Female artists and performing expertise
So far this year I’ve been carrying out interviews, analysing social media posts and now I’m trying to fashion what a discussion chapter might look like. The first area I have been concentrating on is one I initially knew the least about, which is gender. I started thinking out loud about this on a previous post in February and since then I’ve written about 7000 words of a possible chapter, but now I need to work out how best to order this chapter and my arguments.
At the moment, my key argument for this chapter is:
Female artists perform expertise on social media in a particularly social, mutually beneficial way, and this provides them with positive opportunities for networking, collaboration and getting their work out to a larger audience in an art world which still systematically favours men.
This is what I am attempting to emphasise throughout the chapter. In that, I have sections which outline a history of women in art, a history of feminism online (i.e. cyberfeminist movements and technofeminism) which both include literature about entrenched inequalities in the arts and technology, and both include literature which demonstrates examples of women collaborating and working together to get their art seen and their voices heard, respectively. I then go into discussion about collaboration and mutual aid (de Peuter and Cohen, 2015) then women, cultural production and place (based on some interview material I have about female artists working at home and the role of social media there).
While writing this chapter it has become apparent that the ideas of mutual aid and technofeminism are potentially useful for me conceptually, and I’ll unpack them here.
The term ‘technofeminism’ was made popular in Judy Wajcman’s book of the same name (2004). She uses it to describe the contemporary relationship between technology and gender. Drawing on STS (Science and Technology Studies) thinking, which has influenced me a lot so far in relation to expertise and social media methods, Wajcman describes the technofeminist relationship between gender and technology as one of ‘mutual shaping’ where the concept of gender is understood as a “performance or social achievement, shaped in interaction” (Wajcman, 2007:293). Gender power relations can be enabled or inhibited by technology and its affordances, and gender co-creates and co-evolves with technology. The idea of technology as gendered derives from the cyberfeminist work of Donna Haraway (1985) and Sadie Plant (1997), both of whom were optimistic about the emanicpatory possibilities of technology and the internet for women. Technofeminism advances this by appreciating the seamless integration of technology with everyday life, rather than the binaries of ‘offline’ and ‘online’, ‘technology’ and ‘human’ (Paasonen, 2011).
In relation to my own research, technofeminism is a useful concept because the female artists involved in my research use social media platforms in different ways to suit themselves and their practice. They make use of the affordances of these platforms, such as Twitter hashtags, Pinterest groups, Facebook groups and Instagram feeds to connect with other artists, network and collaborate. While platform structures may shape that to some extent, they do not completely determine how they use them. In turn, such features are routinely amended and updated by social media companies to encourage more user interaction (albeit for money making purposes). Social media platforms do not completely shape what people do on there, and they ‘make do’ (to use a term by de Certeau, 1984) with the platforms they prefer and the people they connect with on there.
What is important about technofeminism is that it treats technology as “a seamless web or network combining artefacts, people, organisations, cultural meanings and knowledge” (Wajcman, 2009:7) which is typical of STS thinking. It does not draw distinctions between ‘offline’ and ‘online’ and appreciates the integration of technology into everyday life. Frizzo-Barker and Chow-White (2012) use technofeminism as a part of their conceptual framework in their research on women’s (particularly mothers’) use of smartphone apps. They also draw on ideas of gendered networked individualism (particularly Fortunati, 2009) to show how “both gender and smartphones are viewed as part of the texture that constitutes the network society, rather than as separate from society” (2012:582). Networked individualism (Castells, 2011; Rainie and Wellman, 2012) is concerned with the macro-level of social connections and their rapid speed, emphasising that the internet facilitates more social connections, but these connections may not all be strong. They are more likely to be ‘weak ties’ (Granovetter, 1973) that are accessed and called upon when needed. People are essentially ‘switchboards’ among their many connections. Leopoldina Fortunati (2009) argues that gender differences in networked individualism need to be analysed by taking into account what technologies facilitate for women in particular. What Frizzo-Barker and Chow-White demonstrate is that technofeminism on its own is not sufficient to conceptualise the ‘socialness’ of smartphone apps; the connections between people, and the same applies to my research. What technofeminism doesn’t account for are the relationships and connections between people which are mediated through technology. For what I’ve found in my research, networked individualism is too individualistic a concept to describe the examples of mutual support and collaboration that I found in my participants’ performances of expertise, particularly among the female artists. For this purpose, mutual aid is more suitable.
This term is used by de Peuter and Cohen (2015) to conceptualise the collective activities of cultural workers responding to poor labour conditions. In the absence of workers’ collectives and formal equal opportunities policies, the authors describe how groups of cultural workers mobilise to make change happen in precarious working conditions:
“Mutual aid establishes the social bonds necessary to contest labour precarity and affirms the self-organization necessary for alternative economies. The stakes, then, are not limited to cultural labour: on the contrary, the greatest significance of mutual aid among cultural workers is the formation of sensibilities that favour solidarity generally, including solidarity with segments of the working class outside the relatively privileged quarters of the creative industries.”
(de Peuter and Cohen, 2015:309)
I find this is a useful way to conceptualise the online activities of the female artists in my research, who seem to work in a collective, collaborative way to get their art noticed in an incredibly competitive (and still male dominated) art world and on fast-paced, information-overloaded social media platforms. In my social media analysis using a signalling expertise framework adapted from Candace Jones (2002), I found that the female artists in my sample were much more inclined to post and re-post the work of other artists (usually female), even though they were essentially in competition with each other. When I asked one of my participants about this, she commented:
“I always thought that because you’re competing for the same work people would be really precious about things, but I’ve had people that are really qualified for the same things and they tell me ‘oh have you applied for this yet?’ It’s a very…as far as I can tell…it’s really inclusive, people are really helpful, people are really supportive of each other.”
Other participants often used the ‘quote’ function on Twitter to share the work of other artists and add a positive comment. While there would be some motivations for reciprocity there (posting someone’s work in the hope they will post yours in return) there is some altruism in these performances of expertise, and in my chapter I’m aiming to situate this within the backdrop of long standing gender inequalities in the art world (which I’ve started talking about in a previous post) and the use of technology (in this case, social media) by female artists to get their work seen.
Tied in with all of this are some observations on female artists, cultural production and place.
Female artists, cultural production and place
My thinking around place was prompted by Susan Luckman’s book Craft and the Creative Economy (2015), in which she describes the activities of home-based craft entrepreneurs, or ‘Etsypreneurs’. Luckman argues that craft selling sites such as Etsy and social media platforms “play a determining role in normalising the home office […] the networked home is fast becoming a normalised middle class paid work location” (p.87). For many of the female artists I have spoken to, the home is also their office, and for some, the demands and rhythms of creating art are sometimes at odds with taking care of children and other domestic responsibilities. One of the artists, Jamila, said that while she prefers to work from home, having a very young daughter inhibits her ability to ‘get into the zone’ of creating at home, and so she needs to look for a studio to work in, whilst trying to find suitable childcare arrangements. Similar stories to this are found in Alison Bain’s account of female artists’ identity and the role of studios. She claims that “a woman artist is never completely insulated in her studio when it is part of her home, for she is repeatedly interrupted by the many and varied demands of domesticity” (Bain, 2004:186). Bain argues that studios are a vital way for some female artists to affirm their identity as artists; and the issues with self-identification were also described by Jamila.
However, working from home does work for some of the artists I interviewed. One has been so successful in her pet portrait business, her husband has been able to give up work to take care of their young family. Another is a writer and also runs an Etsy craft business with her daughter, who is in her early 20s. Others have told me how their children have helped them to learn how to use social media. So while the accounts of Bain and Luckman do provide important perspectives about the pressures for female artists who work from home, there are also positives with involving the family in this work. But what does that mean for notions of the amateur and expert? Can someone effectively perform expertise on social media if they have learned about it from their children? How important is being able to effectively perform expertise, against being an expert maker or artist? How much can we tell just from an analysis of online activity?
Home working does have ‘amateur’ connotations (Luckman, 2015) particularly for women, for whom the home has traditionally been a site of seemingly unskilled domestic labour (Gregg, 2008), but the internet and social media platforms offer ways for female artists to perform their expertise. Luckman, and other authors such as Duffy (2015) and Duffy and Hund (2015) draw attention to how social media and sites such as Etsy encourage the portrayal of an idealised cultural worker, whether that be the makers in their idyllic suburban homes in Etsy’s featured blogs as highlighted by Luckman, or the ‘glam life’ of the fashion bloggers described by Duffy. Both authors argue that these performances mask the labour which goes into them, particularly aesthetic labour. This is where interviewing participants was important for my research, so that my analysis of performances of expertise would be supported by a consideration of the role of social media in artistic labour – or what I’m calling ‘social media labour’ for now. An exploration of social media labour will be the focus of my next chapter.
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