Now Is the Time for "Glitch Feminism"
Legacy Russell's manifesto is an invitation to discover the power of the glitch.
The curator and writer Legacy Russell first started thinking about “glitches” as a “uniquely Black, queer, and feminist tool” back in 2012. She started noticing the disappearance of queer and Black performance and nightlife spaces both in London, where she was living at the time, and in her native New York City. At the same time, Russell realized that on the internet, these communities were not only thriving, but were at the forefront of a new way of thinking about the Internet, net art, and cyberfeminism among other subjects. “I was doing a lot of reading and research about the digital and while it was so clear to me—as I continued to participate in my own communities on- and offline—that black and queer artists and thinkers were (are!) contributing so much to a digital discourse,” she explains over email, “when I went to conferences, sought out group exhibitions at the time, there were so many straight, white, cis-gendered people being prioritised in [these] conversations.” And so the “glitch”—an error or a mistake—becomes a way to disrupt the norm. It is a place in between states of being, where people can create their own world, and imagine their own versions of utopia. GARAGE spoke to Russell about writing on a subject that is ever-changing, and publishing a book about finding new ways to live and experience freedom, when the notion of tearing down oppressive systems in our society, has become part of the mainstream.
You’ve been working on this book for a number of years now, thinking and writing about a topic that is very much alive and that seems to shift and move with the passing time and new developments in culture and society. I was wondering how that affected the way you put it all together.
[Laughs] Yes! This book has been a labor of love. It’s been drafted and redrafted. It began as essays intended to only live on the Internet, commissioned early on by The Society Pages and Rhizome. I wrote it for myself, for my community, for those who needed it and found it because they were searching for it. Those early essays felt so deeply intimate and personal to me and even though they live in public space it was a shock to some degree when I started realizing how far they had traveled, when people started writing to me and telling me how much they meant to them, how they saw themselves in the glitch. That gave me courage, hearing from folx that the work resonated with them. It’s been hard to write a book about, as you said something that “shift[s] and move[s];” so deciding on a format that could speak to that was challenging and took time and a willingness on my part to, like, be flexible and let the fluidity of the text show me the way. I think some part of me was so worried that writing things down would by default make them static and rob them of their movement; however I realized that the way I could allow the text to stay as a living breathing organic material was to speak to and through the practices of the incredible artists in the book, whose work intersects with the proposition the glitch puts forward, and whose work helps us better understand how we can break what’s broken as a commitment toward changing the world, and doing art differently, and more sustainably.
How do you feel the current environment—the pandemic, the quarantine, the protests, the impending political apocalypse maybe?— might affect or influence the way people read Glitch Feminism?
I prefer not to guess too much at this because I want people to decide for themselves what this book can do; the reader doing this thought-work with me is what makes the text collaborative and volatile and pushes it forward. I could never have fathomed that the book would launch in this particular moment, no one could have ever predicted this, nor do I wish what has happened on the world as this moment in time is so deeply triggering, exhausting, violent for us all. But it certainly has been incredible to realize that this project of mine has entered the world in a moment where the entire world is talking about what it means to tear it all down, how to build something new, most particularly as a response to seeing systems en masse failing us. My hope is that by thinking about how we can collectively embody error we can think through together what it means to push the machine of culture and society to the point of failure necessary to be truly transformative.
Talk to us about your use of AFK (Away From Keyboard) rather than IRL—when did you personally realize that “IRL” was no longer an accurate description of the world?
The AFK / IRL distinction is something that was theorized first by Nathan Jurgenson. Nathan notes in his work and writing on this that “AFK” is more appropriate because it makes it clear that who we are away from our screens is not living separately from the people we are when we are on the Internet. A lot of the problems of the world are reflected online and vice versa. The more we think of digital space as real space the more we can hold ourselves and one another responsible for what happens there, and, too, acknowledge that the material of the digital as a cyberfeminist material, as a queer material, as a Black material, is one that is very real, the relationships we build, the creativity, the play, the thought-work, the explorations, the expression—every part of this has the potential to push us further in expanding who we are offline, just as much as we might do while we are in front of our screens. Glitch Feminism speaks from that place, celebrating the loop between on- and offline as being formative for so many queer and Black people who have grown up in the Internet, as a deeply meaningful and networked life, community, creative material.
I loved the section titled “Glitch Ghosts.” Can you talk a bit more about “ghosting the body”?
Ghosting the body as a call to action is intended to get us thinking about how we define “body.” Body is a complex construct, as when and how we name and define bodies we get to the root of the reality that all bound up in body are often some of the most troubled—racialized, classed, xenophobic, transphobic, ableist—tropes of our society. Glitch Feminism empowers us to think about the power dynamics there, and where we might empower ourselves to refuse normative determinations about what a body should look like, how a body should move, what a body’s rights are, as we continue journeying toward a radical and dynamic and range-full selfhood.
There are a group of artists whose work you come back to throughout the book. Why was it important for you to establish this canon?
I’m not at all interested in establishing a “canon,” and that’s not what the book is supposed to do. A “canon” is a gatekeeping word, it operates with the assumption that some are kept in, and others kept out and in fact it is precisely because of the problem of the art historical and digital canons respectively and as they intersect that I wanted to write this book, to be a Black and queer person who is able to speak to and historicize Black and queer histories that are radical and innovative and deserve to be celebrated always. I prefer to think of Glitch Feminism as a chorus or an act of collective congregating; the book brings folx into conversation who often have been tracked separately, but whose practices do so much for one another when they share space. I wanted to see Audre Lorde and Essex Hemphill living in the epicenter of a discussion about cyberculture, to champion Octavia Butler in her work that helps us envision new futures, right alongside artists like Juliana Huxtable, manuel arturo abreu, Sondra Perry, boychild, and more. The book is not intended to be a “complete history”—it’s the beginning of a conversation, it’s trace-making, a mark of space and time that makes it known that we’ve been here, we will continue to be here, and that cyberspace and the creative production generated there is one that would quite literally not exist without us.