Off the Page: An Interview with Gabrielle Civil
Melding memoir, poetry, reportage and, most importantly, a detailed breakdown of where the words performance and art seamlessly meet, Gabrielle Civil’s 2017 collection Swallow the Fish is a tour de force. The volume elucidates for the reader the hows and whys of performance art from the author’s perspective, to be sure; but it further interrogates the nature of expectation and stereotype within a field that, as Civil states below, might seem to only play host to “skinny white girls taking off their clothes and bemoaning their objectification,” one that, to certain eyes and ears, is wholly “graphic, shocking, full of nudity and fluids.”
In a variety of different ways, Swallow the Fish argues against such manners of antiquated thinking about performance art, and it’s to Civil’s credit that even if your knowledge of the artform begins and ends with Marina Abramović, this is nevertheless the book for you: Swallow the Fish contains not only artistic worlds but also the contextualization behind the universes that house them.
I initially met Civil at the Mission Creek Festival in Iowa City in April 2017 and we subsequently also spent time together at the Nonfiction NOW Conference in Reykjavík, Iceland in July 2017, where Civil performed her piece “Fat Black Performance Art.” Spanning the course of several months, our below conversation traces the beginnings of a friendship. – JA
JA: If I had to sum up Swallow the Fish in one sentence it’d read: “Gabrielle Civil’s Swallow the Fish is an exhaustive account of the life of an artist—not just the author’s but a variety of different artists, poets to performance artists to essayists to epistolary and multi-media ones.” In one word, it would be “illuminative.” Those are both reductive, I think, but I hope they’re a start. If you were asked to do the above how would you respond?
GC: My sentence: “Swallow the Fish is a hedge against oblivion for an invisible/ hyper-visible, burgeoning black / feminist / performance artist.” For a word, I wish I could say unbridled or fearless & that others would say juicy, irresistible, crazysexycool, but it’s probably more like compulsive, eager, earnest, or hybrid, treasure, remnant-and-salvage, or embodied archive. If I had to boil it down to one word, I would say: urgent.
JA: When we hung out in Reykjavik, you mentioned that you felt the book had to be published, that its existence was welled up in you and needed to get out to the wider world. How would things have been different, then, if it had been published in 2015 or 2019? Or what happens if someone first encounters the text in 2020? Does the volume’s urgency primarily derive from an authorial point of view? An artistic or cultural one? Both/neither?
GC: I first started writing in STF in 2005 in part due to the urging of friends who saw me grappling and growing in performance art and heard me talking about it all the time. It took a long time to figure out the style of the book. In fact, the hybrid, re/iterative form comes from all my experiments (thick descriptions, performance texts, anecdotes, meditations, riffs. . .) But the lion’s share was written by 2010 when I started sending out proposals and getting instant rejections. The whole book was written by 2012, and in the 7 years I worked on it, I never saw another book quite like it–even while I met more and more people who wanted/ needed/ were looking for coming of age narratives of women artists of color.
Don’t get me wrong, amazing artists like Adrian Piper and Coco Fusco have written about their own work in inspiring ways–and Audre Lorde’s Zami, Nikki Giovanni’s Gemini, and Adrienne Kennedy’s People Who Led to My Plays are also essential. We just need more. And especially more recent books about becoming a performance artist without guidance or training. So many girls of color, young people of color, people of color of all ages, people of all ages, are trying to figure themselves out (and in) as artists–and are craving conversations. We need more books for them/ for us. And for sure, we need more books by black women artists / women of artists of color in these divided United States of America and around the world. That need was urgent in my childhood, in 2005, 2015 and 2017 and will still be urgent in 2019, 2020 or 2200 if the planet hangs on that long.
JA: On my end, I used the probably facile word “illuminative” above because, as I’m a “page-poet” primarily, most of what the book discusses I’ve thought about in only general terms. In the section “On Audience” you describe how the exact same work (your piece “Berlitz”) gets completely different perceptions depending on the place it’s performed—Minnesota vs. New York—and I guess occurrences of that ilk are somewhat foreign for me. That said, I’m performing my first stand up set exactly two months from tomorrow and the nature of audience is something I’ve been thinking a lot more about as a result.
GC: I can’t wait to hear what happens in your very first stand up show. What will it mean for you to do your routine in Omaha, Nebraska or Reno, Nevada, or Portland, OR, or Columbus, OH (so I can see the act). It’s true that in talking about “Berlitz,” I set up the contrast as Minnesota vs. New York, although I’m trying, following the brilliant Ana-Louise Keating, to push myself beyond “oppositional discourse.” I might not even know the different perceptions of the audiences in these two places, but for sure I experienced the different reactions. Your question makes me think about the local and global (again not versus, but simply also). The jokes that you’re telling, how do they resonate with the place where you’re telling them? A key lesson for me in Swallow the Fish, and as a performance artist, was how place becomes not just a context but a co-creator of the performance.
JA: Throughout Swallow the Fish you encounter a wide swathe of viewers to your work, ones alternately receptive, intrigued, confused and occasionally passively-aggressively combative. What’s the biggest misperception you think people have about performance art generally and your own performance art specifically?
GC: The biggest misperception that people have about performance art is that it’s mainly skinny white girls taking off their clothes and bemoaning their objectification; that it has to be graphic, shocking, full of nudity and fluids; that it’s mainly made by and for white people and people in the Western art world; that it started in Europe (even some major performance scholars make that mistake); and that it can’t be what’s happening right now with you and your friends when the frame shifts, when the dynamic pops, when social and aesthetic space cracks open in real space and time.
The biggest misperception that people have about my own work is when they look at me and assume I do spoken word or will be a ‘sassy, soul sister’ singing R&B because that’s all they associate with someone who looks like me. Folks are often surprised how invested I am in experimental art and performance art history. But that allows me and my work the element of surprise.
JA: That brings me to another point of contention—onstage reaction, performer reasoning, and overall perseverance. You mention “skinny white girls taking off their clothes and bemoaning their objectification,” and the Swallow the Fish section “Fat Black Performance Art” critiques what the audience might expect vs. what, when you perform at least, they are going to get. Later in the book, in the poem “after this you will love me,” you write, “I live in a cold place. This is as good an answer as any when people ask me:/ Why performance art?” But that coldness is later qualified; after moving to Minnesota you impart:
…I felt invisible, ignored, sexually bereft.
I wanted attention, affection, for once to be seen,
to be visible and undeniable
as beautiful as poetry as intelligence as image
as a way to transform my life…
It’s difficult but important for me to confess this wanting
as a part of my performance impulse.
So many years later, have the reasons for performing your art stayed the same? Changed slightly or drastically? And do you ever fear that what you do might end up being as important as who you are? Or is there a divide there, one that you know will never be crossed?
GC: Well, first of all, I love how you called “after this you will love me” a poem. Yes! In my mind, the whole book is a poem.
As for my reasons for making performances, I would say they have become more layered. There’s still the feeling of performance, and all art-making, as a way of living, as a way of feeling and transforming life–don’t you feel that as a poet? Then for me, it’s also a way of being present, in my body, which can also mean registering, countering the visibility/ hyper-invisibility of being a black woman. Twenty years into it, I’m happy to say I’m a lot more grounded, and hopefully less neurotic–although not always on performance day! Still it’s less about being impressive or making an impression and more about building intuition, although the audience still matters to me a lot.
And in performance, and maybe in life, aren’t what you do and who you are indivisible? Teaching at Denison University, I see how something in me wants to model another way of being in the world for young black women, which is to say still modeling that for the earlier version of myself, fleshing out her aspirations. I do still want to find love, to be loved, but perhaps even more, to love myself and the world, which requires a tremendous amount of vulnerability and faith, especially in this political moment.
JA: In the section “On Politics,” after being solicited for an event against the Iraq War and then rejected by the “white woman organizer” because “Our conference is political and your piece just doesn’t fit,” you write:
“How often in those early days my work, political to me, never seemed to be political enough, at least in circumstances where the political meant literal community protest. One problem seemed to be expectation—what is expected to be shown and shared at community political events. And who is expected to make what kind of art. As a woman of color, I am expected to produce socially and politically significant work—work that will speak out, represent and make my people feel proud. Instead my work, my response to politics, is more figurative and abstract.”
Circa 2017 (and 45’s presidency perhaps) has this changed for you? If so how? Also a lot of the book is about the subverting of expectations, but does that subversion itself ever feel expected for you as the artist making the work?
GC: The current political situation is certainly shameful, horrifying, and outrageous and as a citizen, a person, and a black feminist artist, I want to resist, create, and transform on numerous levels. When I first started making performances, I resisted literal storytelling, but it’s true that can become a gimmick or a schtick. (You know those insular, willfully obscure poems people first write because poems aren’t supposed to say what they mean . . .) I was always interested, though, in things that were more weird–Afropunk and body art and Muppets . . .
Anyway, certain kinds of subversion can become tropes or cliché and it’s important to avoid that. Although, I do still love the figurative, figures of the body, gestures, while I’ve become more narrative or transparent in some of my work. I’m also just starting a project at Denison called “Activating \ Performance / Activism” which will hopefully push my own political and artistic positions. My working idea is that experimental art offers effective, underutilized approaches for protest and activism. With students, artists, activists, and community members, I want to engage art, politics, and protest, identifying specific aims and experimenting with different strategies. What do we want to do as artists? What do we want our art to do? How can we disrupt stale scripts, tunnel vision, and stasis? How can we surprise and claim pleasure as well along with outrage?
JA: From poets to dancers to musicians to, of course, artists (performance and other varieties), Swallow the Fish makes clear the wide breadth of creators that have influenced you. But I’d be interested to hear how your art might position itself to someone who knows nothing –that Intro to Poetry student, say, that doesn’t even know if she really likes poetry or an Intro to Theater student that is afraid to stand on stage and act/react. Is ignorance bliss in certain cases or would you prefer that your audiences had some—however minor—sense of the lineage you consider yourself to be working within?
GC: No one knows nothing. (That’s probably a line from an e.e. cummings poem . . .) Everyone knows something–just by being alive–even if they haven’t seen anything like what I’m trying to do before or someone like me doing it. Everyone is welcome into my work. There might be awkwardness or messiness or inadvertent pretension, but it’s open for everyone. The biggest thing is openness, capacity for play, susceptibility to language and feeling. Some knowledge of the black experience (whatever that many-splendored thing might be) does help with cultural shorthand, dance routines, and inside jokes. That’s probably more important than even my artistic influences or references or history or theory. But it’s all there. And if I’m doing it right, you don’t need any of it. It’s just body, space, text, and time. (Or to shout out Outkast: “Me and you/ your mama and your cousin too . . .”)
JA: Does the life of a performance artist seem harder to navigate in your opinion versus, say, a visual artist that primarily paints portraits or landscapes? Versus a strictly words-on-the-page poet or novelist?
GC: That’s a hard one. In poetry, we activate multiple meetings of the same word at the same time. (It blew my mind to discover that in Rita Dove’s poem “Dusting,” the word bloom in the line “the canary in bloom,” also means “a fine layer of dust”). In performance art, we create images, figures of the body, and activate multiple meanings of that body at the same time. Recognizing and reckoning with those multiple meanings is a big part of my work, something that especially came to light in my international performances (Puerto Rico, the Gambia, Mexico. . .) For the sake of brevity, I cut out a lot of that work from Swallow the Fish, but I’m planning to unpack that work in upcoming books. Poets, novelists and visual artists all have to navigate multiple contexts, but in performance art, I become the poem. That’s both challenging and thrilling.
JA: Then and now, it seems, you travel a lot; writing to a friend in 2007 you state in Swallow the Fish that “[t]his year I’ve been to Montreal, Boston, New York, Minneapolis, Chicago, Detroit, Iceland, Mexico, The Gambia, Senegal, Morocco and now Spain. I’ll visit Flávia in London for a few days, visit Madhu in New York before heading home…” I know you’re currently in the process of moving again, and I’m curious how you combat—or don’t combat—your own moments of aloneness. As a society we often think of that word, alone, pejoratively—do you yourself think of it that way? Or is it a necessary good/ necessary evil?
GC: Oooh aloneness. And loneliness. Those are huge. In my life and in the history of humanity. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot and struggling with and reveling in. Recently, the very brilliant somatic bodyworker Susan Raffo said something so insightful to me. She reminded me that all my moving around, that constant busy-ness, can be a form of anxiety, a way of managing anxiety. So, when you remind me of that list from 2007–and then I think of the list of places, I’ve been just in the last couple months, Iceland, Minneapolis, Detroit (twice), Ohio (twice), Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, North Carolina, South Carolina, clearly there’s some restlessness, relentless searching as well as curiosity. I need to be in the world, and am often traveling alone. I need to feel less alone by finding other people wherever they may be, far flung yet equally astral.
JA: So, in your opinion, does performance art argue against all modes of indifference and if so what is the consequence of that?
GC: More like performance art tries to curl up against various modes of indifference and action and when that doesn’t work it hurls itself against them.