*a n e m o n e
by: Gabrielle Civil , September 12, 2018
by: Gabrielle Civil , September 12, 2018
* a n e m o n e
a performance art work by Gabrielle Civil
premiered in the Pleasure Rebel series curated by Nastalie Bogira at the Bryant Lake Bowl in Minneapolis, MN in 2012.
photographs by Sayge Carroll
videography by Kelley A. Meister
* a n e m o n e
the black woman performance artist between windflower and sea.
moving through the tinny, post-metallic, into facing desire.
succulent thinking. an attempt at body. pleasure rebel how . . .
*a n e m o n e was created for Pleasure Rebel, Nastalie Bogira’s groundbreaking series of New Queer Performance in Minneapolis. When Nastalie first invited me, I wasn’t sure if I and my work quite belonged. Queer performance seemed most to describe work by those who directly identified as queer in public and political ways, and who often suffered discrimination for that reason. My own murky sexuality (most often described to myself as a complete flop or a parade of humiliation and neglect), separate from any precise sexual desire or attraction, seemed to not quite fit the bill. Moreover, I didn’t want to take away an opportunity from an LGBT queer artist.
Nastalie kindly responded that the queerness of Pleasure Rebel need not only apply to the declared identity of the artist but could also relate to the quality or approach of the work. They were interested in my performance practice and didn’t believe that hosting me in Pleasure Rebel would take away any vital opportunities. The series had already supported many self-described queer artists and would continue to support many more. Nastalie’s expansive vision and their generosity in curation and production deserve a lot of credit for the existence of this piece. *a n e m o n e was made on some level because they opened up space for it to exist.
Continuing the explorations of love, race, and sexuality of my earlier work (“The Secret Garden (Closet)” (2002); “after Hieroglyphics” (2004); and heart on a sleeve (2006)), *a n e m o n e (2012) plays and displays moving in and through states of interiority and exteriority. In the first section, the audience watches me listening over headphones to a tape recording of myself reading a letter to my therapist about love. Only I can hear that amplified interior voice, but they can watch my body respond, see my hands start to move over my own body. Perhaps they think I’m responding to someone else’s desire, but it’s actually an attempt to withstand my own desire, to keep desiring myself. Looking back, this offers perhaps the best snapshot of my sexuality ever.
* a n e m o n e unfurls both girlish and cerebral. The work highlights my penchant for self-protection through the swaddling and unswaddling of my body. It showcases my romantic nature with fresh flowers and talk of love. It also reveals my deep, abiding sense of outsiderness. Here sexuality is mediated by headphones, the internet, and books. At the same time, moments erupt of unleashing —a turn of the body, an outburst of song, a repeated turn of phrase (big black dick), even frenzy at the end.
Throughout, the work mines liminality to sex, sexuality, love and queerness. Indeed, “the couples” mentioned in the piece, the positive models of love, are all queer: from my gay landlords, to my friends Sharon and Therese, to the Haitian poet Assotto Saint and his partner, Jan Holmgren. The invocation of Saint whose books are shamefully out of print remains one of my favorite aspects of the piece. Meant as a heartfelt homage, the incorporation of his words in my text and action, can hopefully help keep his writing alive.
* a n e m o n e was a wonderful piece to make and perform. Perhaps because it happened at a rare time when I was actually in love (with a queer person) and making work within my own beautiful Fish House studio, the piece emerged as something lush and layered with possible momentum towards hope. There’s a desire for transformation, for dissolution that never quite happens, or perhaps is just beginning.
A body into sea creature into flower.
* a n e m o n e – Gabrielle Civil
(threshold: search engine)
TRACK 1: BEEZ IN THE TRAP-NICKI MINAJ
SLIDE 1 (ALREADY UP): BLACK SCREEN
WITH THE WORD “ANEMONE”
Gabrielle stands puffy and swaddled in the space looking.
She holds up her flashlight and starts to survey the audience
(she is looking for softness).
At the end of her search, she says:
“but finding softness is a harder thing.”
TRACK 1 STOPS
SLIDE 2: SEA ANEMONES WITH ELECTRIC KELP
(part one—the tinny)
She walks back, sets down her flashlight,
picks up her tape recorder and presses play.
After a beat of hearing just the voice on the tape,
( . . dear dr. depies . . .), other music starts to play.
TRACK 2: BARELY BEAR-DUMB TYPE
She proceeds to unravel, sheds up and through the red.
She puts on red gloves and head phones.
You can overhear the tinny resonating in her ears.
With one gloved hand on the tape recorder,
she moves the other gloved hand under her skirt,
down between her legs. She begins to explore.
What is she hearing? What is happening to her?
She stands up and turns off the tape.
TRACK 2 STOPS
She says: “and we are not the same.”
SLIDE 3 WHITE FLACCID DICK (SEPIA TONE)
(part two—the big black dick)
She delivers a long speech about the big black dick.
BIG BLACK DICK SPEECH
it’s harder than you might think
to find a flaccid black dick on the internet
sure, you can find plenty of erect black dicks,
hard, massive, gigantic even, humungous, well hung,
penetrating, poking, preening, engulfed in someone’s mouth,
serving—well no: being serviced, served
but finding softness is a harder thing
the softness of the body . . .
WHAT HAPPENED TO ME TO MAKE ME THIS WAY?
i was trying to find this thing on the internet
this bell hooks quote—it was in one of her books
breaking bread, talking back, yearning,
one of the early ones and she was saying
black women always say they want to be treated right,
they say they want to be understood,
they say they want (she sings)
A MAN WITH SENSITIVITY A MAN LIKE
wait—that was Ralph Tresvant, the lead singer
of New Edition (before Johnny Gill) but
you probably don’t know him
you know Bobby Brown or Chris Brown , right?
bell hooks said they say they want to be treated right
they say they want to be understood
but all they really want is the big black dick. . .
the big black dick—try typing in the phrase
big black dick in the internet and
see what comes up. Exactly.
the big black dick I asked him once—
WHAT DOES IT FEEL LIKE? WHEN IT’S IN ME
WHAT DOES IT FEEL LIKE? HE SAID—
YOU’RE JUST MAD THAT YOU DON’T
HAVE ONE OF YOUR OWN. . the big black dick
No—I am trying to understand feeling the big black dick
CAN YOU LOSE SOMETHING YOU’VE NEVER HAD?
I had a student—a lovely white Christian feminist
on her way to the marines—Praise Jesus! they could use her—
and I’m not being ironic, and neither was she—my student wrote
a knock-out paper on the poet Assotto Saint. Haitian-American,
black, gay, AIDS-activist lover of the 1980s. Assotto Saint,
according to my student, was a black feminist warrior.
She wrote about him and bell hooks and subverting
white hegemonic capitalist patriarchy and the big black dick
the big black dick—say it with me: the big black dick—
and it made me wonder:
how did she know? how did she know?
AND HOW TO TALK ABOUT THIS THING THAT HAPPENS TO ME
WHEN YOU COME TOO CLOSE, COME DEEP INSIDE ME AND
ENOUGH! – THIS THING I WANT TO SAY/ THIS THING I SAY
I WANT / THIS THING I DON’T SAY I AM LOOKING FOR
this softness another kind of being apparent
it becomes /maybe less a stand in than something else . . .
more and more a body the more you look at it
a field of flowers
SLIDE 4 BLACK SLIDE NO WORDS
(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.
you need a man / with /
sens-i-tiv-i-ty / a man like
She delivers a speech about
Assotto Saint and the edge of desire.
ASSOTTO SAINT & THE EDGE OF DESIRE
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 lyrics of one their songs. . .
the chorus goes:
“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.)
HE ASKED: ARE THERE ANY COUPLES THAT YOU ADMIRE?
touch is what i want
WELL, THERE’S MY LANDLORDS DAVE & TY. . .
touch is what I need
AND MY FRIENDS SHARON & THERESE. . .
touch me, be with me
BUT A COUPLE everywhere
IN MINNESOTA COUPLES COUPLES EVERYWHERE
BUT A COUPLE WITH SOMEONE IN IT LIKE ME WELL
(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 boys for love advice.
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.
to be dehumanized by a dick?
And to be humanized by one?
HE ASKED ME:
“WHEN DID YOU DECIDE YOU WOULD NEVER LOVE ANYONE?
WHEN DID YOU DECIDE NO ONE WOULD EVER LOVE YOU?
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
where over & over you lay
to bury yourself
through thirty years [thirty-seven years actually]
of fits furies & fangs
* * *
here lives she
whose womb is a wound”
here lives he
whose words are submarine.
Saint Haitian American
black gay AIDS activist out of print lover .
And I love him, and we are not the same.
(part five-anemone (dissolution))
She moves to the floor, begins a slow body undulation.
She says: from the flower to the sea . . .
SLIDE 5 BLUE-GREEN ANEMONE
when you look up anemone
in the internet encyclopedia
you find this word—disambiguation.
how to make sure that you find the thing you’re looking for?
a bisexual flower in the buttercup family
a sea creature too private to tell
She delivers a riff loosely based on different types of anemones
found in the internet encyclopedia.
- Anemone acutiloba – Sharp-lobed Anemone
- Anemone afghanica
- Anemone airei
but oh the undulation
- Anemone alpina – Alpine Anemone
- Anemone baicalensis – Baikal Anemone
- Anemone blanda – Greek Windflower
her entire body a mouth
- Anemone canadensis
- Anemone caroliniana – Carolina Anemone
- Anemone chinensis – Chinese Anemone
tentacles. extra sensory hair
- Anemone coronaria – Poppy Anemone
- Anemone cylindrica – Thimbleweed, Prairie Crocus, Candle Anemone
- Anemone deltoidea – Three-leaved Anemone, Columbian Windflower
- Anemone hortensis – Broad-leaved Anemone
- Anemone hupehensis – Chinese Anemone
pages splayed open in her hands
- Anemone lancifolia – Mountain Thimbleweed
- Anemone leveillei – Woodland Anemone
like a geode split open
- Anemone narcissiflora
- Anemone nemorosa
- Anemone occidentalis – Western Pasqueflower
easily raised from the seed
- Anemone oregana – Western Wood Anemone, Oregon Anemone
- Anemone parviflora – Small-flowered Anemone
- Anemone quinquefolia – American Wood Anemone
in the search engine
Anemone ranunculoides – Yellow Woodland Anemone
TRACK 3: HIDDEN PLACE-BJÖRK
they will flower in may & june
- Anemone riparia – Riverbank Anemone
- Anemone rivularis – Riverside Windflower
- Anemone sylvestris – Snowdrop Windflower
the internal anatomy of anemones is quite complex.
- Anemone thomsonii
- Anemone trifolia
- Anemone tuberosa – Desert Anemone, Tuber Anemone
- Anemone virginiana
and we are not the same.
Gabrielle is attempting
a state of dissolution,
a becoming anemone.
She is still moving . . .
* a note on the video documentation
Uploading the video for * a n e m o n e reminds me of a core adage. A video doesn’t tell you what happened in a performance; it tells you what “what happened” looked like. I’ve heard some actors never watch their own movies. As a black feminist performance artist, I often cringe. Watching a video of my work becomes a relentless assault on memory. Was the space really that small? Were the curtains that shabby? What seemed like a magical universe can turn into amateur hour, a try-out for Performance Idol broadcast only for shits and giggles.
I’ve written before about how the pressure to record a video of a performance once threatened to usurp the performance itself, and how documentation has become the de facto materialization of the performance art object. And yet. What I wouldn’t give to see video of Maudelle Bass performing or Zora Neale Hurston’s folk choreography of The Great Day.
This video of * a n e m o n e was kindly recorded by the Minneapolis-based artist Kelley A. Meister who served as videographer for “Pleasure Rebel.” Despite my anxiety and dread of deflation, I remain deeply grateful to have this recording of a work performed, like many of my actions, only once. Different from Sayge Carroll’s brilliant photographs, made without the presence of an audience, this video captures continuity and collective presence. Different from the performance text—part score, part transcription, part aspiration, part souvenir—this video aims for actuality more than imagination.
The documentation of the event, part of my compensation for performing in the series, becomes eternal compensation for those not present in the room. You can’t feel the palpable energy, the rapt attention of the audience, the intimate hold of the moment by watching a video. But you can see the sweat on my skin, the fresh Gerber daisies in my hair, my long pink and sky-blue braids. You can hear me singing Ralph Tresvant and scooping with gusto the line “the big black dick” over and over again. You may not hear the faint clinks of beer bottles or the sounds of bowling balls in the next room. (Strike!) What you hear for sure, overamplified, is the laughter of the audience.
At so many key moments, why does the audience laugh? It’s not so much that the material is funny —although I chuckle myself at the absurdity of the internet or my weird made up rendition of Sex is what I want . . . More than a direct response to my words, I believe audience laughter materializes what’s happening with and in bodies in the room. Inside the space of a performance art work, we become aware of our own bodies in funny ways. The laughter becomes an assertion, a sometimes involuntary insertion into the performance, at times a kind of companion. It constitutes a coming together as a performance body, an audience, and intones a register of their response to the ample, intimate presence of my own black female body.
In Minnesota, black women’s bodies are not standardly on display, or certainly not my guises in * a n e m o n e. I took the sound of audience laughter as a sign that the people there were somehow with me: surprised, delighted, perhaps a little unsettled at moments, but interested, trying to show up. My response may be self-serving. (Black women in love are frequently the butt of the joke.) Audiences often laugh when they aren’t quite sure what else to do. Viewers of the video can decide for themselves as they watch us, inside the moment, then and now, navigating desire, sexuality, memory, witness, and display.
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