You’ve likely seen it; you may have signed it—if you were fast enough. What started out as a group text between ten arts professionals in late October quickly turned into a letter signed by almost 9,500 individually verified people condemning power abuses in the field. The original group chat, started over WhatsApp in the wake of recent sexual assault allegations made against Artforum co-publisher Knight Landesman, swiftly grew to 124 members. And within 72 hours commiseration had turned into action.
As stories of sexual misconduct amassed, part of what is now being called “the Weinstein effect,” the group drafted an official statement on recent events and their sordid familiarity in the arts: We Are Not Surprised. Response to the letter was so overwhelming that its organizers, all volunteers, had to close the option to sign the document on October 30.
A full month later, the dust has hardly settled; reports exposing abusers across multiple industries have been published nearly every couple days in the wake of the Weinstein allegations. Now what?
While they built a viral campaign complete with its own ready-to-use hashtag and repostable pop imagery, those behind We Are Not Surprised are determined to lay down roots. Weeks after #notsurprised hit the art world’s social media, we check in to explore how the fledgling movement intends to harness the staying power required to become a catalyst for palpable change.
The campaign’s maxim borrows a line from American neo-conceptual artist Jenny Holzer’s Truisms: “Abuse of power comes as no surprise.” “Many institutions and individuals with power in the art world espouse the rhetoric of feminism and equity in theory, often financially benefitting from these flimsy claims of progressive politics, while preserving oppressive and harmful sexist norms in practice,” the letter, titled We Are Not Surprised, reads. “Those in power ignore, excuse, or commit everyday instances of harassment and degradation, creating an environment of acceptance of and complicity in many more serious, illegal abuses of power.”
“One of the ways we’re trying to create accountability is that there are no ‘sheros.’ No one person is taking responsibility for this. No one is saying this is my idea, this is my artwork,” explains conceptual artist and E-Flux journal editor Julieta Aranda, a co-writer of the initial statement and member of We Are Not Surprised’s organizing body. Those spearheading the project occupy a variety of positions in the art world across international borders. Many have never met in person, and despite a fair few being famed for their practices or playing integral roles in established institutions, most from the founding WhatsApp group are choosing to eschew credit and remain largely nameless in the press. In a field where big egos and ideals of exceptionalism play a large part, a collaboration of this nature, based on solidarity and tied not to one person, is a subversive act in itself.
Despite frightened rumors circulating between men in the New York art scene that the declaration would soon be followed by a list of accused abusers, Aranda tells me the organizers are clear they have no intention of becoming a vigilante justice group. “At some point we were even joking we were going to put a fake page on the site that said ‘List under construction.’ Just to freak people out,” she laughs. And while there is no actual list, like the one that briefly surfaced in the media sector with “Shitty Media Men,” the group is in the process of compiling survivor-focused support to offer “reliable resources” for people coming forward and grappling with experiences of abuse.
Behind the scenes, organizers are also separating into geographical microcosms to begin planning for the next step of We Are Not Surprised, an offshoot of the letter creating structured localized discussions centered around transparency and the roots of abuse. It is the hope that these discussions will address the larger systems of art world power distribution that create room for rampant racial, class, and gender inequality. “You know sexual abuse is a horrible thing but it’s a symptom—it comes from somewhere,” Aranda explains. “It comes from this idea where you can take a body as disposable basically. We hope that the group actually works towards what’s at the root of abuse.”
“Sexual abuse is a horrible thing but it’s a symptom—we hope that the group actually works towards what’s at the root of abuse.”
The goal is that localized discussions will offer context as to how abuse manifests in different places. As realities of inequalities differ so greatly from city to city, there is no blanket solution to fix everything. Hyper-focusing a group on one sphere of the art world, taking these differences into account, will provide the opportunity to pinpoint specific issues and in turn create regional goals.
We Are Not Surprised was a movement built at the speed of light, pulling people quickly with it. In the beginning hours of the letter many signatories were uncomfortable putting both their full names and institutions for fear of career backlash; now the number of signees edges on 10,000. Since the option to sign was closed, however, things have slowed their pace, much to the frustration of organizers. A leaderless resistance is not one that moves forward at Twitter gait. It comes with less salacious but achievable promises, waits patiently for criticism from all levels of the pyramid of power, and provides a decentralized solution meant to diffuse over time. In this vein, organizers have promised over the next month to begin the localized discussions, open the coordinating team up to those who wish to help, place special interest on involving and listening to the least represented, develop a confidential way to communicate with survivors looking for resources, and draft an industry-wide code that institutions will be encouraged to adopt publicly. A robust goal for just one month, and without the headline-ready “we have solved sexual assault” ring to it, runs the risk of becoming one completed in obscurity.
However, promise of a soft future, where talent rises to the top bolstered by solidarity and transparency is still an intoxicating one. While many of those benefitting from this disproportionate distribution of power remain silent, flickers of change are still occurring. Artforum’s newly appointed editor-in-chief David Velasco said in a statement through the magazine’s representatives to artnet News, “The art world is misogynist. Art history is misogynist. Also racist, classist, transphobic, ableist, homophobic. I will not accept this. I know my colleagues here agree. Intersectional feminism is an ethics near and dear to so many on our staff. Our writers too. This is where we stand. There’s so much to be done. Now, we get to work.”
What that work look likes, and whether or not it will take place behind closed doors as well as in the public eye remains to be seen. In the meantime, surrounded by the quiet of a litany of bad actors, those less favored in the present system take to group chats and task management channels getting on with their current attempt at dismantling and rebuilding. Cracks in the pyramid of power continue to show. Exhaustingly, the onus falls on those at the bottom to sharpen all available tools and break them ever wider.
To contribute feedback, ask questions, or get further information on We Are Not Surprised, check out the FAQs or use the hashtag #WANSFeedback in social media.
Maya-Roisin Slater is a Canadian-born, Berlin-based writer and editor with a focus on arts and culture. She writes for publications like Creators, Teen Vogue, Crack Magazine, and others. More of her writing can be found at maya-roisin.com/work.
(Image at top: Jenny Holzer, From Truisms (1977–79), 1982. © 1982 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Photo: Lisa Kahane. Via: not-surprised.org)
Tags: #notsurprised we are not surprised sexual harassment