You Are Invited: "Happy Birthday, Nam June Paik"

Conservator Amber Kerr discussing Nam June Paik's Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii  (1995, fifty-one channel video installation (including one closed-circuit television feed), custom electronics, neon lighting, steel and wood; color, sound, Smithsonian American Art Museum, © Nam June Paik Estate, Gift of the artist, 2002.23)

I’m thrilled to have this opportunity to introduce myself as SAAM’s new curator of time-based media, and invite you to join me at the museum this Sunday at 4 pm for a presentation and conversation with artist Saya Woolfalk. Since I arrived in March, I’ve enjoyed diving into the collection, learning more about exhibitions past and present, and starting to plan for future programs highlighting SAAM’s strong holdings in film, video and digital artworks. This weekend's program is the first event I’ve had a hand in shaping, so I wanted to share how it came about.

Since 2011, SAAM has highlighted our close association with the pioneering video artist Nam June Paik by publically celebrating his July 20 birthday. Each year, we invite a speaker who is either personally or artistically connected to Paik to share reflections, after which we gather over cake or cupcakes. This year, scheduling synergy meant SAAM Arcade, a more recent annual program, would fall on July 22. We decided the “Happy Birthday, Nam June Paik” event would be a perfect end to a day exploring game spaces, as creatively pushing new technologies is key to both innovative game design and Paik’s artistic legacy.

Saya Woolfalk Still Image from Chimera

Saya Woolfalk, Still image from Chimera, 2013, Single channel digital video, 2:49, Loop; Copyright Saya Woolfalk, courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York.

This added a new criteria to selecting our speaker. Whomever we invited should have a connection with Paik, but also resonate in the context of video games. Luckily, I immediately thought of Woolfalk. Her work, like Paik’s, playfully imagines possible futures based on the technologies available today, and like so many video games, she sees the ability to remix and select alternate avatars as a tool for exploring identity. Even luckier, she was free to join us on July 22!

Woolfalk is an artist I have known and admired for years. I was first hooked by an immersive art exhibition of hers, which mimicked the form and style of a natural history display. Matter-of-fact labels wove an elaborate story, guiding visitors’ to see her dioramas, figural sculptures, costumes and videos as evidence of a previously unknown, all-female race—the Empathics—who alter their genetics and fuse with plants. Using the authoritative voice of science to make this fantasy feel plausible, Woolfalk’s approach also critiqued anthropological museum displays that treat non-Western cultures in an exoticizing or objectifying way.

Since then, Woolfalk’s multimedia exploration of Empathic culture and the speculative science behind their hybridization technology has unfolded across museum exhibitions, performances and site-specific installations throughout the United States and Asia. Though focused on fictional, futuristic beings, her work asks very real, current questions about how we construct and project identity, how we understand cultures different from our own, how we think about the self and the body in an increasingly digital landscape, and what it means to be human at a moment when gene-modification, cloning, and cybernetic implants are no longer science-fiction. Because of this, I think Woolfalk’s presentation on Sunday will not only connect with Paik’s legacy and game avatars, but also to everyday experiences and issues important to SAAM visitors.  I can’t wait to talk to her about all these intersections, and welcome you to come, listen and ask questions when we open up to the audience…and, of course, enjoy birthday treats at the end.

Image of Saya Woolfalk's 2015 installation at the Seattle Art Museum, ChimaTEK Life Products Virtual Chimeric Space

Saya Woolfalk, ChimaTEK Life Products Virtual Chimeric Space, 2015. Installation view, Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, WA. Mixed Media with HD Digital Video Projection. Photo Credit: Nathanial Wilson