Legacy Russell on the Memeification of Blackness

Artist Rene Matić and the author discuss her latest book, which charts how Black visual culture became a blueprint for the modern viral image

BY Legacy Russell AND Rene Matić in Interviews | 14 MAY 24

In her ongoing research on technology and Blackness, writer and curator Legacy Russell unveils her latest literary work, BLACK MEME: A History of the Images that Make Us (2024). Within its pages, she examines the influence of Black visual culture on the evolution of the online meme and how it shaped contemporary digital vernacular. In this conversation with the author, artist Rene Matić delves into the book’s core themes while considering the first viral Black image to its current misappropriation. They also discuss the ethics of photography and the ongoing harm inflicted on individuals whose digital personas are trapped, often without consent, in an endless loop of online public performance. 

Rene Matić In 2020, you published your first book Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto – an expansion of a 2012 piece for The Society Pages where you coined the term. For the research programme and online platform Res., you wrote: ‘The glitch is for the digital Orlando. Those shape-shifters, time-travellers, that hold as a desire that act of transcending gender.’ I repeatedly return to Glitch in my work as a reminder of the radicality of my own spikey inbetweeness. How does BLACK MEME relate to or continue the work of Glitch Feminism?

Legacy Russell BLACK MEME considers the traditions of visual culture as driven by Blackness and the ways in which this intersects with viewership and technology. I would say they are not two sides of a coin, but rather they are in dialogue with one another. My hope is that people will take up the charge of BLACK MEME in the way they did with Glitch Feminism and put it to work.

Portrait of Legacy Russell
Portrait of Legacy Russell. Photograph: Andreas Laszlo Konrath / Portrait of Rene Matić. Photograph: Julien Tell

RM I expected BLACK MEME to focus on the dawn of the internet and look onwards but you begin with the 1913 black and white silent film Lime Kiln Field Day – the oldest surviving feature film with an all-Black cast. Did you know you would start this far back when you set out to provide historical context for the modern meme?

LR Yes, absolutely. The purpose of BLACK MEME was to rectify how we engage in discussions around technology, media and the internet. I’ve spent years in classrooms, on panels and in conferences where people talk about cyberspace as if it is a newfangled phenomenon that came into being after 1990. How images move as memes and the circulation of the Black image, with its connected questions of authorship and objecthood, predate that. They should inform every part of the discussion.

Black Meme, book cover, 2024
Legacy Russell, BLACK MEME​, 2024, book cover. Courtesy: Verso Books

RM You quote Aria Dean’s 2016 essay Rich Meme Poor Meme where she notes, ‘Blackness as poor image, as meme, is a copy without an original.’ Could you explain how this relates to Blackness and mimetics?

LR Dean’s quote references Hito Steyerl’s 2009 e-flux essay, In Defense of the Poor Image. Dean argues that the very idea of Blackness is in part articulated by its transmission, that it is in its very being, what Steyerl calls, a ‘poor image’ or a ‘copy in motion’. The Black meme is characterized by the velocity with which it is transmitted. One could say it travels so widely that it does not know its limits, which is dangerous because this suggests that there is a collective sharing of Blackness.

The very act of looking is a colonial project and the camera is the ultimate machine of colonial documentation. Legacy Russell 

RM I’ve been thinking a lot about ethics as a photographer and I feel like I encountered BLACK MEME just as I entered a new stage of questioning my photographic practice. It feels contradictory to be an image-maker who photographs marginalized bodies but who also has an interest in resisting surveillance. I oscillate between ‘I want to show us’ and ‘I want to hide us.’ As a curator who works predominantly with Black artists, is this feeling familiar to you too?

LR The very act of looking is a colonial project and the camera is the ultimate machine of colonial documentation. Still, we can find ways to do radical work when we think strategically about how to apply weapons as tools. For me it is blurrier than ‘show’ or ‘hide’. Instead, I’m thinking about spaces where Black people can make room for one another which rebel against the status quo and give us new modes to witness the dynamic and multi-tonal instrument of Black life.

Rene Matić and Oscar Murillo. JAZZ
Rene Matić / Oscar Murillo,  'JAZZ', 2024, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artists and Kunsthalle Wien; photograph: Tim Bowditch and Reinis Lismanis

RM Recently I’ve been photographing bodies in motion, which you can see in my current show, ‘Jazz’, at Kunsthalle Wien. This, for me, draws attention to the affirmative impossibilities of capturing Blackness and queerness. What happens when a body is forever memorized ‘via the endless archive of a digital scroll,’ as you wrote, ‘[and] is kept in constant motion’? Does this mode of image-making trap a body in that laborious violent space forever?

LR I don’t think that being in motion is inherently violent. How movement is applied and what it means when something is taken from you – your image, for example – without permission and is economized for someone else [is paramount]. Is there a way to consider what it means to be on stage indefinitely? Do we get to decide how we move, who our audience is and the architecture within which our gestures are held? These are the questions I’m invested in.

RM You quote Frederick Douglass who paraphrases 18th-century British poet Lord Byron, ‘a man always looks dead when his biography is written,’ before adding, ‘The same is even more true when his picture is taken.’ Do you think it’s possible for a body to rest within an image or are we always ‘dead’?

Van Der Zee, funeral image
James Van Der Zee, Mortuary Portrait, 1933. Courtesy: The Director’s Fund

LR In many cultures, there is an idea that picture-taking seizes a part of the soul. I think of James Van Der Zee’s funerary portraits of Black people in 1920s and ’30s Harlem; even though these are photographs of Black people in afterlife, they are filled with liveness. These are images that show us that it is possible to rest, even in the witness of death. But this is only made possible by the ways in which we choose to participate in an image. I’m concerned that some of the viral economies of Blackness and queerness have us confused; our visibility is functioning at such a high level that we think it has some sustaining economic value. Increasingly, what we see on our screens are images of us being played back to us. But in the world we remain deeply unprotected and unloved; in politics we remain underserved, in economics we remain generationally wanting. To be Black and queer has never been more fungible yet our right to a life is constantly called into question.

RM I wanted to circle back to the ‘poor image’. I was thinking about how the non-Black gaze could render an image ‘poor’, how constant careless consumption can damage the image itself. Do you have any thoughts on the effects of an unwanted gaze and what we can do in retaliation?

When making photographic work, the audience is always part of the image and an art audience is often white.Rene Matić

LR In the book, I talk about how the idea of property is the core of the issue at hand. We need to reclaim agency over the ways in which we have been objectified; repatriation can be the ultimate form of retaliation as it can reset the asymmetric bargaining relations that disenfranchise Black and queer people. I think the algorithmic power of [online platforms] are quite insidious because they play Blackness and queerness back to us while simultaneously stripping us of our authorship. We are digitally weathered by this experience and the cognitive dissonance has unravelled many.

RM This reminds me of your chapter on lynching postcards, which were distributed as souvenirs among, mostly, white Americans in the 19th and 20th centuries. When making photographic work, the audience is always part of the image and an art audience is often white. I’m wondering what the difference is between the white viewers pictured in those postcards, smiling in front of lynched Black bodies, and an audience of whiteness looking now?  

LR There was a meme circulating from Jerry Gogosian about rich white men taking Instagram photos in front of Jeffrey Gibson’s presentation at the Venice Biennale. This is settler colonialism playing out conceptually, a radical Indigenous frame being recentred and seized upon. The answer is not to hide the work away but – as I said before – to be clear about who the space is being held for and why. Reclamation does not allow our history and representations to become decorative and ornamental; we reject being your souvenir, digital or otherwise.

Lynching postcard, 1910.
Lynching scene postcard, 1910.

RM You also wrote that we must ‘hold ourselves accountable for the ways this material is produced, circulated, bought and sold.’ I feel under so much pressure. I know I have failed. Not necessarily in terms of accountability but definitely in the protection of Blackness within my images. Weighing this up, I think all my questions were really leading to this: Is there a way to protect Black people in images?

LR As a curator I’m very aware that accountability is about who I am inviting in and accessibility. When an exhibition opens, it exists in a physical space, as a record online and in the archive to be engaged in the future. But there is an opportunity, before the doors open, to establish a code of conduct and shape a space for tender viewership that does not perpetuate the same systems of extraction that have become normalized in institutional spaces. I don’t think that every part of production needs to be about Black people doing Black work to protect Blackness but rather the demands of care become the responsibility of every individual in contact with the work.

RM Lately, I have been considering the violence of repetition inherent in the sale of editions, specifically photography. I am so wrapped up in the ethics of all this that I have thought about no longer making editions, but there’s violence in that too – by creating gaps in the archive. Do you have thoughts on this conundrum?

LR Editions wouldn’t have to exist if artists were not required to find a way to make themselves fungible within a capitalist market. Consumerism reigns [and so does] the preciousness of the edition as a limited entity. I think the art world would be a better place if there were more exhibitions and projects that were not preoccupied with the market. As Lorraine O’Grady declared [while flagellating her back in a 1980 guerrilla gallery performance]: ‘Black art must take more risks!’ I want to see systems of philanthropy and institutional support show up for Black cultural production without requiring Blackness to be tokenized in its circulation.

Legacy Russell's BLACK MEME is published by Verso Books in May 2024

Rene Matić and Oscar Murillo’s joint exhibition, 'JAZZ', is on view at Kunsthalle Wien until 27 July

Main image: Lime Kiln Club Field Day, 1913, film still. Courtesy: MoMA

Legacy Russell is a writer and curator. She is executive director and chief curator at The Kitchen, New York, USA. She received the Thoma Foundation Arts Writing Award in Digital Art in 2019 and was a 2020 Rauschenberg Residency Fellow. Her first book, GLITCH FEMINISM: A Manifesto, was released in 2020. Her second book, BLACK MEME: A History of the Images that Make Us, was also released by Verso Books in May 2024. She lives in New York.

Rene Matić is a London-based artist and writer whose practice spans across photography, film, and sculpture, converging in a meeting place they describe as ‘rude(ness)’ – an evidencing and honouring of the in-between.