by Sammi Skolmoski (MFA 2016)
Collaboration is often a key value held by fictional utopian societies—a free flow of ideas and artistic exchanges. Saya Woolfalk (MFA 2004) has built an entire multimedia practice of constructing utopias—much of it growing out of the very value system the fictional worlds conflate.
Woolfalk is best known for her detailed installation/performance pieces, No Place (2006-08) and The Empathics (2009-12)—interpretive anthropological surveys about fictional species that both include one- through four-dimensional components. Before graduate school, Woolfalk already had a vigorous sculpture practice that often included live performance, but the new modes and collaborations she explored at SAIC made her fictional worlds even more tangible.
"The two years I was at SAIC kind of blew up my practice," Woolfalk says. "I started to take the 'soft sculpture' that was always performative, and transformed it into videos and also pushed it into installation. I collaborated a lot, too... collaboration plays a major role in the work that I continue to do."
Woolfalk met her husband, an anthropologist, during her time at SAIC as well. Her work of discovering and constructing entire fictional worlds and their inhabitants is not unlike an anthropologist's excavation of an unknown people. Woolfalk even had some field experience in doing just that, as she told ArtSlant about the making of No Place in an interview in 2013: "We moved to Brazil, and I lived in his field site," she says of her husband's research. "I got a Fulbright to study folkloric performance traditions. When we came back, a friend of mine (Rachel Lears, who is an anthropologist and the ethnographer whom I continue to work with) and I started collaborating."
The sculptural elements of Woolfalk's art involve their own sort of excavation. She spends a lot of time collecting foreign textiles and varied color inspiration from all over the world—specifically those of Asia and Africa for The Empathics and Latin America for No Place—and incorporates reflections of her local surroundings in each.
There are also inherent social questions of race, gender, and a creature's relationship with the ecosystem that sustains it (among many others) that Woolfalk continually raises through her work.
"After I did the No Place project, I began to start thinking about how people in the present could potentially become people of a future utopian world," Woolfalk says. "So once a kind of utopia is posited, what does it look like for people to try to become those utopian goals or objectives that they set for themselves? What would it look like for people in the present to attempt to become that? What kinds of mini-steps are necessary to achieve this fictional future world?"
Even without considering the deep cultural implications, witnessing the visual extravagance of Woolfalk's work is a thoroughly captivating experience. She says that it is simply fun to make, too. "[In The Empathics video], there’s a person flying through this strange sky wiggling," she says. "It’s absolutely ridiculous, but there is something about it that is deeply pleasurable."