A garden oasis and cultural center overlooking the Hudson River

Hybridization: An Interview with Saya Woolfalk

Thais Glazman, Curatorial Intern at Wave Hill this winter, is enamored with the creative and empowering atmosphere of Wave Hill and hopes to learn everything she can from its wonderful team and artists.

Each winter, Wave Hill opens Glyndor Gallery as a workspace for New York-area artists. They benefit from intimate exposure to our garden setting, and also reveal part of their working processes to visitors through open studios and artist-led workshops.

Saya Woolfalk, ChimaTEK: Hybridization Machine, 2013.

Saya Woolfalk, one of the current Winter Workspace 2015 residents, is a multimedia artist working in video, sculpture and performance. She explores ideas of hybridization with the creation of a fictional culture of plant-human hybrids called The Empathics. Interested in the rise and fall of utopian societies, she creates a world that relates to our present and future state and criticizes systems of knowledge and pre-determined truths that are in place. I sat down with Saya in her studio at Wave Hill to find out more about her ideas regarding hybridity and the intricacies of the world she has invented surrounding the Empathics.

Thais Glazman: What is your interest in hybridity and human-plant relationships?

Saya Woolfalk: I’m black, white and Japanese. I’m really interested in hybridity from a cultural perspective, but I chose to focus on inter-species hybridization because I didn’t want it to be merely about the fusion and mixture of culture, but also about the transparency of boundaries between things we identify as whole in and of themselves. I came across the idea of a genetic chimera, an organism that has multiple forms of DNA inside of its body. If you take a genetic sample from the leg of one of these organisms, you find one kind of genetic material. If you take a sample from its lung or heart, it’s a different set of genetic material. Even though, in fact, actual, interspecies genetic hybridization doesn’t really exist, I love the idea that an individual could have the potential of crossing species. I didn’t want my work to be just about race, gender or the environment. I wanted the practice to be an ambiguous space of questioning and wondering.

TG: What are you working on here at Wave Hill?

SW: I originally thought that I was going to use photographs or video while I was here at Wave Hill, for an upcoming project that I’m working for the Seattle Art Museum. And what often happens and has happened since I’ve been here is that, as I’m working onsite, the place actually shifts my idea of what I want to do. Now I’m looking at the greenhouses [at Wave Hill] as a human-plant-technological system, using the structures of the greenhouse and the relationship humans have to maintaining plants, as a narrative device in sculpture. More specifically, I’m going to try and incorporate things like water spigots and fan systems into metal sculptures.

TG: And this is all coinciding with The Empathics project you’ve been working on. Tell me more about that.

SW: I’ve been working on this project since about 2006. From 2006 to 2008, I worked with an anthropologist to documented a fictional future world called No Place. Then from 2008 to 2012, I worked on what I call The Empathics. The Empathics are people in the present who try to bring a future utopia into the present through science and ritual. Most recently—since 2012—I’ve been working on the ChimaTEK project. ChimaTEK is a corporation that the Empathics have initiated in order to distribute their hybridization technology to a mass-consumer market. The pieces that I have been researching while I’ve been here at Wave Hill are one of these technologies, a kind of human-plant technology that allows for humans to experience a state of hybridization.

TG: Where did you get the inspiration to begin work on this fictionalized, mystical and parallel world?

SW: Sci-fi! [laughs]. I lived in Brazil for two years on a Fulbright and studied folkloric performance traditions in northeastern Brazil. I’ve been revisiting folklore recently because my daughter is three and a half and into [Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki’s] animated movies. I grew up part of the time in Japan and spent a lot of time watching Miyazaki movies and reading Japanese folklore. I think some of this work comes from that as well. I was watching Nausicaa [of the Valley of the Wind] the other day with my daughter, and you can see scenes of my practice in that film.

TG: Why are the Empathics made up of only women?

SW: They have been thus far. However ChimaTEK can be used by everyone. The people who produce the products are all women, though. The decision came from self-selection. A lot of projects also merge through collaboration by talking with people who self-selected to participate in the work and what that involves. What I was finding was that most of the people who were self-selecting into my work were women. I wanted the fiction to parallel what was actually happening in reality.

TG: You speak about the relationship between science and ritual. How do these two things connect and relate to your work?

SW: The reason why the Empathics use ritual and science is because we think of them as polar opposites, when actually science, religion and spirituality were deeply tied and developed together as forms, during the Enlightenment and in philosophy traditions, for example. The disaggregation of the two actually imagines that science is truth, and I wanted to collapse that back together, especially in the context of investing in a process that attempts to undermine stable reflections of truth. It seems as if the Empathics are seeking truth, but at the same time it’s fiction, so [I question] what is really going on.

On Sunday, February 15, at 1PM, Woolfalk and meditation leader Biet Simkin introduce meditation as artistic practice in a workshop titled Meditation as Artistic Practice, with a 50-minute mediation combining breathing, virtual travel and aural exercises, and ending with a discussion exploring your experience with the group. 

Pictured above: Saya Woolfalk, ChimaTEK: Hybridization Machine, 2013. Mannequin, steel sculpture, video monitors and video, 8’ x 6’ x 3’. Courtesy of the artist

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