The major issues facing feminism and digital art go far beyond a numbers game. Seeking a male-female ratio in exhibitions is just one part of an overarching discussion that’s centered around how to present femininity within digital art and how to carve out a space online and IRL, in-print and on blogs, about feminism’s future. In an attempt to move the conversation off Facebook, I surveyed dozens of young artists, curators, and writers who’re actively engaged with the digital art world, and asked them about the major issues facing feminism in the digital art world today. From private Facebook groups to list-servs, there’s plenty of talk about feminism and digital art online, but you might not know about it; you’d have to be privy to these virtual salons.
Secret Girl Groups, Listservs, and Message Boards
Most of the female arts professionals I spoke with are part of various listservs and “secret girl” groups on Facebook, and are active about vocalizing their concerns with the future of feminism and digital art online. These conversations largely occur on Facebook, which makes sense given that’s where friends, colleagues, and Internet friends post their upcoming activities.
When asked why these forums were formed, they do have advantages: There’s often job listings, resources, and advice from others in the arts with similar experiences to your own. They’re often viewed as less “trolly” and less “angry.” The downside: nobody else knows when there’s important discussions happening. So, for the most part, those I spoke with want to move beyond Facebook, and private groups, but don’t see a solid alternative.
“The dialogue needs to be public,” Berlin-based curator and writer Ché Zara Blomfield mentioned, when discussing venues beyond Facebook for discussing feminism and digital art. “We’ve learnt it’s not suitable on FB (it’s removed, taken behind the scenes (DM’s), edited, or becomes too personal). Ideally, the dialogue becomes visible in a serious way, in mainstream art press: Frieze, Artforum, ArtInfo, etc., rather than just mentioned, and sidelined.”
Around the Art F City office, Paddy Johnson complained that it’s hard to search Facebook for past comment threads—it’s not a great archive. So whenever good discussion does happen, it’s pushed further and further back down the user or group’s timeline.
Other complaints about Facebook seem common to the Internet in general.
“Forum/meeting politics are just terrible,” artist Ann Hirsch mentioned over email. “Facebook comment threads (outside secret girl group) are honestly the worst possible place to discuss this stuff. But I guess they do work to bring the issues up, so who knows.”
Of course, this problem with Facebook is one seen all over the Internet: any controversial thought’s bound to turn into a flame war. It’s everywhere.
Artist, writer and curator Lucy Chinen wrote to me that she doubts online forums, especially on Facebook, can provide a comparable alternative to speaking up offline. That’s because of how, over time, “Every message board begins to form a voice. I think the tricky part is that the longer a group spends with each other the stronger and more specific that voice is,” she told me. “I think that voicing your opinion on social networks can only do so much,” she added. “It usually becomes very embedded with personal or immediately emotional responses because of the nature of the format.”
In this sense, the most vocal members of a group end up being the most dominant ones. The group ends up sounding like, and being run by just those few members (and it’s a fairly common occurrence with any community-based or open-source project, like Wikipedia). That denies the sheer variety of voices online, while at the same time giving a space for those voices to exist. While listservs and private Facebook groups do serve a purpose of being able to talk about issues of sexism and the like (among a group of friends), it can, as Chinen mentioned, give off the appearance of “preaching to the choir.” That statement was echoed by others, like artist Sara Ludy who thinks the all-female groups feel “like a conference room with a two-way mirror.”
One response to the problem was best expressed by curator and administrator Zoë Salditch, who, writes that it’s “certainly no secret that I’m a feminist. I express it in everything I do, online and in-person. I champion women by recommending them for talks, exhibitions, projects, and jobs. Whenever I see the absence of women or misogyny, I call it out … The more opportunity to talk about these issues in different venues the better.” Of course, that’s the way it should be, because it grants greater visibility to the daily, lived concerns of those working in the arts today.