The Accidental Archivist: Criticism on Facebook, and How to Preserve It

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In mid-January, a Facebook friend liked a status update, causing it to pop up in my News Feed; I've been avidly following its thread ever since. Now at 675 comments and counting, this rich exchange encapsulates the increasing importance of the art-related discourse that takes place on Facebook, and its precarity.

Los Angeles-based artist, writer, curator, and educator Micol Hebron initiated this conversation with a simple request:

Facebookers, what do you think of this: artist Joe Scanlan, an older white male artist, invented a fictional artist, Donelle Woolford, who is female, black, and seems a bit younger than he is. Scanlan hires actresses to 'play' Donelle for pictures and interviews, and he makes the artwork that she 'makes'. He began this project about 13 years ago. Donelle Woolford is in the 2014 Whitney Biennial. Here is an interview with Scanlan by Jeremy Sigler. Is this racism? Conceptual performance? Critical discourse on artworld hierarchies? Problematic exploitation? Discuss.

Critics, artists, former students, and, often, Scanlan himself responded, generating a thorough critique of the artist's practice, meaningful discussion about race and gender in contemporary art today, and a crowdsourced bibliography. Strikingly, its ebb and flow mimicked the public dialogue around Scanlan/Woolford in the art press—from curiosity (many had no idea of the project at the outset) to confrontation (stoked anew in May by The Yams' public withdrawal from the Biennial in protest), all in a slow burn. The texture and depth of this response evidenced Facebook's specific ability (for better and worse) to produce engaged networks and make visible their interactions.

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To Reveal While Veiling: On the 2012 Whitney Biennial

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Installation view, Whitney Biennial (2012)

Looking back at the time in which I was beginning to study art, one could describe the motivations I shared with my peers as generally aspirational and humanitarian. We felt different. We wanted to change the world. We thought of the institution of art as a discipline in which alternative personalities flourish, critical thinking is lauded, and that creativity (in all of its various forms) is esteemed far more than financial privilege. Having participated in the art industry for a number of years, these ideas now seem not only naïve, but provide a blueprint for precisely how the art world does not operate; our collective wills becoming inured to the faux-radical, contradictory reality that the institution of art exists in today.

On the occasion of the 2012 Whitney Biennial, Andrea Fraser writes of the crisis of the art institution, “The glaring, persistent, and seemingly ever-growing disjunction between those legitimizing discourses [of art]—above all in their critical and political claims—and the social conditions of art generally…has appeared to me as profoundly and painfully contradictory, even as fraudulent.” Her essay for the Biennial catalogue “There’s no place like home,” painstakingly delineates what she perceives to be the impossibility of participating in the institution of art in good conscience due to its compliant enrichment from the increasing financial inequality of the last decade. Acknowledging the fact that this inequity is precisely what art purports to act against, Fraser considers possible methods through which this quandary may be alleviated. She posits, almost fatalistically, that “Certainly it is less painful to resolve these conflicts symbolically, in artistic, intellectual, and even political gestures and position-takings, than to resolve them materially—to the marginal extent that it is within our power to do so in our own lives—with choices that would entail sacrifices and renunciations. Even these sacrifices may be preferable, for some, to the pain of wanting what we also hate, and hating what we also are and also love...” Heady prose for a biennial catalogue.

Dawn Kasper

K8 Hardy, May 20th, 2012 at 2012 Whitney Biennial

Taking Fraser’s essay as preamble, 2012 Whitney Biennial co-curators Jay Sanders and Elizabeth Sussman have approached the nearly insurmountable task of surveying the art of the last two years by symbolic rather than material means...

 

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