Gabrielle Civil: Ghostly Gestures and Erotic Crackle

Gabrielle Civil from ANEMONE, photo by Chys LaramyInterview + New Work

Gabrielle Civil is a black woman poet, conceptual and performance artist, originally from Detroit, MI. Over the last decade, she has premiered over twenty five original performance art works in the United States (Minneapolis, Chicago, NY), The Gambia, Puerto Rico and Mexico. In fall 2012, she will launch her catalogue In and Out of Place: Making Black Feminist Performance in Mexico. She teaches literature, writing, Women’s Studies & Critical Studies of Race & Ethnicity at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, MN. The aim of her work is to open up space.

I asked Gabrielle to share her visions and latest workings because she is an artist that has consistently inspired audiences through her glittering performances that are both ethereal and body-centric. In this conversation she discusses some influences and how she is using the late Melvin Dixon’s novel Vanishing Rooms in an upcoming performance in St. Paul Minnesota. Gabrielle and I held our conversation via a Google doc over the course of a few days in late June, 2012.

–Sun Yung Shin for This Spectral Evidence

Upcoming event: Vanishing Rooms is running Sat. July 28 at 8 PM and Sunday July 29 at 4 PM at the Fish House Studio– in the Dow Building at 2242 University Avenue Suite B14. St. Paul, MN.

VANISHING ROOMS by Melvin Dixon*

TSE: How does the word “visionary” or “haunted” apply to your work–whether past, present, or future?

GC: These two words speak to twin poles of my work. “Visionary” is my aim, where I want my work to go, how I want my work to seem from the vantage point of the future. This is the quality that I most admire in other artists: Marina Abramovic, William PopeL., Jayne Cortez, Simone Leigh, Pina Bausch . . . So many people from the past and present working in different fields who inspire me. These artists have such compelling visions,indelible, strange and completely their own  . . . That is what I want to generate, crack open, allow for myself and my work. “Haunted” is how my work often relates to the past. It is haunted by specters of racism, by questions of body, by personal conversations and experiences, by images I’ve seen or books I’ve read. The word “haunted” is especially appropriate for what I’m working on in performance right now. Moe Lionel and I are collaborating on a new work inspired by Melvin Dixon’s Vanishing Rooms. I can say that I have been haunted by that book (which is literally a ghost since it’s now out of print.) The book has became a source, a catalyst to do something new with in it, in my body, in writing, in language and with someone else.

TSE: I love that. The title of Melvin Dixon’s novel, and from the little I read about it, reminded me of Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote and Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. Tell me more about how Dixon’s book has been haunting you and what it opened up for you; you are someone who is so well read, so well traveled, such a committed artist–how was this novel able to surprise you? What stones unturned within you / your aesthetic did it turn over? Tell me more about what Moe Lionel is bringing to the new work.

GC: Vanishing Rooms is really an astonishing book. I first read it in my early 20s when I was living in NYC as a graduate student. I have such vivid memories of pulling it down from the shelf at the Jefferson Market Library on 6th Avenue, the one that looks like a castle, and getting immediately sucked into this intense relationship between Ruella McPhee, a straight black woman dancer and Jesse Durand, a gay black dancer in 1975 New York. It’s a book that’s about impossible desire and art making and coming into one’s own and all of these things were so important to me and continue to be. The novel is told in alternating chapters from 3 points of view: Ruella (who Jesse calls Rooms), Jesse and then a third character Lonny, who is the classic “troubled” white youth, a gaybasher who is actually closeted gay himself. So he represents a kind of violent, white masculinity that resonated with the some of the themes and stories in Moe Lionel’s Naked Stages piece “in and out of the body.”

Maybe it was because Ellen Marie Hinchcliffe and I were directing this work that I had the urge to pick up Dixon’s novel again. But near the time when Moe’s piece was about to premiere, I reread the book and right before I left Minnesota for the winter, I gave Moe the book with a letter about what it had meant to me and how I felt it was connected to his work. This started a rich correspondence between us about this book and at one point, we just decided that we needed to bring our conversations more directly into art-making. So along with the novel itself, our correspondence represents the source of the new work.

TSE: Excellent. So I will wait for the performance itself before inundating you with more questions about that work. On another topic, how has landing in/spending time in Minnesota affected/influenced you as an artist and would audience members experience or see any of that in your work? Is any of it visible/audible? How do you negotiate what it means? Do you let it matter much? Does Minnesota haunt your work in any way? Has it changed for you since arriving–10 years ago? 

GC: Those are all such rich questions. There’s no doubt that coming to Minnesota made a tremendous difference in my development as an artist. From the start, I was engaged in various artistic communities–Cave Canem master classes and grant proposal panels for MRAC. I saw innovative work at the Walker that really stuck to me (“Memorandum” by Dumb Type and the Yes! Yoko Ono show.) And I really became a performance artist here, largely because of the grant opportunities (Red Eye’s Works-in-Progress, Naked Stages, grants from my job at St. Kate’s) and the amazing interdisciplinary artists here who were fusing dance, poetry, monologues, installation, everything. I’m thinking of the impact of early Naked Stagers like Flávia Müller Medeiros and Mama Mosaic or Marcus Young’s “Big Idea Store” at Intermedia when they had the Inside/ Out installation series. (Talk about spectral evidence, so much of this stuff is gone now and people may not ever have seen it. . .)

At the same time, it has been difficult for me to be Minnesota.

I like street culture, the erotic crackle of people walking, talking, rubbing up against other on the day to day. I like mixing and mingling with people from all around the world. There’s some diversity here, and I’m thankful for it, but it’s nothing like New York City or Mexico City where I’ve been spent significant time over the last 4 or 5 years. Plus I hate the cold! So that’s no joke.  In order for me to have stayed in Minnesota, I’ve had to leave a lot. And that has certainly impacted my work in a number of ways. I’ve made a lot of work in other places: “Anacaona” in Puerto Rico, “ghost/gesture” in the Gambia and tons of pieces in Mexico (BRUSH, Muño, Despedida and more. . .). This has meant that people here in Minnesota don’t always even have a chance to see my work and I don’t think I’ve done the greatest job building and nurturing an audience here.

Also the pieces that I have made recently in Minnesota like “Tie Air” in 2009 at CIA or “anemone” the piece I did last month at Pleasure Rebel are often informed by a kind of restlessness. The work is haunted by questions of who I am and who I can be here in Minnesota as an artist and as a woman and how those things don’t always feel like they fit.

In the 2011 Bedlam TenFest, Ellen Marie Hinchcliffe and I did a collaboration called “From the Hive.”  At one point in the piece I say:

Tasked with the body.

I’m not here.

A taste of sweetness.

A Floating Year.

Longing, longing

the whole winter long

reading Dany Laferrière.

A couple in an airport.

An endless kiss.


in Port-au-Prince

in Minneapolis.

“I wanna be your lover”

I don’t want to be here

but I am.

Exiled from desire.

The red kiss.

I think that says it all!

TSE: And lastly, what do you need to take your work and life to the next stage, level, etc.?

GC: In terms of what I need to take my work and life to the next level, I’m like everyone everyone else. I need time, money, space, breath, invitations and opportunities, sweat and good luck. I think I do need to figure out my relationship to place–where I feel most inspired and supported. I’m not sure it’s here. But I am also very thankful for the various communities that have fostered me here. And certainly for my friends and fellow artistic troublemakers. I leave a lot but I also get welcomed back with open arms.


From  * a n e m o n e- gabrielle civil

Performed May 30, 2012

in Pleasure Rebel (curated by Nastalie Bogira)

at the Bryant Lake Bowl, Minneapolis, MN.



(part 3 disambiguation)

She pulls the flowers from her head

(he loves me he loves me not) to make

a secret garden. the flowers on a grave.

She sings: you need a man with / sensitivity / a man like

She says:

Search and search all you want,

there are no pictures of Assotto Saint

and his lover Jan Holmgren together on the internet.

To find this vision, you have to reach inside.

The two of them in the 1980s wearing assless chaps,

singing electroclash in their band Xotica.

His books are out-of-print but on page 197

you can find the chorus of one their songs. . .

“touch is what i want

touch is what I need

touch me, be with me


She rubs the faces of the two flowers down her cheeks.

She pulls them down her neck to her heart.


touch is what i want


touch is what I need


touch me, be with me

BUT A COUPLE  everywhere



She crosses over to the chair.

Pulls down her electric hair.

Takes off her drag queen red platform shoes.

Pleasure Rebel How?

(part 4 epitaph cocoon)


And again more a stand in / trying to explain

something both stemmed and flailing.

again the straight girl turning to the gay people

for advice

for love

In Risin to the Love We Need, Assotto Saint wrote:

“to be dehumanized into a dick is far more damaging

than to be discriminated.” Yes.

And to be dehumanized by a dick?

To be humanized by one?




Are you overhearing me?

She gathers the red and cocoons herself.

She holds up the book and the flashlight.

as a girl at night when I was supposed to be asleep

I would get real cozy in my body and

make myself a cocoon under covers

and this is what I’d do:


She pulls out the book and reads with the flashlight.

not what you expected? / exactly.

By Assotto Saint from Spells of a Voodoo Doll.


There’s a grave in your heart

father holed

where over & over you lay

to bury yourself

through thirty years [thirty seven years actually]

of fits furies & fangs

ground zero

* * *

here lives she

whose womb is a wound


She sets down the book, puts the flowers down gingerly over it.

She turns off the flashlight.


here lives he

whose words are submarine.

Assotto Saint.

Saint Haitian American

black gay AIDS activist out of print lover .

I love him and we are not the same.


from Vanishing Rooms

 December 19, 2011

 Dear Mondy —

Merry Christmas!

 I want to give you this book with a bit of an explanation because it is so loaded. Just look at the cover! Riding on the subway in New York City with it open in my hands, I could see my fellow passengers arch their eyebrows. Really Sis? What’s on your mind?

 The first time I read the book years ago, the cover was different. A triptych drawing of three characters in 1970s style. I was a young grad student at NYU and I lived in the heart of the West Village (the corner of Bleecker and Christopher Streets in a 6 floor walk up) and I was probably 21 or 22 years old and wanted so many things all at once. I wanted to be an artist. I wanted to write amazing poems. I wanted to be in love. I wanted to love. I wanted not to get my heart broken. I wanted not to need anyone. I wanted to be friends with everyone in the whole world. I wanted to be the life of the party. I wanted to be able to be alone (a strange goal as in key ways I’d always been alone – so I guess I wanted to be able to accept that I would be alone and learn how to make the best of it and flourish.)  […]

 One day at the Jefferson Market Library, I pulled down this book Vanishing Rooms and immediately tore into it. There was a black woman dancer and she was in NY with dreams and somehow that was what I latched onto from the start. And oh! The love that dare not speaks its name. In my early adulthood, sexuality belonged to gay men. They were the only ones allowed to have it and explore it. And there she was having a dalliance (a relationship) with this gay man and somehow he loved her (although not how she wanted him to) and what the hell could anybody do with a relationship like that?

 It was a book that affected me deeply even as I realize now that I didn’t understand a lot of it then (and still may not) and also that what is important to me about the book shifts depending on what’s going on for me in my life…  [….]

 Anyway, this book is not light. It’s intense and about gender and race and sexuality and love and friendship and all the things we talked about over beer and fish and chips for me and beer and baby back ribs for you.

 If you have a chance to read it, let me know what you think (about how men dance – and the difference between men and boys.) […]

 Love + Kisses