A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a pretty epic (as in: loooong) overview and analysis of the controversy surrounding Woolford, the fictional African American female artist conceived by artist Scanlan, who is white.
The short version of the story is this: Late last year, Woolford was listed as an artist in the prestigious 2014 Whitney Biennial. Since then, the inclusion of a fictional black artist in an exhibition that featured only eight "real" black artists has drawn continual criticism from bloggers, critics and other artists — with attacks on Scanlan's motivations to problems of diversity at the Biennial. (For the long version of the story, see my piece from June.)
The discussion over Woolford continues to simmer online and other stories on the subject have been published since my story ran. The most sensational of these has been Ryan Wong's "I Am Joe Scanlan," which appeared on the arts site Hyperallergic in mid-June. In the essay, which was a parody, Wong claimed that Scanlan was a character that he had created, in the manner that Scanlan created Woolford. Even though it was satire, a lot of readers mistook it as real.
I haven't seen any evidence that it is — and neither for that matter has artist and critic Coco Fusco, who mentions it in her essay in the Brooklyn Rail. The picture is tied to a conceptual piece about dirt — yes, dirt — that Scanlan did in 2003. Scanlan showed me images of the photograph in context and I get the sense that the image was truly about dirt (and manufacture and commodification and ... you get the picture).
An excellent piece about Wong's satire and the discussion that emerged out of it is nicely summarized in a story by Nathan Pensky for the Daily Dot. It features fresh interviews with both Scanlan and Wong and is more than worth a read.
But the matter that has interested me most in all of this has been the discussion about the nature of the collaboration between Scanlan and the actors he works with. (This was something I discussed at some length in the second half of my original essay.)
Throughout all of this, it has been Scanlan who is most often attributed as the artist and it is Scanlan who is routinely quoted defending the work. In a tweet from June 20, Hyperallergic writer Jillian Steinhauer raises the fair question of why this is the case: "Scanlan claims he, Kidwell, Ramsay are now collaborators on Donelle Woolford," she asked. "But why is he still listed as author?"
The Whitney Biennial and its attendant rain of press has pretty much nuked the possibility of maintaining too much mystery. It has also exacerbated the question of credit and, to some degree, how collaborative the piece truly is.
When I interviewed Kidwell last month, she expressed frustration over how her contributions had been overlooked by critics and the public in the debate surrounding the piece.
With the debate about the issue of credit and collaboration somewhat renewed, I contacted her again to see what she had to say about it.
"People assume I'm the go-to guy and either don't know or aren't interested in how [the piece] has evolved over time," he adds.
Which all goes back to how we as an audience have reacted to the work, and the assumptions we make about who is and isn't in charge in a scenario involving a white man and an African American woman.