Reality Studies
Urgent Futures with Jesse Damiani
Legacy Russell: The Black Meme in Visual & Viral Culture | Urgent Futures Ep. 9

Legacy Russell: The Black Meme in Visual & Viral Culture | Urgent Futures Ep. 9

🎙️ Jesse sits down with celebrated writer, curator and theorist Legacy Russell to discuss her new book 'BLACK MEME,' how modern visual culture is rooted in Blackness, memetic emancipation, and more.
Credit: Andreas Laszlo Konrath

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Legacy Russell is a curator and writer. Born and raised in New York City, she is the Executive Director & Chief Curator of The Kitchen.

Formerly she was the Associate Curator of Exhibitions at The Studio Museum in Harlem. Russell holds an MRes with Distinction in Art History from Goldsmiths, University of London with a focus in Visual Culture. Her academic, curatorial, and creative work focuses on gender, performance, digital selfdom, internet idolatry, and new media ritual. Russell’s written work, interviews, and essays have been published internationally.

Recent exhibitions include Harmony Holiday: BLACK BACKSTAGE (2024, The Kitchen); Matthew Lutz-Kinoy: Filling Station (2023, The Kitchen); Samora Pinderhughes: GRIEF (2022, The Kitchen); The Condition of Being Addressable (2022, ICA LA); Sadie Barnette: The New Eagle Creek Saloon (2022, The Kitchen); Projects: Kahlil Robert Irving (2021), Projects: Garrett Bradley (2020), and Projects: Michael Armitage (2019), all with The Studio Museum in Harlem in partnership with The Museum of Modern Art; (Never) As I Was, This Longing Vessel, and MOOD with Studio Museum in partnership with MoMA PS1; Thomas J Price: Witness (2021); Dozie Kanu: Function (2019), and Chloë Bass: Wayfinding (2019) at The Studio Museum in Harlem; LEAN with Performa's Radical Broadcast online (2020) and in physical space at Kunsthall Stavanger (2021).

She is the recipient of the Thoma Foundation 2019 Arts Writing Award in Digital Art, a 2020 Rauschenberg Residency Fellow, a recipient of the 2021 Creative Capital Award, a 2022 Pompeii Commitment Digital Fellow, and a 2023 Center for Curatorial Leadership Fellow. Her first book is Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto (Verso Books. 2020). Her second book is BLACK MEME (Verso Books, 2024).

Legacy has an extraordinary ability to synthesize topics across art, visual culture, history, and media theory, and distill them into clear ideas and arguments. This was true in Glitch Feminism, which in my opinion is already a modern classic, and it’s true again with BLACK MEME. Meme here doesn’t just refer to digital images, but is used in its more classical understanding as in the Greek mimesis, which means “something imitated.” Through this perspective, “Black meme” refers to the transmission of Blackness as a viral agent. 

The book makes the case that the history of visual culture in the United States is rooted in the contributions of Black people. She writes, “In this book I argue that Blackness in itself is memetic and, by extension, that the technology of memes as a core component of a dawning digital culture has been driven by, shaped by, authored by, Blackness.”

Yet this Black data—transmitted via the Black meme—has been produced under the violence of white supremacy, and has been extracted from Black people by White power structures. She demonstrates this history by identifying critical turning points in the 20th and 21st centuries which have paved the way for the notion of the “meme” as we understand it today, in its more digital framing. 

The book asks readers to face these histories, and to consider how we might begin to build structures that acknowledge historical harms and compensate Black people for their cultural contributions. And that still is only scratching the surface of all the work this book is doing. I strongly encourage you to go pick up a copy and read it for yourself.

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CREDITS: This podcast is edited and produced by Adam Labrie and me, Jesse Damiani. Adam Labrie also directed, shot, and edited the video version of the podcast, which is available on YouTube. The podcast is presented by Reality Studies. If you appreciate the work I’m doing, please subscribe and share it with someone you think would enjoy it.

Find more episodes of Urgent Futures at: Past conversations include Taylor Lorenz, Asad J. Malik, Lia Halloran & Kip Thorne, Cherie Hu, Eric Czuleger, Idris Brewster, Dennis Yi Tenen, Lisa Messeri, and more.

Reality Studies
Urgent Futures with Jesse Damiani
Welcome to the Urgent Futures Podcast, the show that brings you TOMORROW'S IDEAS TODAY. Each episode, I sit down with leading thinkers for big idea dialogues that clarify the chaos, from culture to the cosmos. Stick around to hear the research, concepts, and questions that animate their approaches to reality.