Throughout the years, I followed Legacy Russell on her writing and curating journey that has been truly inspiring. I feel proud when I unexpectedly see a copy of Glitch Feminism (2020) in London’s regional train station bookshops or receive its announcements of being translated into Italian and German. Her climactic book speaks through the lens of art, artists and art history, underlining that being creative enables to exist within new models of life and invents possible bodies of desire. Legacy thinks of glitches as a disruption, an intervention and a remix, asking somatic questions such as: how to navigate between a self that loves oneself and a self that renders you extinct, if not invisible? Most importantly, how does it make you feel? Legacy’s thinking is generous, spanning across theories of self that expand with the bodies of the digital. The new realm, as it were, has become the place of encounter that can proliferate digital skins and bring people together while enabling a breakthrough from the boundaries of the gender binary. Our conversation delves into Legacy’s inverted perspective and approach to the physical body that embodies its extension in the virtual realm. We bring in artistic and writerly perspectives that include but are not limited to early cyberfeminism and thinker William Edward Burghardt Du Bois. I leave you to dive in the piece as I excitedly look forward to her programme at the Kitchen in New York, where she recently got appointed as a director.
Fatos Üstek: I found your book Glitch Feminism really inspiring. I love the fact that it was written in chapters, as twelve different yet connected universes. My first question is: what is your most recent playful experience on the internet?
Legacy Russell: The past eighteen months have been a really exceptional moment, because we almost saw a replay of the 1990s to the present day, a bit broken out in this very compressed timeline. People had a kind of romance of the digital and then a kind of awakening about its challenges, from an economic and gender perspective, bringing out matters of accessibility. Then, a kind of great fatigue broke at points tied to the digital, but certainly, still with the instinct to play. Personally, I’ve really enjoyed this period of time where there have been different models of embodiment, and I was trying to navigate the ways those things are working creatively. For all of us, in our different states of remoteness, this period offered the opportunity to engage in great conversations in different ways. This is a less playful time, but perhaps that enables us to wonder how we spend our time creatively, and what it means to speak aloud, to be able to convene in ways that actually rely on other channels outside of the physical. For me, that has been an amazing experience, because it has pushed me further into other senses, of listening and speaking.
Those active senses in relation to a collective community have been resonant and timely. It is certainly something that I’m trying to hold near and dear, as moving into this next chapter of coming back to the world asking the question: how can we spend our time differently? The slowness of communication that I have felt over the past months is something I value and allows for different kinds of play, new ways to interconnectivity.
Fatos: It sounds like you’ve been building new forms of intimacy with people.
Legacy: Definitely. I think what has come out of this period of time is the realisation that there is an immense need for intimacy, even with distance. The moments of deep alienation and the reality of mourning allowed for different types of haptic touch. Engaging in those new forms of intimate senses is, for me, a kind of engagement, as I truly felt held by a creative community. Certainly, it’s been really wonderful to appreciate that, in moments where I could not sit around a table with someone, I could actually get on the phone. It has been such a playful experience at times, when I’ve been on calls with people, and we were listening to each other’s voices while walking through the streets in our separate cities. Suddenly, different points in the world were intimately connected on an affective level. If the pandemic had not happened, and the obligation to distance each other, I wonder if some parts of that playful intimacy would have occurred in the same way. So, it has encouraged me to think about what I’m saying out loud, and the ways in which I may choose to sit in silence.
Fatos: Can you elaborate on what play means to you? How do you see the necessity of playfulness in encountering otherness, or in encounters with others?
Legacy: We are speaking at the epicentre of a global tectonic shift, in which culture and especially visual culture is transforming at an accelerated pace. It’s a breathless period of time, as we are saturated in images. Of course, we’re not always provided the room to process what it is that we’re seeing alongside what we’re feeling. I am keen on the idea of play these days because it is a radical act to engage with levity, even in moments where things feel pointless and completely devastating. The joy of the erotic can make you laugh and helps to keep on producing, to think actively, collaborate, research and theorise. Through this period of time, all of those things are really bound up with each other and deeply co-dependent as a kind of survival mechanism. I really appreciate those moments. For instance, when I meet people in person, they often say: ‘Oh, you know, you’re much funnier than I thought you would be’. Yes, I’m actually very funny! When I reflect back on it, it signifies the expectation of how a historian, a curator, a gendered representative of an institutional space, is supposed to act within these confines. We are supposed to dull our senses, we’re not supposed to be able to connect with that kind of deep-seated joy, expressing what we are feeling or thinking. So, you know, I feel very much committed to this possibility of playfulness as part of my work, which is necessary in producing projects that are engaging subjectivities tied to race, class and gender. There are many questions being asked that are deep seated and embedded within and beyond institutional space, that require a different type of listening and carrying. It is really important to provide a breathing space for people to express these moments where things may feel tense, and to provide moments where we can convene, laugh and enjoy, as a kind of refusal and resistance against some of the conditions of the world as it stands presently.
…I feel very much committed to this possibility of playfulness as part of my work, which is necessary in producing projects that are engaging subjectivities tied to race, class and gender…
Fatos: I think that is brilliant. In your introduction to Glitch Feminism, you openly talk about your early teenage years, and your experiences of going in and out of spaces of representation, freeing yourself whilst being aligned with your authenticity. How did your upbringing and education play a role in the construction of yourself? Can you talk about the relationship to your body and the process of understanding who you aspire to be?
Legacy: I grew up in a studio apartment, literally in one room with my family in the East Village, which meant that there was no place to hide. We were living on top of each other, which, of course, could drive me insane. I think that the digital allowed me to set boundaries, a different type of private space. The boundaries in my family setting were very blurry. For example, listening to music meant that the whole house listened with you. In the digital world I could explore different parts of myself. It kind of became my very own teenage bedroom. It was something that was really precious and special, because I did not have walls to walk behind. Also, as a black femme and queer person, being a young person in a fledgling in my identity, I was trying to consider what it meant to establish limits where I could grow privately and publicly, silently and out loud. I often consider the sonic experience of growth. I went to a Quaker school from the age of five to seventeen, which was important in many ways. Every year that I get older, I keep on thinking about the fact that I was deeply impacted in my thoughts and my way of working because of that space. Sitting in silence is a big part of Quaker education. It’s a very rare and unique experience that people are often baffled by. These years of growing up are often seen as very raucous years, right? Like, it’s very unusual to see a five-year-old sitting in silence, but much less a seventeen-year-old, right? What’s incredible is that it was part of what the community work was. We had outdoor activities, as a kind of Smithsonian way of being in the world, reading poetry in experiential ways … I think I was very much shaped by the understanding that silence can be a radical state of being. The space of being quiet with a community is different than being quiet alone, which is an opportunity to engage different parts of one’s own. Self-reflection is taking the time to confront different corners of oneself, even if during other hours across the day you might try to avoid them. I really appreciate your question. Because this idea of being in digital space creates different models of enclosure or privacy, play and exploration, but then, sitting in physical space in silence with my peers, my teachers and mentors was a foundational part of my being and becoming.
Fatos: I think the educational and social structures one grows up in can really provide an informed sense of self. Today, we relate to our identity as open, flexible or contrastingly as fixed and defined. I’m also interested in the juxtaposition of your schooled self and digital self. You say that you would introduce yourself with different ages, and take on different gendered roles. How did that inform your experience? And did it alter your approach to identity in any form?
Legacy: The short answer is: yes, absolutely. I am thinking about my current role at the Kitchen and my long and passionate love affair with performance, its practice, and how those things can be materialised in different ways such as the performance of bodies and objects. There is so much blurriness between these things, they can be defined, redefined, or reimagined. I came to understand performance practice by being online. Before theoretical and academic understanding, it was the sensory experience of going in and out of different rooms, literally or figuratively and thinking through the ways you can change. That experience of being able to change and be limitless, felt like such an ecstasy and privilege. I think it was a great reminder to the self that was operating out in the world. Certainly, it was not a disconnected self from the self that was engaging digitally, but a self that was kind of performing differently. It was 100 per cent okay to take on this other way of being that allowed me to change actively, publicly and visibly. I learnt that I could be vulnerable, filled with discovery and excitement. As femme-identified people, we learn to shrink ourselves in the world, we try to accommodate different types of spaces. This idea that I could take up as much space as I wanted, that I could operate in totally different ways via these avatars of selfhood, was such a revelation. Part of it means to ritualise and explore one’s habits and ways of being. It implies to shape your identity online and to have a body that is changing, like a teenage body.
As a child, I also loved the idea of playing an adult versus a child, getting a chance to be a little bit beyond your years. It keeps coming back to a play time in the digital space with strangers on the internet, where that wildness is possible. And it actually felt remarkably safe.
I think that really runs counter to often what we think about the digital and the question of what it means to feel safe. We can sometimes feel uncomfortable in the way we navigate our growth. To have that be a collective experience that remains off the record allows for a different type of trace to be left. Now, of course, if the digital is tied to the ways in which we represent ourselves online, the questions of representation are set in opposition to visibility: the fact that there are so many people of colour, female-identified people who are hyper visible but actually still underrepresented in terms of questions of digital equity. Meanwhile, away from the screen, we have entered into a moment where the notion of continuing to play as part of this economy is something that is still incredibly important to stay connected. Standing in the largest crowd can also be an intimate act. And that, for me, is something that I reflect often on, as I consider the arc between that nascent period of the 1990s to the present: the crowd that we are standing in has changed shape but, certainly, intimate acts are still possible within it.
Fatos: You define glitch bodies as a mediation of desire. Can you perhaps expand on this conceptualisation and can you tell me more about ‘glitch feminism’?
Legacy: I think of glitches as a disruption, an interruption, an intervention and a remix. It is a way of asking somatic questions. These are about how it makes you feel, as much as what the intervention is about. Sometimes those things can’t be put into words. This is why artists are the driver of what glitch feminism is. This question of reigns can be pushed to its limits. Certainly, there are existing models that propose ways of being in the world as it currently stands. There are aspects of being and operating in the world, within this current world condition. There are also glitches that push to explore new models of life and invent possible bodies of desire. The great joy is to allow all those things to be dispersed, and to have a holistic view, in order to navigate a certain kind of space that allows for more elastic and flexible models of what world-making can even look like, even if it hasn’t been built yet.
Fatos: I think that’s very inspiring. What you are saying also includes expansion in a way that it’s all these concepts and positions as they get performed. In a way, it makes me think of this sentence from your book that is talking about the third eye of gender: ‘Fledgling queer Black body, a Du Boisian double consciousness splinters further, double becoming triple, Consciousness amplified and expanded by the third eye of gender’.
Legacy: Well, Du Bois talks about the question of Double Consciousness and the Souls of Black Folk. Now is a really interesting moment to think about this idea of refracted sight: double consciousness is as much about how one is able to see oneself as it is about being able to see through a lens of supremacy that can see you, and that is in constant surveillance of you as a black body, as in Du Bois’ case. So, the thing that is meaningful is the constant double sight, that double consciousness.
It is an exhausting engagement to navigate between seeing and standing inside of oneself. It is a model of defence, being able and prepared to see oneself from this other side that, quite frankly, hates you. I think what makes the work and contributions of Du Bois so powerful and impactful is what it means to have the responsibility of those two things altogether: a self that loves oneself and a self that renders you extinct, if not invisible, are seeing you. Back to the point of gender as this third eye, I think we are living in a moment where there is this extension to this question of consciousness that we are able to see and see again, ourselves and ourselves from these opposite sides of the looking glass. It is very much about negotiating these different models of patriarchy and supremacy, as well as the taxonomies of gender that establish who gets to stand at the centre. And who is always going to be pushed to the margin? That actually, as a possibility, is something that is really violent and complicated to have to navigate and to hold as a responsibility, shifting between these different models and strands of consciousness. So, for me, the great hope is thinking through this idea of splintered consciousness, double becoming triple. Then, there is an opportunity to think through how we reshape what those sight-lines are. It is as much about how we see ourselves, how we are bearing witness to one another as an act of refusal against the supremacy of thought that works to dissolve our existence, or rewrite our existence without our consent.
Fatos: In moments of daily scrolling, you say that we are listening to the images even though they don’t come with sounds. How does the gaze play a role in digital encounters? Thinking of the tactility of the surfaces, like the touch of a keyboard, do you think it can be erotic?
Legacy: I feel like we are a generation of people who have grown up engaging intimately with technology and the digital. Be that writing love letters to each other by email. I remember my first email address … I was so anxious when I decided to close it down. I did not know what to do with those love letters. They were sweet letters of teenage love that I’ve exchanged. Every hit on the keyboard can be so intimate, yet you know it is something being sent into the world. For instance, I recall the moments of writing angry letters, and letting people know how I am feeling about things. It’s funny to think that these messages of conflict coexist with love letters, and altogether constitute a kind of erotic expression. They are all deeply sensorial. Think of how cybersex has become such an incredible vessel for storing our effect. It is such a special thing because those machines witness us, and I’m embodying these tech-nologies, as if they are living and breathing. On the other hand, these are proxies to us, they witness us in moments where we may not even be aware of some parts of ourselves. We speak aloud and into our technology, sometimes in ways we actually may not be brave enough to do so in the world. I think that it is one of the greatest paradoxes about the digital, especially right now. These questions have split selves, which can be better negotiated, but also engaged as a kind of challenge to unify and live along this more collectivised sort of improved loop of becoming. To make sure that we are asking the right questions, we need to respond to authenticity and accountability alongside vulnerability. I guess it is not as simple as being on- or offline, it’s about the way that these things are entangled with each other.
…Being sweaty, being able to decry. Because of the sheer ecstasy that comes with the experience of being able to connect somatically…
Fatos: My last question is a suggestion. I really loved the last sentence in your book. It’s an affirmation of active agency; I thought that was so empowering. And there you say: ‘So go ahead – tear it all open. Let’s be beatific in our leaky and limitless contagion. Usurp the body. Become your avatar. Be the glitch.’ So, I wonder, when doing so, how can we still produce dirt, release fluids, exchange glances? And perform selves in our becoming?
Legacy: I love that question! We are to some degree at risk of being in an erotic crisis, because of the fact that accelerationist capitalism will always put us into forms of isolation, and will ask us to remain isolated from each other, in our thoughts, conversations, in our ways of processing and experiencing the world. During the pandemic, I did so much dancing in my living room. It was a very funny experience, to just rock out on my own. But the feeling of being able to move comes down to bringing in all of the bodies that came before you, right? You literally feel all of the humans that have carried you to this point, in the same space, together with you, even when you’re alone. I think that many people have reflected on being on dance floors and crying, quite literally; the experience of what it feels to be in a room filled with people. And that your body is in involuntary release whatever that looks like. Being sweaty, being able to decry. Because of the sheer ecstasy that comes with the experience of being able to connect somatically. I think that is an amazing thing to think about: the ways that we have been put into different containers, how we express ourselves, how we are able to move, how our everyday ordinary selves are kept away or held outside of how other people might see or know us. We’re going back into a period of time where it is not possible to have the life we had before. I think we are shedding different types of skins. Part of this is also about recognising that, perhaps, we don’t know each other or ourselves at all, and that actually is terrifying. When I think about what it means to be beautiful, witty, limitless, or be fearless in embracing new avatars, that is what the glitch can offer as a possibility. That is where we can produce dirt, release fluids, exchange glances and see the ways in which those things can allow for different types of unlocking.