When the presence of Black bodies is policed, and the movement of racialized bodies surveilled and criminalized, what does a Black flaneur aesthetics look like? Is wandering a derailing from the constrained roles situated by contemporary art?
In Mounting Frustration: The Museum in the Age of Black Power, Susan Cahan writes that the professional categories in the art world can be malleable, but the structural racialized violence do not and have not subsided in art. She writes, “Artists, curators, and art writers can enter in different ways, and in today’s art world, once one is “in” it’s possible to move from one role to another, or to occupy multiple roles simultaneously. But for artists of color there has not yet been such a thing as life membership.”
Many of the artists in the exhibition Wandering/WILDING: Blackness on the Internet are also writers. Some are more known for their writing; others for their visual art practice and music. We’re particularly interested in the space occupied by an artist/writer in the context of imagining the figure of the flaneur. Wandering off a predetermined career path on the way to conventional artistic “success” is sometimes a rogue way of inserting one’s self into (or out of) a Master Narrative that only imagines one mode of genre-participation for one. In the contemporary art world, especially in the U.S. where indebted artists resort to object-making and sales as a means to achieve and maintain visibility and forms of precarious sustainability, the importance and space of experimentation becomes diminished.
Within this economy, there seems to be expectations (by and of) people of color, and mainly women of color artists to have “resolved” practices: to have “coherent” bodies of work ready for exhibition, to continue making work that has proven to succeed (aka market acceptable) and to give the art world what it already thinks it knows and expects; to fill the discursive gap: art that asks “what is Blackness”, “what is queerness”, “what is x, y, z”. Within the limited spaces of these gaps that are left to fill in (rather than experiment with), the expansion of one’s practice and the layers of meaning and complexity are often shrunk to a watered-down version of it, framed as what white critics and historians may only describe as “identity politics”.
The exalted failures of aesthetic processes, and the value of experimentation are racialized discourses. The artist under siege, the flaneur in flight–must arrive manifesto in arms? And more specifically, what and where is the space of experimentation for contemporary Black artists in particular? Artist and writer Legacy Russell’s curation frames a dynamic in which Black experimentation is virtualized, and in this form, navigates the material politics of the present, and offers aesthetic articulations yet unknown.
Wandering/WILDING: Blackness on the Internet is an exhibition curated by Legacy Russell at IMT gallery in London. The exhibition brings together works by Niv Acosta, Hannah Black, Evan Ifekoya, E. Jane, Devin Kenny, Tabita Rezaire, and Fannie Sosa, with an extended virtual edition including works by Anais Duplan, Elise R. Peterson, Jacolby Satterwhite, Zadie Xa.
In thinking about politicizing direction and the possibilities of re-routing, we began by asking about a phrase that Aria Dean used in the exhibition essay, “an erotic of the black crowd”.
contemptorary: We wanted to ask you about “an erotic of the black crowd” and the ways in which Black radical movements and individualized artistic production have worked together to formulate the circulation of these feelings. Could you talk to us about how you began thinking about the relationship between the Black crowd (movements?) and the Black wanderer (the artist?) Or have we misunderstood and these two forums are not split?
Legacy Russell: Aria Dean muses on an “erotic of the black crowd” in her essay for Wandering/WILDING; this musing largely relates to the idea that within “crowd[s]”, boundaries become permeable and that permeability holds an eroticism as it brings together bodies in collectivity. For me with this exhibition I don’t see a need for an impenetrable distinction between “the [b]lack crowd” and “the [b]lack wanderer”—the history of political movements have always been inextricably implicated within and expressed via acts of creative production. Art at the apogee of its function ought to answer to, and hold a mirror up for, the world around it. Dean asks, “But what happens when the crowd is doubled over, when my crowd meets up with your crowd?” This “doubl[ing] over” is the site where Wandering/WILDING drops an anchor—where the artist as individual politicised body, via the act of making, wanders into the “crowd”, crossing that boundary, contributing to a larger socio-cultural discourse. We are in an enduring geopolitical era where the regular restriction of movement—of marginalised bodies in particular—trends toward fascism. The black artist on the internet has an opportunity to not escape restriction entirely (that would be too optimistic as a premise at this stage) but to perhaps identify modes of transcendence, and, via digital congregation, challenge boundaries intended to suppress and erase blackness.
contemptorary: You discuss the ways in which movement and mobility–the theory and materiality of–are racialized encounters and the ways in which cyberspace is potentially a site of new geographies. We were reminded of the reports that the FBI has been monitoring the social media feeds of several Black activists but yet how the surveillance apparatus, has not decreased the power of Black Twitter and the Black Internet. The paradox here seems full, and unpredictable. What are your thoughts on the spectra of Black surveillance, Black visibility and new Black cartographies?
LR: This is an excellent and incredibly painful question, one that is filled with tension and, indeed, paradox. How to resist via a material (the Internet) that has a history of being used as a tool of anti-resistance? How to find freedom within a space that is absolutely not indiscriminately free? What is the cost of artists performing this freedom via the Internet in lieu of being able to claim freedom completely—both online, and AFK? The fact of the matter is, the Internet has never been a real utopia, despite the fact that “cyberspace” has been mythologised as such; its early predecessor, ARPANET, was originally developed for the military. Thus it is a logical pathway to map the history of COINTELPRO surveillance within black political movements and communities to the use of the Internet as a means of monitoring contemporary activism. Why are people surprised by this? This [cyber]space wasn’t made for people of colour. Police in the U.S. use Geofeedia to cull data from social media, and just this past month the Investigatory Powers Bill was passed in the UK which means that a myriad of British government agencies are now able to look into the internet connection records (ICRs) of UK citizens. The implications here surrounding how these developments will unduly impact along lines of class, race, gender remains to be seen in the round, but based on what we have seen thus far we can make an educated guess at the outcome. However—to fondly quote cyber co-conspirator and compu-compatriot Kimberly Drew—“Blackness is a technology in and of itself.” Now more than ever is a time where activism and political production—via platforms like Instagram, Twitter, Facebook—within a livestreamed public arena are discovering new potentiality, being innovated by necessary means. The highly encrypted also now must pivot and adapt to increased levels of surveillance; the Black Internet (the “Dark Web”) is therefore a ripe material for creative cartographies and, though experimented with by some artists, is yet to be fully realised as a medium itself. The goal should not be to deny the brutal reality of surveillance and ongoing violation of civil liberties as a byproduct of this policing, but rather continue to innovate through, around, beyond, on top of it.
contemptorary: This is a two part question. In “The Privatization of Culture,” Chin Tao Wu sites Frenchie Bourdieu in stating that “Cultural Capital…thus serves as an ‘instrument of domination. ” Curation, particularly museum curation is tied to the historical dynamics of the evaluation, and valuation of a particular kind of culture: white nationalism and white cultural production. Wu states that, “Art has long been patronised by those with power and status in society, and artistic products have thus always functioned as a status symbol as well as objects with market value.” We would add that white art has been patronised, and that these objects become “instrument[s] of domination.” Your curatorial practice offers us something different. The first part of our question: Could you talk to us about how you tease through the tensions of valuation in your curatorial practice?
LR: I come from a background of both being an artist and writer, and as well working in a curatorial, production, and programming capacity in institutions, museums in particular. That said, I began my training in the art world as a young queer woman of colour bearing witness to how violently art objects are valued, historicised (or not), positioned, and represented within canonised exhibition spaces. I spent time in these spaces, passed through them, watched the objects within them be moved without agency. I searched for myself and those like me there, and struggled in this search.
I do not see myself as a curator with a capital “C”—as in, one that participates in histories of valuation as an “instrument of domination”. I’ve always had difficulty with the word “curator” because of the complicated and traumatic history there and so in the past have oscillated between self-defining as such, and rejecting the term altogether. The artists I work with, the artworks I curate, the projects I produce, operate under an umbrella that is participatory, collaborative, conversational. I steer along a course but do not dictate, and am always prepared to grapple with the reality that the art world and art market are deeply flawed, wracked with bias, and—like the Internet—not built by or for people of colour. Our successes within these systems therefore are staged as anomaly. It is important for curators to remain conscious that this compromised history can make it difficult for artists to fully trust the systems and pathways laid out for them by institutions, and rightfully so. Being wary of institutions for many artists is commensurate with a mode of self-preservation, honed by experience.
Via the curatorial arm of my practice I am interested in doing for my feminist, queer, POC, creative community what white cultural production has done for white cis-gendered (majorly male) artists for all of art history. I want to create space for us to tell our own stories, to dictate new narratives, to define selves on terms we have established. I want to work toward a collectivised canon, one that does not model itself off of the exclusionary top-down model that for so long has institutionally designated as artifact or token artworks made by marginalised makers. I also believe that collecting, or being a patron of the arts, has the capacity to be political—operating within the art market with an urgent responsibility to those who have historically been underrepresented is key, and we need to keep naming this, and calling it out as being part of the problem.
contemptorary: Part two–We’re particularly interested in this question because in the contemporary art world there seems to be expectations of people of color, and mainly women of color artists to always have “resolved” everything in their practice, to have “coherent” bodies of work that are ready for exhibition. What is the value of experimentation in this sense? And do you see this exhibition as an experiment in manifesting different ways of being an artist, or collective being on the internet or IRL?
LR: Art is at the top of the luxury pyramid and so is a signifier of “cultural capital”, yes—however it is important to remember that the driver of that capital is labour, and that creative production is real work. Focusing on the end point and ignoring the process renders that work invisible, and makes purely aesthetic a process that is often far more complex. That erasure divorces the art object from its source, and from the politic of its producer (the artist). I think for artists of colour—women and otherwise—this language of “coherent” or “resolved” is coded (i.e. implicitly gendered, racialized), and problematic. The current art market is disturbed in this way—there is a privileged audience there that wants to voyeuristically access an artist in a circus state of messy / riotous / resistant / crazy / creative in the studio, but then “well-behaved”, perfectly packaged, and prepared for the parade, out in the world beyond. Pressuring artists to arrive and deliver that which is complete all day everyday is a paralysis, working against what the artistic process should be. Experimentation aids in rooting out truth, and jars us out of routine. This exhibition brings together artists at varying stages in their careers and with different entry-points and perspectives, many of whom follow one another online, but have yet to encounter each other AFK. Thus Wandering/WILDING becomes a site of congregation, each room a meeting place where the artists and their artworks can “face” each other, conversate, and call out to one another.
Legacy Russell is a writer, artist, and cultural producer. Born and raised in New York City’s East Village she is the UK Gallery Relations Lead for the online platform Artsy. Her work can be found in a variety of publications worldwide: BOMB, The White Review, Rhizome, DIS, The Society Pages, Guernica, Berfrois and beyond. Holding an MRes of Visual Culture with Distinction at Goldsmiths College of University of London, her academic and creative work focuses on gender, performance, digital selfdom, idolatry, and new media ritual. Her first book Glitch Feminism, is forthcoming from Verso. Twitter: @legacyrussell | Instagram @ellerustle. | Website: www.legacyrussell.com.