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BODIES THAT GLITCH A Conversation between Legacy Russell and Isabelle Graw

Legacy Russell’s book “Glitch Feminism,” published this year, proposes a concept of gender that moves beyond binaries, that embraces “glitches” – errors that indicate something has gone wrong – and explores how this embrace of failure can be emancipatory. Bodies that “fail” are bodies doing radical work, writes Russell, refusing legibility and breaking free of an understanding of gender as immutable and fixed. In the framework of our December issue, “The Feminist,” Isabelle Graw spoke to Legacy Russell about Glitch Feminism and gender today.

Isabelle Graw: I would like to start our conversation by summing up what’s at stake in your book Glitch Feminism, at least according to my understanding of it. Presented as “A Manifesto,” your book advocates quite strongly for a feminism without fixed genders and identities. Furthermore, “Glitch Feminism” considers the internet as a “site for experimentation” for “glitched bodies,” namely, for “fluid” bodies that don’t align with white cisgender heteronormativity. To practice “glitch” also implies, according to your argument, the embrace of errors, mistakes, and a refusal to function – it is the pathos of subversion that I associate with writers like Guy Debord or Henri Lefebvre that seems to get updated. But while “failure” is celebrated in your book, you acknowledge the necessity to claim visibility and power especially for those who have been systematically erased, edited out, or ignored. You also explore what “glitch” could mean artistically, with references to artists like Juliana Huxtable, Victoria Sin, American Artist, and many others whose works you describe. These artists seem to illustrate how “glitch” could function as an artistic program.

Legacy Russell: While I appreciate and have of course enjoyed over the course of my studies in performance the contributions of Debord and Lefebvre, this book is not interested in carrying forward solely in their footsteps nor does it intend to pay homage to them. This book concerns itself with thinkers such as José Esteban Muñoz, who speaks of the alienation of “straight time” in his Cruising Utopia, or Essex Hemphill, who in 1995 queried “Will I be allowed to construct a virtual reality that empowers me? Can invisible men see their own reflections?” This book is also not arguing toward visibility as being a resolution to inequities on- or offline – rather, it speaks instead to the trap of visibility in lieu of fair and equal representation under systems of supremacy. To position “failure” as in opposition to “visibility” or “power” builds a false binary relationship that disserves the text and the thesis of it. The “glitch” is a provocation and proposition that is intended to show us how failure can be emancipatory, and how bodies that “fail” are bodies doing radical work, refusing to center and aspire toward legibility within a society that demands assimilation into an ableist, racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic framework in order to be deemed deserving of life. To call on artist E. Jane’s incredible 2016 piece NOPE (a manifesto) included within the book: “We are...dying at a rapid pace and need a sustainable future.” Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto is here to recognize that as Black people, as people of color, as queer people we are daily surviving and finding ways to innovate within a society that wants us dead. The artists in the book speak to, and create toward, possibilities of liberation that resist our death as a necessary paradigm for, and metric of, success. Lucille Clifton writes: “...everyday / something has tried to kill me / and has failed.” Our continuing to live and collectivize toward building a sustainable future is the glitch that this book calls out from.

Graw: While it is certainly true that the life of Black people, people of color, and queer people is threatened in a society where racism, white supremacy, and hatred for all forms of “otherness” rule, I think that there are also social segments – like the art world – where we also encounter other forms of discrimination that are possibly more subtle. While one could certainly deplore how the many recent institutional efforts towards “more diversity” are only cosmetic and don’t affect (or change) institutional power structures, I nevertheless wonder whether the cultural sphere reproduces the same discriminatory practices that, as you argue, exist beyond it?

Russell: If you’re asking me whether the “art world” has the same problems as the actual world, the answer is absolutely. The distinction made between “art world” and “the world” is as virulently problematic as the distinction made between “online” and “IRL” as a discourse, which Glitch Feminism speaks to. Just as digital space is real-life space, the “art world” is in the real world and needs to be held responsible to that fact. There is no separation, and it is the moment where we tell ourselves otherwise that we entertain a very problematic delusion. Toward this end, I would love to hear more about these “more subtle” forms of discrimination, as where I stand as a person who did not come from money, as a Black person, as a queer person, as a female-identifying person who has actively, deeply, passionately labored in the “art world,” the experience navigating a life in the world at these intersections has been anything but subtle. I’m not a believer that the “art world” is a utopic space – the “art world” gets away with so much by performing morals and ethics without actively investing in them, simply because of this understanding that art is a site of democratic access. But when we see 67 percent of US museums cutting educational programming during this present pandemic, that is what shows us that the value set of the “art world” is very dangerously parallel to, and reflective of, the broader value set of the capitalist world writ large. The “art world” should belong to the actual world, and access to art and creative learning and making should be a right, not a privilege, for folks from all backgrounds and walks of life. There’s certainly nothing subtle about that.

Graw: I have a question about your approach to gender. If I understood you correctly, you not only critique binary gender but also perceive gender as a kind of straitjacket that prevents the body from realizing its true potential. I wonder if this account of gender actually does justice to how gender operates and functions in gender studies: for instance, Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (which appeared 30 years ago), conceptualizes gender as a performative construction that can thus potentially decenter normative (binary) heterosexuality. At the same time, Gender Trouble was often criticized for supposedly having imagined the possibility of a voluntarist performative gender switching that ignores those material and social constraints that render such a performance at least difficult. Butler wrote Bodies that Matter (1993) as a reply to such critiques: this book reflects upon the materiality of the body in view of the performativity of gender. It shows how gender performativity can’t be theorized apart from those regulatory practices that produce material bodies. And it is because of these regulatory practices and material conditions that subjects can’t, according to Butler, simply choose their gender. With this in mind I wondered about your concept of gender, especially considering that you seem to embrace the possibility of a voluntaristic subject that can be whatever it wants online.

Russell: Glitch Feminism proposes that gender is not just a construct, it is a taxonomy. Thus, it cannot and should not be flattened to “performativity” as being the sole thing that dictates its architecture. This “performativity” is complicated, and political, and necessitates a nuanced read. Your suggestion that my book “embrace[s] the possibility of a voluntaristic subject that can be whatever it wants online” is a misreading of the text and blurs two distinct parts of the book in a way that is flawed. The first part speaks to a generation that came of age online, and to the shared experience across many female-identified people, people of color, queer people that being online in those early years was an opportunity to flex and explore a range that didn’t always feel possible to do away from one’s screen, out in the physical world at large. The second part speaks to artists who voluntarily deploy the internet and the vernacular of the digital as a creative material and, in doing so, explore what it means to merge body and machine, to complicate and critique the “institution” of the internet as a discourse intersectional with visual culture and art history. When we critique gender, it is necessary that we see it as an agent built in relation to white, cisgendered, heteronormative power. What establishes “masculine” or “feminine” or the protection of the binary “man” versus “woman” has been used as a tool to quite literally determine who is and is not human over the course of history. The “regulatory practices” you speak of are ones that seek to determine who gets to be deemed a body. To this end, the abolitionist demand bound up within the book is not one of fantasy, but of future-building, asking us to think about how “the body” can take up more space and be more expansive, self-determined, empowered, most particularly as a Black and queer subject.

Legacy Russell

Legacy Russell

Graw: You convincingly demonstrate how the internet implies new freedoms and possibilities especially for those who don’t adhere to white cisgender heteronormativity. It is true that one can travel “without a passport” here as you aptly put it. But I am not so sure if one could characterize online space as a “safe space” as you do. You hint at the paradox of “using platforms that grossly co-opt, sensationalize, and capitalize on POC, female-identifying, and queer bodies (and our pain) as a means of advancing urgent political or cultural dialogue about our struggle” in your book. But you still argue for a “strategic occupation” of these platforms. I feel that such a vision of a “strategic occupation” tends to overestimate the power of the subject while underestimating the power of online corporate infrastructures. How do you reconcile the liberation that cyber spaces provide with the exploitative practices, like data mining, those platforms employ?

Russell: Your question seems to speak from a place that has not moved past a digital dualist approach to thinking. It seems to be attempting to make “the internet” somehow distinct from the space away from our keyboards. Here’s the thing, though: it’s not. The “exploitative” practices you gesture toward pre-date the internet, and just exist now in a different shape and form. It is the world on- and offline that is doing the work of co-opting, sensationalizing, and capitalizing on POC, female-identifying, and queer bodies. The internet holds a mirror up to the actual world. When we see people protesting in the streets we don’t say “The street you’re standing in, or the building you’re standing in front of, is the material of the state, so there’s no point in protesting.” Rather the polar opposite – we recognize that the occupation of physical space as we work to decolonize it is necessary, precious, urgent work. Doing that work online to break what’s broken, to consider differently how these tools can be pushed to their limits, is important and needs to be part of how we think about political action and resistance as we continue to negotiate the physical world away from our keyboards as forever entangled now within the systems of the machine and online space, and vice versa.

Graw: Throughout the book you argue for a body that is “fluid,” a body that would be able to transcend its limits. For me, this ideal of a fluid body is ambivalent: On the one hand, fluid bodies can be perceived as “deviant” in the eyes of normative society; they are policed and chastised and therefore have to be defended. On the other hand, the idea of fluid bodies seems to resonate quite well with the neoliberal ideal of a flexible subject. Like flexible subjects, fluid bodies are imagined as being able to change, adapt or dematerialize – which is a fantasy that could come straight out of Silicon Valley. What is more: “fluidity” as a body ideal seems to exclude all those bodies that are either too old or too sick to become “fluid.” For some it is simply impossible to ignore the physical limitations resulting from their bodies. The older I get, for instance, the less possible it seems to control, change or overcome the physical condition of my body. Would you agree that your ideal “glitched body,” that which “glitches between new conceptions of bodies and selves” at times sounds like a bioeconomic vision?

Russell: No. You’re suggesting a corporate read of “fluid” and Glitch Feminism makes a corporeal read of “fluid.” “Fluidity” is not a “body ideal” – this is not a value set that is protected within current society. In fact, fluid selves are radical selves, they are necessarily dangerous to the tense hegemony of the norm. Fluidity should not be positioned as a privilege; that is problematic. And arguing toward a fluid selfhood is most certainly not arguing toward (to call on your words) “ignor[ing] the physical limitations [of] bodies.” Quite the contrary: the glitch celebrates all bodies that refuse the limitations of capitalism, that say that in order for us to be considered “successful” bodies we must be “functional” and “useful” within an economy. To your point on aging – this is actually a perfect example of this question of “uselessness” that Glitch Feminism explores. As we age, our worth within current systems shifts significantly, and we are often seen as less valuable, simply because our ability to function or contribute changes form. Aging bodies are glitched bodies, too, and in seeing how our society treats folks as they age, it shows us very clearly that there are so few protections in place to care for bodies once labor cannot be extracted from them.

Graw: You have also characterized the “glitch body” by its failure to perform. Failure is one of the leitmotifs of your book and it reminded me of the different conjunctures of failure in the art world since the 1990s: from Bartleby’s “I prefer not to” motto that was quite popular among artists in New York to Josef Strau’s often-invoked “non-productive” attitude that is still quite influential today. What especially attracts you to failure? And furthermore: Isn’t failure something that one has to be able to afford economically?

Russell: [Laughs] Suggesting that failure is a privilege is privileged.

Graw: But don’t we need to distinguish between at least two types of failures? On the one hand there is what is perceived as individual failure in the neoliberal economy: people are meant to feel individually responsible for their failure, even though the fact that it was structurally and socially produced is denied. On the other hand, there is artistic failure as an aesthetic program that historically, and indeed often, presupposed a certain degree of (economic) privilege.

Russell: I absolutely agree that there is a version of failure under neoliberalism that tasks the individual to hold responsibility for what the state has in fact specifically manufactured in order to erode the very possibility of sustainability or survival as a strategic system. However, I don’t think I’m on board for this 2D dichotomy of “either/or” across these two different types of “failures” as you define them – there are so many more outside of these two as you’ve listed. What I’m interested in – what Glitch Feminism is speaking to – is the fact that the supremacy of the world order as it presently stands deems my Black body, my queer body, my female-identified body, my body that does not have the protection of economic stability based on generational inheritance or wealth, my body that comes from a Black family – which, as is the case with many families of color, and most especially Black American families, across its structure has teetered on the brink of precarity for my entire life – as a failure. We are the glitch in our very existence, as the logic of a world that champions the ascendant power of wealth, whiteness, heteronormativity, and masculinity would quite frankly choose to not have us exist at all but solely to serve to support that logic. We are told every day that we don’t have the right to live, but we live anyway, and while we are actively doing this work of refusing the paradigm of our precarity, of our death, as being the status quo, we are also quite literally building the same culture that then is subsumed into what you’re calling an “aesthetic program,” that is circulated without citation to us, that seeks to assimilate us into the everyday mainstream without actual consideration of reparation or compensation, with no discussion of systems of care that necessarily need to be enacted in order to sustain us. Glitch Feminism centers and celebrates Black and queer labor and creative community-building not as an aesthetic program that rises out of privilege, but one sprung from the fact that while the state works hard to strip us of everything, we still come out swinging and affirming for one another that this future is ours to build, and that we will as a mantra hold the space it takes for each of us to do that radical work. That’s the “fail” – that’s the glitch – and, damn! Isn’t that gorgeous?

Isabelle Graw is co-founder and publisher of Texte zur Kunst and teaches art history and art theory at the Staatliche Hochschule für Bildende Künste – Städelschule in Frankfurt am Main. Her most recent book is In Another World: Notes 2014-2017 (Sternberg Press, 2020).

Legacy Russell is a curator, writer, and artist and she is the Associate Curator of Exhibitions at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Her first book, Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto (2020), is published by Verso Books.

Image credit: 2. Mina Alyeshmerni