PhD Candidate in the Department of Performance Studies
Gervais Marsh is a PhD candidate in the Department of Performance Studies in the School of Communication. Through a meditation on Black visual culture and performance, his research engages the ways Black people sit alongside the irreconcilability of anti-Blackness while envisioning possibilities for living that forge modes of knowing and being outside of the prescriptives imposed on “the human”.
How would you describe your research and/or work to a non-academic audience?
My writing is animated by the question: How do Black people both recognize the irreconcilability of living in an anti-Black world, and, rather than view it as a foreclosure, approach these conditions as sites of potentiality to pursue otherwise modes of thinking and being? To envision otherwise affirms the belief that there has been/always will be something else. My project looks at ways Black artists create work that attends to the interiority of Black life, connecting several geographic locations: Kingston, London, Johannesburg, and Chicago. For these specific artists, Black queer subjectivity is central to their work, recognizing it as the starting point to consider Black subjectivity more broadly.
What have been some of the most memorable twists and turns of your career?
Through my research, I have traveled to several different countries, including Trinidad and Tobago, the UK, and South Africa, and I have spent significant amounts of time in Jamaica, where I grew up. I have conducted interviews with artists, academics, writers, and activists in each location and am deeply grateful for my connections with them. I continue to learn so much from these relationships and look forward to pouring into their work as our paths stay aligned.
Tell us what inspired your research and/or work.
My work is inspired by the beautiful, difficult, and nuanced ways that Black people forge space and understand themselves in the world. It is profoundly influenced by my life growing up in Jamaica, the opportunities to grow with Black folks across different locations, and a belief in the expansive realm of Black interior life.
What is a mistake you have learned from in your career?
I came into my PhD program naive to some of the realities of academia. I did not always engage this path as a job, one rooted in capitalist institutions, and thus internalized some of the negative experiences I had the first few years. I have learned that academic institutions in their current structure are not invested in the well-being of scholars and students. I have also learned that no scholar should be idealized. In these spaces, our care for one another and the prioritization of our well-being are vital.
Whom do you admire in your field and otherwise, and why?
I deeply admire the other students who have become my community while at Northwestern. All these folks have shown me tremendous care, intentional pedagogy, and beautiful friendship. I am inspired by the students organizing through NU Community Not Cops, who are bringing critical awareness to the push for police abolition on campus and nationwide while navigating the lack of support and aggressive responses from the university administration. I am also inspired by the Northwestern University Graduate Workers and the necessary efforts they are making to ensure better working and living conditions for all graduate workers, while in solidarity with other campus workers. These student and worker led movements are essential to interrogating and changing the oppressive power structures that operate at Northwestern.
What do you find both rewarding and challenging about your research and/or work?
Most of my research thinks both about the lives that Black people create in the world and the continuous, unfathomable violence they face. The grief is often too much for me to hold, yet within the difficulty comes the recognition that there are other possibilities and that there always have been. Finding the moments, thoughts, and gestures toward beauty and calm while recognizing the reality of violence is where I sit.
What is the biggest potential impact or implication of your work?
I’d like to think of my work as love letters to those who have poured into me, taught me, and created community with me. I hope the work gives them warmth and serves as an affirmation of what each of them do in their own lives. It is one small piece of the expansive possibilities of thought and creation that emerges from Blackness and Black peoples’ lives.
Tell us about a current achievement or something you're working on that excites you.
I am excited to gain more experience doing curatorial work through opportunities with the Hyde Park Art Center (HPAC), the Block Museum and the South Side Community Art Center. I am working on upcoming exhibitions at HPAC and digitally archiving the work of Chicago visual and fiber artist Robert Paige. Spending time with and learning from Robert in preparation for his 2023 exhibition has been such a joy, and I look forward to where my curatorial work will lead me. I am also on the board of the Chicago Freedom School and look forward to supporting their work nurturing leadership among youth of color and leading social movements for a more equitable Chicago.
Published: November 16, 2021
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