I Am Donelle Woolford
June 17, 2014 4:57 PM   Subscribe

How did Donelle Woolford's work cause Yams Collective (mNSFW) to withdraw from the Whitney Biennial? posted by klangklangston (50 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

(Don't comment without reading the final link.)
posted by klangklangston at 4:58 PM on June 17 [2 favorites]

Thanks for posting. There's a lot going on here.
posted by josher71 at 5:01 PM on June 17

If you dig down far enough, it may turn out that Woolford/Scanlon/Wong turns out to be Andy Kaufman.

Or might as well be.
posted by oneswellfoop at 5:04 PM on June 17 [2 favorites]

So there was a dearth of assholes in the world? I get this kind of commentary, but it's a bit disingenuous to Cherio piss like this. Maybe more people need to do this, but it seems to once again be some white guy pointing out white guys have it good. There's enough real racism to create fake racism and expect me to cheer or care about the distinction being made. Looks like a racist duck, quacks like a racist duck...fuck that duck.
posted by cjorgensen at 5:05 PM on June 17

I think you missed something in the final link, Cjorgensen.
posted by klangklangston at 5:09 PM on June 17


And , like the movie, I don't get it.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 5:12 PM on June 17 [3 favorites]

cjorgensen: " to once again be some white guy pointing out white guys have it good. There's enough real racism to create fake racism and expect me to cheer or care about the distinction being made. Looks like a racist duck, quacks like a racist duck...fuck that duck."

Er. Ryan Wong is Chinese-American.
posted by gingerest at 5:13 PM on June 17 [1 favorite]

The final link is a joke/prank/parody. Joe Scanlan is a real person.
posted by neroli at 5:16 PM on June 17 [7 favorites]

That last link is satire, though, ain't it?
posted by wemayfreeze at 5:16 PM on June 17 [1 favorite]

Yes, yes it is.
posted by kickingtheground at 5:17 PM on June 17

Phew. I was worried my satirometer was busted.

The piece is quite good. As satire.
posted by wemayfreeze at 5:17 PM on June 17 [1 favorite]

I was really confused there for a second. Not sure if I like the framing on this, but it got me to read some thought-provoking stuff.

I'm upset now that Scanlan is a real person. Ugh.
posted by naju at 5:18 PM on June 17 [3 favorites]

posted by showbiz_liz at 5:19 PM on June 17 [7 favorites]

(I guess Great Art is meant to challenge us...)
posted by showbiz_liz at 5:19 PM on June 17

I have no idea what's going on with any of this. It doesn't help that I hadn't heard of any of these proper nouns before.
posted by Scattercat at 5:20 PM on June 17 [1 favorite]

Ryan Wong is a very complex disinfo account made up by 4chan /pol/.
posted by gingerest at 5:22 PM on June 17 [1 favorite]

[Added "satire" tag to make it clearer]
posted by klangklangston at 5:24 PM on June 17 [1 favorite]

I am Joe Scanlan.
posted by gwint at 5:37 PM on June 17

What really makes the parody work is point by point he twists Scanlan's statements, turning them into a critique. Scanlan cited a supposed privilege or advantage that a young black woman would have in the art world, and the parody neatly contradicts that assumption while calling out his racism (though citing some facts and refuting it would have been even better).
posted by idiopath at 5:44 PM on June 17 [7 favorites]

This part from the LA Times article is particularly interesting...

"Kidwell, one of the actors who plays Woolford, first learned of the gig through the website Actors Access. I spoke to her via telephone at her home in Philadelphia. "He explained the project and you know what I said to him?," she asks. "I said, 'No, I don't want to be involved in your post-colonial [trash].' But then we talked further and discussed how important identity is to the way we receive art. It then became a personal challenge to me, investigating that question of why that is so important and how it changes an audience's relationship to an artwork."

Kidwell is a graduate of Columbia University, where she majored in English and comparative literature. She's done stints at the Public Theater in New York and recently completed a two-year program at the Pig Iron Theater in Philadelphia. Most recently, she appeared in the Robert Wilson opera "Zinnias" in Lyon, France.

She is acerbic and funny, yet purposely plays Woolford as her opposite: "She doesn't like to talk, she doesn't like to laugh, she is very quiet, and she is very awkward." For this portrayal, Kidwell says she has gotten some criticism. "Years ago, I had a woman in Chicago who told me that I had the responsibility to play Donelle 'well,'" she recalls. "But I rebel against that for my own artistic development. For both Joe and I, it's an experiment about being outside of ourselves. He does this by making things he wouldn't make under his own name. And I do that by making this character."

The Donelle Woolford/Richard Pryor performances took place in more than a dozen arts spaces around the country. For the show, Kidwell says she found audiences quite welcoming. Seen here: T-shirts for the event, featuring Pryor's iconic mustache. (Stephen Garrett Dewyer / Infinite Mile)
She adds: "I'm not interested in her being a fool. I'm interested — perhaps selfishly — in art-making. I'm interested in what is going to challenge me."

As part of the Whitney Biennial, Kidwell went on tour to arts institutions around the country this past spring, doing a performance called "Dick's Last Stand" as Woolford, in which she re-created an old Richard Pryor routine. The piece was a turducken of conceptualism: Jenn Kidwell as Donelle Woolford as Richard Pryor — an outgoing actor portraying an awkward fictional character getting outside of herself by performing as an iconic comedian. (There is video online.)

Kidwell says that despite all the online controversy, audiences for her shows were surprisingly welcoming. "Only one person has given me flak to my face," she says. "It was a professor who worked with Pryor and he told me that Pryor wouldn't have liked it. He didn't like that I was dressing in men's clothes."

Over the years, the artistic relationship between Scanlan and the actors has evolved, with Kidwell and Ramsay exerting far more influence than they did in the beginning. It was Kidwell, in fact, who had the idea for Woolford to do a performance as Richard Pryor. (Ramsay could not be reached for comment for this story.)

Scanlan puts it this way, "I 'founded' the ensemble of Donelle Woolford, but at this point it is an ongoing, loosely organized small working group."

Kidwell concurs: "It originated with Joe, but this is now a collaboration."

And Scanlan says that his attitude toward the work over time has also evolved. If at first he approached it with "hubris," he writes, that has since been "followed by humility, then curiosity, then resolve."

I am compelled by all types of artwork: critical, formal, process-based...This is how I think about diversity...Art criticism, as Samuel Beckett says, 'is not bookkeeping.'
- Whitney Biennial guest curator Michelle Grabner on the issues of diversity at the Biennial
Even so, Kidwell says she is frequently grilled on whether she is collaborator or pawn. "I had someone say, 'He could fire you,' and I say, 'I could quit,'" she recounts. "Other people have said, 'No, you are not a collaborator!' And I'm like, 'How are you telling me that I'm not doing what I'm saying I'm doing?'"

All of this gets at one of the critical points of the piece, which is the contentious historical relationship between white men and black women, one that is loaded with connotations of abuse of power. Kidwell says that, from her perspective, that is exactly the point.

"People have said, 'Joe Scanlan wouldn't be in the Whitney Biennial if Donelle Woolford wasn't black,'" she says. "Well, Donelle Woolford wouldn't be in the Whitney Biennial if Scanlan wasn't white. The whole thing, to some degree — it's a successful exposure of that fraught historical relationship, of that exploitation."

This raises an interesting idea, one that points from Donelle Woolford straight to the greater art world, where underrepresented artists often occupy token positions. "I could be doing the Richard Pryor piece myself and nobody would care," says Kidwell. "I do a lot of stuff that nobody cares about. The piece is beyond successful in that it shines a light on who gets the attention, who gets listened to."

In a brief email exchange, the Biennial's guest co-curator Michelle Grabner says that she included the work because it explored "'voice' and authorship in contemporary art" and that the paintings "poke at Richard Prince's joke paintings, an iconic appropriation art."

With the Whitney remaining silent on the case, it means that Grabner, an independent curator from Chicago, has become the institution's de facto public face in the controversy. So I ask her why there weren't more underrepresented artists in the Biennial.

"As an artist," she replies, "I am compelled by all types of artwork: critical, formal, process-based, political. This is how I think about diversity and representation in my curatorial endeavors. Art criticism, as Samuel Beckett says, 'is not bookkeeping.'" She also points out that her floor at the Whitney opens with a photograph of Barack Obama by African American photographer Dawoud Bey — a frustrating response.

To lay this all on Grabner, and even the Whitney, however, misses the point. The issue the work raises is far bigger. In 2011, the American Assn. of Museums published data that shows that nearly 80% of museum workforces are white. Likewise, non-Hispanic whites account for almost 80% of museum visitors. Which means that in their hiring practices and in the audiences they court, museums do not come close to reflecting the demographic realities of the United States. (According to the Census, the U.S. is just 63% non-Hispanic white.)

Every time one of these studies is published, there is a brief bout of Internet tsk-tsking before it all dies down and everyone goes back to business as usual. But the Donelle Woolford piece has made us confront the topic as part of a regular social media storm.

It puts the spotlight on the limited advances made by underrepresented minorities inside the power structures of America's biggest arts institutions. All three curators of the 2014 Whitney Biennial are white, as they were in the Biennial before that. The museum currently has no African American curators. (Though it has had African American curators in the past, and I would be remiss not to acknowledge that the museum had given solo shows to artists such as Glenn Ligon, Kara Walker, Mark Bradford and Lorna Simpson.)

The Donelle Woolford piece, for better or worse, intentionally or not, pulled the curtain back on this inequity — and has held it back for months. It got us talking about who is in charge, not just in terms of white male artists over black female ones, but in the makeup of the very institutions that commission and display work.

Even the framing of the public discussion about the piece has been telling. "I haven't been contacted for my opinion as much as one would expect given that this is my work as well," says Kidwell, who has been interviewed only by a handful of writers, including Andrew Russeth at Gallerist.

"I've felt un-addressed," she says. "There is a black artist present in this piece. Why am I erased from it? Why do I continue to be erased from it?"

Kidwell's first passion is theater, where she intends to remain. But in her time as Donelle, she's had a front-row seat to art-industry politics. "I went in the back door of the party," she says. "The question now is, will I be the life of the party? Will there be other parties? Or will all I have to say about this is that I got in?""
posted by stenseng at 5:48 PM on June 17 [6 favorites]

I am Spartacus.
posted by charlie don't surf at 5:58 PM on June 17

....But how is the actual art itself?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:59 PM on June 17

A turducken of conceptualism!
posted by gingerbeer at 6:00 PM on June 17 [14 favorites]

The piece was a turducken of conceptualism

Well, if nothing else it passes the "my kid could do that" test, so I guess it must be art.

posted by Horace Rumpole, an online construct of John Overholt of Belmont, MA at 9:00 PM on June 17 [+] [!]
posted by Horace Rumpole at 6:00 PM on June 17 [2 favorites]

posted by Horace Rumpole, an online construct of John Overholt of Belmont, MA at 9:00 PM on June 17

Today, we are all Donelle Woolford.
posted by Joey Michaels at 6:21 PM on June 17

It's definitely a lot to unpack.

But Horace? If your kid can do that, she or he definitely has a future in theater. Or politics. Or shit-stirring.
posted by notyou at 6:22 PM on June 17

But Horace? If your kid can do that, she or he definitely has a future in theater.

No, I'm saying my [non-existent] kid could NOT do that, ergo, it's art.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 6:30 PM on June 17

This will certainly stand as one of Monty Cantsin's more interesting works.
posted by ardgedee at 6:31 PM on June 17 [1 favorite]

Oh! Thanks for the explainer, Horace. I glossed right over that.

It's tiring missing the point all the time and having to hurry to catch up.

Good evening.
posted by notyou at 6:46 PM on June 17

I am Claire's Knee
posted by jfuller at 6:58 PM on June 17 [2 favorites]

Well damn. I was a little thrilled when I thought that the last link was actually... accurate.

Otherwise this seems either like wildly irritating games-playing or something sort of brilliant. I'm leaning towards really fucking annoying at this point, however.
posted by jokeefe at 7:18 PM on June 17 [2 favorites]

On a further 20 seconds worth of consideration, this strikes me as nothing more than totally egregious appropriation, and no "but I'm posing Serious Questions!" rhetoric can make it better. Precious, precious navel-gazing of the worst sort of bloodlessly academic kind.
posted by jokeefe at 7:19 PM on June 17

Goodness, who has the time?
posted by unknowncommand at 7:23 PM on June 17 [2 favorites]

I read the last link first and my journey from excitement about a really cutting, thank god someone is saying this, important art work to resignation has drained my soul. I am not surprised as I went to class with at least 3 Joe Scanlons this spring.
posted by velebita at 7:26 PM on June 17

Good thing we're all torture-sims, otherwise this would be quite upsetting.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:38 PM on June 17 [10 favorites]

The final link is a satirical criticism of how goddamn dehumanizing Scanlan's work is. Like really, Scanlan employed post-structural thought to engender commentary on the reductive colonial attitude of critics and their ethnocentrism-driven gulliblility and blah blah and it's not just him being like the rest of society and fumbling around with racial politics. That this isn't just Scanlan going on a lark and coming up with what he thinks is an accurate Cliffs Notes of PoC activism and art a la a postmodern Uncle Tom. I mean what you want good faith that someone produced by and symbolizing an elitist institution isn't actually just a semi-racist douche masked by the lavender scent of the death of the author? Maybe a little public self-flagellating would make a deeper point. And man does this shit make me hate the art world. Might as well be just another plantation preserved for 'historical purposes' so that plebs like me can gaze at slave cabins with aloof disinterestedness.
posted by saucy_knave at 7:46 PM on June 17

Good thing we're all torture-sims, otherwise this would be quite upsetting.

Dude, ix-nay on the asalisk-Bay.
posted by The Bellman at 7:51 PM on June 17 [6 favorites]

You do what you want, I've accepted my role in this reality.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:59 PM on June 17

Trolling raised to an art form.
posted by carsonb at 9:31 PM on June 17

This is so incredibly icky. Wong's takedown was perfection.
posted by bleep at 12:06 AM on June 18

Okay I am stupid. so Peter Wong exists and is a writer who satirised Scanlan by appropriating his identity?
posted by Mistress at 4:58 AM on June 18

I thought that Wong was another creation of Scanlan and that Scanlan wrote the article in the last link as satire on the whole... you know what, I have no idea what's going on here.
posted by desjardins at 6:55 AM on June 18

[Keanu] Joe Scanlan is real? [/Keanu]
posted by fullerine at 7:00 AM on June 18

I'm Ryan Wong, and so's my wife.
posted by Kabanos at 8:27 AM on June 18 [1 favorite]

(Ryan Wong and Joe Scanlan are both real people. Scanlan does collaborative art with Black actresses to create the persona of fictional artist Donelle Woodford. Ryan Wong wrote a satirical piece where he claimed to have created the fictional persona Joe Scanlan, and in that piece critiqued Scanlan's work as racist, appropriative, colonialist and exploitative.)
(Peter Wong is also a real person. Many real people, actually. None of them is involved in this to the best of my understanding.)
posted by gingerest at 2:42 PM on June 18 [1 favorite]

....This is reading like if Duchamp wrote Inception.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:58 PM on June 18 [4 favorites]

We need a flag for stuff that leaves you with no choice but to log in dammit just so you can favorite it. This (post) is that stuff.
posted by rudster at 3:15 PM on June 18

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