Art+Feminism started their Wikipedia “edit-a-thons” on March 1, 2014, on International Women’s Day, as a response to the enormous quantity of information now available to us and the evident lack of information about women in the arts. The under-representation of women is not a product of the digital age and the predominantly male editorship of Wikipedia—which we’ll return to shortly; the digital age is merely, in its current state, a continuation of how things have always been. In the past this dearth has certainly been documented, as Virginia Woolf said, with more bitter resignation to the fact, “anonymous was a woman”.
|Our Favorite Adds from Previous Wikipedia Edit-a-thons|
The Art+Feminism edit-a-thons are “an all-day event designed to generate coverage of women and the arts on Wikipedia and encourage female editorship” and so, a proactive effort in writing women into the (online) history books, ultimately giving us a much clearer place in history.
The first collaborative edit-a-thon added 101 new Wikipedia articles about women, with 90 additional articles also being improved. 600 people cross six countries took part in the event. Shortly afterwards the Art+Feminism organizers were named in Foreign Policy magazine’s list of Leading Global Thinkers.
Saint Catherine Receives the Stigmata by Plautilla Nelli (1524–1588). Plautilla Nelli's Wikipedia entry is one of hundred of articles improved through Art+Feminism's Edit-a-thons.
The organizers call the edit-a-thons “rhizomatic,” and by 2015 the event had indeed mushroomed: collectively, over 1,500 participants convened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and at more than 75 satellite events around the world for the second annual Wikipedia Edit-a-thon, resulting in the creation of nearly 400 new pages and significant improvements to 500 articles on Wikipedia.
When I asked Art+Feminism why female editorship on Wikipedia was such a huge focus for them, they had this to say:
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 content backbones of the Internet: many other popular sites pull in content from Wikipedia's APIs. Absences on Wikipedia ripple across the internet.
Eliot Alderson, one of the characters in USA Network’s hacker-fest TV show Mr. Robot, admonishes Wikipedia saying, “It’s no wonder Wikipedia is never accurate. Anyone can edit [the pages]. Well, not anyone. Nerds like Mobley built a lot of credit over the years with his 20,000 edits. And still people trust it, beholden to all the Mobleys of the world for their information.”
Why are so few of these Mobleys women? According to a survey in 2011, the Wikimedia Foundation found that just 9 percent of its contributors were female. This could be because learning to create a Wikipedia page is a little like a freemason’s handshake—if you don’t know the rules, it’s very hard to get in. Though Wikipedia insists, “Editing most Wikipedia pages is easy”—there’s even a nice lady (obviously one of the 9 percent) who talks you through it—it isn’t that easy for a novice, and creating a new page is definitely more complicated. It’s not just “click and type,” as Natalie Hegert explored in her article “Women’s Work: Considering Feminist Art Through Three Recent Shows” for artcritical last year, where she reports on what she learned at the 2015 edit-a-thon: “In four hours I managed to add one little paragraph of text to Hannah Höch’s Wikipedia page. Accounting for the learning curve and the chatter in the room, this isn’t really as inefficient as it sounds.”
The “learning curve” is what’s really important here; yes in four hours Hegert only added a paragraph, on that day, but Art+Feminism want to use the edit-a-thons to train up thousands (nay, millions) of female Mobleys all over the world. So that after the day of the edit-a-thon, new contributors are free, in their own time, with their new page-creating abilities, to continue changing the face of history. While time and difficulty is certainly a barrier to entering the editors' club, there are intangible rewards. If you needed any further persuasion, these were Hegert’s final thoughts on the experience: “I was offered some slight feeling of catharsis (and a rather startling and grand experience writing for the mass audience of Wikipedia).”
I pressed Art+Feminism as to what, ultimately, was the point of the edit-a-thon exercise. They replied:
Wikipedia has strengths and weaknesses, and the arts have not been one of its strengths. We believe that art is important, something that is fundamental to thriving societies. Art+Feminism is envisioned as an intervention by both feminists and artists/art workers/art lovers. A contribution of our specific knowledge to the Commons. Yes, it’s about representation as women, but also representation of art histories.
Pioneering galleries, like New York City’s women-run A.I.R. Gallery, and advocates like the Guerrilla Girls have been bringing women artists and the subject of their under-representation to the fore for decades. The Guerrilla Girls, of course, gained notoriety with their mock advertising campaigns, most famously “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” which they first issued in 1989. Is their work finally having an impact? Art history is, as of this year, seeing female artists enjoy a (very) mini golden age in galleries. Fully clothed (and at the Met no less!), the peasant-turned-painter of Marie Antoinette, Vigée Le Brun, is having her day (only 200 years after her death); and the Saatchi Gallery is currently hosting an exhibition of “all female artists” that it seems very proud about (rather than a little humbled that it’s never happened before).
Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (French, 1755–1842). Self-portrait, 1790. Oil on canvas; 100 x 81 cm.
Galleria degli Uffizi, Corridoio Vasariano, Florence (1905)
But why has it taken so long for us to get here? More than four decades ago, in 1971, Linda Nochlin posed the question "Why have there been no great women artists?” in an ARTnews article of the same name. It was a question she repeated in a review of Germaine Greer’s book The Obstacle Race in 1979. Greer’s book, in part, chronicles the obstacles women have faced over time in being recognized for their artistic achievements. In it, Greer writes: “If men and women are equally capable of genius, why have there been no female artists of the stature of Leonardo, Titian or Poussin?”
It seemed if women were asking that question then surely, this bias was about to change—but that was 1979. Did either Nochlin or Greer think this conversation would still be taking place nearly a half-century later? And could they have imagined the shape of the fight for visibility? I think it’s unwise to ever underestimate Greer or her foresight, but she’d have had to have predicted the invention of the internet, as that is what has made this effort possible.
Wikipedia—the resource so many complain about but, honestly, everyone uses—has, with its open-book policy towards contributors, in theory offered women a platform with which to tell and record the stories no one else is telling. Wikipedia is the one “book” the whole world shares. Forgive me if I’m getting carried away but I can’t help but see parallels between Wikipedia as an open, universal, resource to information and Henry VIII (yes, the misogynist horrormonger) translating the Bible from Latin into English, making it an open religious text. Though the information available is obviously entirely different, my point is: if everyone is reading from the same book, it can have a very profound effect on history. And it’s essential that women be an equal part of that.
This year, you are invited to be a part of it on March 5, at MoMA, where the third annual Art + Feminism Edit-a-thon is taking place. The Wikipedia Foundation has “renewed their support with a $56,000 grant, supplementing $25,000 in previous funding”—for, most notably, childcare for volunteers across the world—and the day is packed with more than just editing sessions. Programming and resources include a panel discussion, tutorials for the novice Wikipedia editor, on-going editing support, reference materials, and conversations on contemporary feminism and digital culture with the writer Orit Gat and artist and activist Reina Gossett, as well as The New York Times technology columnist Jenna Wortham.
It’s not just New York. During the month of March over 100 “node” Edit-a-thons will take place: in the Tate Britain, London; Kunsthaus Hafenstraße, Linz; Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo, Mexico City; Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; and Ashesi University College, Ghana; to name just a few.
If you’re interested in taking part in an Art + Feminism Edit-a-thon, contact firstname.lastname@example.org for the nearest edit-a-thon near you, or to really wave the flag, you can get advice on how to organize one yourself.
History needs you!
The 2016 Art+Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-thon is organized by Art+Feminism, led by Siân Evans/Art Libraries Society of North America’s Women and Art Special Interest Group, Jacqueline Mabey/failed projects, and Michael Mandiberg, in collaboration with the Professional Organization for Women in the Arts (POWarts) and The Museum of Modern Art, with support from Tekserve, Wikimedia NYC and the Wikimedia Foundation.
(Image at top: via Art+Feminism)