Jacolby Satterwhite is one of the most celebrated artists in the USA. His work has been exhibited at the Haus der Kunst in Munich and the MOMA in New York, among many others. He also collaborated with Solange Knowles on her visual album «When I Get Home». In his works he repeatedly refers to his past: growing up with his single mother he developed artistic ambitions at an early age. But then Satterwhite was diagnosed with cancer at age eleven. During a long, intensive treatment, video games became his closest companions—particularly Final Fantasy VII, a sprawling Japanese role-playing epic he claims to know better than anyone on the planet. Black and queer USA, pop culture, and European painting are additional coordinates of his artistic cosmos. With the help of elaborately programmed, digital video works as well as expansive installations with digital paintings, sound and performances, Satterwhite has created mystifying works that could be read as updating Hieronymus Bosch for the current digital age. His latest works can be seen in the Berlin branch of the Julia Stoschek Collection until December. The following conversation about his mother, the Renaissance and future utopias was first published in the current issue of German print magazine Das Wetter.
SASCHA EHLERT In the exhibition «at dawn», which contains four of your installations, visitors enter a small, black room that features your video installation «Moments of Silence». It immediately drew me in. Do you consciously think about how you can “capture” an audience with your art?
JACOLBY SATTERWHITE Yeah, of course. I’d say I think about the audience 99% of the time. Compositionally, I think about the audience in order to offer them a non-linear, psychic narrative connection. Well, the narrative actually is linear in an abstract way, with barely any language to help you work through it. I think about how composition, camera, light, and movement can communicate something conceptual, political, and personal in a way that is as universal as possible. So yeah, I think about what will keep the audience in the room. But I am also always thinking about myself; I am part of the audience as well.
SE How do you make sure that your video works have the effect you envision? Do you hold screenings before an opening?
JS So far I really finish most of my works only three days after the initial exhibition starts. I am always late, so there will be a demo version that’s playing at the opening because I am still rendering things and doing everything by myself. At an opening, me and the public usually see it for the first time – together.
SE When do you consider a particular work “finished”?
JS Well, I always have a mood board and an intention that I am trying to fulfill. After I start editing, which can take hours, I eventually arrive at the point when I just know it’s done. It’s like making a painting: sometimes a painting isn’t really finished until you are forced to move it out of the studio; you’re always caught in the middle between what you can release to the world and what you originally intended to release. I’d been exhibiting professionally and frequently until 2008/2009. Then I had a two-year break, and since 2011 I have been working on some major-like solo exhibitions and institutional exhibitions every year. The works you can see at the Stoschek collection make up four out of six films of an anthology for a conceptual album that I made with my electronic music band PAT. It consists of Nick Weiss (one half of Teengirl Fantasy) and my late mother Patricia Satterwhite, who was schizophrenic and recorded 155 American folk music a capellas that she wrote herself on a cassette tape. Twenty years later, I digitized those cassette tapes and tried to find a soundscape between electronic music, techno, and trip hop that could deliver the narrative of her lyrics but also would cover the worlds I’ve been trying to create in CGI. In a way I am stitching together incongruent resources and archives in order to create a harmonious narrative, and when I get the feeling that all the components are in harmony with each other, I think the piece is done.
SE One central aspect of your work is the deeply personal influence of your mother. In one way or another she often occupies a central place in your work, wouldn’t you say?
JS She’s definitely one centerpiece, but in my art there are so many of those. I would describe it as a crystallized network of centerpieces. One is the community I bring in – the dancers, the performers – but also the Google stock footage, my mother’s music and her drawings. This constitutes a network of world-building assets. And that world has nothing to do with the singular assets; it is an entity in itself. It says something completely new about the past, present, and the future.
SE This creation of worlds sounds like a kind of escapism. Is your work also about escaping your own body?
JS Maybe it is an escape from institutions and logic in order to find truth, an escapism that anchors you in a new perspective. What art is supposed to do, in my opinion, is to turn things from real life upside down in order to allow the viewers to see things in another way. So yeah, it’s escaping from lies or institutions or facades. That’s what modernism is for. Picasso and Braque’s Cubist paintings, for instance, were made in order to question how to look at something, how something looks when you see it from the front but also from the back, the top, the side, all at once. This is telling the viewer that we don’t see things in a linear way; instead, we see a very spontaneous fragmentation of space, and I think that’s what artists have been doing ever since cubism. Performance artists and abstract expressionism – I think 3D animation, virtual reality, and digital art – are consolidating those older mediums. I am just carrying on the torch of the artists before me, re-examining what it means to be seen and to be looking at things.
SE You’ve mentioned the necessity of re-mixing in another interview. Why is this an important cultural technique for you?
JS It’s basically what Postmodernism is, re-mixing symbols and gender norms and really destabilizing and reanimating the semiotics and symbolisms we are born into . That is what the age of the re-mix and post-modernism are about.
SE Would you say that the sources that influence your re-mixes have changed as much over the past two pandemic years as our lives?
JS Absolutely. I think that the pandemic and living in a world where there was no sense of certainty about things anymore changed the way that I look at things. Seeing how fickle institutions were and how the art world was turned inside-out made me rethink the way I make art. I think I now have a more lucid way of looking at things and approach them more sharply. And I think, as I get older, I also do more of what I want.
SE When talking about your art one could call it either utopian or dystopian.
JS I mean that’s what life is, isn’t it? Life is hot, life is cold; life is dystopian and utopian. These kinds of things exist on a spectrum. That’s why my work will never be purely utopian, that would be kind of boring. To conflate the two is a representation of reality. It is a constellation that exists in a sphere, not a straight line. There’s not just black and white. That’s also a reason for my worlds being three-dimensional and not two-dimensional.
SE You studied painting. Would you still call yourself a painter?
JS Yeah, I mean I didn’t study film or digital animation; I studied painting. But when I completed a work at the end of my education that involved digital media, it was sort of a breakthrough for me. I basically had to teach myself how to do video and digital animation with my education and understanding of painting. All of my formalisms, all of my executions are created using painting strategies. That is to say that painting has informed how I make 2D-animated works before I turn them into 3D-animated works. Those 2D works help me do my mood board and to focus and meditate on the moving image. For example, I will be making eight paintings first, and then I will make them all move together. That’s how I make films.
SE In many of your 3D works the audience first encounters a giant tableau in which many different things are happening at the same time. Then the perspective changes, and you zoom in, so to speak, on individual aspects of the image. Do you decide how to change the perspective on the spot, or do you follow pre-written storyboards?
JS There is an agenda. Usually there’s a cycle going on, for instance, a storyline of someone who is trying to create an ideal object. Some of the narratives can also have a baptism process based in a sci-fi world. They basically are simple things I am trying to animate in a very complex way. In 2014 I showed «Reifying Desire» 6 at the Whitney Biennale, and it showed a birth cycle between myself and a male porn star, and we basically were having sex with each other and with that we actively built a new world in outer space, and at the end of the video the world was built. There are these surrealist, absurdist narratives, but secretly they have political easter eggs in them. So yeah, I have narrative intentions, but through surrealism I try to tell them in a more open-ended and abstract way. The pieces now shown at the Stoschek Collection are all about narratives that relate to heavy-handed topics like racism, biological warfare, resilience, and healing. Some of them also have to do with data mining, climate change, and the complicity of society while the climate is falling apart. There’s always an intention.
SE Is it important to you to become socially engaged in your practice? Or would you rather describe your work as a sponge that soaks up all these influences and spits them back out in the form of art?
JS I believe that as an artist you are a vessel and a filter for the world around you. You re-examine the world in a different way in order to create a dialogue that helps us to move forward into a possible future for people younger than you. There are a lot of things in my existence as a Black, queer, male artist working in the fashion that I work that can change the way the public views people like me. I started doing this in 2008, in a time when it wasn’t popular to do 3D animations, gaming, and digital art. My popularity can help usher in a different way of looking at things – that’s what art does. As a community-oriented person, I also love teaching, and I teach at Yale university. Teaching is always very cathartic for me and allows me to give back but also to listen to people. I do this all over the country, and I think it actually can help build a better future for artists to have agency. As an artist you are an active figure, an agent of change in a much more broad and abstract way than a community organizer, a community planner, a lawyer, or a politician. I think the fun thing about art is that it’s more stealthy and slick and quiet – but, at the same time, sharp.
SE This question might be a bit too personal, so please feel free to decide if and how you want to answer it. I’m interested in what the most beautiful thing is that someone has ever told you about their experience of your work?
JS Oh, that’s a really difficult question, just because I hear so many different amazing things that make me so excited to continue working. I think an older major curator from the nineties once told me that they did not see digital art as real art until they saw my show in 2012. They told me that I helped them to expand their view of what art could be and that was really, really crazy for me because this person is very legendary. That was recently, so I thought about that first, but there probably were a lot of things that were even better. Like young queer people coming to me and telling me that my work helped them being themselves and escaping dark places, giving them a spark to do brilliant things like becoming a famous fashion designer or chef. I’ve heard so many crazy things. Every artist has a trajectory and a timeline that will make them who they are today, and you can see, if you really examine their work, that it’s conceptually about the history and the future and about a movement and how you get to that movement. The Renaissance can’t be the Renaissance without a proto-Renaissance, without Byzantine art. It’s all a continuum: you can examine my work and find references to basically everything. I know that sounds really broad, but because my work consists of moving images, fragmented images, and because I generally have such a collage-based way of making things that superficially, yes, it can be about everything. Of course, some pieces actually are very specific, but I have the privilege to be able to address so many different things in different pieces.
SE Is the Renaissance in any way important for you work?
JS I am definitely influenced by Renaissance artists like Hieronymus Bosch, by mannerism, and by people like Rubens, Caravaggio, and El Greco. All of their work influences how I shape composition, space, and worlds. The way I think about light and shadow and how to use them to maneuver the viewers and keep them engaged, these are all elements for which I look back at my studies of art history, to baroque but also to Japanese print-making…
SE Do you have all these references in your head, or do you work a lot with literature or other sources?
JS No, it’s all in my head. I’ve basically been in art school for 25 years. Of course I go to the library to look at books. When I went to boarding school, I got entrenched in that. From age 15 to 28 I went to boarding school, undergraduate school, graduate school, famous residency programmes (I did like 12 of them). Then I did studio visits at art schools. 90% of my life has been about art, so of course it’s all in my head. I have a lot of books in my house, but I basically don’t need them when I am in front of my computer to work. I do download pics from my browser as an anchor, and I also have mood boards, but a lot of it is really subconscious because art is really all I know.
SE Do you still see yourself as a student?
JS Well, yeah. I think every artist and really every human being is always learning.