Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Artists Reach Out: Gabrielle Civil

Dear friends,

Welcome to Artists Reach Out: reflections in a time of isolation. I dreamed this series of interviews out of grief for my work both as a documenting arts writer and curator of live performance. In this time of social distancing, we are called to responsibly do all we can to safeguard ourselves and our neighbors. It is, literally, a matter of life and death.

But there's no distancing around what we still can share with one another--our experiences, thoughts, wisdom, humor, hearts and spirit. In some ways, there are more opportunities to do so as we pull back from everyday busyness out in the world and have time to honor the call of our inner lives.

So, let me introduce you to some artists I find interesting. I'm glad they're part of our beautiful community, and I'm eager to engage with them again (or for the first time) in years to come.

--Eva Yaa Asantewaa, InfiniteBody

Gabrielle Civil

Gabrielle Civil in
Experiments in Joy
(photo: Dennie Eagleson)

Gabrielle Civil is a Black feminist performance artist, poet, and writer, originally from Detroit MI. She has premiered fifty original performance art works around the world including in Puerto Rico, The Gambia, Ghana, Canada, Zimbabwe, and Mexico where she lived as a Fulbright Fellow. She is the author of the performance memoirs Swallow the Fish (2017) and Experiments in Joy (2019) and was lead contributor to Experiments in Joy: a Workbook (2019). A 2019 Rema Hort Mann LA Emerging Artist, she teaches creative writing and critical studies at the California Institute of the Arts. The aim of her work is to open up space.

Gabrielle Civil
(photos: above, Fungai Machirori. Below: Starr Rien)

Do you have a current or planned project whose progress is affected by the pandemic?

The project of living has been affected by the pandemic. The project of teaching, breathing, being, and being connected to loved ones. The project of keeping time. It’s been almost three months since these questions arrived, and I can’t believe how long it has taken me to respond--except that everything takes longer now. Things feel both sped up and slowed down. In my house, I swim through pools of time: dog paddling or trying to hold off a crashing wave but sometimes floating in memory or hope. Lately, I’ve been riding the swell of the Mississippi River from the headwinds of Minnesota all the way down to the crumbling confederate shores....

Briefly, tell me about how you got involved in the arts and in your particular practice.

Maybe it was reciting a speech for MLK Day at church as a kid in a pink velveteen suit with a hat. Or poring over the “Sugar Plum Tree” in Childcraft Vol. 1 Poems & Rhymes (which I still have on my shelf). Or hearing my mother recite "Dreams" (Hold fast to dreams....) by Langston Hughes while she cooked in the kitchen. I’m not sure, but I know that literature, art, and performance have always been juicy to me.

In college, I trained as a poet. And I loved readings and open mics and slams and spoken word events but after a while, I grew restless.... I craved new cadences, new ways to circulate language in space. Despite my limited performance background--I had never seriously danced or acted on stage--I craved activating my body. In my book Swallow the Fish, I talk about turning to performance art as a way to make a different kind of poem, as a way to embody poetry itself. I move from figures of speech to figures of the body and back. That’s still the heart of my practice today.

In a more specific way, what are you practicing? And what are you envisioning?

Right now, I am practicing performance / writing. My new book, the déjà vu, is about experiential echoes and Black feminist double vision. It’s due at the end of the year, so I’m practicing imagining, crafting and believing in my wild ideas! I’m practicing dreaming and trying to show up for a new, better world that might crack through this time. I’m practicing preparing.

I’ve got a rad performance residency at Automata in LA later this summer where I’ll activate the idea of living objects. In the fall, I’ll actually teach a class with this title on Black material culture, so this embodied exploration will be key. I’m practicing serious patience. I’m writing this half way through a 14-day self-quarantine in Michigan. Once I’m done, I’ll get to see my parents in Detroit and I will hug human beings for the first time in months! I am envisioning that hug with my entire body!

How does your practice and your visioning align with what you most care about?

I love reading writing teaching performing art-making listening learning connecting Black people body hugging books poetry archives liberation and joy. My practice and visioning are about all of those....

How does your practice function within the world we have now?

It’s got to go deeper. The dual moment of pandemic and uprising is unprecedented and foretold. Creativity and imagination are the way forward—plus a lot of bravery. Hold fast, slow down and transform.


DISCLAIMER: In addition to my work on InfiniteBody, I serve, at Gibney, as Senior Director of Artist Development and Curation and Editorial Director. The postings on this site are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views, strategies or opinions of Gibney.


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