Saya Woolfalk and Psychedelic Shamanism

I came across Saya Woolfalk last year when I was looking at an article on the Artsy site about shamanism and contemporary art. I’ve thought about her work quite a bit since then and how to express my reaction to it, because that reaction is also deeply connected to how I feel about my own work. As different to hers as it is visually, there is an underlying similarity in intent I think and also in medium and execution.

I was initially drawn to a video loop on the header of the article showing a triple-blue-faced creature with multiple arms and white felt feathers floating through some kind of alien dreamscape.

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It brought up a lot of feelings and sensations for me – things I associate with the early 90s and attending the Goa-trance parties that were popular at the time. The quasi-shamanic costuming and facepaint, the ‘trippy’ computer graphic landscapes, the allusions to futuristic shamanic practices and the unabashed psychedelia. These dance parties were full of people painted with fluorescent paint, in wild costumes and immersive environments often created and elaborated on by the attendees themselves.

Saya Woolfolk describes much of her work as being woman-centric – She has created a virtual world inhabited by the Empathics, a race of hybrid futuristic women who are able to fuse with their environment. This also reminds me of these dance parties where people tended to ‘get in touch with their higher selves’ and men were able to express a more feminine aspect. She works with many people to create collaborative pieces: dancers, videographers, animators, and it appears that she allows them the freedom to add their own expression to the work rather than it being solely directed by the artist. Much of her work is multimedia multidimensional in not just the sense that she is exploring other dimensions but also in the sense that she works within multiple dimensions in the ‘material world’ too, allowing viewers to experience a fully immersive environment.

 

 

Saya Woolfalk, An Empathic Preparing to Paint Images from the Book Empathetic Plant Alchemy (Jillian), 2011. Copyright Saya Woolfalk, courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York.

Installation view of Saya Woolfalk, ChimaTEK Life Products Virtual Chimeric Space (Detail View), 2015, in Seattle Art Museum: “Disguise: Masks and Global African Art.” Photo by Nathaniel Wilson. Copyright Saya Woolfalk, courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York.

I wondered how Woolfalk examines cultural appropriation in her work in relation to the cultural shamanic cues she is using and their usage within the work of a Japanese-born New Yorker? She speaks of ‘cultural hybridity’ which I think is an interesting flip side to cultural appropriation; the coming together of cultures and creation of new culture rather than one taking from another. I know I personally get paralysed sometimes in my own work with worrying about the privilege of being a middle-class European in a developed country and whether I am appropriating culture that is not mine. Sometimes I stop making because I start to overthink the materials I’m using and the form it is taking. It’s probably more useful for me to just make the things THEN analyse how they fit within the cultural landscape rather than not making them at all!

In relation to my own work I’m also fascinated with what Woolfalk can ‘get away with’ when it comes to the otherworldly – probably not the best phrasing, but this is in relation to me and my practice rather than a critique of her work, as I’m really impressed with the passion and the gusto with which she executes her practice. Another learning from Woolfalk’s practice for me; it’s much more constructive to unapologetically embrace the work you want to make and look for it’s place within the current contemporary art landscape than to quash is out of nervousness of negative critique.

As ever when dealing with subject matter that is emotional, spiritual, non-ironic there is a line to be walked – fall too far in one direction and the work can become mawkish and kitsch. But if you don’t step over the line, then you don’t know where it is, so I think it’s perfectly ok to go there and then draw yourself back – as I have done on a number of occasions. There is a lot to learn from overstepping the mark and finding out where the boundaries are.

This brings me back to those Goa trance parties I used to go to. I think at their best these parties were living works of art; beautiful, full of life and raw creativity. At their most banal, they were the desperate posturing of modern kids wanting to take drugs and have some sort of empty spiritual epiphany. Art is at risk of being like that too.

(Top image: ChimaTEK Virtual Chimeric Space Seattle Art Museum)

 

 

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How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File (2013) Hito Steyerl

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My friend, Rupert following the instructional video and trying not to be seen at the Tate. I think his pixels are too big.

Hito Steyerl’s instructional video shows the viewer how to avoid detection by various digital surveillance technology. The title references Monty Python’s spoof Government Public Service instructional that showcases the benefits of not being seen e.g. not being shot or blown up, which is particularly important if you are a whole country avoiding nuclear annihilation.

The narrator in Steyerl’s video explains that visibility is dependent on resolution, whatever is lost by resolution becomes invisible. The videos are shot against a green screen at an old US airforce ‘resolution target’ that was used to test the resolution of aerial cameras and the artist (plus assistants) attempt to not be seen by the camera by employing various techniques that are explained in detail to the viewer.

The use of the .mov file extension and the exploration of very particular technologies sets this work firmly in a specific time and place where ideas around surveillance and our images being captured and held as digital images, with or without our permission, has become a topic of political, cultural and artistic conversation.

I read Steyerl’s essay “In defence of the poor image” a couple of years ago and found this piece to be a great accompaniment. They both examine how digital image quality – and degradation of quality – can be used within contemporary art to explore issues such as comprehension, visibility, passage of information and the place of perceived visual quality in value judgements.

Performing to camera/Performing for camera

There is a new exhibition on currently at the Tate Modern called “Performing for the Camera”. I had a look through the works on display and it got me thinking again about some of the ideas I’d grappled with last year when making my first performative videos, as well as my dabble in live performance.

In my mind, the statements ‘performing to camera’ and ‘performing for camera’ are two very different propositions. The first denotes a connection with the camera (and therefore the audience behind the camera) that is likely to be realised through direct dialogue in some form; not necessarily speech or eye contact, but an obvious angling of the performance to the viewer. All actions are performed ‘to’ the camera – the audience is the camera. The second suggests the performer has an awareness of the presence of the camera and, therefore, of a potential audience. But the performance might not include any direct dialogue with the camera in the form of gaze, gesture or speech. A performer could quite well perform in the distance with their back to the camera and still be performing ‘for’ the camera. When creating my pieces last year I made the decision that the performances would be ‘to’ the camera. In Hive Oracle (2015), Sublimation (2015) and Albedo (2016) there is direct eye contact from most of the performers. Some performers in Albedo do not make eye contact with, or address the camera, but their pose and gesture is angled to the camera’s presence.

Working with performers I found many differences in the way still photography and moving image recognises tone and gesture. An expression that might be captivating in a still image becomes overwrought and overacted as soon as the image is moving. This is equally noticeable in my barely-moving tableaus which straddle the line between image and moving image. It was imperative for the work that I did not end up with performers who looked like they were Performing (capital P). I’ve seen this happen before with performers who, no matter what role they are taking on, are always, intrinsically themselves. In certain circumstances this is a strength, but it’s not what I needed for this work. Then the other side of the coin is hoping to work with inexperienced performers to find a naturalness in the work, but they can be too anxious to relax. Luckily I was able to work with some great performers who were able to relax into the roles and give an understated, natural performance.

There is a set of new work by artist Amalia Ulman showing in this exhibition that interests me particularly. Her Excellences & Perfections series appeared on instagram as what at first glance seemed to be the heavily curated selfies of a preening millennial. It was infact a scripted and well-planned performance of three consecutive tropes of young female internet celebrity existence.

“It’s more than a satire,” she explains. “I wanted to prove that femininity is a construction, and not something biological or inherent to any woman. Women understood the performance much faster than men. They were like, ‘We get it – and it’s very funny.’ ” What was the joke? “The joke was admitting how much work goes into being a woman and how being a woman is not a natural thing. It’s something you learn.”
Ulsan, A. quoted in Sooke, A. (2016) Is this the first Instagram Masterpiece? Sourced from http://www.telegraph.co.uk

There are layers of performance going on within this work: the performance of Ulman as the women in the work, the performance of Ulman as a woman in everyday life, the performance of Ulman in the art world as a young artist, the performance of Ulman as the artist performing the art; it just goes on and on, bending back upon itself. Very interesting. I was wondering how much of Ulman herself exists as parts of the tropes she was performing? How often is she knowingly or unknowingly drawn into playing those roles?

With my next filing session I have some ideas around testing the performance of the actors to camera and around how much of themselves becomes present/not present. Hopefully there will be some curious outcomes.

Photo credit: Amalia Ulman Excellences & Perfections (Instagram Update, 8th July 2014), (#itsjustdifferent) 2015 © Courtesy Arcadia Missa and The Artist​