Below is the abridged text of an email interview with Saya Woolfalk that was conducted for the African American Performance Art Archvie by Cheryl Caskey, Laura Fravel, and Amalle Dublon on 12/14/09.
Q: A Ritual of the Empathics is framed both by the fictional scholarly research into No Placeans and by the story of the No Placeans themselves. How do you see narrative functioning in your work?
A: I became interested in narrative as a powerful tool in artwork while I was living in Brazil from 2004 – 2006. I received a Fulbright Fellowship to research local performance traditions in Northeastern Brazil and was taken by how performance practitioners used elaborate methods of handicraft and powerful storytelling to transform the everyday world. When I began to develop the No Place project, these two strategies became an integral part of how I could insert the fantastical into the everyday.
Q: What is the place of the audience in your performance and environment-based work? How do you see the audience participating in the performance?
A: In the original script of the Ritual of the Empathics, I had the audience intervene into the logic of the performance. I then abstracted that into a series of T-shirt making workshops, when I performed it at University at Buffalo, that people came to before attending the performance. In the permutation I presented at Studio Museum, I edited out this component, but hope to revisit it in future works. I love the idea that the audience is integral to the work, they are participants, possibly Empathics or future Empathics – a part of the power of performance is that it can mobilize the imaginations of a collected group.
Q: If we could just clarify when and where you were born and where you grew up. We’ve seen some conflicting information floating around.
A: I was born in Gifu City Japan in 1979 and grew up in Scarsdale, NY. I spent my summers in Japan.
Q: Also, how you became interested in performance art. This will help us for the biographical essay we are writing.
A: I started as a painter and then moved into sculpture. I was studying at Brown thinking a lot about feminist practice and performance and installation seemed like a great way for me to begin to take my imaginary objects and turn them into real spaces and actions.
Q: How do you envision No Place evolving? Do you intend to focus further on the Empathics or move to the other characters like the Pleasure Machines?
A: The pleasure machines will appear in my next video works as the religious images of the Empathics. I have developed a series of paintings for this called the Epoch of No Place.
Q: How many times have you performed No Place, when and where, if you have this information?
A: No Place is ongoing, and since it is in the future it has never been performed live, it has been documented in Ethnography of No Place. Only a ritual of the Empathics has been performed. Once in Buffalo April 2009 and once in NYC November 2009.
Q: We have read that you created the world three years ago, but had you been thinking about it before this point? Do you think that the concept appeared in any of your earlier performances? These answers will help us for our contextual essay.
A: I have been thinking about how human beings interact with one another and experience the world through the systems of social symbols as well as their physical bodies. All of my work deals with this, first through an investigation and reimagining of toys and the stories they tell and now through collective actions and the carnivalesque.
Q: We have read blogs where you speak about the influence of Carnival in Brazil and childhood toys, but what about the influence of religious practices? Either from your own heritage or from your time in Brazil? Are there specific rituals that you used as inspiration for A Ritual of the Empathics?
A: I went to Japan in the Fall of 2008 and went to many Shinto and Buddhist temples and saw a variety of rituals througout my childhood. Carnival is also a religious ritual (it is when catholics are about to fast for lent) and many of the performance traditions I was influenced by in Brazil had both secular and religious significance.