Interview with Jacqueline Mabey of Art+Feminism

As a person who went through school with access to a computer, research did not mean pouring over endless encyclopedias in dimly lit libraries with towering mazes of books. It did not mean searching through a card catalog for books that may or not have the information that I was looking for. It did not mean reading (or skimming) thousands of words before I got to the section that I would need to finish my paper. No. With a computer, I had a powerful machine that would be my information advocate. I could search for the most obscure bit of information, and this machine would pull up any and all sources related to my quest in milliseconds.

One of the major information banks used worldwide is Wikipedia. This website is a free-content encyclopedia in which information can be added and edited openly. While this has an upside, the downside is that information can be misrepresented or just plain missing.

Jacqueline Mabey, along with collaborators Siân Evans and Michael Mandiberg, realized that there was a huge chunk of information not represented on Wikipedia - women and the arts. Their project Art+Feminism began in 2014 aimed at filling this information gender gap on the widely used online encyclopedia. The project has since gone viral and continues to be a huge success. They have been featured in countless publications, some of which include The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and ArtNews. In conjunction with International Women’s Day they hosted their most recent edit-a-thon at The Museum of Modern Art (simultaneously with 75 satellite events around the world).

I was extremely fortunate to have been connected with Jacqueline and ask her some questions.

[answers collaboratively written by Art+Feminism contributors Siân Evans, Jacqueline Mabey, and Michael Mandiberg]

Can you describe the Art+Feminism Project? How did the project begin?

Art+Feminism is a campaign to improve content on women and the arts on Wikipedia, and to encourage female editorship. The project is the result of two simultaneous conversations. In the fall of 2013, Sian Evans was talking with me about how she was tired of going to the ARLiS conference every year and meeting with the Women and Art Special Interest Group and talking about how underrepresented women artists are and then going back to her day job. And having the same conversation at the next conference. We’d been talking about the edit-a-thons that have taken place on Ada Lovelace Day every year, and I thought it might be an idea to do it around art and feminism.

So I took this idea to my partner, Michael Mandiberg, who is a new media artist and professor who teaches a lot with Wikipedia. He’d literally been having the same conversation with Laurel Ptak, who was then in residence at Eyebeam Art and Technology Center doing work on cyberfeminism. So we had a Skype call, decided to do an edit-a-thon, roped in two experienced Wikipedians, and figured we’d have a few hours of extracurricular work on our hands. Two edit-a-thons and two Wikimedia Foundation grants later, here we are. Not getting nearly enough sleep.

This project also came on the heels of a very public debate about structural sexism in Wikipedia. The debate began when writer Amanda Filipacchi wrote a New York Times op-ed on a problematic editorial practice being implemented by a number of Wikipedia editors: women were being removed from the “American Novelists” category and moved into a subcategory for “American Women Novelists.” Filipacchi’s piece generated a maelstrom of writing on Facebook and other social media platforms, speaking out against this subcategorization. At the same time, Wikipedians were having an entirely separate conversation on Wikipedia about whether to change this practice of subcategorization. These conversations were worlds apart. We wanted to help give people the training to shape the conversation directly on Wikipedia.

What kind of difficulties have you and your collaborators encountered?

The response has been overwhelmingly positive. A few trollish sub-reddits here and a confused Guardian article there, sure, but ultimately, what we’re doing isn’t that radical: we’re editing articles on Baroque painters and adding citations to entries on important Dada artists. The articles we are creating and improving are for artists and movements and scenes of agreed upon historical importance.

In your opinion is Wikipedia a reliable source of information? Can you talk about why you chose Wikipedia as the platform for your project?

Recent studies prove that Wikipedia is actually more reliable than Encyclopedia Britannica! It is important to improve Wikipedia’s gender bias both because it is one of the keystones of our digital commons and because it’s becoming one of the backbones of the Internet; many other popular sites have APIs that pull in content from Wikipedia. So absences there are ones that really matter.  And as it stands, Wikipedia isn't a great reference for information about the arts in general - so part of the reason that we are doing what we are doing is because we believe art is important, something that is fundamental to thriving societies. Art+Feminism is envisioned as an intervention as both feminists and librarians/professors/artists/art workers/art lovers - a contribution of our specific knowledge to the Commons. Yes, it's about representation of women, but also representation of art histories.

Wikipedia demographics show that only 13% of editors are identified as female. Why do you think that is?

The reasons for the gender gap are up for debate: suggestions include leisure inequality, how gender socialization shapes public comportment, and the contentious nature of Wikipedia’s talk pages. However, the practical effect of this disparity is not: content is skewed by the lack of female participation, resulting in systemic absences in an increasingly important repository of shared knowledge.

You and your collaborators are taking huge steps to change the way that female artists are represented. Can we expect that this representation of art history will trickle down to more mainstream education?

That would be wonderful. We think the project works because it both addresses the needs of the present and speculates on the shape of the future: it is a really concrete form of activism and community-building while it opens a space for a more nuanced and inclusive discussion around the writing of art history, digital labor, and being a woman online.  

What are your goals for this project?

We’ve already achieved one of our goals, the steady expansion of the project’s reach. Over the weekend of International Women’s Day, March 6-8, 2015, approximately 1,500 participants convened in 75 locations in 17 countries, on 4 continents, to edit Wikipedia articles on women and the arts. During, this day, 400 new articles were created and over 500 articles received significant improvements. This was a productive and substantial growth from the inaugural 2014 event, which had around 600 participants in 31 locations, created 101 new articles, and improved 90.

And thanks to a grant from the Wikimedia Foundation, we’ve launched an initiative called +Feminism. Basically, we’re building a robust procedural and personnel infrastructure that would allow for the project to grow, and for others to replicate our process. We will build on existing infrastructure on Wikipedia to create slides, advertisements, targeted training, and other reusable materials, so they can be used both by our group, and satellite events, as well as reused by other gender gap campaigns and outreach.

As organizers, we have no desire to rest on our laurels but seek to continually improve. We actively seek feedback from our fellow organizers and going forward, we will submit our materials for a diversity review. We seek not to reproduce the biases and foreground that only concerns white mainstream capitalist feminism. It is impossible to be all things to all people, but we want to be accessible to as many as is feasible, the best jumping off point for groups to remix the processes and materials we’ve developed to suit the needs of their community.

[answers written by Jacqueline Mabey]

You have a background in art history. Would you say that historically art-making has been a male-dominated practice, or are females just misrepresented?

Historically, women were denied access to artistic training, and when they were allowed to enter the academy, they were usually not permitted to take life drawing classes (because: nudity!), a then crucial part of any formal art education. Where women were able to pursue artistic careers, it is usually a result of familial proximity (e.g. Artemisia Gentileschi, Marie-Louise-Élisabeth Vigée, Angelica Kauffmann all learned to paint in their father's studios). Or they flourished in "lesser" genres/materials, such as still life (e.g. Rachel Ruysch), thought to be an appropriate field for a woman at the time. Linda Nochlin's seminal "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" delineates this pretty well.  

That said, of course, within even the most restrictive structures, one has agency, and women have always been making art, and participating in art worlds and communities of art-making!  I hate this idea, "We looked for women artists but didn't know where to find them." We're half the population, you obviously weren't looking very hard. (Though I did hear of this guy who has binders full of women.)

Unequal representation in the annals of art history is shaped by larger inequalities. It's the problem of historiography or 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 or considered inconsequential. 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?  That's why we have an amazing opportunity with Wikipedia: a chance to not reproduce the same structural biases of past encyclopedic projects.    

Was there a specific moment when you began to define yourself as a feminist?

Uh, conception? ;) I was raised in a feminist home, so I don't know that there was a specific moment. I was encouraged to let my intelligence and compassion dictate the shape of my life, not gendered social expectation. That said, I don't think my parents actually intended to raise a green-haired anti-capitalist gender-abolitionist, but here we are!

“Try Again. Fail Again. Fail better.” (The tagline for Failed Projects which is the is the idiosyncratic cultural production of Jacqueline Mabey) I love this Beckett reference by the way! Can you talk about how failure is a part of your practice? And maybe a part of the Art+Feminism Project?

The thing with failure... well, partly it's thinking about failure as a zeitgeist - failed banks, failed states... But there's no art without failure, because it's inherent in process... so thinking about failure as a tactic, particularly in the face of the increasing professionalization of the arts. But Chris Kraus talks about it nicely: “The professionalization of art production—congruent with specialization in other post-capitalist industries—has meant that the only art that will ever reach the market now is art that is produced by graduates of art schools. The life of the artist matters very little. What life? The lives of successful younger artists are practically identical. There’s very little margin in the contemporary art world for fucking up with accidents or unforeseen surprises. In the business world, lapses in employment history automatically eliminate middle managers, IT specialists, and layers from the fast track. Similarly, the successful artist goes to college after high school, gets an undergrad degree and then enrolls in a high-profile MFA Studio Art program. Upon completing this degree, the artist gets a gallery and sets up a studio.” Chris Kraus, “Art Collection,” in Video Green: Los Angeles Art and The Triumph of Nothingness (New York: Semiotext(e), 2004), p. 17.

Any new projects on the horizon?

Well on May 17th I am speaking on a panel with my collaborator, Siân Evans, at a symposium at the Brooklyn Museum called Revising Revisionism. And I am really excited about the show I am curating a show at G Gallery in Toronto, called Carnival of Sorts, featuring the work of Jennifer Chan, Adrienne Crossman, and Lorna Mills. It will be accompanied by an expansive online multimodal writing project... now I just need to write it!

Who are some female creators and thinkers that you look up to or inspire you?

Addie Wagenknecht, bell hooks, Audrey Lorde, Pipilotti Rist, Hito Steyerl, Sherry Millner, Moyra Davey, Alex Bagg, Chris Kraus, Donna Haraway, Justine Frank, Caroline A Jones, Trinh T. Minh-ha, Hélène Cixous, Anne Carson, Kate Zambreno, Hanne Darboven, Hannah Hoch, Janet Cardiff, Rebecca Belmore, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Anne Carson, Claude Cahun, Rosa Luxemburg, Sarah Ahmed, Luce Irigaray, Louise Bourgeois, Vija Celmins, Eva Hesse, Ana Mendieta, Rachel Whiteread, Rosemarie Trockel... on and on!   Shana Moulton, Jennifer Chan, Andrea Crespo. Germaine Koh, Heather Cassils, Dara Birnbaum, Joan Jonas, Joan Heemskerk, Kate Gillmore, Heather Bursch, Valie Export, Olia Lialina, Ella McGeough, Nicole Killian, Lorna Mills, Adrienne Crossman, Amber Berson, Kim Nguyen, Sian Evans, Anna Wainwright, Kate Bahn, Laura Matwichuk, Genevieve Belleveau, Angela Washko, Ann Hirsch, Gabby Bess, Rachel Rabbit White, Gabby Bess, Flora Katz, Mikaela Assolent, Amanda Ross-Ho, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Cleopatra’s, Jennifer Kenney, Liz Linden, Penelope Umbrico, Caroline Woolard, Simone Leigh, Sara Greenberger Rafferty, Jen Liu, Jennifer McCoy, Zoe Crosher.