Lois Weaver and Eleanor Roberts
Though there is, and has been, an enormous wealth of women artists working in every form, their practices continue to be disproportionately obscured from our attention. For live artists, the question of (in)visibility in the arts is even more manifest, where fleeting moments must be captured, documented, published and distributed in order to create and continue wider cultural presence and conversations. We now have the benefit of new ways of collectively forming and sharing information online through openly editable encyclopaedias such as Wikipedia. Though Wikipedia is used by millions of people, many articles relating to art and feminism are fragmentary or non-existent.
Initiatives to tackle these absences have been gathering: in 2014 on International Women’s Day, the Women’s Art Library at Goldsmiths, University of London held an event to improve Wikipedia articles on women’s art practices. In New York in February of that year, Eyebeam held their edit-a-thon on feminism in contemporary art to tackle Wikipedia’s ‘gender trouble’ and lack of women contributors. As part of a collaborative research project, Live Art, Feminism, and the Archive, between Queen Mary, University of London and the Live Art Development Agency (LADA), we co-organised our own Wikipedia Edit-a-thon on Live Art and Feminism on 25 April 2014 at LADA’s Study Room in Hackney Wick. The event was free and open to the public, and trainers from the charity Wikimedia UK were present to offer guidance and share skills on editing Wikipedia. Using the Study Room resources at LADA as research materials, we were able to enhance the public visibility of important women and feminist artists where they were not previously represented (either adequately, or at all). Participants also left the edit-a-thon with the practical skills to continue to take history (or herstory) into their own hands, and use openly editable web-based platforms as a tool for reorganising power and cultural canons. Entirely new articles were created for:
- Siobhán Clancy
- Rose Finn-Kelcey
- Amanda Heng
- Lois Keidan
- Heather Cassils
- Monica Mayer
- Sinead O’Donnell
- Anne Seagrave
- Rajni Shah
- Lois Weaver
And participants developed already-existing articles on:
The edit-a-thon event itself generated a convivial yet studious atmosphere and most of the participants expressed the desire to return or to continue by organising their own edit-a-thons in pubs and at home with friends. The day closed with a Long Table discussion on live art and feminism, in which the group reflected on recent feminist initiatives, such as this project. We discussed the women and artists most important to us in history and today, the relationship between live art and everyday life, and we asked ourselves how we can create and sustain networks for support and visibility – which always begin with dialogue.
The Live Art, Feminism, and the Archive project set out to increase visibility of women and feminist artists using methodologies that reflected the way feminism and feminist art developed through conversation, collaboration and community expertise. Wikipedia’s commitment to collaboration and the edit-a-thon’s specific aims to increase and diversify public knowledge complemented this research, which has now resulted in a published guide to feminism and Live Art materials in LADA’s Study Room.
More information on the event can be found at the webpage: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:WikiProject_Arts/Live_Art_and_Feminism_editathon_April_2014
Are We There Yet? – a Study Room Guide on Live Art and Feminism, curated by Lois Weaver in collaboration with PhD candidate Eleanor Roberts and the LADA, is available to view in printed form in LADA’s Study Room and as an online resource. www.studyroomguides.net
On the Web as a Tool for Power
Alex Eisenberg and Eleanor Roberts
Alex Eisenberg is an artist and producer, and is Digital Manager at the Live Art Development Agency, London. Eleanor Roberts is a PhD candidate at Queen Mary, University of London and was Research Assistant on the project ‘Live Art, Feminism and the Archive’ as part of Restock Rethink Reflect 3 (RRR3) with Lois Weaver and the Live Art Development Agency.1
Alex Eisenberg – I’m interested in talking about what you mean by ‘the web as a tool for power’. Do you mean the web as a tool for power for feminism, or a tool for power in other ways that may be counter to the project of feminism?
Eleanor Roberts – I guess I’m referring to the web as a theoretically free and open-access resource, in that we, women and other culturally marginalised people, now have more scope for editing ourselves into history. We’re no longer very dependent on certain (institutional) networks of communication. Where we would have perhaps previously relied on representations of artists and their work in printed publications, or in a mainstream or national institution, for example, we can now make ourselves visible in a way that is accessible. We can do it from home, in our own time, and theoretically for free.
AE – Yes, I think there’s a couple of layers involved in thinking about this. There is the quite practical intervention, like what we decided to do with the Live Art and Feminism Wikipedia edit-a-thon, that’s one thing. I think it’s really interesting that this comes at a point in Wikipedia where they themselves recognise that there’s a significant level of bias towards men, both in terms of the editors and the types of articles that are written.2 I think that’s then indicative of a second layer, which involves ‘in-built’ power structures in the fabric of the web and in computational systems. In the overwhelming majority of cases these have not been developed with any sensitivity to feminism. I mean this on a kind of ‘meta’, computational level too. There are artists and activists that are tackling those biases within software, the internet, and computational systems. One example that comes to mind is Zach Blas’s excellent project Facial Weopanisation Suite, which ‘protests’ against gender inequalities inherent in biometric facial recognition by making masks with queer people in community-led workshops. So I think it’s important to remember whilst we often talk about computers and the internet as emancipatory, democratic, ‘open’ spaces, in actual fact they aren’t.
ER – Yes, and I think that’s why the edit-a-thon event was so useful for me and for others, in looking again at something that appears to be egalitarian and ‘open’, and so on. When we looked at how Wikipedia is edited and moderated, for example, that really highlighted how, actually, we really can’t be complacent on this issue. The tools are there, but –
AE – You’re referring to the particular methods of editing, the requirement to use a certain language,3 and so on –
ER – Well, there’s that, and then there’s also another question which came up again and again during the day about how, for people who monitor or moderate Wikipedia, there’s a certain criteria for whether a subject is considered of interest to a wider public: ‘notability’ –
AE – Yes, it’s interesting to know there’s a whole language around Wikipedia. To be fair to Wikipedia, I also think it’s one of the most extraordinary spaces on the web. Whilst all those biases and complexities do exist, if we look at Facebook, for example, it was only very recently that they allowed you to choose a gender that wasn’t ‘male’ or ‘female’. There are other similar examples that run even deeper in terms of how people are ‘categorised’ and ‘standardised’ by systems and software. When we first started talking with Wikimedia UK, it was interesting to find out that they were actually very much aware of their biases, and how much they recognised the need to bring voices into Wikipedia that are under-represented. That felt like a really good thing!
ER – It did, but it also felt like a bit of a culture clash on the day, didn’t it? I felt particularly aware of the dynamic between the Wikimedia trainers as older men ‘instructing’ the participants as a group of mostly younger women, for example.
AE – Oh, yeah! It really highlighted how much we need other voices to moderate Wikipedia.
ER – The Wikimedia trainers themselves told us how massively male dominated the moderating community is. I’m thinking really specifically as well in terms of ‘notability’, and how the Wikimedians advised us that in order to be ‘notable’, our subjects needed ‘reliable’ references in, say, a book, a mainstream newspaper, or an institutional production. Actually, in terms of a lot of the artists we might be working with, the reason we might want to represent them on Wikipedia is because they aren’t represented in those kinds of places and spaces, so that was a problem.
AE – Yes. I think the question of sources, particularly in terms of artists who are not ‘documented’, is a problem. At the same time, I think Wikipedia is a really complicated project, and there are sophisticated ways that they create their criteria.
ER – Yes, I need to be wary of over-generalising, but the necessity of having concrete representation of that artist or subject somewhere else is still in tension with the project of trying to make somebody visible through Wikipedia. That appeared to me to be a stumbling-block, particularly in the case of new or emerging women artists who might be considered interesting or of importance for live art.
AE – I do think it’s useful that Wikipedia has certain criteria for writing and editing articles, though. I do believe in that structure as something which gives Wikipedia veracity. Without sources, it would start to become undermined. I wonder if a response to ‘undocumented’ areas could be to use other, more independently-led wikis? They may not be on the main Wikipedia, but cultures and communities are built up online, particularly for ‘alternative’ or niche areas.
ER – I think that’s really fascinating. You’re saying something about the idea of preserving ‘subcultural’ spaces even on the web. Certainly, in terms of feminist activism, a lot of new discourses emerge and occur around the ‘blogosphere’.
AE – Yes, of course, Wikipedia is itself a form of institutionalisation, although a relatively open one. When I look at it objectively as a project, I do understand that it has to have some parameters, and I want things to be backed up by sources. What it did show up, though, is how important it is to preserve and forge our own spaces in order to address some of these questions.
ER – I guess, to take the conversation full circle, it’s very true that we don’t want to rely too much on ‘monolithic’ institutions like Wikipedia, but on the other hand, what the edit-a-thon seemed to reveal is that artists which appear to be very ‘important’ and of historical ‘significance’ and visibility elsewhere had little or no representation on Wikipedia whatsoever, because of the interests of the communities of people that edit and contribute to it.
AE – It was alarming! This whole project started for me back in 2009 or 2010. I’d worked on a project with Tim Etchells called Performing Wikipedia, and it was a response to when the ICA shut down their Live Art department. Tim and Ant Hampton put together a ‘fictitious’ set of events, True Riches: A Programme of Live Art for the ICA. It was an online project that then got manifested a year or so later at the ICA. As part of the actual manifestation there was this idea to address Wikipedia and issues of representation. In the end we didn’t do it through Wikimedia, and we ended up getting shut down when they saw our IP address, as they thought we were doing something dodgy! At least that didn’t happen in this edit-a-thon! It was really useful to actually have their guidance… mostly.
ER – Yes, even if it was another form of ‘authorisation’!
AE – It was, and it was probably a different experience for me being one of the few men there, and being ‘techie’ in some way. With the culture clash issue, though, I think it’s always interesting to have that. The clash wasn’t violent in any way. It actually drew something useful out, and gave us an insight into Wikipedia, and them an insight into the sorts of things we do. It is fruitful to bring together people that wouldn’t normally meet – you gain perspective in that way. We wrote all those articles and certainly made a great contribution that day. I really think it does make a difference if you have a presence on Wikipedia; it has become the ‘go-to’ point of base level research.
ER – Yes, I guess the first thing anybody does if they want to find out about somebody is Google them, and see whether or not they have a website or a Wikipedia page.
Feminist Writing Is Essential
Jen Harvie is Professor of Contemporary Theatre and Performance at Queen Mary University of London, UK. She is co-editor of Palgrave Macmillan’s series Theatre& , author of Fair Play – Art Performance and Neoliberalism (2013), Theatre & the City (2009) and Staging the UK (2005), co-author of The Routledge Companion to Theatre and Performance (2006 and 2014) and co-editor of Making Contemporary Theatre (2009). Her co-edited book The Only Way Home Is Through the Show: The Performance Work of Lois Weaver is forthcoming in 2015.
I attended the feminism and live art Wikipedia edit-a-thon at the Live Art Development Agency in April 2014 because interest-group-led wiki media events like this are essential. They support feminists (and other interest groups) to work together to make serious inroads into rewriting the stories and histories of things we care about, such as feminist live art. For centuries, getting published has largely required access to printing technologies and a commission, not to mention sufficient education, available time, the personal resources to sustain oneself, the cultural capital to feel entitled to publish, and many other things besides. The digital age has allowed any of us with access to keyboards, large or mini-computers, electricity, and unrestricted networks (still a tall order for many, especially in the global south and east) to write and publish. And we need to, because although the digital era has hypothetically opened the gates into publishing, a distinct minority of women are stepping through. Wikipedia itself reports that generally less than fifteen per cent of its contributors are female,4 which of course reproduces a gender bias which we feminists need to redress – for the sake of our fellow artists, students, readers, researchers, and women and girls everywhere, not to mention all human beings.
The LADA-hosted feminist wiki edit-a-thon was excellent – fun, supportive, productive, and exhilarating. But its available material resources made it, by necessity, somewhat modest and rare. These are by no means criticisms of LADA! Three thousand cheers for LADA for organising the event! But the event’s very specialness indicates that we need to make such edit-a-thons both more common and more sustainable. We have to reduce the amount of technical expertise and/or practice that participation requires in order to make it as inviting and feasible as possible. And we need to organise more events and spread the invitation wider in order to pool knowledge; facilitate connections; maintain that wondrous form of communication that happens in real time and shared space, face to face; and, finally, to help participants to protect and prioritise the time, the event and the very commitment to writing feminism.
- Restock, Rethink, Reflect (RRR) is an ongoing series of initiatives for, and about, artists who are engaging with issues of identity politics and cultural diversity in innovative and radical ways. More information can be found on LADA’s website. Following the first two Restock, Rethink, Reflect projects on race (2006-08) and disability (2009-12), RRR3 is on feminism and aims to map and mark the impact of performance on feminist histories and the contribution of artists to discourses around contemporary gender politics. See http://www.thisisliveart.co.uk/projects/restock-rethink-reflect-three-live-art-and-feminism-2013-2014/. ↩
- The Wikipedia project strives for a neutral point of view in its coverage of subjects, but it is inhibited by what is termed the ‘systemic bias’ that perpetuates a bias against underrepresented cultures and topics. ↩
- The English Wikipedia does not have a single, definitive statement of the community’s values and principles. Over the years, several editors have written summaries of these values and principles as well as essays expressing their ideas about what is important for Wikipedia. A list of these can be accessed here. ↩
- ‘Gender Bias on Wikipedia’, Wikipedia, last updated 5 November 2014 at 14:30, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender_bias_on_Wikipedia, accessed 21 November 2014. ↩