Thursday, February 2, 2017

Art and the current climate

At a talk I gave the other day, someone asked if, given the current political climate – my artwork was going to become engaged in a wider political discussion about the United States. I answered in a rambling and tentative way (that I wasn’t particularly proud of), which led me to realize how important it was that I accurately articulate my position and thoughts on the glaring issue.

The first thing I want to discuss is my geographical location. I live in Australia. Social media has intimately connected me to a large community of artists living and working in the United States. So much so, that I’m physically compelled to respond to their calls to action – phoning senators, joining protests, etc. I believe in an increasingly global world, and while Australia isn’t as seemingly far away as it used to be, we are still isolated, which prevents me from joining in on action in the aforementioned ways, unless of course I buy an expensive ticket to sit on a plane for 20+ hours.

In light of this forced inaction, it feels insensitive to go about my day-to-day life as normal. I’ve been making work in my usual ways, but it feels flippant in the face of the large, looming darkness that feels oh so close 15,000 kms across the ocean. Making work is usually the way I most successfully communicate, however it’s fallen short in comparison to my lived feelings these past few weeks. In a catch 22, trying to make overtly political work about Donald Trump doesn't feel right, either.

I am struggling to define what I can do in Australia, as an artist, as a cis white woman who is concerned with the state of the world but too far away to physically join in on the thunder of protest taking place that is driven by people I admire and see working tirelessly through the lens of my Instagram.

For me, making token political work directly about America’s current situation feels insincere because I am so far away, and I don’t know what it is like to be living in the United States right now. I don’t know what it feels like to be directly persecuted by my government, and I do not know what it feels like to be a person of colour, an immigrant, refugee, or part of the LGBTQ+ community under Trump’s regime.

Because I don’t know what this feels like, and many Australian people like myself who consider themselves allies to these groups, can not fully understand either, the first important action we can take is to listen more closely and sensitively than ever – on social media and within whatever outlet those directly affected are generously voicing their experiences.

From there, I think it is also vital to use the gained perspective on global injustices to consider and take action in regards to issues that are closer to home. Due to my privilege I have been lulled into complacency with the ineffectual presence of our government in comparison to the bombastic visibility of leadership in the United States. Unsurprisingly, the issues apparent on our home turf are eerily similar to those occurring overseas, and Australian politics is in a similarly dire situation, particularly in regards to refugees, racism, and the treatment of our first nation’s people.

My plan is to use the pent up energy I have from being unable to physically participate in actions across the United States to partake in equally important causes that need attention in Australia. However, I will not disengage with global politics. I will use social media to listen and share, when appropriate; the lived experiences of those grappling with persecution by leadership in the United States, and the actions that can be taken against these by those able.

Finally, in answer to the actual question I set out to address, I will not be making directly political art that is concerned with the Trump administration. For the previously mentioned reasons, it does not feel sincere due to not being able to draw upon a personal lived experience. I do not want to make art that could be construed as tokenistic, insensitive or exclusive of those actually suffering. However, I will continue to exist as a politically engaged artist, make a conscious effort to take action against political and social justice issues that exist closer to home, and use social media to remain involved with those wider than Australia.

It is true that the worst thing any of us could do would be to stop making work and abandon our artistic narratives. While I will not be making overtly political work, as such, I not be silent out of fear. I will still be painting, drawing, collaging, and posting the results on Instagram, with all of the above paragraphs considered.

Artists in the United States may be struggling to produce at the moment in the face of persecution, mental illness, and emotional exhaustion. For artists in Australia, we must be sympathetic to this and use our privileged position of distance in order to keep creative thought alive. In opposition to feelings of triviality regarding the artwork I will continue to produce, I must remember that now, more than ever, as artists we must make work with inclusion and diversity in mind, and with social justice and human rights at the forefront of our necessity to push forward and continue on our artistic trajectory. It is this that will strengthen and sustain us while isolating those against us.

Minna Gilligan, Are you done with that?, 2017, acrylic and collage on paper.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Courtesy of the artist

Minna Gilligan, For you baby, 2014.

Whilst scrolling through my Instagram feed earlier this week as I so regularly do, I came across an image of one of my artworks. Not super unusual, I thought, until I saw it was posted to the @Nastygal account with 2.3 million followers, sans any acknowledgment to me as the artist.

You may know Nasty Gal as the flailing American retailer founded by #Girlboss author Sophia Amoruso. It was at its peak in 2012, which is when I was asked to do a couple of freelance illustrations for their publication ‘Super Nasty’. I’d followed them online since this professional transaction.

The uncredited collage, actually titled ‘For you, baby’ (2014) garnered over 14,000 likes on the Nasty Gal Instagram. The caption they originally accompanied the post with was “One for them, one for you #newarrivals” Essentially, my work was being used to publicise the fact that they had new arrivals available for sale on their website.

So, the unsolicited sharing of my artwork happens all the time. Every day, actually. Sometimes I bother following up and usually receive the requested credit with an apology. Other times, I don’t even know it has happened and I suppose people just assume the artwork magically appeared out of nowhere.

This nasty business of Nasty Gal not crediting my work stands out as a particularly insulting example due to the sheer scale of saturation. When I was younger I accepted the intermittent erasure of my authorship as a consequence of making my artwork so readily available online. Now, I see it as toxic laziness that contributes to a larger, more damaging narrative of artists having to struggle to earn a living.

I make paintings, drawings and collage work. When making collage work largely from 1960s and 1970s imagery, I employ the ‘fair use’ doctrine, which states that the use of printed material must be transformative from its original intention. I stick to these rules because I know how it feels when someone doesn’t at your expense. An avid user of social media, I am courteous when it comes to posting imagery from elsewhere. If you can’t reverse Google image search something you’ve found back to the source in order to credit correctly, don’t post it.

Crediting someone for their art work is like saying please or thank you. It’s simple enough in theory, but in practice a whole other story. It’s why I don’t follow faceless ‘inspiration’ accounts on Instagram. These languid platforms populate seemingly anonymous imagery to form an aesthetic that is deemed at once cool and mindlessly attractive, worthy of a double tap here and there. While Instagram has been a boon for young artists in regards to creating a stage for their work, it has also created a space where people run hobby accounts and largely aren’t held accountable for their lack of research in the humans who actually produce what they post.

When an artwork is posted on a social media platform without acknowledgement of the artist, the narrative of a creative origin or process is erased. The erasure of this subsequently means the erasure of the artist. The artwork is then devalued due to the disassociation it now possesses from any human emotion or intention. It becomes a faceless entity, void of warmth, that is reduced merely to aesthetically pleasing pixels for thousands to thumb past in a millisecond’s interaction.

With no acknowledgement of the artist, people begin to think that imagery like my work ‘For you, baby’ just anonymously appears for free use. It is this consequence that damages the livelihood of young artists like myself, for it perpetuates an attitude that people shouldn’t value art monetarily.

Six hours and over one hundred comments later, my authorship of the piece was finally acknowledged in a less than ideal fashion. Founder of Nasty Gal, Sophia Amoruso, saw my earlier plea that I had tagged her in. Her comment response on my post was brash and rude. She even bothered to reply to other people who had written sympathetically on my photo saying things like “Bummer” about their experiences as artists with not being credited appropriately. She deleted these comments a mere twenty minutes after posting them. Nasty Gal subsequently got in contact with me and reluctantly credited the image, with no apology. Only the next day was I then offered a decent apology (after they talked with their “team” further) and a $200 gift card, which I politely declined.

After this instance of fighting for the most basic crumbs of recognition, I am exhausted. It seems so reductive to have to kick up such a fuss for something as easily done as acknowledging the author of creative content with a mere tag. Nasty Gal claims they were simply “unable to find the source of the work”, a work which on Tumblr has over 35,000 notes with my credit clearly below.

I fought the big fight for this one because it IS worth it to try and educate even a fraction of those 2.3 million followers that this matters, and I matter, and everyone who is making art and struggling yet generously sharing matters.

Artists selflessly exist and create the content that makes being on Instagram so much more fulfilling. If someone with a lot of influence shares our work and tags us, it’s like currency. We gain more followers, and subsequently are able to share our work to more people, resulting in more opportunities for our practice in order to make a living. No recognition on a scale as large as 2.3 million followers is an insult. One I don’t care to endure again.