Art and Feminism (A+F) is a global, rhizomatic campaign designed to foster greater coverage of women and the arts on Wikipedia. Founded by Sian Evans, Jacqueline Mabey, Michael Mandiberg and Laurel Ptak, A+F is essentially a form of informational activism; helping to combat Wikipedia’s gender gap – where less than ten percent of its contributors are female. By providing participants with training on how to edit Wikipedia, in conjunction with hosting annual edit-a-thons, the campaign both directly addresses the imbalance and encourages female editorship. This year, Michaelis and the Center for Curating the Archive, participated as one of the worldwide editing nodes during A+F’s third annual edit-a-thon in March. On the back of this program, Houghton Kinsman caught up with organizers Alexandra Ross and Jessica Holdengarde to find out more about the project. What follows below is a two-part conversation on the importance of this intervention in the context of art in South Africa today.
Houghton Kinsman | Let’s begin with what made you ladies decide to bring the Art + Feminism edit-a-thon to CCA and how does it relate to CCA and Michaelis programming?
Alexandra Ross | From a CCA perspective, the direct link is that I am a Postdoctoral fellow here. A lot of what I’m doing – not only publishing on the back of my research – is to create events that can feed into expanded discourse and bring networks together. And, I don’t necessarily see a distinction between CCA and the rest of Michaelis.
Jessica Holdengrade | For me, it was a personal interest at first, specifically in relation to my work. I had an awareness about a lack of a representation of female artists writing, exhibiting and existing within a historical framework. So, what began as a personal project has grown into a way to connect different people – not only woman – and have them write together.
This idea of bringing people together sounds a lot like what you are interested in Alexandra?
AR | Absolutely! And, aside from that it is also about creating a space, which will find its own voice over time. Whilst it was an extension of our networks, through the sheer pragmatism of trying to get organised, it’s growing into other avenues. This is great because it was always the intention, to create a knock on effect…
JH | Starting out, I think we didn’t really know how it would play out. For me, I had no idea how it would come together. If it would die off after first meeting, or if it would continue to grow? So, what you can see now is that it’s taking hold of people’s personal interests, in their personal lives. It connects to their work, to their relationships and their understanding of art history.
AR | And, after the first session of mind mapping what was the distinctly silent from Wikipedia, that is to say there were no pages, or only stubs, we had so many names. We noted about a hundred or so names of pages to start from scratch or edit just from our initial meeting. It was a perfect way to figure out where we were to start. It clearly indicated that there was something lacking. And, it was inevitable that the energy from this first session would roll over to the second.
JH | I think that word silent that you mentioned is really interesting. Before we started recording we were talking about the agency that comes with writing, and how that in some way revokes that silence.
Which I felt was essentially what happened in the second session on April 9th…
AR | Yeah, and like you mentioned Jess, the idea of organising these training sessions/group edits, was exactly to give people the necessary tools to make their own changes, outside of this collective action and in their own personal time…
JH | Also, I think in relation to how it was connected to CCA and Michaelis, is that it is very important for those within art institution like Michaelis, to learn about the agency that you have to write about these things in order to change them.
AR | Agreed. We discussed that on the day of the first session, that we need to be embedding this sort of idea into the art school experience. After all, this concerns our digital legacy as artists. For example, we need to be aware of broken links on our Wikipedia pages, to sort of “garden” and tend to our digital spaces.
JH | It was funny because one of the artists that was there: Julia Rosa Clark. She didn’t even know how her page got there, or why it was there to begin with? And, then she didn’t like the way that it was written as there were some misconceptions about certain things. So this was a good example of how as an artist you could learn how to control this, or at least maintain it. Or like you said to “garden” it.
But at the same time, it is a real challenge to figure out what you do want to control and what you just let go…
AR | Yes, but I think this is one of the situations where we can go: “Actually, I’m going to take time to address these issues or histories that are spoken for by somebody else.”
And, I suppose this idea goes back to something that I picked up in the second session: that despite all thoughts to the contrary, Wikipedia does attempt to be factual. It tries to focus on the objective and remove the subjective…
JH | It interesting that you mention that. I find that this factual basis is quite a masculine way of writing. It is something that you are taught from the beginning in academia; you are not to have an emotional response. Because, for me the idea of emotion is so inherent in the idea of the female or the woman. It is important to think about how – even if you are writing from the factual basis – that the emotional could be there too.
AR | I wonder then, in relation to a what we were talking about Tracey Emin and Virginia Woolf before we were recording, if Wikipedia through its formulation is quite masculine?
JH | Yes, it is still quite patriarchal.
AR | Of course. Especially, through the backend, through its’ construction, through its reliance on notability, which means having factual sources readily available on material. Therefore, we need to not only care about the Wikipedia pages, but also how are we contributing to things that could link back into them. Ie articles on the web. And, then that’s where the emotional could come in? Through a feminist text, or a beautifully written article that we feed back into a page on Wikipedia in order to give it its required ‘notability’.
JH | I suppose patriarchy is never going to go away, at least not immediately. So, it’s about working within the framework, within something like Wikipedia, and working subtly to change it. So still working within the objective discourse which is inherently masculine, still working within gendered language, but then there are small changes that are happening. You are allowing for the exterior of more information about women to be written and to come into Wikipedia.
AR | Yeah, so we have on the one level the macro act of editing pages and adding new pages. But, on the other changing the meta-system that is operating and could exclude. What was the statistic that you mentioned early H?
Less than 10 percent of Wikimedia contributors are female.
JH | Yep, I remember Douglas Scott, the Wikimedia specialist who helped with the training, mentioning something like that. It was also on the Art +Feminism website…
AR | Douglas also said that typically, the average Wikipedia user or contributor is white, male, in their mid thirties and university educated. Which is a very slanted demographic. We know this exists in many other realms, but it is empowering to know. There also seems to be a hierarchy between new and old editors. When we did the first session, and we were practicing editing, there was somebody emailing all of us because we flagged up on the system. Probably, because there was a lot of activity on a particular page by all these newbie editors. And, so in order for us to continue, Douglas had to step in and explain what was happening; that he was facilitating a Wikipedia edit-a-thon. At least now I know that this will happen and it’s not a gender thing necessarily. Rather, it’s that you are a fledgling editor.
That experience again ties back into this idea of being factual. I’m so surprised at all the loopholes and obstacles one has to overcome in order to edit or create a Wiki page.
JH | Douglas was saying that it has changed a lot in the last few years. Wikipedia has become much stricter – at least in the English Wikipedia – in the way things are referenced. Perhaps the framework of Wikipedia not being a reliable source may also needs to be changed a little bit? We have a conservative approach to using Wikipedia as a source. But, like in Julia’s case, it’s coming from the horse’s mouth. It’s coming from her helping direct us to her press pages, to her Tumblr, onto her website. So, this would seem like a reliable source?
AR | But, I suppose the fact that you can be operating on your own, without interfacing with anyone that proves that you are “X” person, or that you are writing reliably is the issue. Though, Julia’s example does bring up the question of writing our own pages. Even after the first session, I wasn’t entirely sure if this is possible. In the end, you can, but you need to be careful. Try to make it at least one person removed. Therefore, you don’t need to wait for the day somebody decides to create a page about you, but you can find a way to do so through teaming together. Because, at the end of the day you know where all your resources are.
True, it’s all in the references. At least, that’s what I took from all of it. To use the links down at the bottom of a Wikipedia page as a springboard to the articles themselves.
JH | Yeah, I always remember when I was in high school we were told not to use Wikipedia at all. It is funny because I am writing a monograph on Julia Rosa Clark and this experience of sitting with her, writing on her Wikipedia intertwined with all the research I’ve been doing. Reading about her in the press, allowed me to link these articles back into her page. At the end, it felt so reliable that when I got home I went back to the Wikipedia page in order to find out more information I hadn’t asked her in our interviews.
That’s great! Lets break here for coffee.
Stay tuned for Part II of the conversation, to be released soon.