MOWING THE LAWN, MURDER, ERASURE: AN INTERVIEW WITH JACOLBY SATTERWHITE

Jacolby Satterwhite doesn’t know what influences him anymore. Using live performance and recorded performance, 3D drawing and 3D animation, Satterwhite traces and retraces an archive that is continuously materializing. Remembering home, his mother, Trina, the video games he played as a kid, Satterwhite re- members private and public mythologies, blasting them through a virtual landscape whose geography is shifting between mediums. The most recent installment in his Reifying Desire video series was featured in the 2014 Whitney Biennial; his work has also been shown at the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Sundance Film Festival, the Bronx Museum, and at Artspace, here in New Haven, among other places. In October he gave a talk and taught a workshop at the Yale School of Art. We spoke to him on the phone on an unusually warm day in December. We ate peanuts in Boston, he cleaned his home in Brooklyn. Here is our conversation.

 —Maya Binyam

YLM: Most interviewers begin by asking you about your mother — your relationship with her, her influence on your work — and while I don’t mean to make you reiterate what you’ve already said elsewhere, it seems important that a description of her ‘influence,’ or whatever, come from you, and not be schematized neatly by us in an introduction.

JS: Yeah, I know what you mean. It’s funny because I’ve been doing a lot of lectures lately that start out by negating that presumption that she is the overarching theme. She does have a very prominent space in the work. I would say that. The thing that influences me most in my work is potential that can be found in observation and language. Not necessarily in the literal sense, the painterly sense of observational drawing or observational painting, but in asking what it means to observe language and observe images and observe archives in the past, and use those materials to synthesize and concretize into a unitized form.

So, the thing about my mom is that…obviously I’m sure everyone’s parents — you can’t help it, you’re going to be influenced by them, it’s your genesis of character building. But artistically, she and I were collaborating ever since I was a child. I was influenced by her vigorous output of drawings when I was 5, 6, and 7 years old, and she showed me how to draw and to use the materials that my father would buy for her. She influences me because she has a lot of taste. She also helped me build my queer sensibility, from our habits of watching soap operas, reality television and fashion shows together. And designing objects together. That very insular Southern upbringing while you’re in a private, introverted domestic sphere you’re going to be…I had very little to bring me up, so naturally she fits into the work. But the thing is, what also raised me in my domestic sphere was video games. I had every console and I played them 90% of the time especially when I reached adolescence. And television. Pop culture raised me. And, eventually, art.

YLM: ‘Reifying’ — taking something abstract and making it concrete, ‘real,’ or material — seems to be at the heart of what you’re doing in rendering your mother’s drawings…

JS: Sorry…I’m, like, cleaning up the house at the same time.

YLM: …But it also seems that there’s something paradoxical about reifying through the creation of a virtual, animated world.

JS: Yeah because it just becomes more abstract, there’s no concrete. That’s what made me leave the reification, the Reifying Desire series, and move toward En Plein Air. The more I realized that it was a paradox, and the more things got abstract, I moved towards this series called En Plein Air. En Plein Air is me moving away from Reifying Desire and moving toward realizing that nothing will become concrete. I’m paying respect to the idea of observing landscape—live action performance, landscapes of Google, landscapes of personal archives. The landscape of collaboration is what I realized I’m more interested in than actually trying to build a fence; who am I to build a fence out of something?

YLM: Your mother’s drawings, it seems, enact a familial archive that can be drawn from and re-materialized. In animating the domestic — making it fantastical or otherworldly — you create a mythology of the ‘home’ that is infinitely renewed. How does this new mythology disrupt the staticism of the archive, or dislocate a trauma that is supposedly elsewhere in time and space?

JS: Are you asking how this new archive dislocates trauma or disrupts the normal, original structure of what I remember?

YLM: Yeah.

JS: Are you asking me how I revisit these past archives and repurpose them from an initial adversarial structure?

YLM: Yeah. How does that new mythology rework the archive itself?

JS: I don’t know if it’s reworking it. I mean it’s completely reworking it. It’s not even reworking it, it’s just using it as the material, the platform to build something new. Nothing has been reworked; something has been created. There’s a cliché tendency to put my practice under the Afrofuturist umbrella because most of my things that I build come from places that are a little more personal and a little more difficult, from the more politically sensitive. I am compositing those ideas into a much more digestible or open-ended spectrum. So…

YLM: Do you feel like Afrofuturism — as a term, as a genre — is too closed?

JS: Well Afrofuturism is closed as a genre because it’s Afro. Which is already saying it’s black. Human beings can do this. It’s not just a black thing. Human beings experience things that are a little difficult and a little bit weighted, a little bit hard to digest. Human beings can use these materials. I think it’s more of a human practice than an African American or African diaspora practice. But it makes sense because African American history is a really complicated prism full of prejudice and segregation. It’s harder to exist and assimilate into a society where you need to prove yourself or work twice as hard. It makes sense that we create safe spaces for ourselves. And maybe I have created a safe space for myself as an artist because of my position. I was born an artist and my desire to create has no didactic agenda. I’m not trying to express a political thing about queerness or about race. I was born wanting to make a mark, a line, and I think maybe I was creating a safe space for myself as an artist through my infrastructure and my practice. It allows me to have freedom to be creative, and doesn’t weigh in on the much more racially, politically loaded thing. My work is politically loaded and very queer, and does have these policies in it. That’s going to come naturally through me because I’m black and because I’m gay. But I think at the end of the day I really want to be a creative type who has the freedom to make conceptual decisions that are more poetic, more meaningful, more personal, rather than message-based. So yeah, I guess that’s what I’m saying. I take from places that are really weighted and neutralize them into deformalist objects that help me construct new things.

YLM: In the first three years of performing you wore a mask, a costume that allowed you to play with anonymity. As a performer, you’ve said, you “come from planet Jacolby,” but as a studio artist you “come from planet Earth” and “live under the consequences of the past 400 years of black American history.”1 Your work seems to provide a line of escape, but it seems also to toy with the space between — being Jacolby, becoming ‘anonymous,’ moving from the real-world to a virtual-reality. How easy is the transition? Are these two roles mutually exclusive?

JS: I’m obviously more confident in the studio and as a result much more sophisticated than how I exist in the real world. In the real world there’s a lot more transparent space and I’m not very sure of variables that are in front of me. So I’m constantly trying to grow with it. I find myself increasingly interested in being in the real world. It’s not my comfort zone, definitely, and I definitely feel insecure in the real world, even if I have visibility as an artist. I feel like it’s harder to digest. Is there a difference [between these roles]? Well when I’m performing I’m definitely in character but not a pretentious character. I just feel like because I’m living under the prism, or umbrella, of ‘this is art,’ it’s like a shield. I’m creating form, I’m making a mark, doing a gesture, and it’s under the shield of art making. So therefore I feel like my point of departure as a human being is different when I’m performing than when I’m my sincere self in the world that’s removed from the studio, and has nothing to do with making a mark but just has to do with assimilating to the natural world. That’s much more difficult. It makes me wish I could find a way to completely become my art. But I don’t know if that’s possible.

YLM: Your work has been exhibited in museums and gallery spaces, performed on the Brooklyn Bridge, the subway, the financial district. How do shifting institutional rules or re- presentations disrupt, or rework, the terms of your ongoing projects?

JS: I’m figuring that out as I go. Those are experiments. I’m figuring out what it means to do a sculpture kind of presentation versus a theater, versus a gallery monitor that is positioned like a painting. I think they all have a specific energy to them, and I do have a hierarchy of preference for how I want my works to be shown. But that also comes with my agency as an artist, and people giving me real estate to properly present these ideas. But I felt like there was an urgent message in them so I got them out however they needed to be. And the more I get older and the more the work grows, the more I’m specific and narrow about the way they are presented. But I feel like there’s so much nuance in these videos. I really want them to be in theaters, arenas, or black box spaces, places where the audience feels compelled to stay and experience them from beginning to end. That matters to me.

I’ve also been thinking about nightlife space, even though that can take it all the way to the lowbrow. I’m screening a video at Verboten in Williamsburg, or Bushwick, it’s a club in Bushwick that Susanne Bartsch puts together. I’m going to do a little performance as well. They have a surround screen and the space is so spiritually large in regards to how the music is, and the crowd. I’m curious as to what happens when this fine art piece sits itself in there. And that’s been done before by many different artists, but I’m just curious. I’m still experimenting with how an ambient thing can be focused on. I do prefer to be specific  about how these things are set up in the public because there’s so much labor and painstaking detail to build these pieces. I feel like they need full-on attention. They need to be large scale. My decisions before were just about experimentation. A lot of compromise and sacrifice comes with rushing. Or not rushing but being given opportunities last minute, or getting too many opportunities at the same time, or being given opportunities that have little real estate for me. And even though I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to have my projects be visible in amazing contexts, I don’t think there’s ever been a specific context that I felt really worked. So I’m looking forward to being really specific about curatorial decisions.

YLM: To what extent do these geographical shifts — remembering the American South, putting it in relation to the subways of Manhattan and Italian paintings, exhibiting the results in Harlem or Provincetown — reterritorialize the terms of your work?

JS: When I was doing work in Mallorca, in Spain, that really influenced me. There’s something about the classical nature and the umber pallet of the space. Geography influences my aesthetic decisions. But I also like going out into nature, experiencing the landscape, and experiencing the city. Not the actual institutional spaces of geographies — they don’t really influence me at all. I don’t even know what influences me anymore. I get a feeling and then I just go with it.

YLM: You mention elsewhere that voguing is a set of “animistic practices” that “borrow postures from Renaissance painting and Egyptian hieroglyphs.”2 Recently — since the release of Paris is Burning, maybe earlier — it seems that voguing is increasingly commoditized as a form or discursive set of physical movements. Does voguing enter your virtual worlds as part of a new mythology? How does it break with, or reify, a decontextualized idea of what’s ‘cool’?

JS: Well I’m not really interested in voguing anymore.

YLM: Really?

JS: I was in the beginning. But I was only really interested in voguing peripherally, and that’s because of growing up in that scene, my friends being in it. Paris is Burning is amazing, I love that film.

YLM: Yeah, it’s so good.

JS: I really respect the craft. I have default movements that reference voguing, but to me voguing is just compositionally interesting. The angles and lines, and specific kind of way the body forms itself when performing this way, that lends itself to a much more harmonious composition whenever I am animating or building. For me it’s a formal movement that relates to drawing and relates to miming, but it’s also a modern dance. I’m interested in modern dance tropes as well. I’m just trying to figure out how to use variational, limited movement forms to keep a harmonious image going in my work. I’m thinking about objects, I’m thinking about sawing, I’m thinking about levers and pulleys, I’m thinking about mowing the lawn, I’m thinking about murder, I’m thinking about erasure, I’m thinking about sexual gesture. And even when I had the porn star guy in my work and I was having sex oncamera, that was kind of a dance performance as well. And I thought that yielded interesting Kama Sutra poses that lent themselves to composition. Politically, I’m not interested in voguing. I’m trying to abstract the movement of it more, to get that language outside of my practice to stop people from talking about it. My movement style has defaults that reference voguing, but it references a lot of things.

YLM: It feels similar, definitely related, to what you were saying about Afrofuturism. If people are looking at your work and saying “He’s a black artist, he’s voguing, he’s an Afrofururist,” I would imagine that those categories — combined — could feel especially limiting, or like they’re presupposing something.

JS: They do. Oh my god I get so angry. When I was going to go teach that workshop at Yale I told an artist, “I’m going to go do this for a week.” And [he said], “What are you going to teach — voguing?” I was very offended.

YLM: Woah, that’s crazy.

JS: Like, what did you snort yesterday?

YLM: That’s messed up.

JS: It is. Anyway.

YLM: Anyway, yeah, I was wondering…maybe this is kind of an annoying question, but on your website, you describe your work as queer several times: your pieces are “queering meaning in a performative animated narrative”; you’re influenced by “queer phenomenology.” How does queerness structure or imbue your work?

JS: Queerness — I say this over and over — isn’t about the homosexual queerness or the gay queerness, you know, it’s more about the dis-orienting terms of queerness. When an object is repurposed or when ideas flip themselves upside down. Basically redefining space, redefining function, redefining relationships between an object and another object, or a body and another object. That’s the kind of queerness I’m interested in.

YLM: It seems like your engagement with the archive enacts a kind of queerness.

JS: Totally. I mean that stuff is still figuring itself out. Also working with Trina lately — I chose her because she’s a very loaded pop image, and a pop image is branded, which means it’s hard to remove the image from its brand. And I just wanted to figure out how I can completely rebrand her, queer the meaning of her body and her lyrics. Recontextualize her a bit, use her as a material of my own. Which is a strange kind of authorship-imperialism. But that fits into the category of queerness for me — how do you take a brand, a popular culture brand, and composite it into a new space of meaning? Reconfiguring is what I’m interested in doing.

YLM: I was going to ask you about Trina — how you two got connected, why you wanted to feature her, or her brand, in your work.

JS: Well, she’s a gay icon in the south, and so when I was a teenager I wanted to be like her. I would listen to her music and make transgressive decisions because of her, which is really funny. I think that she has this feminist thing going on. Really abrasive large-scale violence. Sexually abrasive, materialistically abrasive, capitalist abrasive ideas in her music. It’s a similar kind of lexicon that existed in my mother’s drawings, regarding the obsession with diamonds and money and opulence and sexuality and hybridity. I wasn’t interested in her because of hip-hop. I was interested in her because I wanted to use the language from her public mythology to build a new structure for a piece. That’s all. It was very loose.

The Pérez Art Museum in Miami and the Borscht Corporation helped me get in contact with her and they funded the green screen facility for me to shoot her. So they contributed to this project and I’m going to present it at the Pérez Art Museum. Previously, before Trina, I worked with the porn star Antonio Biaggi, and I became interested in how public mythologies can inform narratives the same way that I was using outsourced language from my mom’s drawings and objects. I was just like, take people who are muses and just use their discography, their lyrics, their poetry, their brand, and all the symbols that they come with, and circulate them through my sexual Carina. For me it was also reinforcing the notion of the archive. I wasn’t interested in the hip-hop part or the music part. Ashland Mines is helping me make the soundtrack and he’s going to completely dishevel her lyrics, and music, and….I don’t know. It’s going to be interesting.

YLM: The video you showed during your talk at Yale of you teaching Trina the dancing in front of the green screen — that was hilarious.

JS: Oh yeah that was hilarious. She’s really great. She’s really humble and nice. I respect her. She’s been around for like fifteen years.

YLM: Yeah it’s wild.

JS: Or maybe longer. I mean, I can’t wait to finish the project because it’s a lot of work, and I’m trying to move onto the next thing. I’ve been super interested in working with poets.

Particularly in a William Blake style. I don’t know if that’s going to happen. I’m having a hard time brainstorming the next move because I have so many moves I want to make. But I’m definitely becoming much more about isolating specific bodies of work that influence me and using them to build.

 

1 Satterwhite, Jacolby, and Zach Blas. “Adjust Opacity.” DIS Magazine. DIS Magazine, n.d. Web. 29 Dec. 2014.

2 “Black Eye: Jacolby Satterwhite.” NOWNESS. NOWNESS, 07 May 2014. Web. 29 Dec. 2014.

Interview conducted by Maya Binyam