IN DIALOGUE WITH LEGACY RUSSELL, CURATOR, WRITER AND ARTIST.
Russell's work focuses on gender, performance, feminism and the application of digital material toward the empowerment of queer people and people of color. In September 2018 she was appointed as the Associate Curator of Exhibitions at The Studio Museum in Harlem, where she has recently launched her first exhibitions with the Museum, Future Continuous at NYPL’s historical George Bruce Library, featuring multidisciplinary artist Kambui Olujimi and photographer Andre D. Wagner in a debut collaboration, and Radical Reading Room a project that pays tribute to the history of black printed matter and its circulation. Russell’s most current exhibition for the Museum opened in June at MoMA PS1. The exhibition MOOD: Studio Museum Artists in Residence features Studio Museum’s signature Artist-in-Residence program, taking place for the first time in the Museum’s history as the institution undergoes the construction of its new building on 125th Street in Harlem. Russell is also the founding theorist behind Glitch Feminism, a cultural manifesto and movement that deploys the digital as a means of critiquing and resisting gender binary. Her book of the same name is forthcoming from Verso Books; for this work she was recently awarded the 2019 Arts Writing Award from the The Carl & Marilynn Thoma Art Foundation. Russell is dedicated to producing and expanding scholarship concerning this hegemonic and socio-techno construct of gender and sexuality and to empowering POC to participate in restructuring the cultural landscape through the space of the internet.
Let's talk about your origin as a cultural curator and as a cultural contributor and writer yourself. Where would you say you began?
I think it would be too simplistic or didactic to pin my interest in curatorial practice on one or two moments. For me, my arrival at curating came via lots of different directions, and not always from an institutional source. Growing up in the East Village I spent time as a tween and teen going to PS 122, CBGBs, Theater for the New City, Danspace, Poetry Project, The Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Educational Center, Joe’s Pub (where I saw my first Toshi Reagon show), Stingy Lulu’s (where I saw my first drag show). In Tompkins Square Park there was the yearly HOWL Festival, Charlie Parker Jazz Festival, Wigstock. My mom took me to see Karen Finley and Sandra Bernhard on multiple occasions as a kid and it was like a pilgrimage to go see these women get super wild in a black box, to get immersed in a world with them for an hour or two. I worked as a hostess in high school at the famous Beige party at B.Bar and Grill, and as a coat check girl at Coffee Shop in Union Square; there I got to meet people like Sophia Lamar and Michael Musto. These are the spaces, experiences that showed me how performance can be programmed, most particularly in making the link between an increasingly vanishing black and queer nightlife in downtown New York and how cultural production can play a critical role in advocating for the preservation, protection, maintenance, of these important spaces, communities, histories, futures.
I say “cultural production” because for a long time I was very reticent to use the word “curator”. It seemed to me that a curator in the traditional and most cynical sense would work to rarify lived experience, to alienate it from its root by placing it within a gallery space, rendering it unrecognizable to its original source, or community. However “cultural producer” also comes with its own trip-wires - what does it mean to “produce” culture, anyway? Ultimately my relationship to the language of curatorial practice has always been one rife with discomfort, as I was never interested in playing a role of “cultural production” under the weird sun of art/world capitalism; this feels violent, and ill-fitting. Same goes for playing the role as “curator”. I was always more interested in artists who got together to create programs that spoke through a particular voice or vision; that action of creative organizing was something that excited me in all its possibility. I think for me I always thought of it in terms of making space, creating opportunity for the invisible to become visible, building projects, conversations, exhibitions that interrogate the very complicated business of art.
I wanted to—still want to—ask hard questions about what has brought us here, whose history deserves to be told. What sparks my drive is being committed to occupation of space across an exclusionary art history, one filled with so many blind spots. I want to occupy art history as a territory, and push it to its breaking point. If that’s what being a curator is, then that’s what I want to be.
What are some elements of your early career and life, that continue to manifest within your current practice?
I’ve always had an engagement with queer nightlife and this remains central to my investment in making space for performative practice, be it on- or offline. As a younger person I was organizing weird performative events that straddled the line across nightlife/club space and art space from my teenage years onward. In high school I hosted poetry readings, themed rooftop parties, reading groups. My first year in college at Macalester I organized my first art show at The Cabooze in Minneapolis which was like a music venue biker bar type spot. We had a series of performances and hung art all over the place. I think it was called “Missed America”, which makes me chuckle when I think about it now. It was packed and super fun and from that point forward I knew it was something I wanted to do more of. My junior year in school, when I was studying abroad in Barcelona, I got news that I had been accepted into a summer fellowship at The Met in New York. So the second my studies finished I got on a plane, came back to New York, and spent the summer working closely across two departments under the direction of Donna Williams, Chief Audience Development Officer, and Curator Lisa Messinger in 19th Century Modern & Contemporary at The Met. This was during the time that Phillippe de Montebello was the Director and The Met was asking some big questions about how to diversify their audiences and exhibitions. Literally there were conversations I sat in on where people were wondering how to get black people, queer people, female-identifying people, to feel more at ease in the galleries. I’d say this was an eye-opening first dip into the institutional world of curatorial practice, and of programming. I ended up leading a tour that summer called “Pink Painter: The Hunt for the Female Voice at The Met” which I’m pretty sure rubbed many folks the wrong way, but ultimately was my way of making space, inciting dialogue over the course of my fellowship that summer. What was supposed to be a 30-45 minute tour ended up lasting two hours as I trekked with attendees across the Museum to look at the twenty or so works by women on the walls. All that space, all the hard work of so many amazing women, and space had been made for only twenty of them. This was 2007. I went back to school and graduated in 2008 resolved to do some work to change this.
You coined the term Glitch Feminism and have produced scholarship and lectured on this concept. You’ve used the term “socio-techno” as you’ve spoken about Glitch Feminism - can you unpack this for us?
“Socio-techno” is where society meets technology. As a site of practice it observes from a position that these two things are inherently bound up within each other in a modern world. Within the discussion of Glitch Feminism, really what I want to look at is how we can use the digital to break away from the social, cultural construct of body binary. The Internet is not emancipatory as it often promises it to be, but for black and queer bodies there is so much range being explored, performed via digital material. I want to talk about that, celebrate it, center the artists doing this work, and loop it back to where we can also see examples of this within our everyday—where digital art imitates life, and vice-versa.
Why is it necessary to embrace the term “glitch” when speaking to and about online cultural and literary criticism?
The language of glitch is about error. It’s about looking at a machine and thinking about why it functions the way it does. So when a glitch happens, often we see it as a mistake. But what if the machine is broken? Can a mistake in a broken machine be a correction? That’s what glitch does for us, it makes us think about how to celebrate our very necessary, very gorgeous “failure” within the context of a society that was not built to support QTPOCI+ bodies, and to celebrate the survival, joy, life of failing to assimilate within a flawed social and cultural machine.
Your intention with Glitch Feminism is to break away from what constitutes canonized cultural and literary pieces, and to dismantle these socio-cultural structures in order to reconstruct these spaces, moving forward to include marginalized or overlooked perspectives/ histories. What makes the Internet an essential platform for political action?
One of the biggest crises of our time is the restriction of movement. People are unable to move, having their right to move and travel restricted, more often than not to their detriment. This is disproportionately happening to people of color, female-identifying people, and queer people. The Internet is not a utopia—far from it—but what’s important to remember is that if movement is being restricted more and more we have to figure out how to utilize materials that still allow bodies, information, ideas to travel. This journeying is a key component to organizing. We will have to think deeply as we advance into the years ahead about how to find new strategies of refusal within the context of the digital which, as an AFK (Away From Keyboard) world, is increasingly surveilled by the state. The mining of data as a component of this is devastating—the way this material is being used to track people, to close pathways, to keep people from moving—and so it is super important to remain an active participant in criticizing these structures, even if it might feel paradoxical as we continue to use them toward other means in our day to day.
Speaking to the exhibition you curated at IMT Gallery in London, Wandering/Wilding: Blackness on the Internet, which reflects on the policing of bodies of color and their movement: Do you feel that the Internet provides freedoms separate from the non-digitized world?
Absolutely, yes. And absolutely not. It’s complicated. Let’s vibe on this more. DM me and we’ll talk. (laughs)
What concepts are you working to develop through the Radical Reading Room program you’re running at the Studio Museum?
Radical Reading Room is the first full-scale site-specific project to open at our Studio Museum 127 space, located on 127th Street in Harlem. This exhibition brings together over 40 contributors to reflect on the in its intersection of black printed matter. Reading rooms abound across all different types of spaces these days, institutional and otherwise. In this case the goal was to create a space where people could spend time with the materials on-site, assemble with others to think, discuss, and engage, and as well add their own printed materials to the living archive of Radical Reading Room. The response to this project has been monumental, and super exciting; in a digital age it’s great to see so many folks amped to spend time with physical paper! The space itself is also important as it was designed by emerging designer and architect Rachael Elliott; Rachael conceived of the design for Radical Reading Room as a site for black congregation. It’s literally a space to assemble within, and so it’s meant to be programmed. Over the course of the summer into the fall there will be a series of public programs taking place inside of the room. We’ve hosted Elia Alba’s book launch for her new book The Supper Club and a celebration of Autumn Knight’s new book Autumn Knight: In Rehearsal. We’re also hosting readings, classes, and school groups. It’s an opportunity for the community to really inform the conversation about what black printed matter is, meditate on what that history looks like, and what its futurity should be as it circulates more and more across visual culture.
As Associate Curator, you hold a powerful role at the Studio Museum. Can you share with us a little about what you imagine the future of the museum to look like, and the ways in which you’re working to generate a specific discourse utilizing your curatorial influence?
My goal as a curator is to make space. I come with a lot of interests, academic and otherwise, as tied to my ongoing research. This travels through and beyond the Museum. However when I come to work my mantra daily is to make black space and make queer space. That’s what I’m here to do.
What is something you have loved for a long time?
Myself. It’s been a wild journey, let me tell you. (laughs)
What is something you are yearning to experience?
This is an existential question. Let’s keep it simple: after this crazy winter I’m super down for a day in the sun with a good book and a glass of wine.
What are some current projects for you?
Our Artist-in-Residence exhibition MOOD just launched this past month at MoMA PS1 and runs through 8 September. This exhibition is co-curated between myself and Hallie Ringle (former Assistant Curator at The Studio Museum in Harlem) and features artists Allison Janae Hamilton, Tschabalala Self, and Sable Elyse Smith. This has been a monumental effort across the institution as we take on producing this show outside of the Museum for the first time in its history. I could not be more honored to have worked with these artists, and could not be more thrilled to celebrate these big steps for them as they conclude their residence with The Studio Museum in Harlem and go on toward their next chapters as super brilliant cultural contributors within contemporary art.
Outside of this, I’m currently in edits for my forthcoming book Glitch Feminism, which will be published by Verso Books. This has been a huge labor of love and so I’m really looking forward to seeing this text to its completion and seeing it out in the world.
Maimoun comes from the Persian language word meaning to welcome guests into your home. If you could invite anyone to dinner in your home, who would it be, what would you cook?
This is a hard question. I feel like I have so many answers. Maybe I would see this as a performance score, and it would be broken into chapters over the course of one evening, and one meal. Each group from each act would stay on into the next. It would go something like this—
Rose-infused Margarita with chili and salt rim
Richard Siken, 21 Savage, Laura Poitras, Julius Eastman
Vegetable dumplings, miniature crab cakes, dim sum
Hello Kitty, Harry Potter, Duchamp, Jimi Hendrix
Glazed duck with a sesame dressing, a small side of seaweed salad
Chelsea Manning, Saidiya Hartman, Ronaldo V. Wilson, Sam Gilliam
Dessert (& Ensuing Dance Party)
Strawberry shortcake with fresh whipped cream, accompanied by a glass of champagne
Lynn Hirshman-Leeson, Camille Billops, IAMDDB, Siri