A review of BLACK MEME, an interactive video essay on Black visual culture since 1900, directed by Legacy Russell
Legacy Russell, Curator, Writer, and Author
Kolawole Heyward-Rotimi, Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities
Memes are not neutral. The labor enacted through black meme culture raises questions about subjectivity, personhood, and the ever-complicated fault lines of race, class, and gender performed both on- and offline. I want to talk about the economy and engine of this and perhaps push further a discussion about how we can hold ourselves accountable to how this material is produced and circulated.
– Legacy Russell
BLACK MEME (2020) is a “video essay” in an interactive digital space that explores questions of Black visual culture from 1900 to the present day. Through archival media and found footage, Legacy Russell explores the construction, culture, and material of the “meme” and its relationship to blackness, black life, and black social death. First debuted in Spring 2020 via the online exhibition space External Pages, Russell's video essay is situated on a 3D interactive laptop that hovers against a black background. The video begins with the question "what is a black meme?” typed into Blackle, a website first launched by Google in 2007 that aims to save energy by displaying a black background. Working backwards in time from Beyoncé’s 2016 song “Formation,” key references include Rodney King’s 1991 beating at the hands of the LAPD, the documentation of which came to be known as the world’s “first viral video”; Michael Jackson’s legendary 1983 music video “Thriller”; and the 1913 film “Lime Kiln Field Day,” celebrated as the oldest surviving film to feature Black actors. Over its 20 minute and 51 second duration, through pacing, distortion, and abrupt edits, Russell weaves a considered and unexpected story of Black culture and its impact on the Internet meme as we now know it.
Legacy Russell’s BLACK MEME starts with the silence of a dormant laptop, a maneuverable 3D object suspended in void. After clicking play, a 21-minute long visual piece plays on the virtual computer screen, portraying a chronology of Black expression as channeled through new media. In contextualizing the video aspect of BLACK MEME through the CGI computer model, the project folds experience of digital space into the content itself. This radical flattening of form and content is distributed throughout the piece, including a non-hierarchical approach to engaging with varied forms of Black cultural output. In the process of juxtaposing memes with graphical user interface (GUI) aesthetics and historical footage with CGI reenactments, BLACK MEME paints a sprawling picture of Black imagery online.
Russell channels information through a process of transformation, seen most clearly in the initial scene of their visual essay. BLACK MEME opens with a screen recording of Tony Heap’s “Blackle” project, a website that was meant to be a “lights out” version of Google to save energy. The search query “what is a black meme” is entered into Blackle. The act of providing this question to an all-black Google racializes the webpage, utilizing its very design language to shift our focus. Instead of being an energy-saving project, it takes on a different connotation as a literal Black Google, looped into Russell’s examination of Black meme expression.
This search engine interaction condenses the logic of BLACK MEME: from the search query we are greeted with a list of results that range from black holes, to Black Air Force 1s, to a YouTube result titled “black panther but it’s a meme.” The search engine becomes a collage generator, a loose game of word association. While the initial query remains unanswered, it has generated multiple responses that might be collated to get a coherent answer to “what is a black meme.” BLACK MEME replicates this process by interweaving snippets of footage, GIFs, and vivid soundbites from across time and the Internet, responding to the Blackle search query through a storm of references.
Similar to how Blackle put an article about a slavery meme beside one on the rap group Rae Sremmurd, the video essay’s footage flits between different time periods and topics. One of the most striking examples is when footage of police brutality is intercut with a glitching computer, along with fading imagery of sky—the visuals create emotional whiplash but also bring the digital texture to the forefront. The emphasis on Internet aesthetics as intertwined with Black expression is one of the strongest parts of BLACK MEME. By embracing the sudden shifts of glitch art to fuel contrast, BLACK MEME creates a rendition of Black digitality that revives its own past as a living concept—as a performative space under constant flux and reinvention.
BLACK MEME debuted on External Pages, an online art space, and in effect suggests a temporariness, an ephemeral site-specificity typically found in physical galleries, with set dates for when the piece would be featured on the website’s front page. For now though, the piece exists indefinitely in the “Past Exhibitions” section of External Pages. As with the visual essay itself, the online platform BLACK MEME is hosted on brings into question the duration of digital objects. However, BLACK MEME remains accessible despite its exhibition time being long over.