Saya Woolfalk, "An Empathic Preparing to Paint Images from the Book Empathetic Plant Alchemy (Jillian)" (2011), archival ink jet print on watercolor paper (photo by John Groo, all images courtesy the artist) (click to enlarge)

Saya Woolfalk, “An Empathic Preparing to Paint Images from the Book Empathetic Plant Alchemy (Jillian)” (2011), archival ink jet print on watercolor paper (photo by John Groo, all images courtesy the artist) (click to enlarge)

Saya Woolfalk’s solo exhibition The Empathics, currently on view at the Montclair Art Museum in Montclair, New Jersey, blends the fantastical with the earthly, the factual with the fictitious, and the anthropological with shades of folkloric spirituality. I spoke recently with Woolfalk about the project, as well as the artist’s views on cultural awareness, artmarket politics and the indisputable magic found in the collaborative making of objects.

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Kara L. Rooney: The Institute of Empathy was founded in 2008, which means that you have been working on this project for some time now. How does this installment differ and what new opportunities did working within a museum context provide?

Saya Woolfalk: I have been working on this project since 2008 and had already produced a number of objects and images for earlier iterations [performances at Art Omi; the Studio Museum for Performa09; and the University of Buffalo as well as installations at Tufts University and Real Art Ways].

Each of these past projects set in motion the narrative and aesthetic for the Empathics, but working with the museum has allowed me to take all of the components of the project and use ethnographic museum methods of display and narration to tell the story.

One of the central ideas about the show is that Empathics are hybrids, both biologically and culturally, and so, when I got to the Montclair Art Museum [MAM], I began to look at the collection for traces of hybridity.  Since MAM has such a large Native American collection, I became fascinated by objects I found there that were created out of moments of intergroup contact between European and Native Americans.

The first objects I was drawn to were the beaded bandolier bags.  Native Americans made this style of bag in response to European-American artillery bags (the beading could only have been done after the introduction of European glass beads). The bags are covered in patterns influenced by Victorian floral design.  The idea that these “Native American” objects could only have been produced through a process of hybridization became a theme I wanted to explore with this body of work.

KLR: You work in successive series, pulling from past projects as a way of informing the work that follows. Can you discuss your previous projects and how they may or may not relate to the current exhibition?

SW: I do work in series and attempt to make my installations as if I were writing chapters in a novel. My previous project, No Place, is the chapter before The Empathics. The people of No Place are part plant and part human, change gender and color, and transform our refuse into usable technologies. I worked with anthropologist Rachel Lears for two years documenting this fictional future utopian world in a video called “Ethnography of No Place.”

Once this utopian projection was posited, I began to think about how people in the present might attempt to become the people of this future world.  The Empathics are a people who embody and negotiate a hybridized contemporary reality.  They develop a second consciousness [physically manifested in the growing of a second head], and like the Native American example of the bandolier bags, produce their culture by synthesizing disparate elements into newly blended forms. For example, in their visionary paintings they creolize botanical illustration, neurological charts and yoga poses, as well as African and Asian textile patterns. But we also have to remember that hybridity is full of blood and power.  I mean, the Native American bandolier bags are beautiful as artifacts but they were originally used for artillery, i.e. as carriers for weapons for people to kill people; any account of hybridization has to also capture this reality.

Saya Woolfalk, "Pages from the book Empathetic Plant Alchemy: Pollinators and Plants Used in the Merger of Plant and Human DNA" (2011), gouache on paper

Saya Woolfalk, “Pages from the book Empathetic Plant Alchemy: Pollinators and Plants Used in the Merger of Plant and Human DNA” (2011), gouache on paper

KLR: In regard to this specific body of work, you named the protagonists, a fictitious species of chimeric females, the “Empathics.” Can you elaborate on how you came to settle on this term and its conceptual significance?

SW: What is it like to experience competing sets of cultural values and genetic material?  What if you really did develop this organ of hybridization, a second head to separate and unify these sets of competing information? How would you function in a normal human society?

The Empathics feel so much that they incorporate, biologically and culturally, the things around them.  I decided to call the characters “Empathics” because empathy is considered a good human trait that helps people understand one another.  In this fictional extreme the Empathics’ physical mutation renders them extremely receptive to the introduction of foreign genetic material and forces them to develop a second head to hybridize these competing sets of information.  Their transformation seems beautiful and utopian but it is actually pretty disorienting and potentially violent.

KLR: There is a capitalist-driven component built into the funding structure of the “Institute.” This places the work in an interesting (and somewhat surprising) position regarding the contemporary art market. Can you discuss the terms of this commodification of goods and your overall decision to include an economic element in the project?

SW: The exhibit is supposed to be lent by the Institute of Empathy, intentionally blurring the boundaries between an objective and subjective account of the Empathics’ research and findings. It is about Empathics who represent themselves, and invite others to opt into being like them by learning about and participating in the form of existence they’ve tapped into. To do the research for this show, I looked at display systems where people objectify and present their cultures for outsiders. More often than not, the sale of cultural artifacts is a common component to the consumption and dissemination of these narratives.

My work comes out a history of institutional critique, but I am also interested in coupling critique with an exploration of empowering and generative presents and futures. There is something wonderful about being able to support a place with capital and take a fragment of that place home with you. There is also an objectifying component as well. In this case the Empathics offer for sale their shedded heads, which subtly attempts to point to the power dynamics at play in these kinds of subject-subject, subject-object, object-object relationships.

KLR: The “vision paintings” are of particular interest to me. No doubt their design is somewhat informed by Buddhist Tanka paintings and other ancient cosmological systems but they also resonate as archetypal templates that are accessible regardless of time or cultural specificity. Can you describe the intention behind this unique blending of anthropological research and art historically inflected symbolism? How much information is determined by your own personal vision and/or current trends such as group consciousness, specifically, as witnessed within the model of social networks?

SW: I mentioned earlier my interest in the relationships between the universal and the particular and how these things can affect each other over time. So to make the paintings, I looked for a cultural form that captures a relationship of movement and stasis.  Buddhism was transformed through its travel and dissemination throughout Asia, and its aesthetics were influenced by the particularities of the different cultures that absorbed it. So I thought that the Tanka would be a great form that could transform yet always stay the same.

KLR: Do you align your approach to art making with the feminist craft movement of the 1970s? Why or why not? How does your own experience of cultural narrative play into the work?

SW: My work comes from early exposure to the methods and ideas of feminist art. I studied with feminists at Brown and then worked with Faith Wilding (a participant in Woman House) at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. My earlier work was about femininity and desire and creating body attachments that attempted to objectify a “lived” experience of desire.

That period of my development was also when I began to explore the implications of the idea that the “personal is political.” I continue to mine my personal experiences to think about ways to consider larger issues of race, power, gender and the environment. In part, this project developed out of my own experience as a black, white, and Japanese American woman. But the project also emerges from my broader interest in exploring how hybridities (of cultures, races, and ethnicities; humans and machines; etc.) are becoming more apparent, but also more fraught and confounding in American society.

Saya Woolfalk, "Rosetta Stone of Movement and Biology" (2011), four-color lithograph

Saya Woolfalk, “Rosetta Stone of Movement and Biology” (2011), four-color lithograph

KLR: For someone of my generation, it is impossible to deny the references in The Empathics to the psychedelic and drug-induced culture of America 30 years ago, as well as the common use of hallucinogens as a meditative aid in many of the foreign cultures you draw from. Is this an intentional reference or one that was a natural outcropping of the work’s production?

SW: I have a nostalgic relationship to the political movements that encouraged cultural transformation of the 60s.  So, when I started making this work, I knew I wanted to create a fiction about a transformative collective movement.

I have also recently been speaking to other artists about heightened states of consciousness and how artists train themselves to see and experience things that most people only have access to through meditation or drug use. This heightened awareness, and the capturing of this amplified state, is something I try to tap into. I think of the Empathics’ hybridity and morphological adaptation as just a caricature of some of the things we experience in our world as we deal with the negotiation of difference.

KLR: You recently completed a residency with Dieu Donné in New York in addition to a 2005 Fulbright grant, which afforded you the opportunity to travel to Brazil for the study of performance and craft traditions. How have these experiences shaped your conception of the project in terms of material, vision and scale?

SW: The places I live and work, and the materials and methods I encounter in those places very much affect the way I make.  I often purchase materials when I am traveling and integrate those materials into my work.

When I had a Fulbright, I lived in Brazil for two years and studied folkloric performance and craft traditions.   I would follow practitioners as they prepared for their performances, help them make their work, and then bring my experiences into my own studio practice. So the scale, multi-media approach, and aesthetics of the No Place project and The Empathics come out of my time living in northeastern Brazil as well as São Paulo.

As for my residency at Dieu Donné, when I started I didn’t know what I was going to make. I had some experience with origami, translating two-dimensional paper into three-dimensional objects, and as I experimented with abaca (a banana leaf paper fiber), I realized that the material could become a kind of folded and pulled skin to cover the Empathics’ bodies; the Empathics’ “skin” in the exhibition is made from this banana leaf paper, formed over plastic bones and body parts.

KLR: Video and the technological interface are integral components of your artistic output. How do these mediums, in your opinion, transcend the constraints of 2 and 3-dimensions and what role do they play in conveying your message effectively?

SW: The work requires that I move through multiple media.  My experience working with carnival practitioners in Sao Paulo, Brazil, helped me structure the way I work. In carnival, participants know the general story of the festival and even though they only experience a part of it at any time, they understand the relationship of the part to a larger narrative. I treat my projects in a similar way, as a kind of total work. A viewer might see one fragment and get one part of the idea, and then see other parts at other times. Through the process of gradual exposure, they begin to understand the cosmology I am building.

The video, performance and technological components allow for this gradually building, time-based experience, which is integral to the experience of the work. The story I tell may be fictional but, for example, I like how neurologist Oliver Sacks talks about the impact of language on the brain. What Sacks implies is that we do not need hi-tech virtual reality machines in order to experience other worlds; language itself is a powerful tool for simulating the experience of our not-yet-realized possibilities. I take this idea seriously, making multi-dimensional works that stimulate us and make us think in a myriad of visual, temporal, and spatially linguistic ways.

KLR: Your use of color is fearless, saturated and direct. Is there a connection in these palette choices to the Synesthetic experience or a color-induced ‘haptic perception’?

SW: I recently had a conversation with someone about this and still am trying to get my head around it. I love the idea of that someone can feel a physical sensation through looking, or that a sense is somehow rewired so that it translates the known world in a different way. I think there is a lot of potential in this way of thinking about seeing.  I have been considering having another iteration of the Empathics where they become colorblind — where an externality of their changing morphology is that they see differently, or maybe have a hard time disambiguating one thing from another. The utopia of hybridity would then be accompanied by this negative externality, pointing to some of the violence inherent in the idea of colorblindness.

KLR: The conditions established by collaboration and play seem important for you, particularly the element of live performance. What are some of the joys and/or difficulties you’ve encountered in working with live performers?

SW: I work with live performers in a collaborative way to see what the possibilities are for inhabiting these places. I make bodies and ask people to perform in them based upon their experiences of their new bodies. I also think of my projects like folklore or fairy tales that attempt to capture the ideas of ordinary people through play and collaboration. For example, at University of Buffalo I worked with five dancers to imagine what a ritual of the Empathics might look like. At Tufts University, I worked with biologists to explore adaptation, mutation and biological transformation, and with neuroscientists at the Institute of Living in Hartford to think about how cultural shifts might affect the brain and create new material culture.  So this process of inhabiting the ideas and modes of creativity of other disciplines is an important element of my work.  My next project is with the Simons Center of Physics and Geometry at SUNY Stony Brook. I don’t know what that will look like but I will make a video from this collaboration.

KLR: How do you see this work as effectively speaking to the issue of cultural difference? What are your hopes, as the artist, for its reception?

SW: We are increasingly a cosmopolitan American culture and the more contact we have with others, the more we become a globalized culture. I think of my work as exploring, through fantastical narratives, what it looks like to deal with this contemporary reality.  Hybridity produces beautiful art forms like the bandolier bags, but such forms also contain an inherent violence.  The exploration of the simultaneous reality of the abject and the beautiful, the violent and synthetic, cohabitation and destruction is what I think about and hope to help others think about and experience as I make this work.

The Empathics is on view at the Montclair Art Museum (3 South Mountain Avenue, Montclair, NJ) through January 6, 2013. For more information on the Institute of Empathy, visit

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Kara L. Rooney

Kara L. Rooney is a Brooklyn-based artist, writer, and curator. Her visual work has been exhibited in numerous galleries and museums including the Chelsea Art Museum, NY; the International Women’s Museum,...