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The collective writing womxn back into art history

For over six years, Art+Feminism have filled the gender gap in online art knowledge by rewriting and creating thousands of entries on Wikipedia

When you Google ‘land art’, only three out of Google’s top 25 land artists are women and none of them are artists of colour, despite the way in which women and minority artists of the 1970s redefined the entire movement. Through the works of artists like Cuban-Mexican Ana Mendieta, or American artist Judy Chicago, women in land art put the environment at the forefront and restored the inherently feminine divinity of nature from the destruction of the male gaze, which so commonly destroyed the earth for the making of art. But despite the influence and innovation of artists like Mendieta and Chicago, they are nowhere to be seen on land art’s Google search, demonstrating the embedded patriarchy of contemporary technology and its search engines which seemingly banish women and minority artists from history. 

With over 40 million articles in more than 250 languages, data goliath Wikipedia is one of the biggest contributing factors to this huge knowledge gap. When we compare this with the fact that only 10 per cent of Wikipedia editors are women, then it’s no wonder that many female artists are largely omitted from Wikipedia entries – women have had less of a chance to tell their stories online. Understanding the lack of female representation on Wikipedia and the site’s influence on contemporary knowledge is New York-based arts collective Art+Feminism, who, for the past six years, have been rewriting cis and transgender women, and non-binary artists back into Wikipedia. To do this, the collective organises Wikipedia edit-a-thons across the globe and invites anyone with an interest in progressing art to participate.

So far, Art+Feminism have hosted more than 500 global events. Their biggest was their 2017 fourth annual Wikipedia Edit-a-thon that saw over 6,500 women artists newly added to or expanded upon in Wikipedia entries. Timed to Women’s History Month, across the month of March Art+Feminism held over 200 events that hosted 2,500 participants who collaborated to fight the Wikipedia gender gap. 

“Absences and incomplete, or biased, information (on Wikipedia) matter and echo across the internet” – Art+Feminism

For 2019, the collective has shifted its focus to rewriting in non-binary and gender non-conforming artists. “This is art and feminism, and let’s be honest – non-intersectional, white feminism is everywhere,” reflects one of the collective’s co-founders McKensie Mack in an open letter earlier this year. “In a society where the dominant feminism does not speak to the experiences of Black women, trans women, indigenous women, queer women, immigrant women and the histories and knowledge systems of women based outside of the U.S. and Canada – we know we have a responsibility not only to dismantle patriarchy but to also dismantle destructive feminism that perpetuates social, institutional, and interpersonal harm in the lives of cis and trans women and gender non-binary people everywhere.”

In light of Art+Feminism’s most recent 2019 MoMA Edit-a-thon, below we speak to the collective about the importance of reasserting the influence and power of women and non-binary artists online.

Why is it important to improve coverage of cis and transgender women, non-binary folks, feminism and the arts on Wikipedia?

Art+Feminism: Wikipedia is often the first resource people turn to, whether it’s because they go there first or because Google returns a Wikipedia result in the top five results for any given search. As such, it has become one of the cultural indexes. Absences and incomplete, or biased, information here matter and echo across the internet. For example, Google search pulls its biographical sidebar information from Wikipedia, and MoMA’s website now pulls from Wikipedia content. This is the marker of a cultural shift with regards to how Wikipedia articles are viewed in the art world and in research in general, making our work more pressing.

As the great Okwui Enwezor, who passed away recently, once said: “... people oftentimes ask me, ‘Can art change the world?’ I say, ‘I don’t know if art can change the world, but by trying to expand the table of content of our field, we can have an effect’.”

What are the biggest obstacles you have come up against over the past six years?

Art+Feminism: There were a number of challenges, some of which boil down to the basics of community organising. There is a lot of behind-the-scenes work that goes into creating events of varying scale around the world. We have built out our infrastructure with the goal of encouraging local organisers to feel able to remix the A+F model to make it truly their own.

On another level, there is a challenge in changing the culture of Wikipedia. The talk pages, the Article for Deletion pages can be quite trollish. Women’s edits are more likely to be deleted: according to a 2011 study by Lam et al, of the ‘user’s first seven edits, the average reverted edit percentage for females is significantly higher than that for males.’ This means that a much higher percentage of women are having their contributions negated by other editors which is an extremely disheartening experience and contributes to their continuing lack of presence.

Also, we need to rethink what makes the ideal editor. We hoped that our project would start a conversation around digital labour. It’s neither realistic nor sustainable to seek to make every editor a heavy editor, someone whose volunteer labour becomes a part-time or full-time job. Encouraging casual editors will address content gaps and create a more accurate encyclopedia.

What has been the response to your work from different sectors of the industry?

Art+Feminism: When we tell people of our involvement in Art+Feminism, they react one of two ways: their eyes glaze over or they want to give us all the high fives. Seriously, though, the overall response has been super positive, with a few grumpy folks here and there who either don’t recognise the importance of Wikipedia as the backbone of our digital commons (ahem, Bendor Grosvenor) or some members of the Wikimedia community who don’t like the way we organise events off-Wiki. (Or maybe they just don’t like fun?)

“One of the things that’s really exciting to us about Art+Feminism is the space it creates to have... a conversation about what constitutes authoritative forms of knowledge” – Art+Feminism

How do you hope your work will shape the future of art education?

Art+Feminism: We bring to this project our knowledge of the arts, the scholarship of teaching and learning, radical feminist pedagogy, anti-oppressive practice, and more. One of the things that’s really exciting to us about Art+Feminism is the space it creates to have, in public and on a large scale, a conversation about what constitutes authoritative forms of knowledge production and how we write history.

We have an amazing opportunity with Wikipedia. As a group, we seek not to reproduce the same structural biases of past encyclopedic projects. Women, people of colour, LGBTQ people, non binary folks, etc. have faced systematic marginalisation. But within every structure there is agency, and these groups have organised and made meaningful contributions and created pockets of resistance.

The problem is one of historiography and how we define and police the borders of history as a subject. If history is defined as the “great deeds of great men”, then, of course, everyone else will be ignored, considered inconsequential to an encyclopedic project. But if we are interested in creating a resource that more accurately reflects socio-political-history, we have to ask: Who does it serve to exclude the work of others from such a text?

Are there things people can do to contribute all year round if they can’t make it to any events?

Art+Feminism: Yes! They can watch our training videos to learn the basics, then add citations to articles in their area of interest. If you don’t know what to edit, we used Wikidata to create lists of articles created in previous edit-a-thons that have key article improvement alert templates. We also encouraged people to use Black Lunch Table’s well-curated task lists of artists of the African diaspora.

Can you describe what a typical event entails? What's the atmosphere like?

Art+Feminism: The atmosphere is like an art history study group, a consciousness raising, and a pizza party, all wrapped into one. Thought it’s tough to say what a typical event is given that the model of the project is DIY and folks remix the model to suit the needs of their community. Edit-a-thons have been as small as a few folks in a coffee shop to multi-day events with performances and so on.

At MoMA, we started the day with a conversation exploring visibility and vulnerability, featuring writer and archivist Che Gossett, performance artist, writer, and educator Alok Vaid-Menon, and Simone Browne, an associate professor in the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, moderated by Danielle A. Jackson, a curatorial assistant in MoMA’s Department of Media and Performance.

Throughout the day there were intros to editing tutorials. There was also a Gallery Session on modern women artists, a Wikimedia Photobooth hosted by Black Lunch Table, and breakout sessions on how to take care of yourself when dealing with racism and genderphobia on the Internet, deleting or challenging Wikipedia articles, and on the role women played in the development of MoMA’s education department. Communal editing tables were hosted by AfroCROWD and POWarts and across the street, New York Public Library’s 53rd Street Branch will hosted Drag Queen Story Hour and offer a zine-making workshop led by New York Tech Zine Fair.

For your sixth year campaign, you are focusing on writing non-binary artists into Wikipedia. Can you please detail three non-binary artists you are writing in?

Art+Feminism: We’re still only halfway into March and would have to dig deeper into the editing output of specific events. We’re limited in that we rely on Wikidata to pull numbers like this and not all articles have Wikidata properties associated with them. That said, a new article has been created for Nigerian author Akwaeke Emezi. Also, our output is always shifting, so on Spanish Wikipedia, the content for this article about the most important gender non-binary Peruvian artist, Giuseppe Campuzano, was created during the A+F edit-a-thon in Lima in 2017. For a number of reasons, it wasn't created in that year. However, this article wouldn't have been possible without our campaign. What’s radical about this is that our expansion into non-binary identities was anticipated by our own community, in the spirit of DIY collective organising. We’re excited to see what continues to evolve throughout the month, like this Non-binary and GNC edit-a-thon that took place at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn!