Editor’s Note: With the support of the Emily H. Tremaine Foundation, Hyperallergic will be publishing a commissioning series expanding upon the research and reporting by its Journalism Fellow for Curators, Rea McNamara. Designed to demystify the curatorial field, the series will look at the myriad of ways digital feminisms can inform better online curatorial practices. This essay by Legacy Russell, focusing on her Glitch Feminism manifesto, considers how this feminist politic “pushes limits and challenges the gender binary as part of the collective abolition project.”
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In September, as wildfires burned through acres of Southern California landscape due to a pyrotechnic device setting off at a gender reveal party, my thoughts kept coming back to artist Judy Chicago’s Atmospheres series.
Begun in 1968 in Southern California, the fireworks series features swathes of neon enveloping a desert backdrop, the curvilinear smoke wisping a radical femme erotic through an unforgiving vista. “While the guys were carving up the landscape, I was feminizing it, and softening it,” Chicago recalls, seeing it as a response to the male-dominated field of land art. The shared visual and technological vernacular with the contemporary gender reveal party makes “Atmospheres” feel deeply uncanny and nothing short of ironic from the vantage point of the here and now. The instinct Chicago had to “feminize” the arid terrain as an act of feminist resistance and glitched refusal brought to the fore performative acts that remain to this day incredibly alluring. The material — smoke — intended to take a stance against the destruction of nature toward the production of art. Conversely, artworks produced by male land-art “stars” like Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson often carved into, cut away at, or irreversibly modified the earth. The impermanence of Chicago’s work is incredible to cross reference against today’s reality of over 10,000 acres of scorched earth — gendered “atmospheres” in their own right, performative acts gone entirely awry.
It can be useful to crosscheck life against art when trying to unpack the troubles of gender, and consider what glitch feminism does for the now and moving forward. As wildfires burned across the American West Coast, Switzerland’s Supreme Court dismissed an appeal by two-time Olympic track champion Caster Semenya against track and field rules limiting female runners’ naturally high testosterone levels. In the Supreme Court’s final ruling, the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport had “the right to uphold the conditions of participation issued for female athletes with the genetic variant 46 XY DSD in order to guarantee fair competition for certain running disciplines in female athletics.” The South African runner’s case — preventing her from defending her Olympic 800-meter title at the postponed Tokyo Games this year — is a devastating blow and underscores the tensions between biological sex assignment and gender identification. In only allowing Semenya to only compete if she lowers her testosterone through hormone-suppressing medication or surgery, it also triggers faultlines that reach back into the histories of Black womanhood and Western medical apartheid.
Sojourner Truth’s 1851 query of “Ain’t I a Woman?” is prescient and urgent to call into the room here. “Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman?” Truth asked in her groundbreaking speech, alluding to the gendered metrics of performance under American slavery’s violent economy.
Her words underscore a necessary demand: that the forced extraction of her labor in intersection with her capacity to excel under the machinic brutality of enslavement should not be used to detract from the fundamental recognition of her humanity. Here, ‘womanhood’ stands in for something greater than the performance of the feminine; it flags the problem of the very definition of ‘woman’ being hewn to a selfhood that politically, socially, and culturally excluded Black people altogether. This carries us forward to today as we continue to see white cis-gendered female bodies consistently privileged in protections above Black and queer counterparts, asserting a noxious and insidious valuation of life and worthiness of care.
In 2019, Caster Semenya spoke of her long-running legal battle against the athletic authorities, signaling supremacist “physique” and “performance” metrics that eerily echo Truth’s concerns: “If you want to get rid of a human being, you go tell them straight ‘I want to get rid of you’ instead of going around collecting data on […] their body or their physique [or] their performance.”
Semenya’s observation about her body’s “data” collection is powerful, particularly through the lens and logic of eugenics. From as early as the 16th century, comparisons were made between African and European women that reified toxic taxonomies of supremacy, establishing Black bodies as inferior bodies and consistently excluding Black women from being recognized within ‘womanhood’ altogether. Claudia Rankine in her 2014 epic poem Citizen: An American Lyric puts it best: “What does a victorious or defeated black woman’s body in a historically white space look like?” The answer: a glitch.
Glitch feminism asks us to break what’s broken with the goal of rebuilding. It is abolitionist work, it is intersectional work, and it is emergent work. As a politic, glitch feminism pushes limits and challenges the gender binary as part of the collective project of abolition, recognizing that gender — and the rigidity of its binaries as a trope and trap — have historically been weaponized as a spoke in the wheel of anti-Blackness. When we essentialize Judith Butler’s commonly called-upon turn of phrase “gender is a construct,” we forget to say aloud that gender is a racialized construct, an ableist construct, a classist construct, a xenophobic construct.
We are seeing the confluence of this everywhere: the forced hysterectomies on ICE detainees showing how sexed organs are deployed as a state-sanctioned war tactic; the memetic circulation of Breonna Taylor’s image as a decorative signifier, underscoring how outsized mainstream visibility in no way maps to fair representation or care across the legal system. From a semi-wilderness patch in Central Park, where Amy Cooper’s 911 deployment of the most violent mode of white womanhood — a calculated damsel in distress move pulled from an American visual culture playbook dating back to D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) — in an attempt to rally state power to her aid in a May 2020 Central Park confrontation with Black birdwatcher Chris Cooper. There’s a throughline here: gender.
These examples illustrate for us that bodies are social, cultural, and political constructs and capital. Glitch feminism and its manifesto pushes back at gender binary, taking issue with it as a core component of how bodies are built. This aversion to and refusal of the binary is not an argument toward our global transformation into the singular blur of a post-human selfhood. Rather it is intended to challenge us to think more carefully about who the binary project of male / female was built to narrate, support, carry, and protect. Tavia Nyong’o’s exploration of the “non-binary Blackness” in Samuel Delaney’s speculative fiction reminds us that “grounding the politics of non-binary gender in such mundane matters of enfleshment as sex acts and bathroom use remind us how we experience the oppressive norm in our quotidian life.”
Yet the mundane imaginary of enfleshment as it currently stands is often too flat a read of the supremacy that gender enacts: it yolks itself to a heteronormative temporality that remains codependent on a Western model of space and time. This is not at all generous to what Black and queer thought, time, and space-making has done to collectively aid us in the reimagination of the end of this world as it currently stands, and the beginning of the next world as we make it now. Thus the reductive question of where we go to the bathroom becomes a metonymic device that disguises the deeply entrenched systems that demand and determine what we must present and perform as to avoid being gate-kept from gorgeously seizing — and truly living — our own lives. Through this we are kept from an empowered participation in private and public space; our basic bodily functions are transformed by institutions of the state into tools of terror; and our desires to wander freely and to love and fuck however we please are marked as oblique aberrations. In the midst of a pandemic, where quite literally every system we’ve been told was established to protect us is failing us completely, breaking what’s broken is an opportunity for a timely correction. To center the powerful and essential words of Hafsa Islam, daughter of the owner of Gandhi Mahal, a restaurant caught in the midst of the Minneapolis protests over the arrest and killing of George Floyd: “let it burn.”
Simone de Beauvoir said, “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” The glitch announces: One is not born, but rather becomes, a body. Bodies are projections of complex systems of bias and how we create, shape, engage, view, celebrate, name them is important, necessary, and radical work. Glitch feminism encourages each of us to be self-determined in naming ourselves, and to mobilize collectively in creating community through and beyond our screens, a loop that remains integral to sustaining in lieu of the nonsense of gritting our teeth and ‘just coping’ to get by. As glitch feminists, we seek to fully realize ourselves in our right to transform ecstatically as we continue to fight to make and take up new atmospheres, journeying toward our wildest cosmic potential.
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