The Experiment: Master Class at Naropa University
GC: I’m Gabrielle Civil, and I am honored to be here. This is my second time here at Naropa. About four years ago, 2012, I participated in a Violence in Community symposium and I had such a blast, and so I’m delighted to be back. Here we are! And I was told what you all are working on was this notion of the experiment. I’m the daughter of an elementary school teacher who became a principal, so really, I’m a bit of a school marm, [titters in the crowd] really just this person who believes in utterance, the collective chorus of saying something together, and that capacity of feeling language in the body. So, if you will indulge me, on the count of three, we are all going to say “the experiment” together. One, two, three:
All: THE EXPERIMENT!
GC: Alright, so we’ve already started. I want to thank J’Lyn and Michelle, and Ryan, where are you sitting? There you are! For driving me from Basecamp, and also Charmain for all her help, and all of you for being here. And before we do anything else, part of my extraction is Haitian, and in Haitian spiritual practice, before you do anything, you acknowledge a crossroad. Okay? So, to cross that threshold into the work we are going to do today, I invite you, first of all to stand up, and if we can try to make one semi-circle or even a full circle, yes, and even if you did this already today, I invite you to just take a moment and get grounded. Really feel yourself, on your high heels, in your shoes, bare feet, flat. Really allow your hands to open up, open and receive if you can. Close your eyes. And then take that big beautiful breath. And then you’re invited, if you want, to open up your eyes and if you need to stagger one minute so that you don’t end up knocking somebody out, right, I just invite you as you’re able to allow your body to stretch and move through the air. Oh, you’re so advanced! And when you’re ready, take that fold. Allow that blood to dangle. That’s creativity flipping you upside-down and as you’re ready, vertebrae by vertebrae, you’re rising up. And you’re rolling whatever you need to roll. It can be subtle, it’s for you, you do what you need to do.
And then, because I recognize that we have two different communities coming together, two different classes, I invite you now to find someone. Actually, before you find someone, I want you to think for one second what is the way that you would have loved to have been welcomed when you walked into this room? This is not some big production to think about, just, what is something that would have been nice that could have happened when you walked into the room, something someone could have done? Now approach someone you don’t know and offer that welcome to that person, giving them the space to say yes I’d like that or no. There is an artist I like [Lilly McElroy] who flings herself at men, like literally leaps and jumps at them, and that is not what we’re doing, but, you can make an offering and have an opportunity for that person then to receive it as they want to and then to make an offering to you. You got it? Let’s do it!
Students: [murmur of hellos]
GC: Everyone feeling good, anyone need anything? Now we had an interesting kind of hierarchy when we walked in, maybe it wasn’t a hierarchy, but we had a bunch of people that were in chairs, and then some people who were in cushions on the floor. So, I would invite us now to consider a shift in position. It doesn’t have to be a reversal, but, take the things that you need, your notebook, your pen, or whatever your writing implement is, and find another place. So already you’re coming into this experience, and now I want you to shift. I want you to think about where you were before and even if was just one cushion over, or even if you feel like I like my spot, is there another way you can be in that spot? How can you shift? Now, shift.
So already, perhaps, something has happened for you. Something has happened in the space, something has happened in the room. Go to your notebook or your mode of writing and take maybe 30 seconds to check in with yourself. This is private writing to do in whatever form, whatever language. Just take a minute and check in: where are you at within yourself, within your language, within your process, right now? And with all the prompts I’m going to offer today, don’t overthink anything. Just allow whatever it is to be whatever it is in this moment, just like the water in that river. And when you’re ready, when you feel like your juices are flowing a little bit, getting that language going, I want you to look at this image.
This is a vèvè, a Haitian spiritual symbol often made with chalk or flour or cornmeal on the ground. This is a vèvè that you would use to open a ceremony, a drawing for Papa Legba, the spirit of the crossroads. I want you to think about that concept of crossroads. I want you to identify for yourselves: what is the crossroad that you are encountering in your own life? In your day? In your history, in your story in your body? What crossroads are you encountering right now? Now find a way to mark that in your notebook. And then it’s sort of like dot, dot, dot, there’s more but you can come back maybe or maybe not, there’s more, but now you’re going to engage that crossroads in a different way. Close your eyes, and consider where does that crossroads live in your body? And find a way, it can be very subtle, or it can be very large, no one is looking at you, okay? Find a way to indicate something about the vibration of that crossroads in your body. From there write one word.
Okay, now, you could do a whole lot just with what we just did, and perhaps you will, but, there’s a lot more that I want us to think about. That was a threshold into some other things relative to “The Experiment,” leading quite specifically into the experiment that I and six other black women writers together articulated as a Call. So, let’s just say it again, the experiment.
One, two, three:
All: THE EXPERIMENT!
GC: Now can someone just read from the slide? “One”
Student: “A test trial or tentative procedure, an act or operation, for the purpose of discovering something unknown. Testing a principle, supposition, etc. A chemical experiment, a teaching experiment, an experiment in living.
GC: Someone, “Two.”
Student: The conducting of such operations, experimentation. A product that is the result of long experiment.
Student: Three. Obsolete. experience.
GC: Please call out, which words pop out for you?
Students: “Obsolete.” “Experience.” “Living,” etc.
GC: Obsolete! Experience. That really popped out for me too because a lot of my approach to the experiment, and specifically to the ways that I’m considering experimentation today, come from this obsolete meaning of the word “experiment,” which is to say, “experience.” And not even just past experience, or experiences that we’ve had, but the experience that we’re in right now! The experience that we are having, or that we are making, or that we’re sharing, or that we’re disintegrating right now. Which, I would say, is an embodied experience. It is the experiment of living and being in a body in a place in space in time. That is the specific experiment, or experience, that I have explored as a performance artist. So, I’ve been lucky enough to be trained as a poet, and I’m still training as a poet, because that’s never done, right? And I’ve studied literature, comparative literature, and had opportunities to translate and curate, and that’s all in it too, but what I’m really hoping to offer here today are some specific things coming from my relationship to performance art.
Now how many of you have a big relationship with performance art already? Raise your hand. Yeah, okay. And how many of you, when you hear the words “performance art,” you’re like, “oh, someone’s gonna get naked, they’re gonna smear themselves, they’re gonna roll around on the ground, they’re gonna scream, and, in one minute, they’re gonna be like “this is my art.”?” No? Well, I can do all that, you know, not today, but I can. [students chuckle.] Still that’s not so much what it is or what I’m hoping to mine for you all. Today, I want to model some alternate writing, thinking, creating praxis. So, let’s just take a moment with this, okay? [reads from the slide.]
Performance art is neither acting, nor spoken word poetry. We theorize about art, politics, and culture, but where academic theorists have binoculars, we have radar. We chronicle our times, but unlike journalists, or social commentators, our accounts are non-narrative, and polyvocal. Although, sometimes, they are not vocal at all. Our main artworks are our bodies, ridden with symbiotic, political, ethnographic, cartographic, and mythical implications. We are what others aren’t say, say what others don’t, and occupy cultural spaces that are often overlooked or dismissed.
This quote comes from Guillermo Gómez-Peña’s essay, “In Defense of Performance Art,” and if you look on Google, you will get the whole text where he goes into his experience with performance art, his experiments, and if anyone knows any of his work, it’s pretty awesome. I want to bring this quote to the table for you early on, because what would happen if we replace that phrase performance art, with writing, creativity, with my community, or our collective? What kind of work would be generated from that sensibility? And this is not to malign anyone’s actual work or where they’re located, it’s to open up a door to think about new possibilities.
One exercise that Guillermo uses has also been made quite famous by Marina Abramović. How many of you have heard of this crazy lady? I love her! She’s probably the most famous performance artist in the Western world at least, and the image here comes from her very well-known piece The Artist is Present. One thing I want us to think about is presence. What does it mean to have presence as a writer?
Student: I think it means being able to put yourself there.
GC: Mhmm. What else?
Student: A sense of weight.
GC: Weight, gravity, groundedness.
GC: Oh, vulnerability, yes. What else?
Student: A quality of observation, you’re noticing what’s going on.
GC: So, you’re really there, able to even see, or not just see, but to feel, to perceive, engage.
GC: Awareness. Having awareness, generating awareness. So, inspired by Guillermo and Marina, find a partner who’s close to you…. There’s a person who needs a partner…This is beautiful, look! Sit across from each other. Is anybody missing? ‘Cause I can be in this as well. Wait, you need a partner? Awesome. Let’s see, if you haven’t introduced yourself, introduce yourself.
Students: [introducing themselves]
GC: Get comfortable, it doesn’t have to be directly across from each other, if you don’t want it to be, but where you have access to your partner’s eyes. And, all you’re going to do, for three minutes, is very simply look into the other person’s eyes and allow for the other person to look into yours. Let me be clear about this, you’re not STARING THEM DOWN, and, it’s not like, I’m gonna xxxxxxxx you, you know what I mean? All you’re trying to do is be present with the other person and allow that other person to be present with you. And the mechanism for this is simply looking into another person’s eyes. Have you done it?
Michelle Naka Pierce: We just did this the other day in my pedagogy class.
GC: Yes! Let’s do it again! We do it in my performance art classes all the time and it is amazing how it changes . . . So, I’m setting the timer, and… let’s go.
Students: [Three minutes of being present.]
GC: OK. Now, before you say or do anything else, return to that word you had thinking about our crossroads, take whatever just came up for you in this experience, this little experiment of presence, and just return to that word, and see what comes out. Intersect whatever came up for you back with that word. And just as the exercise just now was to be present with someone else, and to try to allow that person to be present with you, consider your crossroads word, your crossword, think about and identify: who’s lurking in that? who else is present? It doesn’t have to be a person that you know. Who’s lifting up? Who’s present? And write that down, whatever that is. This might be another dot, dot, dot moment, because maybe there’s something that’s percolating, maybe not, we’ll see.
Now here’s an image by Ana Mendieta, an artist originally from Cuba, who came to the United States as a child. She was known for many things, maybe especially for these silhouettes, these imprints of her body in earth, tracing her body, and maybe putting leaves inside that tracing and setting those leaves on fire. Creating these imprints of herself in space. So, very nimbly, very gently, quietly, pick a space in the room, this room, and find a way to imprint your body in that space. Now. Take three breaths once you get where you are. And then with that same gentleness, return to your page and find a way to imprint something about the experience of this imprint in space onto your page…What is the imprint of that imprint in space on your page?
Just one more of this series, because I love this image so much. by artist Nona Faustine. I think that she’s known mainly as a photographer, but I sort of claim her as a performance artist, because this is her, going out into these spaces and actually doing these things. In her “white shoes” series, she takes photos of herself wearing these white shoes at different sites. Here, she stands naked on this wooden box in Wall Street. The name of this image is “From Her Body Sprang the Greatest Wealth.” Do you see? Her presence? Are you present with this?
Moving from an imprint in space, I invite you to do a very quick sketch in your notebooks. I want you to draw yourself naked on a box. Let’s go! Yourself, naked on a box. This is not MFA drawing class. Just imagine, sketch. If you don’t have half of you drawn, catch up! And this you drawn on the box, this box is right at the center of your crossroads. Just as Nona Faustine gave her image a name, give your drawing a name. And for homework, get a box, and go be naked on campus, and have a sign with your title. But you don’t have to do that right now. These are seeds to come back to, things you can think about. Dot, dot, dot.
What are ways for you to do less? What are ways for you to unthink? What are ways for you to think from your body? What are ways for you to engage in space, even if it’s a classroom that you know? Or many classrooms? Is there a way for you to be present in that space differently? Those are some of the things that performance art has helped me engage and consider. It wasn’t about seeming, it was about doing, it was about being in my body, so that for me was radical and opened up a lot of possibilities, and so my writing changed. That’s one line of flight.
How many of you had a chance to read about our convening “Call and Response”? Great. So, you know that we had seven very different black women performers with different relationships to the words “black,” “women” and “performance.” When we came together, we actually did a bunch of these exercises. We each brought an exercise, brought an object, we played with one another, we wrote together, and I would really encourage you all to take a weekend and get some people you know and some people you don’t know, and get together, and just try to make something together in writing.
Here, just to put their energy into the room, we see Awilda Ródriguez Lora from Puerto Rico, Rosamond S. King from Brooklyn, Wura-Natasha Ogunji, now living full time in Lagos, Nigeria, then she was part time there and part time in Austin, Texas, Miré Regulus from Minneapolis, Kenyatta A.C, Hinkle from L.A, Duriel E. Harris from Chicago, and me. I was the one who convened us in Yellow Springs, Ohio, although I’m from Detroit, and so we were all coming from seven different places. And we didn’t all know each other. Really, even me, who was convening it, I didn’t know everybody else. It was an experiment. And our task, for the first half of the experience, was to create a Call, a collective prompt for artistic action. This Call, let’s see, take one and pass, can be an inspiration for you and your own work, as you’re thinking about how to experiment. So, let’s just start here. Please read before a comma. Once a comma comes up, you’re done, and we’re just going around and then I’ll say when to stop . . .
Student: We come from Oxford
GC: You’re next
Student: Los Angeles
GC: You know what, I’m sorry, I think we should stand up, soon there’ll be a break, but let’s bring some energy into this reading, okay? These commas, they punctuate, move us around, so we can loop, come back around. Let’s do it again. . . .
Student: We come from Oxford! . . .
Student: The Arkansas Delta
Student: Horseshoe Mountain . . .
Student: Detroit . . .
Student: Kentrifica . . .
Student: Banjul . . .
Student: We arrived to participate in Call and Response,
Student: an innovative dynamic of black women in performance at Antioch College . . .
Student: for five days
Student: we shared stories and forged a process
Student: debated privilege
Student: agency and forgiveness
Student: we worked
Student: presented work and considered what we are all called to do. . .
GC: Great. Now I’m going to read these core questions: What is the urgency of our invention? How can we engage in collective imagining? How does our work change when we create from a place of freedom? What is irresistible to us? Are you available to yourself, and to your calling? How can we negotiate invisibility and hypervisibility in productive ways? How do we undefine the defined? How can we sharpen our awareness of energy and rhythm in the body? How can we make art that manifests change for a more socially just world? How can we move through or without fear? How can we sustainably care for, and be accountable to ourselves and one another? How can we achieve radical openness? How can we claim joy?
Place a star next to the question that’s most interesting to you for you what you’re thinking about today. Find a different partner and share.
Students: [discussion murmurs]
GC: Now back to your notebook, back to your crossroads, whatever energy has been percolating there, and connect that energy to the energy of this question. Consider the presence of whatever or whoever showed up as well. Consider this all with yourself naked on a box or with anything else that’s come up for you so far.
Students: [writing in their notebooks]
Here can be a nice place for pause, a possible dot dot dot . . . If you feel like you’re on a roll, if something is starting to unfurl for you, you are welcome to just keep writing, but if you want to stretch your legs, or take what they call in dance a bio-break, you know, feel free… We’ll take fifteen minutes? . . .
GC: Welcome back, everyone. As you know, the Call that we composed, in response to those core questions, was a call to conduct “experiments in joy.” But ‘what is joy?’ And what does it mean to claim joy in this moment right now? We see images here of the victims of the senseless massacre at Pulse in Orlando, and we are tasked to mourn these lives, engage their loss, and grief. Here we see images of the commemoration five days later of the Charleston shooting at Mother Emmanuel Baptist Church. And we have to reckon with the fact that a person walked into a site aimed at fostering ecstatic or spiritual joy and opened fire and killed a group of people. How can we claim joy in the wake of that? We could also spend hours just listing people and showing images of those killed by extra-judicial violence. Here’s a reminder of just two: Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. My heart goes out to them and their families. And also, to the people in the next slide who are protesting and calling out the injustice that took these men’s lives.
How and why to claim joy in the midst of that? We didn’t arrive expecting for joy to be a part of our Call. This emerged from our work, our play, our experimenting together. Our arrival at joy came from our awareness and discussion of our embodied experience as black women artists and performers, with different diasporic connections, different sexualities, different relationships to motherhood, different ages, different primary languages, and more. The joy we propose does not ignore the difficult circumstances of this world. It is a response to those circumstances, a defiance, a resistance, a working in and through those difficulties. To claim joy, if you want to gather kittens and rainbows, fine, no really, that’s awesome, if and when those kittens and rainbows are claimed, registered, mobilized in relation to what is urgent for us right now, what’s happening in and with out bodies, what’s happening in the world. What happens when we create from a space of freedom? What is the urgency of our invention? How could our joy become a space of freedom? How might it respond to an urgency? How might it be an urgency?
Experimenting with joy was claiming something about our own humanity, our own possibility, our own love, and on some levels, our own pain. What does it mean to connect joy with pain, not necessarily in opposition? How could joy and pain complement each other and coexist? What does that mean for our work? One thing to say is that I have taken a lot of inspiration from the protest and resistance that has emerged. Black Lives Matter has especially given me hope and strength. Some mainstream media have tried to connect this work to rage, whereas for me, a community of people coming together to speak out and do something has brought joy to my heart, even though, perhaps especially in the midst of great pain. To that end, who here would like to read this by the great Lucille Clifton?
Student: “won’t you celebrate with me/ what i have shaped into/ a kind of life? i had no model./ born in babylon/ both nonwhite and woman/ what did i see to be except myself?/ i made it up/ here on this bridge between/ starshine and clay,/ my one hand holding tight/ my other hand; come celebrate/ with me that everyday/ something has tried to kill me/ and has failed.”
GC: Right. “Come celebrate/ with me that everyday / something has tried to kill me / and has failed.” That is the joy of Call and Response. How many of you have read Lucille Clifton? Whoa. That’s homework assignment number one. Homework assignment number two, get naked and stand on a box. Before that, drop everything and read some Lucille Clifton poems.
Now, let’s break down the five steps here. We’ll do more with some of them than others, but as you see, on that green sheet, we came together and decided that an experiment in joy has some steps, whether you do it as a hairstyle, a recipe, or a conversation with your uncle to work things out . . . The first step is TELL THE TRUTH. Whoa, what does that even mean? In the world that we live in, I mean, my god, who does that? Tell the truth? In an election year? Also, you all are artists, you’re writers, you’re poets, and so tell the truth! Well, is that artful? Is that poetic? Is that too declarative? too simple? too accessible? Is that a declaration? a slogan? just a bunch of subject, verb sentences in a row? What does that mean: tell the truth? Well, let’s do an experiment. Here, in your notebook, just without overthinking it, for two minutes, tell the truth.
Students: [writing in their notebooks for two minutes.]
GC: Now pause. Skip a line. Think about your crossroads, whatever that was for you and how it may or may not have shifted over the course of our time together. Now start telling some truths about that. Tell the truth. Okay, now pause, and the Belle of Amherst will come now from the nineteenth century and join us for one moment. Emily Dickinson reminds us:
Tell all the truth but tell it slant, / Success in Circuit lies/ Too bright for our infirm Delight/ The Truth’s superb surprise/ As Lightning to the Children eased/ With explanation kind/ The Truth must dazzle gradually/ Or every man be blind —
Now, that’s a lot. We could add just two hours to work with this, we don’t have that time, but I want to take a minute with this word, ‘slant,’ still holding, you’re still inside of something, a slant: “Slope, or lean in a particular direction. Diverge, or cause to diverge from a vertical or horizontal.” Before you go back to writing find some way to create some slant in your body. See if you can make it relative to the earlier crossroads you found in your body. Find a slant. I don’t know if that’s a new, a different part of your body that now you’re thinking about. I don’t know if that’s a different movement. I don’t know if that’s a big movement or a small movement, you know, but, close your eyes. And without overthinking, find a slant in your body. Again, don’t overthink this. Think about divergence, move into divergence. Or shift. Change.
When you’re ready, you don’t have to rush out of it, when you’re ready, return to those truths you were telling about your crossroads. And tell the truth slant. So, it’s still true, and also there’s some divergence there. What Lucretius called “the swerve.” And hopefully something, something has been discovered here. Something, maybe even something small, has shifted and it’s still truth, but maybe there’s something new about it that you didn’t know before. Maybe.
That’s the experiment.
Now because I’m astral, as I’m sure you’ve already perceived, I’ve been thinking a lot about the crossroads with this West African symbol, the Bakongo Cosmogram. What happens if we think about intersection and more fluid connections between the living world, or what we could call the material world, and the spirit world. Here we see a kind of curve that moves from birth to death and through it into ancestors and the unborn, circling back again. How can our bodies, in that movement from life to death and back, remain open to receiving different kinds of knowledge, whether through inspiration, creativity, spiritual practice, meditation, or ghosts?
Let me do one more drawing, bringing the crossroads right into the Cosmogram and diving into the quadrants. I first learned about this at a conference in Chicago when a smart theater artist [John Muse] from Haverford repurposed some language from Donald Rumsfeld, of all people, but opened up something very smart, especially when put into the Bakongo cycle of being. He talked about the known knowns, the known unknowns, the unknown knowns, and the unknown unknowns. Ever since I heard this, I’ve been obsessed with this idea!
There are things we know, right? The “known known.” And then there are things we know that we don’t know. Then, what’s more interesting, there’s is a bunch of stuff that we don’t even know that we don’t know, and maybe we can’t even know that we don’t know because as soon as we suspect that we don’t know it, we get into the “known unknown,” right? So, there are whole bodies of knowledge that we don’t even know that we don’t know. But what I think becomes the most exciting discovery of the experiment is the “unknown known.” What can we do as writers and as creative people to crack open and discover something that we actually already know, and didn’t even know that we knew it? That for me is the purpose of my own artistic practice and process. Not just in terms of something narcissistic, glorifying what I already know about myself, but trying to discover, reveal, recognize that maybe what I’ve been telling myself or the way I’ve been telling my truths, may actually not have been the whole story.
And maybe I even knew that the whole time, but my habits as a writer and my ambitions to impress or protect or whatever may have stopped me from really knowing the truth, telling it slant, moving from the body, changing position, engaging in space, risking something, finding out what’s irresistible, moving from urgency, and ultimately claiming joy. For me, this unknown known in the moment that we’re living in politically is deeply connected to joy, has to be connected to joy and new possibility in what was already there. Are you all with me, you understand what I’m saying?
So, let’s deepen the experiment. In your notebook, draw this grid of knowns and unknowns. You can connect it to one of the questions from the Call, maybe the one you put a star by, or if you’re in something kind of juicy and rich at the crossroads, you can stay with that, and then start to engage that work with the categories on the grid. What do I know that I know about this question or this thing alive for me at the crossroads? What do I know that I don’t know? What do I want or need to learn?
This brings us to step two. MAKE SOMETHING NEW. Which on some level is what you all have been doing this whole time that you’ve been in here, just by sitting down and playing. Note I didn’t say ‘working,’ though it is work, but, sitting down and playing, you’re trying to make something new. Here is a little collage [of so-called “experimental” and lyric texts] that I made in response to a questionnaire that Michelle sent me about teaching poetry.
Ezra Pound said, “make it new!” right, so, we can think, oh, I have to get all Modernist, I have to have this big emphasis on a certain kind of experimentation. If that’s your bag, great, but that isn’t necessarily what it means. Because what is new to you relative to telling the truth? That’s a big question. And also, in terms of making it new, I want you to consider playing with your relationship with writing, how you write, what you write from, and also, what you’re reading. Are you just in one line of flight and basically reading one kind of work, by one kind of person? Because if that’s true, that’s not good enough. And I’m not even talking about race and diversity right now, although I am, but I’m also talking about style, I’m talking about form, I’m talking about era, I’m talking about geography, I’m talking about native language, and so that reading process can also be a way to make your writing new.
That’s what this collage is about, putting stuff together that normally doesn’t get put together, like Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and Gwendolyn Brooks. Normally, those are not people taught together. But I think they should be. Then throw in Robert Frost and Harryette Mullen. You can be your own teacher in that way and make things new by juxtaposing different kinds of writing, different kinds of approaches, and then writing from that. Just as the writer in me is saying that, the performance artist in me wants you to think about different ways of embodying your relationships to language.
Here is Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, a Korean-American who did write a masterpiece of a book called Dictee? Who has read that? Masterpiece, right? Genius, wow! She left us too soon. And she also was quite an extraordinary performance artist, conceptual artist, visual artist. Here you see something that she created called “Blind Voice/ Aveugle Voix.” She came out into space and just unrolled these words, and there was something about, again, that relationship between text, page, body, space, time, that was opening up either something for us, looking at it, even, decades later, and then for herself.
If you need to jumpstart something that you’re working on, maybe something you’ve been in for a long time and you think ‘oh my goodness I don’t know if I’m going to get to the end of this,’ maybe you need a radical departure, maybe you need to go out into space with a very large piece of paper or cloth and engage in a different scale with the words that you’re using and then see what that might do to what you’re working on. So literally step outside of the box of the page and see what happens. I mean, it might not help you, but it might, or you might learn something interesting through that process. You’re making whatever that project was new for you.
Just a couple more here. Here is Adrian Piper and I love her. She is one of my personal heroes, a professor of philosophy and a performance artist. This is one of her early pieces in the seventies where she wrote “Wet Paint” on a sign and walked around with that sign on her body around New York City. Here’s another homework assignment: if you were going to paint a sign on your body and walk through space, what would that sign say? Again, rethinking that connection between body and language.
One more! Last one of these: Carolee Schneemann’s, “Interior Scroll.” And I’m sorry, you have to stand up just to get a feel of this, you gotta really feel this. Carolee Schneemann, as you see is a body artist here and she took what male critics said, and I want you to get in the squat, then she took it what male critics said about her work and she pulled it from inside of her and then she read it right from out of her body. So this is something about feedback! And what we’re saying in the world, and how what people say about our work lives in the body. Alright, you can sit.
Here’s another quote I’ve been thinking about a lot, “Aesthetics tracks the sensations that some bodies feel in the presence of other bodies.” And Tobin Siebers, who was actually my professor, which is really cool, he says that a body is not just a physical body, it’s any kind of organism that sort of vibrates, so that a building can be a body, a painting can be a body, a poem can be a body. And so, what is that tracking, that tracery? And what are the ways we can experiment with joy as a part of tracking new sensations, or at least, newly tracking the sensations that somebody else feels in the presence of other bodies?
Step three. INVITE SOMEONE IN. Now, we’ll have that opportunity. Live performance! I’m now going to invite you all into something. I need a time-keeper. [to a student] Thanks! We’re going to take five minutes and when the time keeper starts, you are invited to do whatever you want, whatever you feel moved to do relative to what is happening in the space over the course of that five minutes.
[GC performs “Say My Name (for 270 abducted Nigerian girls).
GC and students discuss the experience of the work and what happened in those five minutes.]
GC: So, this is something I did in the first session of Call and Response, and I’ve done it in other places and for other durations and it’s very intense. We can go to a place. For me it’s about bringing energy out to the world to say these girls are not forgotten. Right now, we are thinking about them. In this world, I want to believe on whatever cellular level that thinking about something or someone, that thinking makes a difference.
Step four. DOCUMENT. What is a document? What does it mean to document something? Here are spirit bottles. Here is an enslaved woman with scars on her back. Here is West African ceremonial scarification of the body, and then here is me after a surgery that I had recently. Here is a little selfie of me and my scar. What happens when we connect document to the body. [This is on some level the energy of the performance that just happened.]
Final step: REPEAT. These are the five steps of the Call and I would just encourage you to play at your crossroads and see how these steps can help you in your work. When we started in Call in Response, we didn’t know what would happen, we didn’t even know what it was going to be, but with this Call, it turned into the Experiments in Joy festival with all these people, us and people in the community, doing experiments in joy. Here are images from that, another one of the artists, and you see us with Vernetta Willet, a community member who sang with us at the festival. There’s also a little video by my student Austin Miller that I can show later if you’re interested, and any more of my own stuff. But I think it’s time for questions, yes? Any Questions?
Student: How did you choose the Nigerian incident?
GC: It chose me. I had no idea that I was even going to do it, I was so upset, and I realized that it was really staying with me and that the energy of it was going to do something negative to me if I didn’t find something to do. I guess you could say it was irresistible to me I just couldn’t not.
Student: So you’re a performance artist, you’re standing there, whether it’s at a protest or as a performance, and then let’s say you come to a point and you’re engaging and you’re being engaged with, and you become really afraid, and you need to move through or without fear and get to the end of this: what do you do to continue going forward? You don’t want to look shaky or start to look weak, you have to go forward. How do you do it?
GC: Step five, repeat. Whatever it is I was doing, I just have to keep doing it. You just have to keep doing it. Because if I’m afraid– well, hold it now, let me step back. Let me get concrete, because we were in Zimbabwe doing a performance and there were certain kinds of things that we do not do. Certain kinds of things that we were told do not work relative to the political situation and so we stopped. When you really are in a situation of serious security and harm and your instincts are saying you know what, stop. Then, stop. Look for the nearest exit, find safety, and get out, right?
Now if we’re just talking about everyday terror, like the fear of aesthetic failure, or embarrassment, or the idea that your work will be a flop, well then you have to move through it, move towards that, because maybe there’s some truth there, some unknown known that you’re about to discover. Maybe you have to keep going and figure out, wait a minute, why am I afraid?
Student: Today you talked about letting go of a desire to impress. You talked about presence, and the presence between body, page, text, space and time, and I was just wondering if you can speak a little bit to the connection between presence and creative bravery.
GC: First of all, all of that stuff that you said I said, that sounds so good. And I feel like I need to read that myself, because, let’s be clear here, I am still working to manifest all of those things. I am not an expert in them yet, and maybe never will be. That’s the first thing. Second, I think there’s an interesting crossroads for me in terms of the presence of the body and the stage, and also the presence of the body on the page and the activation of language. I love the intersection and connection of those things. That’s how I think of it, if that makes sense. Connected together.
MNP: Everybody stand and face Gabrielle. We’re going to take a deep breath in and a deep breath out. And then in some way, it just might come to you…the language of the movement will come from gratitude and this will be our gift to Gabrielle for her gift to us. So, take a deep breath in and a deep breath out…
Everyone: [Round of applause and thank yous.]
Transcribed by Kristiane Weeks-Rogers