Artful Green Dot

Discussing Political Art with Saya Woolfalk

Posted in Interviews by Audrey Tran on September 29, 2009

Several months ago, Saya Woolfalk kindly took the time to talk with me about her artwork in conjunction with political art–a topic I’ve been pondering while looking at environmentalism.  The New York-born artist works in a variety of media–from painting and performance to video, sculpture, installation, and frequent mixtures of all the above.   The following is a transcript of our conversation, which happened over the phone:

Audrey Tran: What have you been doing up in Buffalo?

Saya Woolfalk: I’ve been working on a dance piece called The Ritual of the Empathics. It’s a continuation of the project that I did at the Studio Museum in Harlem last summer, and basically it’s the dance portion of No Place.

I’m trying to bring this fictional world into reality by making something with modern dancers. I’m working with these women who are collaboratively choreographing a dance piece with parameters that I give them. Some of the parameters I give them are from Abstract Expressionist paintings. I ask them to use those painting as the foundations for discussing this movement and image.

The women are supposed to be these people from 2009 who are trying to bring utopia into the present by doing this kind of ritualistic modern dance.

AT: What kind of background do they have?  Are they mostly contemporary dancers?

SW: They’re all students of The University of Buffalo studying various forms of contemporary dance.  They range in age from 18 to 22 years old.  They’re current students, so this for them is a part of expanding their dance education. None of them have ever done any performance artwork before, so this is an extension of their education.

AT: What’s it like working with them?  Is that community very different from working with other artists?

SW: Yeah, it is different. They’re very independent minded, so they definitely have their own ideas and bring a lot to the table.  But the background of information they have is different from the background contemporary artists or young artists that I’ve worked with have.  They don’t have art history; they dance history. Although there are moments where dance and art history touch—like with Merce Cunningham, Bauhaus, and even ritual and religious rituals—their backgrounds are very different, which is refreshing actually.

You get a different approach to art making.

AT: I’m always interested in these area where these different worlds kind of mix up.  Lately, I’ve been looking at how the art world mixes or might mix with the world of science.

But moving on, I’m curious about how this is coming out visually.  Are you apart of the costume design or the installation of the where the dance takes place? What role do you play in the visuals?

SW: Basically, we kind of cleared out this space in the middle of the gallery with just a blank space. So at the beginning of the show, the entire gallery was installed except for this giant blank space in the middle of the gallery, which was about 18 by 24 feet.

At the beginning of the show, the blank space represented this total space of possibility.  And so through the collaboration, that total space of possibility ended up full of parameters. We slowly constructed it with parameters and rules and that’s how this project started and continued…

It looks more abstract. It’s really quite liberally sparse, more like early 20th century performative issues like Bauhaus. It’s going back to a certain moment in time when people thought that, or at least when in art history, they thought when art could be in collaboration with life it could actually transform our understanding of the world. So again, it looks like the Ethnography of No Place, which I worked on with Rachel Lears, but basically, while Ethnography harkens back to Surrealism, with this project, we’re harkening back to Bauhaus. The aesthetics are definitely related to Lygia Clark’s work in art and Augusto Boals’ work with theater. Because the aesthetic and the dance and the movement is coming out of the series of propositions, it of course isn’t going to look exactly like Oskar Schlemmer, you know. And we hope that it doesn’t. I hope it takes on this other character. It’s much more like, to give you a shorthand answer, it’s much more austere.

AT: I’m excited to see it, I guess it’ll come about online somewhere?

SW: It’s going to be presented in the Studio Museum in Harlem in November. It’s a continuation of the project (No Place).

AT: I’ve been looking through your website and came across some terms I thought I might ask you about. This idea of 4-d art, what is it?

SW:  It’s a term that I took from going to the Art Institute of Chicago to reference anything that is time based. So, studio performance, sound, things like that.

AT: That makes sense now in terms of what I saw in that section of your website. Maybe now we can go on to that political art part that I wanted to talk about.  I thought you would be a really good person to talk to because some of our past conversations brought up these issues.

For you, what makes a piece of art political?

SW: Interesting question. It is a difficult question to answer because it’s so different depending on the political moment.  I don’t think I can tell you universally what a piece of political art is because it is difficult to give it a blanket term.

I can tell you how I think the term political art is being used in a couple ways in contemporary art. But I can’t say this applies to all art because it changes over time—what is political changes, the relevance of art in society changes.

I’m thinking of Bauhaus and early 20th century forms and back then, political art probably was something that people actually thought could transform the material existence of the world into some sort of political movement. Even in the identity politics movement of the 70’s and 60’s, art forms were working in tandem with political movements and that made the artwork become something which seems to be politically relevant.

Well, what’s political? I don’t want to say “politically relevant” because there are all sorts of things that are politically relevant, without them being political.

I can say what could potentially be politically relevant to contemporary art today.  I’ve seen a lot of artists today who deal with story telling, this kind of grappling with the reality of the individual in a society, which is changing and shifting.

It might not be political in the polemical sense. It’s political in the sense that it’s trying to map the terrain of an ever-changing society.  That’s how I think of my work as political, much more like a folk story that attempts to capture what’s going on right now.

AT: It’s a term that gets a lot of negative feelings. I know of some artists who don’t like it when others recognize their work as political. For you, is that ever an annoyance?

SW: Not particularly, I think because I’ve thought a lot about what it means for a piece of art to be political. I can’t obviously speak for all these people who don’t like the term, but the resistance that I’ve heard is that it kind of puts you in this didactic position and it undermines the poetics of the art, but I don’t actually think political art needs to necessarily undermine poetics at all. I think politics are completely intertwined with the beauty of life and the difficulties and conflicts.

AT: That’s what I’ve been hearing from others—that it becomes a simplistic term and it undermines the work.  So now, it’s popped up a couple times in the articles that I’ve found about you. Some of the other terms were

“Post colonial concerning, concerned about body politics, having an Asian-African background, obsessive…” I think there was something about being perverse and cute at the same time. Are these accurate or appropriate terms, or are there any in particular that stress you out?

SW: I kind of think it would be great if human beings could understand one another without the terms they use to segregate, understand, and know—that would be great but we live in the world of language and we live in a world with so many people and so many backgrounds.

This is kind of implicit in your question, for artists who are not considered apart of identities politics, identities were in fact grounded in their or at least mentioned in the publicity that comes out about them.  Because it implies the universality of their position. Or if we could get back to thinking about you know, how could we, and that’s a little bit about what the No Place project is about—this kind of slippage between the language that codifies us and the inability to capture the entirety of the subject.

That moment in between.

And it would be great if we could and I think it is possible if human beings could get to a point where we could understand the total complexities of one another.  And that’s what we do in interpersonal relationships.  And, well, some people are just looking for sound bites.

There was an article that a PHD at the University of Chicago wrote about my project and I was grateful, but in that essay there is this kind of elusive…

AT: Sorry, what was this work?

It’s in a journal from the Hemispheric Institute website.  It’s at NYU actually. They put out a performance journal.  So, it’s really complicated—there’s this desire to translate an artist’s work for people without oversimplifying, but then there’s this conflict in oversimplifying it. But then people actually go see the work and that can transform their ideas.

AT: When you mentioned those sound bites that people look for, I was thinking of that Asian African Background description that follows you in a couple of these press releases, and I’m wondering if this one in particular has ever come to you as a stress.

SW: No not really, you know maybe because these are terms that I use to understand myself, so I actually don’t.  I think your question is whether or not it’s relevant. I think it is actually is relevant, so I have no opposition to such codification.

AT: So Brazil, I think that was a really interesting part of your work. Maybe we can talk about how those experiences changed your view of art making?

SW: Actually, my time in Sao Pauolo is really informing the project I’m working on now. When I was in Sao Paolo, I was studying dance. I’m not really a dancer, but I was looking for a way to get some exercise so I kept taking these classes at a contemporary dance studio in Sao Paolo.

And so, you know, the kind of strategies and the collective imagining, the collective moving through space, choreographing, and improvisations—all of those techniques really influenced the way I decided to construct this new permutation of No Place.

Then, also when I was in Sao Paulo, I was really lucky to get to see a retrospective of Lygia Clark’s work and when I was in Rio, I saw Augusto Boal do one permutation of his Rainbow Theater. And you know all of these influences keep coming back from my time in Brazil.

Before it had been all about carnival and the aesthetic of religious rituals. Now I’m thinking more about modernism in Brazil and social movements.

AT: Was it a whole year or more time than that?

SW: It was two years actually, and I spent much of the time in the US as well, going back and forth.

AT: The environment and it’s relationship to art is what I’ve been trying to study.  I’m not totally sure how to tie it into our conversation, but maybe we can just start with “Eco Art.”  How do you react to that term or the artists working in this realm?

SW:  I don’t know that much about ecologically conscious art, but I’m very interested in the subject. The reason why I’ve made that a part of the project is because No Place is supposed to be a collective utopian imagining and that’s one of the issues that we’re thinking about so much right now. It’s the relevant part of imagining what a future utopia could be.

So I wasn’t specifically interested in the environment, but when you start thinking about consumerism and consumer society, you also face a heavy toll and impact not just on the environment, but on the third world.


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  1. Eric said, on September 29, 2009 at 5:12 AM

    hey audrey, it’s eric. i’m interning for saya this semester and we gossip about you!!!


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