Photo by Aly Almore


Gabrielle Civil's Art Is An Experiment In Joy

"I'm not a romantic about many things, but I'm so romantic about art!"

by Ilana Masad

Experiments in Joy by Gabrielle Civil—a new experimental memoir with a workbook version coming out this fall—is full of generosity. It opens with a direct address and invitation to the reader, and incorporates letters, text messages, personal essays, performance art scripts, reviews, and other genres between its covers.

Civil is a Black feminist performance artist, and when we spoke, she wanted to make sure to acknowledge and celebrate the tradition her work has come out of, mentioning artists like ntozake shange, Adrienne Kennedy, Lorraine Hansberry, Suzanne Césaire, Audre Lorde, Jayne Cortez, and Adrian Piper. The book's opening letter does this too, urging us to read all the names above and more: Lucille Clifton, June Jordan, Jacqueline Beaugé-Rosier, Laurie Carlos, Octavia Butler, Katherine Dunham. "The work that I'm doing sprung from so many of those books and so many Black women that did this incredible work of living an amazing life before me," she told me. "I want to remind myself and everyone that this is a terrible moment that we're in politically, but there have been previous terrible moments, and there've been people who have done incredible artistic and political work at that time. We can take some inspiration from them."

The title Experiments in Joy comes from the project by the same name that Civil organized for herself and six other Black women artists at Antioch College in 2014. They came together to create a call, and returned a month later to share their responses, running workshops and performances, dance and durational pieces. Part of what emerged is a continued, extended Call, a score—like musical notation—which asks us to: (1) tell the truth, (2) make something new, (3) invite someone in, (4) document, and (5) repeat. Seemingly simple, these steps for art-making are much like Civil and her work: inviting, hopeful with a purpose, invigorating, nuanced, deeply intelligent both intellectually and emotionally, and inspirational, as well, as you will see.

Below, I talk with Civil about her book, making art, and the meaning of performance.

How would you define performance art, especially for someone who isn't familiar with the term?

For me, performance art is this practice of putting a frame around life and manifesting the self as much as possible [within it], trying to activate one's own presence in space and time. In practical terms, that's been an experience of trying to create art actions where I either encounter an environment or create an environment and then move into it, make something happen with the audience, with other people, sometimes with music, sometimes with projections—but always with my body. That emphasis on the activation of presence in and through the body is a hallmark of performance art for me.

I'm interested in the figurative, and the poetic—I really came into performance art through poetry and exploring and learning figures of speech and considering what happens when we try to create figures of the body.

In terms of my own specific performance art lineage, I claim this sort of 1960s Western idea of performance art, like Roselee Goldberg—that history is very important to me—but at the same time, performance art is, for me, about ritual, especially coming from the diasporic Black traditions, the Haitian part of me, the African-American cultural heritage.

How do you construct your performances? Does the writing come first or the movement? Do they go hand in hand?

Each performance is different. Concept, image, or action can be the doorway to create the work. Sometimes it will begin with something I want to do, the action. Sometimes I have a kind of tableau in mind, either a way I want my body to look, the way I want the space to look, or something I'm imagining with my body in a particular space. Sometimes it'll come from an opportunity to do a meditation on something—right now, for example, there's a curator who's asked me to think about Black presence in spaces of nature, of recreation. So that's the concept, and I have to think, Okay, in relation to that concept, what is something that I might want to activate or make happen? Writing is very helpful for me as a tool to help me flesh that out in a way that won't just be literal or flat.

I have, in recent years, incorporated more storytelling into the work that I do—but not literal storytelling. It's usually like fleshing out poetry or bringing poetry to life, using the body to write into or through spaces, to materialize concepts. That's where writing is really important, even if I'm starting with an image, even if I'm starting with a concept, because writing is, for me, a way of thinking, a way of imagining.

Photo by Dennie Eagleson

In a letter to collaborator Moe Lionel, you wrote: "I hate the idea of foisting myself on people. I hate anything that feels like that in personal relationships (which must be why in classic Freudian return of the repressed, I completely foist myself on people in performance art.)." What is the relationship between that reserve in your personal life and boldness expressed in your performance art?

In my daily life, I'm not a shy person, but I am somewhat private and reserved. I'm a dark-skinned, plump, Black woman, and there is sometimes in society an assumption that what you see is what you get, you know? As if I don't have a passionate, very intense, vital interior life, or am not an intellectual. A lot of people just think, Oh, what a smart, sassy, funny person. When you see this kind of intellectual or broody person, there's always this kind of willowy, wispy, pale ideal of that, which wasn't me. I remember Sofia Coppola saying something about how in her films she likes there to be a lot of space for drift, for thinking or daydreaming or imagining. And in the world that we live in today, I can imagine the knocks she'd get for comment like that, like, Oh, that's so privileged or That's so white or whatever, but you know, I understood that so deeply as a poet, as an artist. There has to be space, interior space of imagination that's beyond whatever the box people both outside of and inside your community want to put you in.

What happens for me when I'm making a performance, is that I create the box, the frame, the context. I create a space in which I can do whatever I want to do and be whoever I want to be, for however long that performance is, whether it's three minutes or an hour or two.

So is it about control? Because you control that frame, it can be freeing inside of it?

For a long time, I didn't think of it in terms of control, but I'm coming to understand that yes, it is control, maybe the best part of control, which is around asserting one's own identity. It's about claiming one's own space.

I just think over time I've become even more brave or bold, because I've seen the impact on people who are so not used to seeing someone like me doing some of the things I do, which can be really simple, like just standing up and wearing a top without a bra. I remember one time I did a performance ritual trying to reintegrate back with a pre-Middle Passage identity. It was a very lofty idea. And the big thing that this man [in the audience] came up with was like, Wow, I'd never seen someone with a chest as big as yours not be ashamed.

So while I'm doing the work, it's like I've carved out a space where I can be in my own dream sequence, but then afterward, the responses I get are often still bound—not always, but often—to a bunch of ideas that are related to my physicality or to experiences of the people who are speaking.

I will say this though, in terms of shyness or reserve versus exhibitionism: I think that a lot of my work still does preserve a certain level of mystery. And I don't mean to do that in a befuddling or withholding way. But that's part of what's been interesting to me in poetry over the years. The language in poetry is always operating on more than one level at the same time, it activates multiple meanings, so at different times when you read it, different meanings will have greater impact or emphasis for you. I wanted to make my own body and my own presence in space resonate and be figured in a way that's more than just one note.

Photo by Sayge Caroll

How did you construct your memoir Experiments in Joy?

It was very challenging. I've been thinking about archives, about what an archive is, and how we as artists have to take ourselves very seriously and take seriously what it means to have our own archive. There's a certain kind of performance memoir that I'm very invested in and that I think of as an archive, a way of creating a chronology of life as art as making. This is a portrait of what it means to be, for me, a Black feminist performance artist in the 21st century. So I think one of the criteria that I had for putting together Experiments in Joy was looking at the various pieces and thinking about how they would help to tell the story of what it meant for me to be an artist in this moment.

The hardest thing was sequencing and trying to understand how should the book begin, how should the book end. I was still rearranging it up to the very last day. Finally, I called my incredible, amazing publisher and editor Janice Lee, and I was like, "Janice, wait, I think I want to change it again." And she was like, "Look, it's typeset." [laughs]

We have the capacity to be more than one thing, and that's also why I wanted there to be so many different modes. I wanted there to be those mini essays or reviews [by other writers] because I didn't want the book to be just me, I wanted to signal these other voices, to try to create something multimodal but still offer a coherent reading experience. That was the hardest thing. I wanted the book to feel like something more than just a compilation. I wanted it to feel as if there was some extension or growth or movement over the course of it so that you didn't have to read it in order, but that if you did, you would feel that there was some deliberation in it. And that was very challenging.

How did the workbook come about and what is it going entail?

So there's a wonderful place in L.A. called the Women's Center for Creative Work. Their design fellow, MJ Balvanera, decided to create a press, Co-Conspirator Press, to publish feminist workbooks. The workbooks are meant to be affordable and are going to be beautifully designed and riso-printed. They can range from really practical, like how to run a feminist meeting, to more conceptual things.

Anyway, I love the Call for Experiments in Joy so much, and I love my book, but I don't think you should have to read my memoir to have access to the Call. So I submitted the text of the Call as a workbook, and they accepted it. Along with the score, it will have little comments from all seven of us about what the project has meant for us, and some additional resources. I also have a new brief introduction explaining it all and invoking joy as a practice more than a feeling.

Community was central in the Experiments in Joy project and is a central theme in your memoir by the same name. What does community mean to you and your art?

Community, for me, is where and how art happens.

Community is the folks that you run with, it's where you come from, it's where you want to be, it's where you want to go. It's your platform, and it's also your springboard. I mean, I'm from Detroit, born and raised in the chocolate city, and I was studying French and wanting to be a poet and an artist, and I was lucky because I had support from my family and my community.

Writing is very solitary. Performance, even if it's a solo performance, is almost always collaborative. You always need someone to help—someone to hold the camera, someone to deal with the crowd. The process of working with others in art-making reaffirms my belief in people at a political moment when that belief is assaulted every day.

I'm often thinking about ways to intersect community with art practice. I'm not a romantic about many things, but I'm so romantic about art! I believe in art as transformation—as essential and revitalizing and regenerating and affirming and joyful for communities, which is to say groups of people who see each other and are present in and with each other. That presence and that seeing and that relation with each other isn't always idyllic. Capitalist society really tries to isolate us out and make us individuals and make us consumers as opposed to collaborators. Still, there's something about art, even art that we might not like or that we might not understand, that can create a visceral, shared experience with people. And I think that that is so worthwhile.

Experiments in Joy is available to purchase, here.