Art

Legacy Russell on Glitch Feminism, Curating and the Upside of Growing Up in New York

Jasmin Hernandez

Photography by Lia Clay

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Curator Legacy Russell in her Brooklyn townhouse, 2018.

On Labor Day, as revelers en route to the West Indian Day Parade pass me by in vibrant costumes, I walk down a sunny block in Bedford-Stuyvesant to Legacy Russell’s lovely Brooklyn brownstone. Russell is a writer, curator and the founding theorist behind Glitch Feminism, a cultural manifesto and movement which aims to utilize the digital as a means of resisting dominion over the corporeal. And as of September, Russell has brought her brilliance to the Studio Museum in Harlem as its new associate curator of exhibitions. Settling in to talk, I listen to Russell intently, as she sits across from me in a leopard jumpsuit, bare-faced and nuzzling her eight-month-old pup. She speaks assuredly about the esteemed Studio Museum: “There is a really important history of criticality and a care that space has set, in terms of setting a really high bar for what the future of the art world can look like.”

Russell’s career is tied to her New York upbringing. Born and bred in the East Village, raised by her late photographer father (a native Harlemite) and gerontologist mother (an East Village resident still living there in her 70s), Russell calls them “the most primary creative influences.” Being an East Village kid, art destinations like Performance Space 122, Theatre for the New City and St. Mark’s Church-In-The-Bowery were everyday experiences. And that early immersion in art firmly shaped Russell’s future interests in gender, performance, digital feminism and empowering bodies of color on the internet. “Where punk and drag intersect is where I became more curious,” Russell says. “Within those two histories there are a lot of exciting contributions to a larger dialogue of queer and body culture. That space allowed me as a young femme- identifying person to explore versions of what that could mean.”

Russell returned to New York at the end of 2017 after a five-year sojourn in London, where she earned a graduate degree at Goldsmiths and subsequently worked for Artsy while nurturing her curatorial platform NO ANGEL. For “Wandering/Wilding: Blackness on the Internet,” an exhibition that took place at the IMT Gallery in collaboration with the ICA London in 2016, Russell presented artists Niv Acosta, Hannah Black, Evan Ifekoya, Devin Kenny and Fannie Sosa. “‘Wandering/Wilding’ set up a dialogue between the notion of the flâneur, the wanderer and the racist newspaper headline about Black youth ‘wilding’ in the streets (famously bolstered by Donald Trump to lambast the Central Park 5, who were wrongfully convicted),” explains Kenny. “Legacy is creatively, socially and politically engaged. She’s really a force to be reckoned with.”

Russell has spoken all over the globe about Glitch Feminism, using a digital manifesto that brings together myriad references including an archival video of RuPaul on The Geraldo Rivera Show stating “we are all born naked and the rest is drag”; Frank Ocean’s “Pink + White”; and a quote from James Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room.” Together, the clips affirm Russell’s stance that the body is a social construct that can detach itself to embrace a new reality: Glitch Feminism can be an erratum, a necessary correction. Russell’s pioneering ideas are encapsulated in her forthcoming Verso Books debut simply titled “Glitch Feminism.”

Will Glitch Feminism come into play at the Studio Museum? To that, Russell responds, “I’m less concerned about bringing this ethos into that institution and more interested in what it can mean as it is tied to the mission of the museum. The idea of creating space for artists of African descent is really urgent. That’s where the intersection comes into play.”

Thelma Golden, the museum’s director and chief curator, offers, “Our mission at the Studio Museum is about thinking deeply about issues of culture and society while looking closely at the visual world, about enabling artists’ creativity while seeking to energize the public. Legacy has an extraordinary record of achievements in all those areas. We couldn’t be more excited to welcome her.” Russell is a former downtown kid, who is Brooklyn-based, and will now be creating culture in Harlem. Her New York cultivated roots have prepared her for this role.