10 Things the NSA Has Seen Me Do
by Legacy Russell
In the early-evening hours of November 4th, 2008, when everyone was waiting to find out whether or not Barack Obama would take the election and become the 44th President of the United States, I was at home drinking an ill-timed whiskey. A friend of mine called me up and asked if he could come over. The plan was that he would meet me at my place in Park Slope where I was living at the time, and that we’d make our way over to Union Hall, a local pub in the area, to watch the coverage and get anxiously drunk. This same friend, when he arrived at my apartment, was that evening going through what many people were going through — a serious case of doubt. Many people, though they carried with them the hope of YES WE CAN! still didn’t know how to envision an America with a black president, the same America plagued with histories of discrimination and systematic racial disenfranchisement. It didn’t line up. So there was doubt. And as a result of this doubt, people were seriously somber, tense with the suspense.
It hadn’t occurred to me that Obama wouldn’t win — I had convinced myself that it wasn’t possible for him to lose, it just couldn’t happen. My landing on that decision made me feel safer, even though it didn’t guarantee much more than a temporary realignment of my own individuated reality. Several drinks in, before we had left the house, my friend in his cynicism decided to pose a bet to myself and my roommate: “If Obama wins the election, you two have to go streaking in Park Slope, right down 5th Avenue.” I was feeling cheeky; to lighten the tone of the hour, I agreed. I then proceeded to dress up in a blue silk dress and stiletto heels — to show my femme political colors, you know — and hit the streets.
When the results came in, Union Hall went into a complete frenzy. Me? I took off all my clothes, handed them over to my friend who was waiting at the bar, and ran in my blue skivvies for twenty blocks along 5th Avenue, high-fiving cheering crowds that toppled out into the street to greet my roommate and I.
The next morning, en route to catch the train to the Upper East Side where I was working as an Assistant at The Whitney Museum of Art, I was approached by a gang of teenagers: “Are you one of the girls that ran 5th Avenue last night? That was fucking awesome.”
“No.” I lied. “You must have imagined that.” My bad, NSA.
After a pretty painful breakup one year, I found myself in bed for what felt like the fifth consecutive day in a row, playing Lauryn Hill’s MTV Unplugged No. 2.0 “I Gotta Find Peace of Mind” on YouTube and eating frosting with a teaspoon directly out of the tub container. I am not sure where I had procured this frosting, or when, really, but when I had discovered it in my pantry, I knew that it was just going to be me and the darling Betty Crocker in a Sapphic spooning from then until eternity — to be honest, I had arrived at a place where I was pretty cool with that. At a certain point in my general depths of distracted despair, I dropped the tub. It promptly rolled across the room on its side, coming to a rest against my dresser. Instead of getting up and walking over to retrieve it, I, in my breakup-and-sugar-saturated state of mind, decided to reach for it. The task was Sisyphean, as it was unmistakably out of reach and there was no hope of getting it back with ease. This of course resulted in my rolling off the side of my bed in a disastrous choreography that ultimately culminated in my landing awkwardly on top of my own foot. I broke my toe that evening, but it didn’t matter: Lauryn Hill played on, and I lay on my back and called Betty Crocker’s name aloud with every sweet bite. I call this tale “Broken Heart, Broken Toe: An Evening Cabaret With Betty” — NSA, you had a front seat, even though you know damn well you weren’t invited that night.
Everyone has tried to use Photo Booth on an Apple computer to take a staged photo of themselves looking effortlessly effortless. If you’re reading this and you’re all like, “I’d never do that,” you’re either lying to me, to the NSA, to someone else next to you, or you’re just maintaining a front until you have a quiet minute alone to close the door to your room and give it a try (if this is the case, Erving Goffman would be proud of you). I tried. One quiet night at home I decided to snap a few cute pictures to send to my partner. Yet the distance between my dear bed and I was just a bit too far. At the three second mark I always seemed to find myself in the most compromising positions: Pose 1: leg in the air! Pose 2: arm in the air! Pose 3: is my eyeliner on? Pose 4: is it three seconds — or two? Pose 5: is that a candy bar on the nightstand? Pose 6: Is this thing even working? NSA, that blurred shot in Sepia Normal of me tripping over my own shoe — that one goes out to you.
In college one of my best friends and I — both city girls landed in the Midwest who had never seen a Dairy Queen before in anything other than ’80s movies — decided it would be worth our time to walk over to the Dairy Queen, order the majority of their menu, bring it back to my room, and eat it. All. Enough said, NSA — and enough seen.
Back in the day I had an uncanny tendency to come home after a late night of causing trouble on the town and just not wanting the party to end! So, naturally, I would put my headphones in and record my own “tracks”, totally shredding it on Garage Band. This was also the same period of time where I secretly kept a keyboard underneath my bed for such occasions, just in case it turned into an impromptu jam session. Recording an “album” when drunk is more or less on the same scale of absurdity as would be recording one in the shower — sure, the acoustics sound great, but would you really make it to the finals on American Idol? What would Paula Abdul say? Or worse — what would Simon say?
In the beginning I would record several songs and then leave them as files on my computer for a later return and revisit. It was only when I finally really took a listen to a month’s work and realized how absolutely horrific each of these recordings were that it became a project in itself to see just how bad such horrors could really get — I’d record songs as a late-night post-club ritual, replay them at a later date, and give myself a real chuckle. It was only when I realized that there was a distinct possibility that other people in my house at the time had discovered this stash on my iTunes and might indeed be chuckling, too, that I decided in a fit of mortification to scourge my hard drive of them altogether. I always assumed these undiscovered gems would remain forever hidden; perhaps you’ve got other plans for them, NSA.
When I was a kid I used to meet up with my playground friend and “summer sister” Bibi Deitz for playdates every week. We would try to recreate the dances from Michael Jackson videos. We were experts (you know how seven and nine year olds roll), and wouldn’t quit until we either got into a fight about the importance of remaining true to Jackson’s exquisite craft, or broke for a snack and a juice box. I remember most specifically “Remember The Time” and attempting to recreate the performative gesture of the physical form as it rose out of and disappeared into mounds of sand. It took hours, and resulted in many bruises and scrapes. This was the cross we bore, the price we paid for true art. NSA — do you know how difficult it is to embody sand?
In high school my friends and I decided to throw a party at our friend’s mom’s place while her mom was out of town. We were in ninth grade and thought it would be alluring somehow if we all wore a combination of the following: high tops, aprons, daisy dukes and angel wings. When someone brilliantly threw a 40 ounce bottle of beer into the front door of the apartment building, breaking the glass pane, the neighbors called my friend’s father, unbeknownst to the rest of us. Living nearby, within minutes he apparently had strolled over, arriving at the apartment while I was still outside having a cigarette. I finished my drags and strutted dumbly into the elevator half-naked in my wings. When the doors closed, I turned to the guy on my left, expecting to see someone within my general age bracket. Instead, under the harsh lights of that elevator, suddenly transformed into a madly claustrophobic box, stood the gray-haired father of my friend. “You girls are in big trouble.” He told me with a glare. “Just wait until you see the orgy upstairs.” I joked. His response? Silence. To this day I get the inkling that he just might still believe that we were indeed hosting an orgy upstairs. NSA — forgive me, but come to think of it, we probably were.
Back in the day I used to host huge parties on my parents’ rooftop in the East Village. My friends and I would invite all of our friends, and then, just to mix it up, we’d invite all the punk kids from the area to come up for a sip and a chat. This often either resulted in an all-night mosh pit of love, or one of us being held at knifepoint while some man spray painted all over the black tar of the rooftop, citing “the spirit of punk rock” as reason for such decoration.
There was a quiet duo by the name of Dasha and Dunkie that would attend these gatherings on the regular; not from the city, but markedly familiar with the punk crew in the area, they’d come in their slips, fishnets and platforms, and hold hands in a corner. Best friends, or girlfriends, it never was clear. But what I do know is that they had a mutual shared penchant and convivial desire for throwing their tampons off of the side of the rooftop at the same time, onto passersby below. For two fourteen year old girls, this was comedy at its finest; in this way, Dasha and Dunkie left their marks on the world. For each tampon gone, teen prepster partygoers and East Village CBGB rockers would stand around and nod in agreement: “That is sooooo punk rock.” Under this performance, everyone was united. NSA — these acts of incubating young riot grrl anarchy and pseudo-biological terrorism, these go out to you.
One winter in my early twenties myself and some good friends — a merging of art, music and literary ladies of New York, full-grown girls aspiring to be women — got together, had a lovely dinner, some wine and delightful chat. Then we decided to spend an hour practicing “Teach Me How To Dougie”. NSA — can you teach me how to Dougie? You know why? “Because all my bitches love me.”
Ever tried to cut your own hair using a YouTube video as an instructor? Tried to private message someone on Twitter and instead put yourself on blast to the world beyond? Sent a text about someone else to that person — or texted someone you positively abhor accidentally — simply because you neglected to pay attention to the task at hand? Yeah, NSA, during those moments you could have intervened and thrown me a bone. You could have said something — anything, anything at all.
NSA — thanks for positively nothing.
Cover image by Banksy
About the Author:
Legacy Russell is a writer and curator. Born and raised in New York City, she is the Associate Curator of Exhibitions at The Studio Museum in Harlem. Recent exhibitions include Projects 110 : Michael Armitage, organized with Thelma Golden and The Studio Museum in Harlem at MoMA (2019); Dozie Kanu : Function (2019), Chloë Bass : Wayfinding (2019), Radical Reading Room (2019) at The Studio Museum in Harlem; and MOOD : Studio Museum Artists in Residence 2018-19 (2019) at MoMA PS1. Russell’s ongoing academic work and research focuses on gender, performance, digital selfdom, internet idolatry, and new media ritual. She is Visual Arts Editor of Apogee Journal, a Contributing Editor for BOMB Magazine online, and a Senior Editor at Berfrois. Russell is the recipient of the Thoma Foundation 2019 Arts Writing Award in Digital Art and a 2020 Rauschenberg Residency Fellow. Her first book, Glitch Feminism, is forthcoming from Verso Books in Fall 2020. www.legacyrussell.com | Instagram: @ellerustle | Twitter: @legacyrussell.