Jacolby Satterwhite and Charles Renfro on building our best possible future world

The artist and architect discuss the creative forces of oppression, fantasy, and family for Document's Spring/Summer 2020 issue

Multimedia and performance artist Jacolby Satterwhite strolled gracefully into architect Charles Renfro’s unusually quiet and empty office on a blustery afternoon two days before Christmas. It’s not surprising that only after everyone else had gone home for the holidays could Satterwhite and Renfro—two of the most prolific and frenetic world builders in the creative landscape—find a rare moment to reflect on where they came from and where they are going.

Last year was busy for Renfro and his partners Elizabeth Diller, Ricardo Scofidio, and Benjamin Gilmartin. Their firm DS+R unveiled a series of high-profile projects to much acclaim in 2019, including The Shed, the renovation and expansion of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and the last remaining section of the High Line known as the Spur. A sense of wonder fills Renfro’s designs, reflecting his personal curiosity and playfulness and transforming quotidian space into something smart, elegant, and delightful. This year looks to be just as exciting. DS+R was just selected to restore the Kalita Humphreys Theater—Frank Lloyd Wright’s only freestanding theater—in Renfro’s native state of Texas. Later this year, the studio is completing the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Museum in Colorado Springs, Colorado, as well as an interdisciplinary forumspace at the University of Chicago. Renfro will also collaborate with choreographer Jonah Bokaer on Indecent Spaces, which will premiere this year.

Similarly, Satterwhite seems to be everywhere all at once. Last year he released an album (Love Will Find a Way Home) and opened two solo art shows—Room for Living at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn and You’re at Home at The Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia—just weeks apart. The themes in his work and the ideas they convey are just as varied as the media he utilizes to express them. Filial devotion, mental illness, suffering, queer identity, home, class, race, sex, form, and movement are explored through intricate and layered installations of video, sculpture, virtual reality, sound, dance, and computer-generated images. The resulting matrices are Tolkienesque in their complexity, like a visual language Satterwhite invented that can only be spoken in his worlds.

“It’s basically Friday,” says Renfro with his trademark mischievous grin, as he pours a glass of añejo for the three of us. The sun is setting over the Hudson, filling the room with a warm, golden glow, which belies the frigid temperatures outside. A palpable sense of calm descends as we all become aware that this is the last thing we need to do before we break for the holidays—maybe the last thing we will do in 2019. It’s the time of year that’s long been associated with regeneration, renewal, and self-reflection, which might be why both Satterwhite and Renfro came ready to take a long look back in order to glimpse their futures— which will assuredly be full of dynamic worlds they have yet to create.

Charles Renfro: I’ve known you several years, since your residency at Fire Island, which is finally less binary in terms of gender and race. I think we can partly thank Faris Al-Shathir—the godfather of the new queer—for that.

Jacolby Satterwhite: My first time going to Fire Island was through that residency, and I guess the queer—and, obviously, color—dynamic has changed since then. I grew up in the art world, and I’ve been in marginalized environments where I was particularly an anomaly. I even went to boarding school, so in a way I’ve been subscribing to the system—not that this is the way it should be, but that this is the way it is. Sometimes you fall so deep into the matrix, you become complicit, so it’s funny how when it started to evolve into a place of color, I didn’t notice. Now you’ve triggered all the times I cried on a boardwalk about being treated like an ‘other’ on Fire Island. But when things are so cruel, ostracizing, or alienating, you have to make lemons out of lemonade. I think that is what camp is about, and so I made a joke out of my life and the mistakes I’ve made because it was a way to mask the obvious.

Charles: I think that survival mentality, particularly the fight-or-flight instinct, was a direct response to growing up in the South—and influenced why we make the things we make.

Jacolby: We’re both world building in a way.

Charles: I have a theory about this upbringing that can be summed up in four words: repression, oppression, escapism, and mom. So many of us Southern gays—and you have another overlay as a person of color—lived in an environment of oppression. Personally, being beaten up after school became a default. Every fourth period this kid would say, ‘I’m gonna beat you up.’ And I’d have to say, ‘Okay, yeah, sure.’ I was a very skilled clarinet player, but it’s all I wanted to identify as. Music was an excuse for me not to socialize. It made me focus on something outside of myself entirely, and for me it was music before it was architecture.

Jacolby: It was painting for me originally. I grew up in a lower-class community, so the education in my district was limited. That meant that hypermasculinity and games were orbiting me and had a profound influence on my character. I was growing up with kids who had a toxic template. Yet, I was also attracted to these men. I was being bullied, and, in a way, I subscribed to them, although I knew deep down in my heart I was queer. I was one of the first people in my neighborhood to get a PC in the late ’90s. I was also the first person to get Napster, so I used to download mixtapes of these rappers in my neighborhood, and they would all come to my house. It was my way of having a house full of hot men. And I was like 11, 12, 13.

Charles: Did you dress them too?

Jacolby: Well, it was a lot of bro-baiting, which is really ridiculous. The desire to curate spaces around men made me become a computer wizard. I could get porn for my friends and download illegal music. Through technology, I created an art installation that would allow my bedroom to be a safe space for boys who would normally bully me. It made me part of a community, and I was protected.

“Being a frenetic maker and being prolific with the exhibition cycle was, in a way, me running away from the pain that comes from the adversities I faced being a black gay male from a certain kind of environment.”

Charles: You co-opted them, in the same way we’ve seen language get co-opted. When a word is weaponized against you, the way to take its power away is to co-opt it. You knew what you were doing. You put those bullies in your world and took over! Your work started in this digital realm of the ‘Jacolby world,’ where there’s no gravity, there’s all the sex you could possibly have, all your demons in one place. And then, with your Fabric Workshop and Museum show Room for Living, you decided to actually make those digital things come to life.

Jacolby: It’s good that you brought up the idea of a queer person, a marginalized person, a person being an ‘other.’ Being a frenetic maker and being prolific with the exhibition cycle was, in a way, me running away from the pain that comes from the adversities I faced being a black gay male from a certain kind of environment. The last two shows were ironically about standing still for the first time.

Charles: I’ve always loved your digital work, but I’m of course drawn to the physical spaces you’ve built. You’ve taken figures out of your videos; you’ve put objects on display in real space; and you put your body in real space! All of a sudden I feel your practice is going from this escapist fantasy world to actual figures in space—it’s no longer this frenetic video environment.

Jacolby: Well, you know who stimulated that? My collaboration with [architect] Andrés Jacque. We built this piece together [Spirits Roaming the Earth] at Whitechapel [Gallery] in London. We built a giant mountainscape, and I did the horizon line and the videos that were inside, and it was designed to look like a fracking system. We were responding to the way Grindr stimulates architecture based on where it’s zoned, and we made this really dystopian piece. Having that sitting-still object in relationship to my CG animations was eye-opening.

Charles: Do you care about your superstar-ness? It’s happening, whether you like it or not.

Jacolby: I care about the architecture of message. The heroes I looked up to in art history—Bruce Nauman, Valie Export, conceptual body artists, or John Baldessari—they had big ideas conceptualized within a matrix. Just as much as the object is a really serious part of my work, it’s also about the mixture of the messages, the idea, the language, the interviews, the conversation, the dialogue. I find that within the medium, a lot of people get stuck on the novelty of these augmented realities and virtual reality. They don’t know how to think about Gestalt theory or how to pay respect to theoretical practices with space, like Bauhaus. I don’t think people are making those connections, but that’s what interests me.

Charles: I have a big question. It’s a question I have for almost every artist, especially people who are working on the edge of politics: Are these works designed to change people or to change society or are they designed to allow you to be you? They can overlap, but the motivation, the really radical pieces—like flying people with horsewhips and BDSM—is not for everyone, right?

Jacolby: For me, it’s like a double entendre. In the Blessed Avenue video there are S&M characters and porn stars from Fire Island wearing archival Helmut Lang fashion gear on the green screen. I was making architectural models of labor sites. Inside of that channel, you can’t tell who has the hierarchy in the master-slave dialectic. Who has the power? Everyone’s attached to everyone else. I think the seduction of the medium, and the CGI, and the sexuality were a roadblock for that kind of penetration. I’m okay with that because I think that’s what great pop songs are about. I definitely have a queer life where those things are my reality, but I was trying to be tongue-in-cheek by using the lens that I know so well to speak about something else.

Artwork created exclusively for Document by Jacolby Satterwhite inspired by Charles Renfro’s design for the Pulse Nightclub Memorial competition. Satterwhite states: “Memorial sites are not meant to eclipse or erase the histories they are honoring, but rather to consolidate, reshape, and transform the acts of tragedy into forms of celebration, mourning, and human understanding.”

Charles: It’s so extreme for somebody who doesn’t know you or the work or where you’re coming from. But why do we do the creative things we do? Are we trying to change the world? Are we trying to convince other people? Are we trying to grow our ability to be in this world?

Jacolby: I think that’s what it is. I feel like I grew my ability to be in this world.

Charles: I think that’s how it probably started for you, but it might end up actually changing the world. But, I’m still conflicted about why we do what we do sometimes. Our architectural practice is not as provocative as what you do, but there are so many overlaps. We are often taking some- thing a little bit quotidian or hidden, and trying to put it front and center, and turn public space into provocative space. For instance, we made a building of fog. We basically made a steam room the size of a football field in Switzerland. Visitors who entered couldn’t see anything and there was an element of cruising. It was all about a complete inversion of what’s expected in public space—in particular, the way we relate to each other as bodies and as sexual beings. The Shed is a case in point where we made this…I would call it a holodeck. The way your videos have no gravity, and have things flying, and these unexpected connections—I think it’s made in a holodeck, too. That’s what we tried to do in The Shed. It’s a room the size of an opera house fly tower and everything in it moves, so you can hang 25 cars in here. You can darken it. You can let people fly. You can climb up in the systems and jump down. It’s all about making space for anything to happen—almost like digital space. It’s something like what you’re doing, but we still have gravity. But so much of our practice has been about allowing these new realities to achieve formation in real life, that I think there is this overlap between our work. We did the Mile-Long Opera—1,000 singers performing over the entire length of the High Line, which we also designed. It took an hour and a half to walk the path, so it was the length of an opera, and they were all singing a cappella, but you could come up to every singer and look them in the eye…

Jacolby: And they were still singing?

Charles: And they’d sing to you! It was so intense, and it’s like some of the real-life things you’re doing where you’re dancing and singing and people are witnessing you. Your performance isn’t hidden behind the safety of a digital screen.

Jacolby: God, the level of disembodiment I had in my twenties is remarkable. That was around the time I was working with Clifford Owens and was really immersed in the performance art scene, and disembodiment theory, and thinking about how my body is just a social sculpture. I subscribed to the idea, like, Okay, I’m no longer me; this is no longer embarrassing. But embarrassment is the strategy in order to record myself and use it as a skin for the medium.

Charles: Isn’t that what drag is?

Jacolby: I guess that is what drag is.

Charles: Going back to repression, oppression, escapism, mom…I am a product of those elements and I think we owe it to our world to try to stitch ourselves back in. Not as an opponent, not as a dissenting voice, but as one with that place.

Jacolby: I feel the same. It’s my biggest vice as an adult male. All my work is about trying to find some kind of solace. I make work about my family. The name of my show is You’re at Home and the album is Love Will Find A Way Home.

Charles: Well, what is home?

Jacolby: I don’t know if this should be on the record but I’m going to say it: In candid conversations with my black friends when we’re just kitchen table talking, we talk about how the black family has literally deconstructed and died, and it started with the millennials getting college degrees and moving on. In a way, we all fled.

Charles: You’re blaming yourself, I suppose.

Jacolby: I have a lot of cousins. We were all so close in the ’80s and ’90s, and I think black families sticking together was a way to be connected in a segregated world and feel like you’re still in utopia. You had to build space through unity in a world where white people think you don’t belong and where they literally think they’re letting you in.

Charles: I’ve never considered the black utopia, nor this Fire Island utopia, which has always bugged me. There’s this weird duplicity about our utopias. You have your black utopia of family that you’re lamenting has fallen apart. One of the reasons it’s fallen apart is because you and presumably some of the people in the group have actually assimilated into a privileged, white world.

“Black families sticking together was a way to be connected in a segregated world and feel like you’re still in utopia. You had to build space through unity in a world where white people think you don’t belong and where they literally think they’re letting you in.”

Jacolby: The idea of escapism is making a commitment to a form that eases the pain or neutralizes something. You know, I had cancer as a kid. I played video games in the hospital, Final Fantasy VII and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, over and over again.

Charles: Don’t you have one of the highest scores ever?

Jacolby: Yeah, I got Knights of the Round, which is if you beat Final Fantasy. I think RPGs [role-playing games] need a MoMA retrospective. I’m in a show right now in the Akron Museum in Ohio that’s about gaming. I think that because of Lauren Cornell and Ed Halter and a lot of amazing critics, it’s really becoming a canonical medium.

Charles: You should do a video game!

Jacolby: I am going to do a video game!

Charles: I was thinking about your work around gravity and the lack of gravity. In the pixelated space of your 3D universe, there isn’t gravity, but in your life there’s been so much gravity, with your mom, with your cancer. I started thinking about the work as almost being a black hole. You go through this black hole to arrive in an unknown universe; gravity disappears; light gets erased; and there’s this other side. That may be utopia.

Jacolby: So those spaces are just recordings of how I’ve dealt with my experiences. They’re like journals or abstract, compositional ballets of how I’ve reconciled the past and brought it into a present form. They’re not dystopian and they’re not utopian—they’re just reflections.

Charles: That may be a difference between the way you and I make work. I’m an architect making spaces where I would feel comfortable. The High Line, for me, is a big cruising ground. It’s about making unexpected connections and turning parts of New York that are quotidian and boring into the most hypercharged places of exchange. That’s me making my special space, my gravity-free world. As an architect, you plan it, and it takes a really long time, and you don’t know what the future holds, but you have to persist. The High Line has been open to the public for about a decade, and it still seems to be working. Likewise, I want to put on VR glasses and occupy your space with gravity on my feet and actually have to climb around and meet those characters.

Jacolby: One of the things I envy about architecture is that it’s permanent, unlike ephemeral pieces that exhibit periodically in museums. A lot of the obsession over the medium that I work in is that it’s a new genre and they just need it as a check. For me, it’s about transforming the medium and finding a poetic response in the same way that your form and content registers the High Line. That’s my goal now. I really need to think about these mediums as architecture. I want to make the viewer reconsider how they experience space, as something other than ‘this is an amazing, groovy thing.’ A lot of great curators have rearticulated the work to me in the way I wanted them to, and that gave me a lot of agency and permission to move forward and really make some bold moves in the future.

“All creatives are trying to overcome their demons, and that’s why we do interesting work. If we didn’t have them—if we weren’t upset with ourselves and felt bad about ourselves—we just never would do the work. We just wouldn’t do it.”

Charles: I want to take my studio’s work to places that aren’t privileged with the kind of access to the type of things that we do. That might mean working in third world countries pro bono so we can address inequality. I want to share my expertise, not just put it in an echo chamber. Right now, I’m working on a concert hall and cultural complex that will give access to music education currently unavailable in Bolivia. We’re working with the pianist AnaMaria Vera, whose father was raised in Bolivia, and dRMM architects in London.
I just want to get back to your family a little bit and that’ll be my last question. Your brothers are all very cool and they do creative stuff; your mom got to see your career blossom…

Jacolby: And my dad, my dad is amazing too. I barely talk about him because he was so perfect. He was my rock. My dad was the most peaceful being amidst the chaos. He made everything okay. I owe so much to him. I rarely talk about him because the spaces I’m consolidating are centered around the complex relationship that happened with my mom. Because everything I’m running away from is centered around the pathologies she built.

Charles: All creatives are trying to overcome their demons, and that’s why we do interesting work. If we didn’t have them—if we weren’t upset with ourselves and felt bad about ourselves—we just never would do the work. We just wouldn’t do it.

Jacolby: I’ve noticed that I thrive when I build a certain familiar chaos that made me get to where I am in the first place, which is not good. I’m noticing that I do feel an unease when a certain kind of leveled-out happens.

Charles: Complacency.

Jacolby: There’s something that I thrive on that I shouldn’t thrive on. It’s not drama, it’s not negativity—it has negative consequences—but it’s like I need to solve problems in order to solve more problems.

Charles: We would have to have different substances other than tequila to continue this conversation.

Jacolby: But I think it’s going to work out somehow.

Fashion Assistant Bella Lucio.