American Artist and Legacy Russell are hacking the cultural mainframe for a nonbinary future

"We are due justice, dignity, and care not only in our death, but in our most dazzling and ordinary lives." For Document's Fall/Winter 2020 issue, the artist and writer discuss the emancipatory power of the glitch

American Artist legally changed their name in 2013—and in doing so, made themselves both hard to trace and impossible to miss (search for ‘American Artist’ on Google, and you will find them listed above recognized masters such as Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock, and Jasper Johns.) Through this algorithmically enacted performance, Artist challenges the racial bias of Western art history and effectively claims their place within a canon from which Black artists have long been excluded. This action is incisively dissected by Legacy Russell in her new book Glitch Feminism, where she argues that Artist’s clever use of search engine optimization (SEO) “shows us how we might ourselves break broken systems via the creative reapplication of these systems’ own material.”

Working across a diverse range of mediums, American Artist confronts issues of “Black labor and visibility in networked life.” In one early project—aptly titled A Refusal (2015–2016)—they circumvented the flow of digital information by redacting all text and images from their social media posts for a year, instead requiring an in-person meeting with those who wished to see the content. In July 2020, they digitally Looted the Whitney, replacing the images of art on the museum’s website with photographs of plywood in reference to the boarded-up storefronts during the Black Lives Matter protests, emphasizing the outsized value placed on property.

In their essay “Black Gooey Universe,” Artist analyzes how Silicon Valley advances anti-Blackness through the development of technological products where white space is positioned as the universal neutral. The advent of the graphic user interface (phonetically ‘gooey’) is one such site where design choices are informed by an echo chamber of white ideals. “The transition of the computer interface from a black screen to the white screen of the ’70s, is an apt metaphor… Blackness has, so to say, formed the ground for white,” they write, going on to propose that if the artificial white gooey was intended to simplify computing and increase corporate productivity, the Black gooey might then be its antithesis: a platform of refusal, thought, complexity, and critique with which to challenge technology’s hegemonic binary.

In Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto, Legacy Russell examines the concept of “glitch as error”—from its genesis in the realm of technology to how it can inform ideas about gender and race. A true digital native, Russell spent her tween years wandering the hallways of the web, building GeoCities GIF fantasies and flitting in and out of chat rooms as her alias, LovePunk12. She came of age online, discovered new publics, and began testing the boundaries of identity and the body—work that she continues to this day as a writer, artist, and associate curator of exhibitions at The Studio Museum in Harlem.

Published this fall by Verso Books, Russell’s literary debut issues a corrective to the predominantly white domain of cyberfeminist theory, shining a light on artists who leverage digital media to challenge systems of gender and colonialism. “With physical movement often restricted, female-identifying people, queer people, Black people invent ways to create space through rupture. We want a new framework, and for this framework, we want new skin. The digital world provides a potential space where this can play out,” she writes. “So, go ahead—tear it all open. Usurp the body. Become your avatar. Be the glitch.”

American Artist: Legacy, I’m really honored to be in convo with you. We first met IRL when I was in residence at Abrons Art Center.

Legacy Russell: Yes! And we talked about Blackle, remember? The ‘skins’ of the digital. I remember reading your essay ‘Black Gooey Universe’ and thinking that it was only a matter of time until we just had to link beyond our screens.

American: Right! I had been following your work for a while, and I was really excited to meet you.

Legacy: And now, in this strange moment, even though we are in the same place at the same time, our conversation has to be mediated by the digital! This new reality of social distance has made me hyperaware of doing this work and what collaboration can really look like.

American: I’ve been thinking about the idea of essential work amid the pandemic. As an artist and educator, I’ve been privileged to work from home, but it feels disingenuous to call what I’m doing nonessential work because it has translated quite urgently into this period of quarantine. I want to call it ‘mutable work’ or ‘variable work.’ I can’t describe what we’re doing as nonessential, because people will not be able talk about the pandemic in the future without acknowledging how it dramatically shifted our social lives to the virtual realm and the requirements it has imposed on digital technologies.

“We have to think critically and practically about what we’re gonna do beyond making images of Black people and putting them in museums, or painting ‘Black Lives Matter’ down 16th Street. What does a more thorough creative care look like?”

Legacy: It’s interesting to think about what is considered ‘essential work.’ What we’re talking about is a workforce that the world could not function without, one that is carrying the physical care and emotional labor of millions of people, but is still underpaid, overworked, and far too often put at risk. I’m angry about how some of these incredibly elite folks keep talking about ‘essential work’ as this sort of signifier of care, without the actual care as a living, breathing thing that should be actioned on and fought for.

American: You are right, ‘essential work’ was intended to signify ‘care’ with the implication that those doing the care do not need to be cared for. For me it signifies the class division between the people doing those jobs—often working-class Black people, immigrants, or undocumented workers—and people in other jobs.

Legacy: I can’t get the vision of some of the hospital nurses out of my head, quite literally wearing garbage bags or the images circulated of train cars filled with Black and brown people commuting to their workplaces in close quarters on the subway because they didn’t have the privilege of an alternate mode of transportation. We’re seeing social services, mental health support, and family care cut, despite the fact that this global crisis has also been a crisis of care—or a lack thereof—of Black and brown people.

American: I’ve seen some people describe how the portrayal of essential workers as ‘heroes’ is patronizing. They often don’t have a choice to work. Praising them has become a scapegoat for the elite and the government that took too long to acknowledge the COVID crisis to begin with. Glitch Feminism celebrates artists that render qualities of virtual life as emancipatory in their work. As people intellectually and viscerally tied up with the internet, our knowledge has suddenly been picked up by those for whom digital life has never been part of the equation. I’m thinking of institutions convening virtually for the first time. Where do you locate yourself when it comes to ‘essential work’?

Legacy: Working in museums and academia we see what shape ‘essential work’ takes. Our essential work of creative care, and in the generative production of thought and discourse, must hold a mirror up to the world, bending to the demands of this present moment, not standing outside of it.

American: When I consider artists specifically pointing a mirror toward the problems of essential work and essential workers, I think of artists Aya Brown and Shellyne Rodriguez, who have done it through portraiture. I haven’t made any work that depicts essential workers, [but] the piece I created for the Whitney Museum titled Looted is meant to address the pandemic alongside the recent BLM protests. When every image in the museum seems to be boarded up, every item in the collection redacted, it makes it clear that you are not meant to enter the museum. It is about essential work in the sense that different people access museums in different ways; many people enter to perform maintenance or to greet visitors, but those people will never own the work. I wanted to question whether a museum even owns the work it says it does, or if it is in fact all stolen and looted property.

Shirt, jacket, coat, pants, and shoes by Berluti.

Legacy: Yes! Art needs to do this hard work, to center essential work with care, and to make space to have these critical conversations not as theory, but as real-ass life. These questions about what we can do to support ‘essential’ and ‘nonessential’ as people—not just as the core economy of their labor—need to circle around care, creative care, and ways to heal through the trauma and trigger of this moment which run deep as this is a form of plantation capitalism. It traverses epigenetically for Black and brown people. What does that kind of essential care look like to you?

American: I like the term ‘creative care,’ and the declaration that it is essential. The only ways in which I feel I’ve offered care through my practice has been through teaching, publishing people’s writing, and trying to get other artists paid. Care as a means of repair for intergenerational trauma, and ‘plantation capitalism,’ as you called it—I’m not sure if that’s possible. I feel lately that a lot of artists believe it can happen through representational images of Black people. Sure, representation is a means of validating our existence, but I think as a strategy, what I would call representation as repair has been co-opted by elite Blacks and white liberal institutions. We have to think critically and practically about what we’re going to do beyond making images of Black people and putting them in museums, or painting ‘Black Lives Matter’ down 16th Street. What does a more thorough creative care look like?

Legacy: There is no simple answer, but what’s been served isn’t enough; justice and dignity are two different things. When we see our image circulating, when we see Black Lives Matter painted on our streets by the state, that is to some degree a form of restorative dignity, but it is not restorative justice. It might bring collective joy and remembrance, but it is not the same thing as a fair and equal renegotiation of power and care.

American: In the wake of the broad call of Black Lives Matter in the last few months by people of all backgrounds, I feel that when you insist on being visibly represented and it’s given to you, it never feels adequate, and then you realize you were asking for the wrong thing. If we had justice, there would be nothing to be upset about, there would be nothing left to demand.

“Art needs to do this hard work, to center essential work with care, and to make space to have these critical conversations not as theory, but as real-ass life.”

Legacy: The repair has to offer something more; we deserve a grandeur of innovation here that will allow for a sort of rhizomatic integration of a wild and unapologetic Blackness. I think part of that care has to come from the networks we build, those honest spaces that will allow for us to do encrypted work for and among us, and collectively commit to wrestling with care-full and strategic reclamation of our own histories, of our own images. We are due justice, dignity, and care not only in our death, but in our most dazzling and ordinary lives.

American: That was the basis for my series of Dignity Images (2017–ongoing), which is what I call personal images you choose to never circulate online but still keep for yourself. I think there is dignity in owning a camera and documenting your lived history (at least when it is not used to subjugate others by telling them that it’s their history, too). For those who are predisposed to captivity and captive gestures, there is also dignity to be found in refusing representation. Because of this mired relationship to circulation both through imagery and body that you pointed out, refusal becomes a necessary strategy for obtaining dignity.

Legacy: I think of Raven Leilani, who writes in her book Luster, ‘…it is an art—to be Black and dogged and inoffensive.’ So much of this artful Blackness brings up questions of audience: Who is watching, who is being watched, who is consuming, who is being consumed? Being beautiful, exceptional, respectable—these are all ableist, racialized, gendered ways of functioning under this current world condition that map right back to antebellum, colonial, imperialist roots. [Poet] Harmony Holiday did this badass piece of writing recently for Triple Canopy called ‘The Black Catatonic Scream.’ In it she poses the compelling framework of what she calls ‘Mimetic Emancipation’ or ‘M-I-M-E’ as distinct from, but ontologically linked to, ‘M-E-M-E.’ The proposal of ‘emancipation’ from the meme makes a strong link to questions of how our physical bodies have been historically circulated, set against the circulation of our representational image. It feels urgent and necessary to try to grapple with, and navigate, the aesthetics of Blackness donned decoratively—the painting of Black Lives Matter in the street, more images of Black people in museums intended to indicate a corrected art history—as an emancipatory reformation, as reparations. These are complex economies that need to be rattled at their foundations.

Dress by Salvatore Ferragamo. Necklaces and rings by BVLGARI. Stylist Assistant Cameron Lachapelle.

American: I don’t only think of emancipation from circulation but also mimetics as an emancipatory means; virality may be the only way for artists without a lot of privilege to become class mobile. But more often, the mimetic transaction of Black imagery only results in further captivity. I wrote about Bobby Shmurda and how he was targeted by the FBI because of his virality. His whole career came from a six-second Vine video. His dance was popularized by celebrities, but there were no consequences for them to perform it, though for Bobby the consequences were dire. When he was arrested, his bail amount was set at $2 million because he was virally popular, but his wealth was not equivalent to his popularity. The internet chewed him up and spit him out. The loop is that which consumed him. In the case of artful Blackness, many people revel in the feeling that they are one of the ‘good’ negroes. ‘Beautiful,’ ‘exceptional,’ and ‘respectable’ have a similar connotation to innocence. These are aesthetic codes that Black people try to appeal to because there is a false claim that innocence or respectability will bring safety.

Legacy: This notion that one’s right to live should be meted out based on whether someone is or is not ‘good,’ rather than recognizing that being a human is complex, and being a human under the condition of capitalism is even more complex.

American: Guilt and innocence are not incidental categories but rather racialized categories. And I would say the same for ugly/beautiful, lazy/exceptional, attitudinal/ respectable. But you can be beautiful or respectable and still be seen as criminal. You can be innocent and still be killed. In the case of Tamir Rice, the narrative goes that he was young and innocent and didn’t deserve to die. But if he wasn’t innocent, would it be okay then? The answer is no. The other problem with championing respectability is that suddenly the resistant expression of valid grievances becomes criminal activity. I got really frustrated during the Black Lives Matter protests when the media began to differentiate between ‘peaceful protestors’ and everyone else. There was a moral aspect to it. ‘Don’t be one of those bad protestors; be one of the good ones!’

Legacy: As people, we shouldn’t have to be angels to be held, whole, seen, celebrated. This notion of—as John Eligon wrote for The New York Times [about Michael Brown in 2014]—‘no angel’ and what it proposes is a broken proposition, hinged on the framework of respectability which has been built to support a thesis of supremacy.

“In the wake of the broad call of Black Lives Matter in the last few months by people of all backgrounds, I feel that when you insist on being visibly represented and it’s given to you, it never feels adequate, and then you realize you were asking for the wrong thing.”

American: I also wanted to respond to your idea of ‘encrypted work,’ and that it is something slow and collective. One of the questions I had coming into this was, how does glitch feminism manifest communally and socially?

Legacy: I think about this in relation to ongoing discourse about abolition, breaking what’s broken as a collective act of resistance. But it isn’t just random anarchy. It requires strategy, coconspirators, a methodology of thought and care. Glitch feminism encourages people to unpack the problem of gender binary—as a gendered construct, as a racialized construct, as a class construct—and see how it dictates how we live, work, build history, and engage with one another.

American: The tenets of glitch feminism are built on unapologetic Blackness and queerness, expression of the self as a form of resistance. How does that manifest as a communal practice of resistance beyond the individual?

Legacy: There’s something specific and gorgeous about the vehicle of ‘the glitch’ as it exists within ‘a communal practice.’ It’s almost as if the glitch can’t exist or sustain itself alone in a vacuum, but demands a sort of call-and-response, the presence of a collective network of support and action to tear it all down and build something real and new. I think of the very brave Mr. Ruhel Arshad in Minneapolis, who said of his own restaurant: ‘Let my building burn. Justice needs to be served. Put those officers [who killed George Floyd] in jail.’ So much power in that statement and a rejection to have the protection of his American Dream weaponized by the state and the media in recognition of the historical relationship between property and personhood in this country. Such essential allyship and empathy across diasporas is a wonderful and awe-inspiring glitch and another type of communing, convening, holding of space.