Shotgun Reviews

En Plein Air: Music of Objective Romance at SFMOMA

Shotgun Reviews are an open forum where we invite the international art community to contribute timely, short-format responses to an exhibition or event. If you are interested in submitting a Shotgun Review, please click this link for more information. In this Shotgun Review, Sofia Villena Araya reviews En Plein Air: Music of Objective Romance at SFMOMA.

Jacolby Satterwhite. En Plein Air: Music of Objective Romance at SFMOMA, 2017. Courtesy of SFMOMA. Photo: Charles Villyard.

Jacolby Satterwhite. En Plein Air: Music of Objective Romance, 2017. Courtesy of SFMOMA, San Francisco. Photo: Charles Villyard.

Jacolby Satterwhite, an African American artist well known for his virtual worlds of queer desire, presented a live performance at SFMOMA’s Gina and Stuart Peterson White Box Gallery on March 17 and 18, 2017. My particular account of this event highlights the incongruence of the museum’s conception of safety that disallowed the experimental and community-making aspects of the piece to fully unfold.

Friday, March 17, 10 p.m.: The waiting crowd is invited to take the elevator toward the gallery. At the entrance, a small sign warns that there will be smoke and blinking lights. Inside the gallery, the space feels like a dance club warming up; people are drinking and conversing.

Satterwhite, wearing a futurist black jacket, jumps on stage. People appear amused by the universe-like, immersive quality of the space, made possible by Satterwhite’s double presence in virtual reality and actual space, projections on the walls, the vibration of the electronic music, pinkish lights, and the dense smoke.

The artist’s improvisatory performance alternates dancing, DJing, and flirting with the audience. On the walls are large-scale projections of Satterwhite’s virtual worlds—a mix of imaginative and real spaces where performance, narrative, drawing, and 3D animation serve in the investigation of Blackness, queer pleasure, and memory, among others. Despite the large audience, only one pair of 3D glasses is available, through which the experience of moving inside these worlds is made visible to all. If the goal here is to communicate by way of one person to the next, this interaction is frustrated by the regulation and physical intervention of a guard.

Satterwhite perceives that even though the music tempts people to dance, something limits this impulse. To break this shyness, the artist invites a White man to dance onstage with him. This seductive play between audience and artist is interrupted as one guard discreetly informs Satterwhite that the man needs to come down; soon after, two more guards remove the man aggressively, shouting throughout. The audience and artist stand disconcerted.

Although Satterwhite’s piece was a part of a performance series attempting to create “epic possibilities for the real world,” to quote the museum, the guards’ actions, even when understood as a measure of safety, appeared brutal and invasive, breaking the promise of a musical romance en plein air.

The question that I would like to put forward is: In what ways can SFMOMA negotiate a concept of safety between artists, guards, and audiences that would allow for more of an experimental relationality to emerge?

En Plein Air: Music of Objective Romance took place March 17–18, 2017.

Sofia Villena Araya is a Costa Rican artist based in San Francisco. Her present work is an exploration of the intersections between drawing and dance.