“The aim of her work is to open up space.” This is what one finds emblazoned across the “About Me” section of Gabrielle Civil’s site. It is intersected by a photograph of her, mid-performance—a blurry, stunning vision in red. Originally hailing from Detroit, Civil is a Black feminist performance artist, poet, and educator who has premiered over 40 original solo and collaborative performance works worldwide. Swallow the Fish, her performance art memoir, takes on the heady task of cataloging these works while examining both the medium and the artist.
Civil doesn’t waste any time in dismantling the notion that artists fall into their profession with little hesitation or turmoil about the future. Before deciding on a path, young artists often waffle over whether or not to be an artist, how to be an artist, and when to be an artist. In the initial pages of her memoir, Civil writes of a eureka moment she experiences while settling into her seat for a show at BAM (the Brooklyn Academy of Music):
Jem said something quite sensible. “You know, you should think about the kind of book you want to write. A more traditional academic book could open up different doors.”
A lasso in the air.
Janus stands one face before Legba.
Another fantasy arises.
A lush green, a worn satchel of good leather, wearing expensive, nonchalant clothes on a stroll through taller buildings with more ivy and ivory, clock towers and larger libraries with leather-bound books. Another chance.
This excerpt captures that crucial moment in a young creative’s life when a passing comment from a friend or colleague can influence their trajectory in a very real way. In this moment, Civil considers the academic route. In later passages, she continues in her attempts to ascertain the best kind of art training for building a solid foundation. Ultimately, she finds the exchange of art training letters with her friend Madhu H. Kaza to do the trick.
Swallow the Fish is like finding a loved one’s journal and being allowed to sift through its contents without the residual guilt of having invaded the writer’s privacy. Civil presents her musings to the reader with a profound level of transparency that is both admirable and invaluable. From her artist’s notes to performance outlines, she reveals the spaces an artist inhabits prior to presenting a finished piece before an audience. For anyone who has ever thought a performance artist just enters stage right and wings it, this memoir will prove you sorely mistaken. From initial inklings of ideas to concrete performance scripts, Civil’s archives demonstrate the sheer time and dedication this art form begs of those who choose to wield it.
In reflecting on a piece she did post-9/11, Civil inserts the full transcript of a letter she sent to Madhu on September 21, 2001. It includes a list of performance materials needed for Art Training Letter (Love)—the aforementioned piece—as well as the stage directions she eventually used for it:
MARGUERITE DURAS NOVEL – pull some cards out from its spine, curl up with it, read it
HONEY – open the honey and put a finger full in my mouth while reading
AND JUST DID IT – drop the book and start to spread out the materials, spread the cloth on the floor, push all the materials aside—lift it up swirl with it and then lay it over the chairs
Here, we’ve been gifted with the opportunity to experience the timeline of a performance piece. As she relives its maturation, Civil shows us just how Art Training Letter (Love) came into fruition and how it continues to impress upon her.
Civil is generous in her offerings. If it isn’t enough that she provides intimate details on the mechanics of performance art, she also bears her soul and gives us the aftermath. The part the audience never considers. After the proverbial curtain closes, the audience goes on with its evening—dinner, drinks, charcuterie—and the performance is fodder for speculative conversation. But the artist must pick up the pieces of their heart that were displayed for all to see and sit with the gravity of what they’ve just done. Civil writes:
For the artist, the experience of the work in the body often lasts longer than the actual actions of the work. This feeling can overflow into audience reception, it can collide or contrast with immediate outside response or delay an artist’s capacity to deal with this response or with anything else. The performance may be over for everyone else but in aftermath, the catastrophe, the intimacy, the possibility remains in the artist’s body; it is still cresting and subsiding.
Sure, members of the audience can find themselves especially moved by a performance art piece in the moment or recall it fondly years later. But, as Civil describes, it doesn’t take nearly the toll that it does on the artist. For the artist, this is a deeply personal act. It continues to flourish, morph, weigh down, lift up, and affect them long after the audience has gone home. In Swallow the Fish, this postscript is deliberately brought to light. And still, even after witnessing the staggering tumult of it, the reader walks away wanting a taste of that daring life of performance.
NONFICTION – MEMOIR
Swallow the Fish by Gabrielle Civil
Civil Coping Mechanisms
Published February 22, 2017
Gabrielle Civil is a black feminist performance artist. She has premiered over 40 original solo and collaborative performance works around the world. Her writing has appeared in Small Axe, Obsidian, Asterix, Rain Taxi, and other publications.