This Is Joy: A Conversation with Gabrielle Civil


When Gabrielle Civil enters a room, someone might start crawling on the table. At least, this is what happened when she spoke with a class I was teaching one semester, via Skype, after asking us to spend a minute staring into one another’s eyes. A Black feminist performance artist, scholar, and author, the goal of Civil’s work is “to open up space.” And that she does. Every time I’ve encountered her, I’ve watched her eyes widen as she gestures to some wonder I’d missed in the world around us: a memorial, a gemstone, a history, a calling.

In her first book, Swallow the Fish, a performance memoir, she charts a life of performance, detailing some of the fifty solo and collaborative performances she’s premiered around the world. Her most recent book, Experiments in Joy, continues to document her performance career, including essays, scores, letters, and images. It is an archive that leaps off the page, alive with questions about embodiment, pedagogy, girlhood, ancestry, love, and resistance. As Margo Jefferson says, “Words dance and bodies speak: together they invent languages of keen pleasure and ardent thought.” Or as Anna Joy Springer puts it, “this collection enacts (rather than professes) trans-disciplinary theories on inter-being, inter-rupture, and inter-becoming for the subtlest, hungriest and wisest organ of admittance.” You can read an exclusive excerpt from the book here.

Civil and I had the following conversation about her writing, beauty, bedrooms, platform heels, vibing, and the Black Midwest.


The Rumpus: The first time I saw you, you were moderating a panel at the Walker Art Center with Ralph Lemon, Okwui Okpokwasili, and April Matthis. I was so immediately taken by the way you, as a moderator, activated that space. I actually took notes—about how you moved, how you paced your questions, how you kind of retuned the room. You were orchestrating something so much bigger than a conversation. Have you always been so, what is the word? Deliberate? Mindful? Alive? So patient and aware and glowing in the way you move through the world and interact with other people?

Gabrielle Civil: How wonderful that you were in the audience that day! It was such a funny event—a combination of powerhouse Blackness (Okwui! April!), earnest white amazement (“you all should take this work to schools…”), the smugness of the art institution (don’t get me started on the Walker) and me wearing these incredibly intricate shoes. They were brown platforms strapped to my feet with very thin criss-crossing leather laces and, for some reason, I thought I would look cool slink-clomping in the space with a microphone in these shoes, asking questions and working the crowd. I had a lot of thoughts about that work—Ralph’s piece Scaffold Room—and I love his work, but I had a lot of mixed feelings about that particular piece in that particular space, particularly around how Black women’s bodies were figured (or ciphered or misconstrued). Anyway, at one point, I remember Ralph said something like: “Wow, you’ve got a lot of personality!” and I couldn’t tell if that was admiring, dismissive, or both. So more than deliberate or mindful or patient, I remember feeling a little like Oprah, holding the space and maybe too big for the space, striving for community but feeling a little outside of it, too, adjacent to the art, but not the art, but maybe carrying my own art into the space, which is to say myself, my body and mind, on those high platform heels. And haven’t you ever felt like that, too (with or without the heels)?

Rumpus: “I thought I would look cool slink-clomping in the space” may be my favorite sentence of the year. I feel like I am slink-clomping regardless of the height of my shoes all the time. One of the things that strikes me most about your writing in both Experiments in Joy and Swallow the Fish is how generously you pull back the curtain. In my experience, performance artists are scary, profound, impassive, impressive. I was deeply intimidated by you when I saw you perform at AWP for the first time. But you give us this whole other dimension of uncertainty behind that boldness.

Civil: It’s so funny to think about you being intimidated by me in that AWP performance. That’s the one I often do about the Chibok schoolgirls in Nigeria [“Say My Name (an action for 270 abducted Nigerian school girls)”], where I call roll, read the names of the girls each on a separate piece of paper, and then let the paper fall to the floor. The audience is invited to do whatever they feel moved to do as I perform this action. And for me, this work is so much about the problem of diaspora, the urgency and insufficiency of remembering, and the feeling of futility and stasis that often overcomes the audience. At the action you saw though, the valiant Douglas Kearney followed me throughout the space and caught the pages with each girl’s name before they hit the ground. Or if they fell, he picked them up and held them and held the energy of memorializing the girls in his own hands. This wasn’t rehearsed in any way. I had no idea that he would do this. And it was so beautiful.

Rumpus: That moment in “Say My Name (an Action for 270 abducted Nigerian girls)” with Doug Kearney was so beautiful to witness. It opened something up for me about what it is we are meant to feel and do and be as artists. It’s so normal to feel alone in creative work, and you really question that. The way you construct your book is such a testament to collaboration—the degree to which you bring in your influences through letters and interviews and reviews, be it your collaborators and friends, like Madhu H. Kaza and Rosamond S. King, or your literary and artistic influences, like Suzanne Césaire. You decenter yourself almost entirely and keep shifting the book’s orientation toward other people—just like that one day when we were standing near a shelf of precious stones and you handed me one and said, “Hold this.”

Can you talk a bit about the process of creating Experiments in Joy? What were your intentions and craft choices in making it feel so collectively composed?

Civil: The process of creating Experiments in Joy was tactile and kinetic. I had just moved to California and one room in my apartment is all windows with a long window seat below. I would spread out different possible texts for the book on the window seat and walk up and down it, arranging the order by hand. I kept asking: where should this start? where should this end? how should this move? Almost every single text in the book was published in an obscure journal somewhere or was already performed before an intimate audience, so the book was less about writing than selecting and sequencing. I think of the book as a mixtape, full of deep cuts and B-sides. It has that eclectic feel with personal essays and book reviews sidling up next to performance scores and letter exchanges.

After the twelve-year slog to get Swallow the Fish published, I wanted momentum, to strike while the iron was hot. I didn’t want the pressure of a big follow-up. I wanted to hang out with my friends. It was hard because I refused to create a direct narrative through-line, yet I wanted the book to still have coherence. So I really wanted it to be loose and tight at the same time. I also originally wanted to open cold with the email exchange with Jane Blocker. I thought it would be a rad experiment to start with someone else’s voice as a call, and then have my long email response. That’s still there, but my publisher, the brilliant Janice Lee, told me that new readers to my work would need deeper orientation to the book. She convinced me to write the preface, the only text expressly written for Experiments in Joy. I’m so glad it’s there because it really proclaims Black feminist joy as a radical project.

Rumpus: I found this quote by Adrienne Kennedy in the anthology Letters to the Future: Black Women/ Radical Writing. She says: “Childhood is the map. Writers are made in childhood.” Girlhood seems to be a recurring theme for you, as with “Say My Name (an Action for 270 abducted Nigerian girls).” Can you talk about the space of girlhood, girls in their bedrooms, stolen girlhood, in your work?

Civil: A girl is such an ungovernable site. Even as much as the world wants to make a girl passive, subservient, obedient, cute, and sweet, she can be bossy, wild, stubborn, sharp, and surprising. As you and your fellow panelists on the Girlhood Panel at &Now discussed, this site of the girl depends, of course, on race, class, gender assignment, nationality, sexuality, ability, religion, and more. So I don’t mean to say that all girls are the same. But I know that I was a girl and that my girlhood was where and when and how I received key messages about the world, about art and relationships and power. And it was the girl me who dreamed up the life I have right now. How audacious she was, how unwavering! She decided that I would go to Paris and Africa and write books and drink wine and live far away from home. In a key letter in Experiments in Joy, I talk about how I hope to live up to her expectations. In fact, the very last lines of the book are “to little Gabby who dreamed this all up. I hope to make her proud.”

Rumpus: In Experiments in Joy, you also talk about how your romantic life plays a part in your artistic practice. You write, of Moe Lionel, “we explored race, violence, submerged history, and desire along with the nature of our own interracial, sexually blurred love affair.” Can you talk a bit about what it’s like to collaborate with a romantic partner? And what role love, romantic and otherwise, plays in your art practice?

Civil: Well, I don’t often collaborate with romantic partners. But I do deeply connect collaboration with love. Really, Experiments in Joy is such a love letter to the people who made those performances and art works with me. And the love I feel for someone often brings me into the desire to collaborate with them. I’m not romantic about most things, but I am so romantic about art! And there’s such a feeling of romance in collaboration, in creating and vibing and being together. In collaboration, you have to spend time; you have to hold someone’s heart, and have your own heart held by someone else. This is hard, just like loving someone is hard. You don’t always agree on how to make something happen and you have to navigate the nuts and bolts. But it can be so wonderful.

As for Moe, you can read some of the juicy details about that collaboration in the book. It was great to make that piece with him inspired by Melvin Dixon’s Vanishing Rooms. Just this past summer, we collaborated again on a piece called “after the end” in a Minneapolis festival called Queertopia. We aren’t lovers anymore, but it still matters to work with someone you have known and who has known you in certain ways, who you have been both vulnerable and protected. Collaborating with a lover was about blur and free fall. We’ll see if I do it again.

Rumpus: You are in California now, but you grew up and spent much of your life in the Midwest. What speaks to you about this landscape? What is the Black Midwest?

Civil: The Black Midwest is Motown and Milwaukee hair shows and St. Louis Blues and the Minneapolis sound which Prince and Flight Tyme brought alive. The Black Midwest is what kind of Black you are because West Indian might be nice but at the end of the day, you’re just one of us. The Black Midwest is the South, Jr. Or at least in my generation. My mother was born in Alabama and came to Detroit when she was three or four years old. My father came to Detroit from Haiti at the age of twenty-two. Just think if he had gone to Montreal or Miami… There were Haitians in Detroit, but there wasn’t the same context for Haitian culture—so that culture became a kind of deep secret, a deep source for other ways of Blackness that were largely contained in my house; you’ve been there, that same house where my parents have lived since 1971, one block south of 8 Mile, one block East of Livernois. The Black Midwest is a place where Black people can own houses. Or at least Detroit was like that. I heard dream hampton speak once about how she moved back to Detroit from New York City because she wanted to be in a place where Black people had a recognized history of middle-class life, where Black people could run things. I’m paraphrasing and likely romanticizing, too. But that sense of a secret source of Blackness, an under-recognized center, epitomizes my idea of the Black Midwest and probably a deep idea of myself.

Rumpus: Well, I want you to write a book about the Black Midwest next—what a gorgeous description. I am curious about the arts and crafts feel that your book awakens in me. There is an emphasis in your work on a kind of DIY approach to art making, using houses for shows, the possibilities opened up by self-publication, skepticism about institutions. Can you talk about the significance of looking outside of the mainstream for opportunities to connect with readers and also for inspiration?

Civil: Well because I wasn’t born, raised, or initially educated on one of the coasts and came of age before the internet, my life and art education came outside of the mainstream. This meant that my early projects had very limited visibility. (Really, my books are only making those projects visible now). But it also meant that there was less pressure to professionalize or know how to do anything. It was about making things up, figuring things out, just doing it. I’ve had to remind myself of this when teaching performance practice as a creative writing faculty member.

At first, I was salty about not having access to a theater rehearsal room or dance studio, and then I remembered: I started making performance art in my living room. Move those tables out of the way, friends. Let’s go! My students have made the most lovely pieces in the corner of our classroom, using the window shades, writing and erasing text on the windows, going outside. I’m so inspired by that. Even within an institution, we can’t and shouldn’t depend on the institution for our resourcefulness and power.

Rumpus: That last sentence should be on a tee-shirt. Or billboard. Or tattoo. What role does ritual play in your daily life? How do you infuse the everyday with elements of performance or creativity?

Civil: Well, I want you to imagine me rolling down the 210 back from CalArts to Glendale, quickly swapping my work drag for old, weird gym clothes and my headphones with little unicorn bobbins that stick in my ears to listen to “Goat Head” on repeat while I walk the twelve minutes to LA Fitness to do Zumba with middle-aged Latinas and Cambodian ladies that kick my ass in the routines. Something about that process, sticking the unicorns in my ears, feeling the old-fashioned wires near my face to listen to Black girl blues on the way to the corporate gym, that should be ridiculous and depressing, right? But when I do it and I see the old Armenians walking together, or the one guy sitting outside in his walker who now finally nods when he sees me, or the new flowers that have bloomed, or the teenagers hanging out in front of the library, or those slanted palm trees, with their ditzy ‘fros sort of swaying towards me, I think I’m doing this, moving my body to go move my body some more, I’m alive and this is it, baby, this is the ritual, this is the experiment, this is joy!


Featured photograph of of Gabrielle Civil by Ken Ehrlich. Second photograph of Gabrielle Civil by Dennie Eagleson. Third photograph of Gabrielle Civil by Starr Rien.

Aisha Sabatini Sloan is the author of The Fluency of Light and Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit. She teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Michigan. More from this author →