We Are Not Surprised: How Exposing Sexual Harassment in the Art World Relies on Private Dialogue

As sexual harassment allegations continue to rock the art world and beyond, we examine how intimate exchanges between femme people are fueling the movement.

The art world is notorious for its elitism and eccentric characters. Up until recently, who exactly held the keys to the boy’s club wasn’t widely considered, and we took it as a given that “eccentric” was often code for something more sinister. But finally, predatory men hidden behind their tailor-made suits, Moscot frames and industry status are being called by their true names — not bosses or colleagues, but abusers and predators.

The past month or so has seen many industries dealing with the exposure of sexual abuse in their ranks. In the art world, Artforum publisher Knight Landesman and Artforum itself were served with sexual harassment lawsuits; We Are Not Surprised, an open letter speaking out about sexual assault in the art industry, made headlines globally, and garnered thousands of signatures. The letter was co-written in 72 hours by over 100 women, trans, non-binary, and gender nonconforming people living in different time zones and working in all areas of the art world. Women and femmes everywhere sighed a deep sigh, as the darkest aspect of the art industry was finally under scrutiny.

These revelations would never have come to light without the trust and secrets shared between the most silenced people in the art industry. As Julieta Aranda, artist and co-director of e-flux and one of the co-writers of We Are Not Surprised explains, the project “began when a small number of artists and art workers connected through a Whatsapp group to discuss the problem of sexual harassment and abuse in the art world. For many of us this conversation became an extremely important and urgent thing in our lives, if not the most.” When it concerns truths which would otherwise go unheard, these conversations are subversive.

Barbara Kruger, “Untitled (Your body is a battleground)”, 1989. Image: Jeremy Thompson under Creative Commons.

This whisper network between femmes and women is an essential survival tool. Jenny Holzer’s 1982 truism “The abuse of power comes as no surprise” rings clear to those of us who have been warning each other against these men from the moment we entered the art industry. We are all in Whatsapp conversations, Facebook groups, extensive email chains and constant dialogue with our colleagues and friends about Who’s Who, and of course, Who To Stay Away From. Such conversations are imperative to our safety. It’s times like these when it becomes particularly conceivable that these conversations have been derided as “gossip” because they are recognised as a powerful and revolutionary tool, demonised by men who have secrets to hide. As Aranda testifies, these dialogues have power. “The conversation between us took its own life, the letter pretty much wrote itself. I think we were all galvanised by the realisation of just how deeply rooted is the problem of abuse, and how difficult it is particularly in an unregulated industry, such as the art world.”

The focus on intimate, person-to-person dialogue also tackles one of the key problems plaguing the wider sexual assault conversation at the moment: the fact that privileged voices are dominating the conversation. The art industry still has to make drastic structural changes to give space to the marginalised voices that need to be heard. Aranda emphasises this agenda: “We are concerned with not replicating existing power structures – so that the class / gender identity / race / geolocation / whiteness are not the markers of our activity. Our effort to challenge larger structural problems will not be effective if the group internally reproduces economical, gendered, institutional, racial and sexual power hierarchies.” This inclusion is meaningful and timely, particularly in a climate in which there is a gaping disparity between the newsworthy survivors and victims of sexual assault (white/cisgender/hetero/middle-class, for example), and those who are not (Black/PoC/trans/queer/sex-workers/working-class, the list goes on). When so much of the rhetoric around the recent sexual assault outings has relied on stories going viral online, the disparity between the heard and the silenced has widened even further.

Amazing letter, Amazing women behind it, amazing show of solidarity. #notsuprised www.not-surprised.org

Ein Beitrag geteilt von BeatriceGibson (@beatricegibson) am

The demand for change is clearly underlined. Over the two days during which the letter was open for the public to sign, more than 9,500 signatures were added. In our email conversation, We Are Not Surprised outlines the next stages clearly: “Changing structures is not easy, we are aware that our goals cannot be accomplished overnight. We are at the very beginning of an undertaking that will involve community building, local gatherings, discussion, and strategic actions. We need to help and support victims of sexual harassment and professional abuses, providing them with reliable resources and doing so through robust system of confidentiality and safety. We need to make sure that we keep our efforts decentralised; allowing current and new members to address problems in their specific communities. We need to find methods to develop safer, more transparent, accountable working environments that protect the most vulnerable members in the international arts community, a system that can be followed / implemented by artists, businesses, freelance workers, institutions, interns and students.”

We Are Not Surprised demonstrates how women and femmes talking to each other can act as a democratic platform for positive change. The art world’s “liberal” framework is shaped by white patriarchy, and it’s clearer now more than ever that we need to have these conversations outside this structure to overcome it.

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