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Past to Present: Unforgetting L.A. Uses Wikipedia as an Activist Art Platform

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Photo: Bill Farroux.

History was written on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Or at least a little piece of it, as a group of volunteer Wikipedia editors gathered in MOCA's outdoor plaza for Unforgetting L.A., an edit-a-thon sponsored by online art magazine East of Borneo. The third in a series, the event's goal was to build Wikipedia articles for artists, curators, and galleries of the past 30 years -- the three art-rich decades since MOCA's inception.

Armed with laptops, power cords, and file folders filled with reference material and fueled by Stumptown Coffee cold brew and doughnuts, Wiki editors delved into their tasks, quietly typing away at keyboards. Every so often, a hand would go up for a question about how to cite a reference or save a file and a fellow editor or Wikipedia representative would assist. While the phrase "labor of love" certainly applies to the afternoon activities, something more determined was at work. Editors, guided by templates helpfully provided by East of Borneo, were rescuing pieces of L.A.'s art history from the past, one Wiki entry at a time.

Stacey Allan, East of Borneo's executive editor, organized the Unforgetting L.A. series and was instrumental in gathering the ever growing, crowdsourced worklist. For her, "unforgetting" is an activist stance. In December, for instance, Unforgetting #2, held at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture, focused on creating articles for women in architecture and design. The event came at a time when recognizing the contributions by women in the field was in the news: architect Julia Morgan was posthumously awarded the AIA Gold Metal and the petition for architect Denise Scott Brown to share the Pritzker Prize with her husband and partner Robert Venturi was denied. Nearly a dozen influential Los Angeles-based designers were entered into the Wiki cannon, including Deborah Sussman and Gere Kavanaugh.

Photo: Bill Farroux
Photo: Bill Farroux.

"The events are social," Allan explains. "It's a chance to get people together to talk about how history is created. The absence of past critical attention has allowed artistic practices to happen here in Los Angeles, but we need to recover and make those histories better known and accessible to a larger audience."

Unforgetting L.A. is part of a budding movement to address the gender gap in art history and on Wikipedia itself. Allan cites an estimate that only thirteen percent of all Wiki editors are women. In February, Eyebeam in New York hosted the Art+Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-thon, which encouraged female participation and article diversification across the globe. Meet-ups were held in cities around the U.S. and Canada, and spanned as far away as Amsterdam and Adelaide, Australia.

"There are so many reasons that histories become marginalized -- gender, race, but also practices that are less market-friendly, more challenging, experimental, political or collaborative," says Allan.

Photo: Bill Farroux
Photo: Bill Farroux.

Communicating history on Wikipedia, however, is particular. The online encyclopedia is open to everyone to contribute, but the site has internal checks and balances. The digital community monitors its own standards for quality. Allan offers tips for a successful profile: write with a neutral tone, link to verifiable sources, and avoid conflicts of interest. For academics, critics, and friends, these few protocols can be frustrating. But the Wikipedia community is looking for notability backed up by solid references over in-depth analysis. The goal then, is to create an article that clearly documents an artist's or a curator's contribution to the field. Writer Marilyn Nix found this out the hard way; site editors rejected the article she created for Nancy Buchanan. At issue was not whether the pioneering artist was noteworthy -- her performance and video works have been integral to feminist art since the 1970s -- but how her notability was verified within Wiki formatting. By carefully citing references within her text, Nix was able register Buchanan's accomplishments under the encyclopedia's terms.

Historian Penny Richards, an experienced Wikipedia editor, arrived at MOCA ready to create an article for architect Zelma Wilson, who had worked for Richard Neutra and Victor Gruen, among others, before setting up her own office in Ojai. Married to blacklisted screenwriter Michael Wilson (who already had his own Wikipedia page), the architect's own contributions, including the design for the Ojai City Hall (1976) had slipped from the record.

"Zelma was about the same age as my grandmother," says Richards. "When I'm writing I picture both women following the same stages of life." For her, the writing of history is not only political it's personal. Each sentence entered into the online platform is a chance to not only recover, but also reconnect with the past.

Photo: Adam Peña
Photo: Adam Peña.

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