Before heading off to Las Vegas, performance artist Marcus Civin hits the “Protest Gym”
Look, I get it: This week—this month, this year—can make you feel like the world is on fire. We still really don’t know how many people died in Puerto Rico due to Hurricane Maria, but it’s significantly more than government’s official number of 64. In Thailand a pilot whale died after eating 80 plastic bags of garbage thinking they were food. Our country is currently holding more than 1,400 immigrant children in a former Walmart Super Center. A quick show of hands: who else feels like they kinda have a modest panic attack when first checking out the news every morning?
Marcus Civin’s hand probably just shot up. If you’ve caught any of the performances by the interdisciplinary artist, educator, and critic over the past eight years since he returned to the city where he grew up, you know there’s an awareness of the political moment infused into the chants, gestures, and collaborative processes that appear in his work. Later this month, Civin moves west to become the chair of UNLV’s College of Fine Arts and professor of performance following his stint at MICA.
Before he leaves, though, Civin invites you to participate in a parting performance. “Protest Gym” takes place this weekend at St. Charles Projects, the gallery curated by local painter Dominic Terlizzi. BmoreArt caught up with Civin and Terlizzi to talk about wrestling means to make art during seemingly dystopian times, how politics can informs performance, and Civin’s exercise regime for protesting.
How did the idea for “Protest Gym” develop?
Marcus Civin: Over the summer, Dominic Terlizzi, Christine Stiver, and I did a day where they came over to my studio, then we went to Dominic’s and then to Christine’s, and Dominic and I started joking that there should be like a Trump portrait show, that we have to start preparing ourselves for what that is going to look like. Who are they going to get to paint that portrait?
But when we started to talk seriously about a Trump portrait show, we realized it goes nowhere fast. It would be a really depressing show. Quentin Gibeau, who runs Gallery CA at City Arts, asked me: Are you sure you want to put all that negativity in the world? No, I don’t.
Dominic Terlizzi: I think we initially thought a Trump portrait show would be really cathartic and fun, but also thought provoking and have a little weight behind it. We started to get into the nitty gritty of it, to turn the idea into something productive but also in a way that gives artists agency and lets Marcus do his thing. We figured three stages of production: open it up to the community to figure out what people are thinking and feeling and figure out the right protocol for artists in this area, at this time. Let them draw it out. And whatever’s generated from that, figure out what kinds of objects or props could be inserted, and from there, let Marcus see what kind of performance can arrive out it.
What came out of that community engagement, last week’s drawing session?
CV: I thought maybe three people would show up, but we had 20, 30 people throughout the night. People kept coming in.
DT: Some of them just planted themselves and they were in the zone, made 10, 15 really good drawings.
CV: Others did two or three. And everyone was really working. I had gone around with my friend Josh Smith and we picked up things that we thought would be good for a protest still life. I grabbed some things from my prop shop. Cindy Cheng brought some paper. Dom brought some pens. And we set everything up, and I think it was Bonnie Crawford or Piper Shepard said that I should pose with some of the props. Maybe it was something about the way they sat down with their drawing pads, but I got the idea in my head that I should pose. We had this tricycle that somebody had given me, and I started doing yoga poses on it, downward facing tricycle or something.
And it freed people up. I had a list of prompts—invent a new protest slogan, or, there’s something horrible under your chair: describe it. Dominic had suggested googling “Trump” and “wall,” “Trump” and “China,” “Trump” and “the environment,” and print out whatever comes up. I had those print outs around. too.
DT: I [initially] thought this call for a draw-a-thon—open to all, no skill level needed—was just fun, [but] I had friends who reached out and said, I really love this idea but I don’t think I can face this. I don’t know if I can go into a room and deal with the contemporary politics and energies in the world right now. And that made it very real for me. And I had other people who said they didn’t know if it was something they could participate in, but they stopped by to check it out, and they stayed. And I realized that [Marcus] posing let everyone loosen up and feel comfortable. Even though they were drawing [Marcus], they were thinking about the world right now and what is going on. And then Melissa Webb started to mumble through some Sarah [Huckabee] Sanders quotes, and it added this soundtrack. It was amazing. Everyone was laughing and then having this deep, reflective sigh of, This is real.
Not to give away the farm about the performance itself, what came out of that to shape the performance this weekend?
MC: I liked certain aspects of what was happening at the draw-a-thon, certain gestures or activities or colors. I was in the gallery on Saturday and Sunday, looking at the drawings. And Dom, and Cristine, Josh, and Yuqi Wang were there, too, and we started throwing out ideas, and hit on this idea of masks. We started to think of some of the drawings as masks, and those will feature in the performance.
I think we’ve done a pretty good social media barrage—#protestgym is a pretty good hashtag—so I think people are expecting some sort of exercise. The other day when I was walking I found some heart barbells—who throws away heart barbells?—and those will figure into it.
Will it be a collaborative or interactive piece in some way?
MC: Yes. When I lived in San Francisco, [performance artist] Guillermo Gómez-Peña was my neighbor, which was an enlightening experience. And one of the things I learned from watching him is how to get permission from an audience member, which I think is incredibly important right now. How do I engage people? What sort of room am I giving them? How am I communicating with them?
What was it about Marcus’ work that you though this idea of “Protest Gym” would fit his skill set?
DT: I had seen a performance of his at School 33 that I really enjoyed. That already had an energy that seemed to be protesting something. This [“Protest Gym”] seemed to open up the door for the protest to be shared, make it a collaborative enterprise. Because when we realized that having an exhibition of Cheetos drawings or something didn’t have enough weight, we had to ask, What was it about this idea initially that made us excited? I think it was finding each other through this conversation about the political moment we’re living in right now. And I think [Marcus’] performances seemed prepped and ready to engage others in that conversation.
How does protest fit into performance?
MC: I went to grad school at UC Irvine, and most of the work was research based and somehow related to politics. And when I moved back to Baltimore I was surprised that the students and faculty weren’t so much working that way. I wasn’t finding that the work got political in the way that I knew, and especially at MICA in 2010.
I was trying to bring some of that to my students. I had this one class where everyone was particularly quiet. They would say brilliant things, they would just mumble basically to themselves. So I started bringing a megaphone to class, and I would ask the students to shout out their comments with the megaphone. And then, when I’d bring guests to class with me, they’d ask, “What are you doing with a megaphone in the trunk of your car?” And I began to think, I might need it.
The amazing thing about my time in Baltimore is that protest became more visible.
I’m going to stop you there for a moment because I want to come back to it. So was it grad school at UC Irvine that introduced a political awareness to your work, or was some element of it already there? I ask because the work I’ve seen of yours over the past five, six years—such as “This Table is a Drum” at School 33 or “Levitate City Hall” at Transmodern—there’s a political element running through it.
MC: My family is political. My brother is a lawyer and my parents are involved in causes, so there’s always been a part of that in my work in some way. The work that I was doing before grad school, I was trying to connect to my Russian heritage. I was rewriting by hand Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Dostoevky’s Crime and Punishment, so it’s always been in there. But it became real in Baltimore in the way that it hadn’t before.
I wanted to ask you specifically about that. I did not grow up here but I’ve spent a majority of my life here since 1988. And I do feel that for some Baltimore artists, definitely for a number of grassroots organizations, there’s been a political if not outright radical element to their work and presence in the city. But since 2015 it’s been much more visible. So I’m curious: how was living in a city and art communities that, for better and worse, is so earnestly trying to wrestle with racism, economic inequality, dysfunctional civic and private institutions informed the work that you were already pursuing?
MC: I wasn’t born here but I grew up here, and at a young age I was learning about politics; my brother was doing political organizing in Baltimore, and I would go to meetings and we were going and doing repair projects on rowhouses and things. I went to a private school and grew up in the lap of luxury, and I was aware, before I could articulate it, of the economic and racial divides in this city. I think that growing up in Baltimore, that awareness becomes part of you, your blood, and I think—I hope—that I makes you become the kind of person that when someone goes, Hey, this is fucked up and we need your help, you just go, OK. Or else, you go insane.
So in 2015, the students were ready in Baltimore to take action. Or, to fast forward a little bit, when Trump was elected, it was the students who organized the protests that week. I was sitting in my office, and I had seen a message that there was going to be a protest that night. And I was wondering, Can I go? And I walked out of the office to go to the bathroom and there’s 10 grad students standing in the hallway. And I asked, What are you doing? And they said, Going to the protest. And I [said], So am I.
Has that activist energy informed your work? How did you respond to that creatively
MC: I like the space of the gallery. I like the frame of a performance festival—or, at least, some kind of invitation and formality, and also a little bit of ambiguity as well. And when I was at the Women’s March with the artist Molly Springfield and there was a woman in a tree who was leading a call and response. And Molly said, “You should do your [call and response performance].” I said, Well, you know, mine’s more like the gym where you work out to do this. This is the real thing. That’s where the title for this piece at St. Charles Projects came from.
So I don’t pretend my work itself is politics or protest, but it might be part of a groundswell. Molly invited me to speak to her class the week after the Trump election. And I was lying in bed texting her, I’m so depressed, I’m not coming, I hate this, I hate myself. She told me I was coming, that [artist] Paul Shortt was first so if I was late, that’d be fine.
I went, and this was around the time that Trump was starting to vilify protest. So I talked to the young Corcoran students, haltingly and emotionally, about how protest is part of democracy, it’s important, we need it. And we did some call and response and then we levitated a statue together, with the power of our voices and our gestures. And according to Molly anyway, you know at least one of the students was, like, Huh, I could try this protesting thing—and maybe the next time somebody comes to them and says shit is fucked up and we need your help they’ll be like, OK.
So you came back to Baltimore in what—2010, 2011? You mentioned that, at least some of the students you were coming across, they were a bit subdued, politically. Have you seen a change in that? In what ways?
MC: I think that’s happening in the world as well, but I do think that the MICA campus has radicalized over the eight years I’ve been there. I think the students seem much more aware of where they are, what the stakes are–and who they are, their privilege. And they’re critical of artists that maybe we would have held up before as political exemplars or even moral exemplars.
I’ve hung around artists long enough to know that teaching provides its own kind of feedback loop. How has working in a program such as the MFA in Curatorial Practice, in its own way a little idiosyncratic, informed your own practice at all.
MC: Working in that program was amazing for so many reasons, even something as basic as that’s how I met [local artist and School 33 exhibitions manager] Melissa Webb. A student, Gloria Azuceña, was working with Melissa, and Gloria was writing a press release [for her thesis project], just a draft, and Melissa stands up and says, Let’s perform this and see how it sounds. And I was just all, heart emojis. I’m such good friends with both of them now.
But how did that impact my work? I think working in academia I’ve learned to trust my instincts a little bit more and be more public. At one point I went in to see the interim dean of graduate studies and he looked at my CV and there were a lot of zines and friends’ publications I’d written for, and he said, “Marcus, you have to start writing for places that matter.” And I took that as a real act of generosity, and I started to think that I have to be an example to my students. They want to participate in various worlds and they want to know what it’s like to participate in those worlds. So I have to be out there participating. If there are doors and windows that I can open and bring students with me, then I need to be knocking on those doors and windows. I have to not just think this stuff and teach this stuff but I also have to be an example in my field. It’s important to be present in the classroom, it’s important to be present for their projects, but they also want to know how you live the life as an artist, and sometimes that’s even more important.
You’ve been back to Baltimore for a good chunk of time. Are there any projects or collaborations that you didn’t get to do that you wish you could have?
MC: I hope that I can continue to interact with people here, so I haven’t been thinking of it that way. But there are things that I’ve done here that were quieter than others that were really important to me, and I am feeling a little nostalgic about those. Baltimore has this amazing community, and I’m so happy that I’ve been here long enough that some things are starting to come around. Stephen Towns, we worked together on really unglamorous, in-the-trenches things at MICA. And just to see the way his works have developed over time and seeing him really skyrocket, I’m just so impressed. I feel really lucky to have witnessed stuff like that.
When I first got here, and I was pitching articles to national magazines about local artists—I won’t name any publication names—but one of the conversations I had with an editor was about Joyce Scott. And they said, “I don’t know what to do with this.” That was eight years ago.
It does feel like some artists are getting a little more recognition for the work that they’ve been doing, in some cases for a long time. And that is nice to see.
MC: And the collective spirit here is incredibly instructive and, for the most part, really graceful. We did this show at City Arts when I first moved in there where a group of neighbors built these big, wood tables, and we wanted to exhibit a special object from everybody in the building. We all kind of know each other, so we just went around on days off and weekends, knocking on every door, and almost every lent us an object for the show. There were little catnip things and weird sacred objects and art works. A Casio recorder. A chair, a sofa. And we put them all on tables throughout the gallery and we labeled them with tags.
And that was the show. We called it Baltimore 1, and I think it’s one of the better things I’ve done in Baltimore. And doing it was so much fun. Catherine Akins, who was Gallery CA’s director at the time, said, We should send out a press release, and send out invitations, and have an opening. And I was, like, We should? I mean, we did. She was right, but it wasn’t all about that. It was mostly for us.
You know how when you’re moving you find all this stuff you forgot you had? When I first started in Curatorial Practice we did a manifesto show where everybody put manifestos on the wall of the classroom. And I kept the whole stack of them. People sent them to me from all over the place because I put out a call on social media, such as it was then. I asked everyone I knew at MICA to contribute, and the students, and their friends, and it was awesome. And it was just in a classroom.
Finally, what exercises do you do to prepare for “Protest Gym”?
MC: Well, first it starts with diet. I think the only divine foods are bagels with cream cheese, oatmeal raisin cookies, pretzels, and maybe a tuna fish sandwich once a month. That’s the diet. I also think the only thing that Ronald Reagan got right is that you should sleep until you wake up. That’s very important to living a life.
In terms of exercise, I’m a lapsed swimmer. Really, I recommend just talking to people as much as possible. Listening is harder. But that’s what I try to do for exercise.
Catch “Protest Gym” June 16 at 7:00 pm, and June 17, 2:00 pm.
Performances: With audiences, Civin will provide instruction for participation in what might be productive actions for our bodies, what might prepare us to be decent protesters, or at least make us somehow sort of ready when dissent is in order. The performance will be repeated twice. Arrive early or on-time.
Protest Gym, an interactive performance exhibition by Marcus Civin in the gallery at St. Charles Projects. All are welcome to participate. Protest Gym is free.