Arts & Culture

Wikipedia gets a Feminist Critique at Gallery 101 Edit-a-Thon

Despite its status as one of the world’s most popular reference tools, Wikipedia remains stubbornly male-dominated. Some 90 per cent of its volunteer editor-contributors are male-identified, and the content of Wikipedia’s data reveals a similar bias. For example, the University of Waterloo physicist Donna Strickland had to win a Nobel Prize before being awarded her own Wikipedia entry.

The process of writing Wikipedia entries is neither time-demanding nor complicated. Yet relatively few Wikipedia readers learn how to add entries, even as they are rankled by the gender imbalance and factual errors on the crowd-sourced site.

Art + Feminism, a global initiative launched in 2014, has held hundreds of public “Edit-a-thons,” as it calls the open seminars where interested users are invited to learn how to input entries and edit existing material. Earlier this month, the artist-run Gallery 101 hosted Ottawa’s Edit-a-Thon.

Carmel Whittle of Gallery 101 opened the event with a thought-provoking discussion of gender in Canadian art practice. Whittle, an artist of Miq’mak and Irish descent, evoked the history of two-spirit people, explaining how the Indigenous term establishes a meaningful precedent for artists who find themselves “walking down the middle” of traditional Western gender identity. Whittle, who identifies as female and lesbian, was exquisitely sensitive to the power of labels. Whittle’s talk was followed by a hands-on lesson working with the Wikipedia editor interface by Rosa-Iris Rovira of the Ottawa-Gatineau WikiClub.

Carmel Whittle opened the event by discussing gender identity in Canadian art and Indigenous culture. Photo by Georgia Mathewson

Participants in the 2019 Edit-a-thon found plenty of work to be done: art historian Christine Conley quickly identified established Canadian women artists without Wikipedia entries to their name. Susan Edgerley, a Quebec artist who won the Governor General’s Award for Visual and Media Art this year, only appears in the brief List of Canadian Artists. Georgia Mathewson of Gallery 101 checked for entries on local transgender artists.

Susan Edgerley, B.r.e.e.z.e (with artist), 2013, part of “Light and Shadow” series, kilnworked glass, handmade paper, metal, gold leaf, 1.7 m x 1.7 m x 16 cm. Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec collection. Photo: Michel Dubreuil

Before long, a vigorous discussion is underway: what counts as a reliable source? How should editors work around Wikipedia’s requirement that all articles draw on published sources, when some artists, especially those from under-represented minorities, leave only their archive as a legacy?

It was a small group, but all of us came to learn more about Wikipedia, as well as to raise the status of female and non-binary identifying artists in the visual arts. Rovira shared her experiences from previous Wikipedia events, and discussion quickly moved into a lively exploration of how our current reliance on technology both expands our knowledge base and challenges our assumptions about accuracy, truth, and community.

Although Wikipedia may be frequently assailed by its detractors, all the participants conclude that it is worth their time to add to coverage of female and gender-fluid artists.

In a major boost to accessibility, the Edit-a-thon featured free child care for participants. Children’s activities, led by Gallery 101’s director Laura Margita, included painting, collage, and a rousing game of hide-and-seek in the gallery: a ten year-old participant headed home with freshly-made paintings and lots of questions about Wikipedia. Mission accomplished!