Empathy and Performance Art: Saya Woolfalk at The Frist


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Saya Woolfalk gave a performance/lecture last Friday afternoon at The Frist in conjunction with the fabulous Fairy Tales, Monsters & the Genetic Imagination exhibition. The odd time of the event — just past noon on a Friday — ended up coinciding with a lot of lunch breaks, and the lecture hall was filled with people.



Woolfalk's work concerns the study of a fictional species called the Empathics, who are a hybrid of humans and plants. Her performance was two parts: In the first, she dressed as an Empath and wobbled her head to emulate talking along with a projected video showing difference parts of the culture (Overheard: "Makes you wonder what type of drugs she's on"). The work is bright and happy, and the Empathic world reminded me of more environmentally aware Dr. Seuss. Empaths are blue-skinned, with brightly colored coats, living in conjunction with the plant world (Overheard: "That's cool — I like the colors").





After the video, Woolfalk shed the costume (Overheard: "She's beautiful") and became a rigid researcher who presented her findings on the Empathics. She "studied" the civilization for two years, working with various groups and an anthropologist to present a cohesive species. Her presentation was convincing — you were left wondering if the real Woolfalk believed in this species after all, or perhaps she delved so far into this fictional world that she couldn't separate reality from fiction. Woolfolk finished her presentation and awkwardly left the stage.


Happily, the real Woolfolk — sans character as she clarified — then emerged, hopped on the stage to take questions. Obviously intelligent and academic, she explained her work in greater detail. The Empathics, she said, were used to explore aspects of adaptability in culture. Much like our culture changes, the Empathics adapted to situations that arose in those two years of study — emerging as a changed society.



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