Activating the Glitch: A Conversation with Legacy Russell

By Sara Black McCullochMarch 5, 2021

Activating the Glitch: A Conversation with Legacy Russell
IN 2011, social media theorist Nathan Jurgenson argued that digital dualism — the belief that online and offline are entirely separate worlds — is not only faulty, but also perpetuates inequality. By virtue of its novelty, Jurgenson explains, the digital was considered utopian and even democratic, somehow separate from oppressive systems, institutions, long-standing social constructions, and inequalities. As many of us well know, the digital is not only a by-product of these systems and their effects, but it reinforces these offline world structures in algorithms and search filters. In 2012, artist, curator and writer Legacy Russell took Jurgenson’s argument further in “Digital Dualism and the Glitch Feminism Manifesto,” where she insisted that the internet could be a site for liberation. Despite the constant surveillance in digital spaces, Russell argued, one could still forgo rigid gender identities and safely explore a range of them in digital platforms like chat rooms, GeoCities, and Tumblr.

Glitch Manifesto, published late last year by Verso, is an expansion on Russell’s original essay. In her introduction, she recounts her early years on the internet, learning how to “construct and perform” a gendered self in a “rapidly gentrifying East Village,” where “[c]reative families of color like mine who had built the vibrant landscape of downtown New York were being priced out of the neighbourhoods.” Now, digital spaces that were once sustained and invigorated by Black, queer, nonconforming communities are likewise being pushed out and surveilled as the internet becomes corporatized and whitewashed.

The “glitch,” normally defined as a technical error, is reinterpreted more positively in Russell’s manifesto as the refusal to conform and perform gender, race, and embodiment as they are defined in a white, capitalist, heteronormative society. The glitch confuses and disrupts the structures and institutions that target, exclude, and steal from Black, queer, nonconforming communities. Drawing on a wide range of writers and artists — including James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, James C. Scott, Mark Aguhar, Juliana Huxtable, and others — Glitch Feminism offers what Russell describes as a kind of syllabus for resistance and change.

I recently caught up with Russell over email to discuss the problems of digital dualism, cyber-gentrification, the trap of visibility, and the utility of failure.


SARA BLACK MCCULLOCH: You coined the term “glitch feminism” in 2013, which resists the on/offline binary that Nathan Jurgenson once described. I wanted to know how the thinking behind glitch feminism started, and how it’s been received throughout the years.

LEGACY RUSSELL: The genesis has been very personal, and has lived closely with me for a long time. I wrote the early essays for myself, for my community, because it felt important. As these things go, once they’re online, they take on other lives. When I started getting letters from folx from different corners of the world telling me that they saw themselves in “the glitch,” I was so honored and humbled to be made aware that there were so many people who were holding that position across their ways of living, loving, collaborating, politicking. As the years have progressed, I’ve been lucky to see some very young folx grow up with the material who have kept in touch and gone on to expand in their own creative lives and spaces. For me, this is the mission of the book, to celebrate radical creative work, to celebrate collective practice, to hold space for and bear witness to the incredible contributions of Black and queer makers and thinkers. 

Is the glitch an abolitionist demand?

I like to think of the glitch as a machinic mutiny toward a necessary systems correction. All these different people carrying the mission of the text forward and thinking about how they might riot within — and against! — the very broken systems as they presently stand, doing so with care, vision, and collective cooperation. With this in mind, the glitch absolutely is an abolitionist demand. It speaks to the fact that gender is a racialized construct, and race is gendered construct, and class is gendered and racialized construct. To talk about embodying the glitch is claiming one’s right to live as distinct and separate from one’s right to survive. The glitch is a social, spatial, and structural intervention, it is anarchitecture.

What is the utility of failure in glitch feminism?

The discussion of failure is essential here: what does it mean to “fail” in a society that fails us? Can this failure to perform and abide by the hegemonic and supremacist standards of this current world order be an opportunity? A rerouting? I’m absolutely here for failing a system built on antiblackness, a system that actively invests in the social and physical death of Black and queer people. If opposing these things and centering a different value set that seeks to create sustainable space for Black and queer life is tantamount to failing under the sun of capitalism, then that’s exactly right on and exactly what the glitch is going to do.

You’ve described Glitch Feminism not only as a call to action but as a syllabus, a way to bring many artists and thinkers in one space and include voices that are typically left out of academic spheres and art spaces. I know that you’ve also worked in the art world for over a decade, and the conversations about representation and visibility have really shifted over the years, but is visibility enough? How important was it to not only include these voices but to interrogate gatekeeping, especially in art history?

Representation and visibility are a trap; they don’t always amount to fair and equal recognition. I’m not convinced that in these shifts that things have changed. The reason for this is because the “art world” has the exact same problems as the actual world. Art people hate to talk about this because so many people “in the arts” pretend that they work for some sort of super chill socialist entity. [Laughs.] It’s just not real. The American Alliance of Museums recently released a report that found that 67 percent of museums have cut education and programming geared toward the public. That is literally staggering. When we talk about art as being this beacon of care and creative praxis, this is actually the type of information we need to be paying attention to, because this is where the value set of this “art world” is actually being expressed, plain and clear, and this is where we are seeing gatekeeping taking shape and form in real time, decisions made not only in terms of who gets to be visible, but also what is considered valuable.

Education and programming is a core pipeline for Black and brown people to enter into museum spaces, the work of educators and programmers is often community work, it is advocacy work, it is hands-on and active care work. Glitch Feminism is a book aware of the importance of sharing an intersectional space of creative work through the lens of new media and digital practice that allows for a different type of narrative to be presented, through and extending outside of art history. It’s also about pushing back at a sort of canonized approach to language itself — the structure of the book for me is about trying to bring together a very queer and very Black voice and perspective, [such as] Essex Hemphill and Octavia Butler in conversation with artists like Sondra Perry or American Artist. I want people of all different ages and lived experiences to be able to see themselves in the text, and to feel held by it, because that’s what art history should do, that is what art schooling should do, that is what museums should do, and there so desperately needs to be new models proposed to make this possible.

In an interview with McKenzie Wark, you mentioned that memory is gentrified, meaning that when communities are evicted and local sites are torn down for condos, those neighborhoods become completely unrecognizable to the people who grew up there. This, in turn, means that “[o]ur memories become misaligned with what’s around us, and we struggle to describe what was there previously.” How is this resisted in digital spheres, where algorithms and shadowbanning can alternately promote or censor content?

The internet has a different memory than physical space. While of course there’s the whole debate about the “right to be forgotten” — which I wholly support, you should have the right to have private information kept private, and to eliminate one’s footprint from online space should one see fit — there’s the other side of things where the internet in many ways actually helps us to remember, and memorialize, in a very specific way that strengthens the loop of what we see and experience away from our screens.

For example, I appreciate the incredible work of EV Grieve because what it does in its very straightforward form is really help us watch a neighborhood — the East Village, a dear space to me, because it’s where I was born and raised — transform and change, over years of time. It holds a mirror up and also pays homage to things that we may not be able to set eyes on any longer in physical space, but is given a [digital] afterlife. It’s also important to remember that algorithms and shadowbanning aren’t just innocent machines doing the work of innocent machines — actual human beings are contributors to that work, shaping those systems and helping them do what they do. And so when something is rendered “invisible” on the internet via those means, it’s really also an expression of a human position, value, bias, politic, culture. If we have the conversation about how to decolonize technologies, it has to extend to decolonizing algorithms, which do problematic work in support of a culture and society that is problematic and flawed. I think that the internet as an archive has allowed for the preservation and circulation of Black and queer histories that are urgent and open source and so very necessary.

The internet is often blamed for deception, like in instances of catfishing, where people inhabit roles to dupe others. You rightfully point out that we all have different social selves we perform in specific settings: at work, out with friends, passing a holiday with family members. You also argue that the internet allows those who can’t assimilate into gender binaries the freedom to explore and embrace the “masculine, feminine, and everything else in-between.” Why are we so quick to dismiss these online identities as fake or deceptive? 

It’s so odd to me when people blame the internet for “deception” or try to pretend that the digital space is the sole place where people explore different parts of themselves. I by no means am a supporter of what Lisa Nakamura terms “identity tourism,” but I know that there are generations of folx now who have come of age or come into selfhood via the internet, and they’ve done this with no intention of being deceptive, but rather [are] truly invested in just trying to better understand what their range as human beings ought to be, and how to claim that. I always feel like Erving Goffman would have a total ball if we could conjure his spirit for his opinion on all of this. To me, Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life is a book about life on and away from the internet before “the internet” as we now know it came into being; it’s incredibly prescient and makes it clear that performance is a part of our daily life.

I think people fetishize “real life” because it helps create a taxonomy of knowledge, thought, discourse, participation that feels easier to grasp, more tangible, and — even though it’s not at all! — more manageable. I also do recognize that so many female and femme-identified people, queer people, Black people have put the internet to good use by making a space of decentralized expertise or knowledge, and that this is, without a doubt, a real threat to the notion of the “academy” as it has asserted itself within physical space. The scholarship generated online through and outside of institutional space is powerful and redefines the traditions of thought alongside destabilizing the systems of power that do that gatekeeping, determining what is and is not deserving of merit [in] academia. It’s important to think about the fact that a huge part of the study and schooling of art history and visual culture and media studies is often about rendering things that exist within the ordinary everyday as so lofty and theoretical that it often becomes unrecognizable to the same people who are living within that everyday. I’m excited about imagining a future that learns from and adapts to new productions of knowledge, and reshapes hierarchies of information with an elasticity that is reflective of the lived experiences therein. Academia will not be reflective of real life until it can really live and circulate in the real world, not be held above us all in a ivory tower.

As much as the internet has allowed artists to spread their work, social media platforms are owned by exploitative tech companies who have co-opted and stolen work from Black creatives and thinkers, selling it to audiences far beyond those intended by the work’s creator. There’s also this idea that things found online are free to use, usually without crediting the original artist, writer, or work. How can people be recognized and compensated for their labor? How does this further tie into your idea of opacity, as a tool of encryption and intervention?

This is a super complex question, one that requires and deserves more time than we have here. However, I will say that reconciling this question of “compensation” is a challenging one. Firstly, in my opinion our current legal system with its copyright and patents and IP laws, doesn’t fully have the infrastructure to adequately address the rapidly unfolding territory of the digital. Secondly, part of the conversation about “compensation” will likely require a discussion speaking at the intersection of reparation, valuation, and economy; this is tense because our society’s discussion of “property” has so much been shaped and negotiated through the legacy of slavery and the precedent — socially, culturally, legally — of human beings as private property and investment. So can we reconcile this question of theft of Blackness and queerness through abolitionist means, as in, outside of a system of privatizing quite literally everything for profit, even if it is for the economic gain of Black and queer people? This to me feels like the crisis question, and it is the question that is going to require participation across fields of study and thought to creatively approach what reconciliation — and reparation — looks like. I think we can look at the history of sampling, crediting, and royalties within the music industry. We can also look at what is the burgeoning conversation around NFT-art and this question of how digital technologies can be used to critically engage questions of provenance and ownership. What would it look like if every time someone used Breonna Taylor’s image for profit they had to pay out to her family? What if algorithms were set up to support flagging posts that had not been given clearance for use, in the same way that the DMCA (“Digital Millennium Copyright Act”) is used by platforms like YouTube or Vimeo to clarify on fair use? Would this shift the power dynamic of how our bodies, our language, our stories “go viral”?

Published late last year, Glitch Feminism comes to us at a time when everything around us is breaking down, or revealing what’s been broken for so long. We’ve been bombarded with messaging about bodies — viral bodies and loads, our proximity to others, our social bubbles, ICU stats, and death tolls. We’ve also been made aware of new labor binaries, those “essential bodies” on the front lines versus those who can work from wherever “home” (and a wi-fi connection) is. There is an invisible workforce (Amazon warehouse workers, migrant workers on farms, grocery store workers, hospital staff, etc.), who have helped make our lives easier or more convenient in many often unacknowledged ways, and done so at great risk to themselves. How does this tie into the notion of the “anti-body,” which you define as “resisting the body as a coercive social and cultural architecture.” How do we reconcile the liberating aspects of cyber identities with accessibility?

It’s important to note that Glitch Feminism defines the body as a raced, classed, and gendered ableist material. How we approach defining/redefining the body is indeed an access question. However I do want to note that the conversation actually hasn’t been with the language of “essential bodies,” it’s about “essential work” and “essential workers” — this for me has been troubling because it again asserts a particular value set, establishing that the labor in and of itself is what makes these incredible and courageous folx valuable. But [as] Black people, people of color, working-class people [are] disproportionately impacted in terms of this present pandemic, there is a disconnect between this constant celebration of “essential workers” on the ground and then the actual care that the bodies performing this labor are provided by the state. The message that we’re getting is that as long as the work is done, the body doesn’t need protections; these essential bodies are expendable because they don’t fit the definition of what a valuable body is. In our society, a rich white body is a body worth saving, and we are shown this daily. This is exactly why Glitch Feminism speaks about what it means to be both antibody and anti-body: to refuse the viral determination of toxic value on bodies that are inherently bound up within, delineated by, supremacy, and to hold space for not only our work, but our full, complex, gorgeous, range-full lives.


Sara Black McCulloch is a writer based in Toronto. Her essays and interviews have appeared in The Believer, Bright Wall/Dark Room, and Hazlitt.

LARB Contributor

Sara Black McCulloch is a writer based in Toronto. Her essays and interviews have appeared in The Believer, Bright Wall/Dark Room, and Hazlitt.


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