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THE ACTIVE REJECTION OF GENDER BINARISM

THE ACTIVE REJECTION OF GENDER BINARISM

Legacy Russel, GLITCH FEMINISM

review by Claudia Mazzilli

Raise your hand: who is engaged in an association or any collective without promoting its activities on the web; who does not have at least one loved one with whom he/she/they maintain contact through social media, or whom he/she/them even met on Internet; who has never found on the web a job offer, a rental ad, a for sale, a vacation, some small or large thing that then became reality; who has never worked in smart working; who has never studied with distance learning; who has never written a rant, a line of protest on Facebook; who has never attended a meeting on Zoom.

These are just common examples (and certainly not the most radical) of how both online and real lives are intertwined into one hybrid dimension, as we cross that threshold every minute, as we move from room to room in the same house. For decades now, and even more with the Covid pandemic, the world of bodies and the digital world are no longer separate environments. And we have also known for quite some time that each technology reflects the society that produced it, that network algorithms are tools of control and power, reproducing stereotypes and prejudices.

Legacy Russel, QTPOCI+ (Queer & Trans, People of Color, Indigenous…) people’s rights activist, curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem, Black and queer woman, is now thirty-five years old but she was twelve when she created the digital avatar LuvPunk 12:

Faces, identities, and skin like mine and like that of the mixed communities in which I grew up, were inexorably disappearing. I was becoming a foreigner in my own territory, the relic of a chapter of New York that was now over. The families of colour who, like mine, had made up the vibrant downtown landscape were now excluded from the neighbourhood. Suddenly our neighbours were whiter and whiter, more social climbers, and increasingly uncomfortable with my presence and my family’s (p. 17).

Am I not also a woman? Legacy Russel also asks herself while in Glitch Feminism she explores the visual arts as a means of transcending the (multiple) boundaries of the body. With this question she claims the contribution of blackness to feminism and stands in continuity with the godmother of intersectionality, Kimberlé Crenshaw. But above all, Legacy Russel makes explicit her sisterhood with bell hooks and with her debut text (Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism, 1981), which in turn quoted the question with which in 1851, in an Akron (Ohio) church where a women’s rights convention was being held, the American abolitionist Sojourner Truth, a freed slave and activist, claimed speech rights for herself and visibility for all Black women.

Glitch retrieves and dialectically updates the cyborg, conceptualized by Donna Haraway in 1991 as part of postmodern theories on the interconnectedness of the categories of gender, identity, and difference. Put more simply, for a digital native like Legacy Russel, crushed by the white heteronormative gaze, the online world was an accessible and inexpensive place to forge bonds with those who spoke, in terms of gender and race, the same language as her: a place open to the subversion of gender binarism perpetrated by the capitalist techno-patriarchy, with experimentation to be carried over into offline life as well. Here one can have a digital skin and be multiple selves, seek and build better worlds, utopian environments, a sustainable future, here one can reject the colonial gaze, as E. Jane, herself an experimenter in new forms of freedom through the avatar Mhysa, writes in NOPE (a manifesto) in 2016.

But the Internet is a landing place where one cannot hope to be welcomed by those same forces that homogenize and reject, whose algorithms are created by white people for white people, reproducing exclusive and abusive canons even within cyberfeminism, where, with few exceptions, the white voices and faces of middle-class women have been the most visible: yet it is a place where, from within, it is possible to encrypt, ghosting, introducing errors, hacking gender binarism, and then bringing these subversive remixes back into real life and making them viral. Legacy Russell demonstrates with a puzzling example how much the body can be racialized, reviled, degraded: in 2015, Google’s image recognition algorithm confused Black users with gorillas. The company’s immediate action to fix the problem was to program Google Photos so that it would not label any images as gorillas or monkeys, even those that actually depict primates. Nothing more.

So what is glitch? “Glitch” is a word that became popular in the 1960s. The earliest evidence of the term, to indicate minimal, hidden, yet annoying errors, can be found in John Glenn’s book Into Orbit (1962) and in newspapers that reported on U.S. space programs, for example in an article in The Miami News in 1971 (citing a “glitch” that threatened to jeopardize the Apollo 14 moon landing).

A glitch is an internal disobedience of the machine and produces a failure, a slip, such as when an interference grains or blurs an inscription, or deforms and sucks up the image on the screen breaking the illusion of verisimilitude and revealing its artificiality (the cover to the Italian edition of the work, translated by Gaia Giaccone for Giulio Perrone Editore, is evocative; a cover that is also a dialectic between whiteness and blackness).

Just like when Internet pages don’t respond or the little wheel that asks us to “please wait” won’t stop spinning and makes us want to turn off the computer and do something else: so the glitch leaves the screen and brings the error into the physical space of our lives. It opens a gap.

So here are some examples of glitch feminism.

The boychild artist in her performances often appears nude, contaminating real and digital (she often emits a phosphorescent light from her mouth), evoking the atmospheres of queer nightlife and drag queen shows, and moving like a robot sometimes fast sometimes slow (with the intention, explicitly stated by boychild, of embodying a glitch).

Juliana Huxtable, born intersex but assigned to the male gender, growing up in the conservative and bigoted context of Texas, later renamed herself as female and became increasingly aware of her post-gender self as she developed her art (written and visual) on digital platforms, to the point that artist Frank Benson in 2015, at the New Museum Triennial in New York, created a portrait of her: a plastic sculpture entitled Juliana (almost a post-Internet reimagining of the Greek sculpture Sleeping Hermaphrodite). The sculpture was accompanied by the display of prints and poems, with ecological, anti-racist and more inclusive messages about gender.

Also: London-based artist and drag queen Victoria Sin; she was assigned the female gender at birth, but she considers herself non-binary and queer. In performances (on Instagram or live) her body overrides gender boundaries. Her image is that of the “high femme,” she who exhibits exaggerated femininity: simply put, her Jessica Rabbit-esque outfits, with exaggerated makeup and prosthetic breasts and buttocks whose contours are not hidden, denounce the artificiality of the gender construct, hovering between glamour, satire, cabaret, burlesque, and parodying Youtube makeup tutorials. Here is where gender is something posed and assembled: as often as we “make ourselves beautiful,” often to be so in the gaze of others (male, cis, white), we are the avatars of ourselves. Gender is deconstructed as a cage and as a scam.

In 2014, Facebook activated as many as 58 options for indicating one’s gender, but even this multiplication of possible definitions moves in a binary logic. Glitch feminism, on the other hand, calls for sabotaging the ticks on Facebook and all online platforms: male/female, young/old…, all the binary oppositions that serve to frame us as users of passive consumption in the prison of marketing. Self-defining ourselves is the least of the problems in this collapsing world. More importantly: without labels we become useless to capital. By rejecting binarism, by refusing to become complicit in the theft of our personal data interpreted according to rigid socio-cultural algorithms, we reject this economy. We enact resistance, we escape mass surveillance. Through error we bring movement into a static space.

It is also glitch American Artist, the artist who, by giving themselves this seemingly anonymous name, made sure to appear through search engines alongside Basquiat, Hopper, Pollock and Warhol, generating a subversive error, making those searching for American Artist and those searching for recognized and emblazoned American artists cross paths on the web, subverting and updating the canon. In A Refusal (2015-16) American Artist blacked out his works on digital platforms, forcing followers to request face-to-face meetings with the artist to access such content. In doing so, they became useless in terms of the digital economy; yet the value of their rarer and less usable productions grew, through the concrete and symbolic gesture of controlling their own works and overseeing their circulation without digital intermediaries.

The glitch becomes encrypted material, restores privacy, becomes meaning and signifier to be smuggled, untracked by hegemonic power. Glitch is anti-body, it is body enriched by digital, it is cosmic body, material and immaterial.

It is glitch even Lil Miquela, the avatar-influencer created by Brud (a Los Angeles company), champion of causes such as Black Lives Matter or LGBTQ+ rights: “On the one hand, she embodies the perverse union of activism and neoliberal consumerist capitalism; on the other hand, however, because she is an AI and thus has no body, she exemplifies the potential of digital avatars” (p. 95).

And glitch are the efforts of artist Kia LaBeija (born 1990), a Black, Filipina, queer, HIV-positive woman whose stage name derives from the house founded in the 1970s by drag queen Chrystal LaBeija, one of the houses that offered hospitality and mutual support to people of colour, homosexual or transgender: Kia Labeija’s performances are inspired precisely by the artistic practices of these houses, illegitimately and wildly re-semantising the concepts of gender, body, and illness (e.g., in 2014’s Mourning Sickness and 2015’s Eleven).

It is glitch feminism that of Shawné Michealain Holloway, who drew inspiration from the world of camgirls: in a 2015 series of selfies, she reposted a 1987 photograph by artist Carrie Mae Weems, in which a Black woman, in front of a mirror, mimics the line from the Snow White fairy tale, “Mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” Holloway restores the original “fairest of them all” and in the response “Snow White, you Black bitch, and don’t you forget it!!!” Brings to the surface the fragility of the Black body compared to the ideal of white beauty. A critique of the cages of gender and race.

These are, in short, icons that together with many other more and less famous ones have slowly reshaped our imaginary, today much more open to conceive non-binary bodies, queer, glitch precisely, with a potential for radical change, even if still compressed. An imaginary that has slowly eroded the biological fundamentalism of the (naturalized, but actually ‘political’) categories of sex, gender, femininity, masculinity, managing to unhinge and re-narrate them from the margin. It still comes naturally to quote bell hooks in the last page of In Praise of the Margin:

I make a precise distinction between marginality imposed by oppressive structures and marginality elected as a place of resistance – a space of radicalness and radical openness. This place of radicalness is permanently characterized by the segregated culture of opposition that is our critical response to domination (p. 134 of the Tamu edition, with Italian translation and editing by Maria Nadotti).

By remixing, corrupting and distorting binarism, the Internet can become precisely this site of resistance and radicalness: “a room of one’s own,” writes Legacy Russel, as long as one does not rely on the network naively (p. 50).

I found new pathways during my online conception and gestation, those inexperienced days when I reflected myself as a digital Orlando, shape-shifting, time-traveling, genderfucked to my heart’s content. I became the glitch, embodied it, and in doing so became myself, found my body. Each of us contains multitudes, and as glitch feminists we have not one, but many bodies (p. 146).

In the universe that dominant bio-power has cut in two between human and animal, man and woman, life and death, colonizer and colonized, nature and machine, real and digital, glitch is the scar that forms on the wound of these dichotomies, but it is a wound that is not inert, that wants to infect and urticulate, that subverts victimhood into activism, to found new nomadic communities.

 

Translated by Alessandra Pagano

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