institute of Empathy (IoE) to study No Place. The IoE encounters a grouping of No Placean bones and fungus on the bones stimulates their physiological mutation and cultural transformation. This mutation allows the Empathics to easily cross species by integrating foreign genetic material into their DNA.
PM: From performance to digital to textile, your art practice includes a comprehensive range of materials, forms and processes. What is your process for developing new multimedia pieces?
SW: I usually start with an idea, which changes as I make the physical work. I create drawings, mock-ups and digital renderings and then create physical prototypes. Both the mock ups and prototypes are edited as I go along. Many are discarded or stored as parts for future projects. I constantly move through multiple media and I work simultaneously in many.
PM: What is it about the history of craft as a practice that appeals to you and how do you see it as remaining prominent in a time when analogue methods are being outpaced by automation?
SW: I was taught by feminists at Brown University, and the work done at Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro’s Womanhouse was incredibly influential for me when I began making my own work. The students who created that project reimagined and reconstructed a home to integrate alternative logics into its structure. Their use of craft based practices to transform the domestic appealed to me as a kitchen table way of making art that could address larger social issues.
Many of the forms I use evoke the religious and spiritual. I do this to set a tone for my audience, so they have a sense that they are entering a state of liminality.
I also use many digitally methods to produce work. I have created augmented reality garments, digital video and animation, as well as vinyl wall papers printed from vectorised files. However, I try to maintain a relationship to the handmade by using original hand-printed artworks and collages as the raw material for the creation of the work.
PM: Can you discuss the notions of hybridity that feature in your work?
SW: I am deeply interested in play and the possibilities that emerge through processes and I try to bring together things that may not generally be fused together. When I started working on the Empathics project, I was inspired by the dual notion of a chimera. A chimera is both an imaginary female monster with disparate parts, and a scientific term for a genetic organism composed of two or more genetically distinct tissues—for example, partly male and partly female. This is one of my entry points into thinking about hybridity.
PM: What is your personal relationship with religion and spirituality, and how has it influenced your work?
SW: Many of the forms I use evoke the religious and spiritual. I do this to set a tone for my audience, so they have a sense that they are entering a state of liminality. My own life is relatively secular, although I was raised Catholic on my father’s side and Buddhist on my mother’s.
PM: It feels as if you are envisioning a model for a future that prioritises indigenous belief-systems, the female, digital innovation and harmony. This stands out as optimistic at a time when futuristic visions are so often grey, mechanic and dystopian. Is your commitment to a sense of joy, communion and hope a deliberate choice or natural occurrence for you when making work?
SW: The Empathics were conceptualised as a group of humans who became incredibly receptive to the introduction of foreign genetic material. I wanted to explore how morphology and culture are mutable through contact and creolisation. As I make work, I explore narratives that offer my audience a sense that there may be positive solutions for our often-dystopian visions of the future. I would say that yes, I make a deliberate choice to offer a sense of hope.
This interview is published in partnership with WeTransfer, as part of our series exploring the creatives who push the boundaries between digital and physical space in new and surprising ways. See Saya Woolfalk's work custom moving image piece on WeTransfer here.