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Jennifer Kidwell in Whitney Biennial performance as Donelle Woolford, February 2014 at MOCAD (Detroit, MI) (photo by Stephen Garrett Dewyer/Infinite Mile)

Editor’s note: Presented here is a response by Jennifer Kidwell to the controversy that surrounded Joe Scanlan’s participation in curator Michelle Grabner’s section of the 2014 Whitney Biennial. When the Yams Collective, a group of artists also selected by Grabner, withdrew from the exhibition, they cited Scanlan’s inclusion as the fictional black artist Donelle Woolford as part of their rationale. Kidwell, a performer hired by Scanlan who played the role of Woolford in connection with the Biennial, believes that the claims made by the Yams Collective about her participation in the work deserve further scrutiny.

*   *   *

Donelle Woolford, the fictitious artist whose work has become a collaboration between Joe Scanlan, Abigail Ramsay, and me, has done an extraordinary thing. Her existence exhorts the public to rally and come to her defense, but has simultaneously exposed its inability to do so.

Years ago, visual artist Joe Scanlan made a series of paintings from wood scraps in his New Haven studio that he felt were uninteresting as part of his own oeuvre. So, he created the para-fiction Donelle Woolford, and those paintings became hers. “Para-fiction” — the practice of creating a fictional artist with its own body of objects, a term coined by art historian Carrie Lambert-Beatty — is now a near-ubiquitous practice in which artists have engaged for quite some time (Marcel Duchamp’s Rrose Sélavy emerged in the 1920s). Though it was once arguably a transgressive act of duping the public, this now fairly common practice generally no longer raises eyebrows.

However, identity politics complicate Donelle Woolford: Joe is white, male, and middle-aged; Donelle is black, female, and young-ish. The conceit that a(nother) middle-aged white man is profiting off a young black woman who, not being an actual person, can reap no benefit from this relationship is certainly disturbing. Many argue that Scanlan’s creation of Donelle exploits her political body. This has incited a broad controversy: there have been articles about Donelle in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Observer, online news sources such as Hyperallergic, and countless blogs; there is an extraordinarily lengthy — and contentious — Facebook thread; there was even a demonstration of sorts in January at the Los Angeles Art Book Fair staged by a young black female artist, and so on.

Finally, there was the decision by HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN?, a collective of artists of color, to withdraw its participation from the 2014 Whitney Biennial due to Donelle’s inclusion in the exhibition. Amid all of this ire and reportage, there is a salient differing factor involved in our para-fictive collaboration that has been ironically overlooked. Donelle not only has a body of work, both plastic and live, she also has bodies. Currently she is played by me and by fellow performer Abigail Ramsay, sometimes at the same time and place.

We are the performative authors in this project and Joe the visual author. We perform Donelle at her openings — Abigail even spent a month in residence at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts — as well as her performance pieces, which so far include her take on Dan Graham’s seminal “Performer/Audience/Mirror (in our case a duet performed by me and Abigail), as well as “Dick’s Jokes,” a re-creation of a ’70s-era Richard Pryor stand-up routine (a solo piece created/performed by me). Our participation could complicate what many consider a clear example of exploitation. But, so far it hasn’t, because Abigail and I have largely been left out of the discussion, as if we, like Donelle, do not exist.

As the originator of the project, it certainly makes sense that Joe’s name is most closely associated with it. However, while the discussions have centered on the positioning and use of the black body in this work, little attention has been given to mine and Abigail’s artistic contributions (performative, authorial, and otherwise), the actual black bodies being discussed. Joe creates Donelle’s plastic pieces, and in turn, Abigail and I create her performative pieces. Our bodies serve our art. We have always operated as if the disciplines involved in the creation and performance of such a piece are evident, a stance that now feels naïve. Despite the fact that we complement this project, we are most often parenthetically referred to as the “actors” Joe has “hired” for “his piece,” and we have been treated as such by voices on all sides of these debates and controversies: anonymous black bodies in service of a white male.

We are positioned to serve not only Joe’s alleged agenda but, paradoxically, are then also in service of a system that would be critical of this agenda. For instance, during a lengthy and heated “talk-back” (it felt more like an inquisition) in Minneapolis, a white male let me know in no uncertain terms that as I could always be “fired,” I am in fact not a collaborator in this project, although I said the opposite. This patronization is emblematic of the inherent irony: this white man — within the context of castigating Joe for exerting his white male privilege — tried to contradict me and override my self-identification. And so it often happens that by dismissing my agency and in turn, my artistry, the same public that seeks to decry Joe’s practice negates mine. If, as was stated by the Yams Collective, Donelle Woolford is a practice of white male “masturbation,” then the public has erased — rubbed, if you will — Abigail and I out of the context of our own piece. This is too bad for many reasons, not the least of which is that Donelle could be a platform for a truly significant discussion about curatorial practice as it concerns race and the politics of collaboration.

For instance, while it is true that Joe Scanlan would not have gotten into the Biennial if Donelle Woolford weren’t black, it is just as true that Donelle wouldn’t have gotten in, nor would I, if Joe weren’t white. The symbiosis of access and privilege inherent in this relationship is far more complex and provocative than most of the contention that’s hitherto been raised. A truly fecund conversation would be about how the one political body is aided by the other and vice versa, though they are understood and treated in opposition. Or how Donelle has catalyzed and challenged Joe’s hegemony within a system in which “white male” is so quotidian as to almost be able to disappear. And further, how Joe’s white-male-ness has at times invalidated his voice within this context.

We could discuss the different quality of Donelle’s reception in Europe where, while xenophobia is ubiquitous, “racism” is not universally acknowledged, so Donelle — and Scanlan — can be exoticized without censure. We could discuss how differently collaboration and authorship are understood for visual versus performing artists, and how much more sensitive we are to value and profit when race and privilege are a part of the context. Finally, we could discuss why Abigail and I, though central to the conversation, have not been up for discussion. I decided to become a part of this project because it could prompt so many issues, as art ideally does. I hope Donelle continues to provoke and challenge and, moreover, that she manages to effect a dialectical shift.

A version of this essay originally appeared in the Movement Research Performance Journal.

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Jennifer Kidwell

Jennifer Kidwell is a performing artist. Most recently she has had the fortune to work with David Neumann/advanced beginner group (I Understand Everything Better), Robert Wilson/Toshi Reagon/Bernice...

35 replies on “Performance and Para-Fiction: Jennifer Kidwell on Playing Donelle Woolford”

  1. An actor is not the “author” of a film no matter how extensive her contribution. Jennifer Kidwell and Abigail Ramsay are not the ultimate authors of Donelle Woolford no matter how extensive their contributions (though I suspect their agency over what ‘Donelle’ says and does, and the work she makes is limited – i.e. if they were truly authors they would be able to conceive of performances and unique works without Scanlan’s input at all, in other words Scanlan would be expendable, at least from the performance element of the project). It’s unlikely that the art historical canon or the largely white audience for contemporary art will remember the names of Scanlan’s black female collaborators – he will always be THE author. They will never be seen as more than hired help no matter what the original intent and I’d be surprised if Scanlan expects or ever expected Kidwell/Ramsay to get as much attention/credit/career promotion from this work as he does. I find Kidwell’s response remarkably naive and almost willfully or deliberately dismissive of the nature of social privilege.

    1. Seriously? I can’t believe this response came after reading the article.

      __”An actor is not the “author” of a film no matter how extensive her contribution.”__

      Skewed analogy. This isn’t isn’t a film.

      __”Kidwell and Abigail Ramsay are not the ultimate authors of Donelle Woolford no matter how extensive their contributions”__

      They didn’t claim to be. They claimed to be free acting artistic collaborators. (See article.)

      __”It’s unlikely that the art historical canon or the largely white audience for contemporary art will remember the names of Scanlan’s black female collaborators – he will always be THE author. They will never be seen as more than hired help no matter what the original intent and I’d be surprised if Scanlan expects or ever expected Kidwell/Ramsay to get as much attention/credit/career promotion from this work as he does.”__

      That would be true if the only understanding of the project (or what you imagine the “canon” to be) were determined by the isolated, shallow critiques a few media outlets wrote on the piece this year, as exhibited in one venue. Instead, there is plenty of professional history and performances before and after this particular one came about (it was, after all, chosen to be in the Biennial for a reason: Grabner liked the piece because it was one of the few works today that could “ratle the rafters”). Kidwell refers to the discourse in Europe, how much different it is than in the states. It’s flattering to think all these pissed off people (who didn’t know who Scanlan or Kidwell were a year ago) are going to be writing the history of art from these very comment boxes, but that’s just not the case.

      __”I find Kidwell’s response remarkably naive and almost willfully or deliberately dismissive of the nature of social privilege.”__

      Is it “meta-ironic” that this statement would repeat the already-ironic white male critique she spoke of above? (See article.) Is this a satire of satire of satire?

      I don’t see any naivete at all in her article. I just see a prejudicial reaction to it, reiterating the very importance of the work. The more dogmatic the detractors get, the more incisive the work becomes.

      1. a) It is an appropriate analogy. b) Intent does not matter. c) I know the names of the models who collaborated with Yves Klein. They were willing collaborators (and the primary performers) in performances conceived by a male artist and I know their names because those names are well documented and emphasized in art historical texts. Do you know their names? d) I look forward to experiencing the work Kidwell/Ramsay eventually make on their own and its ultimate reception – or is their only ambition as ‘artists’ to be ‘collaborators’ on a project attributed to a white male artist who has a wider oeuvre? Their dedication is admirable. It frees him up to make other work. Well – until they do i’ll continue to pay attention to Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson, Kara Walker, Ellen Gallagher, Julie Mehretu, Laylah Ali, Leslie Hewitt etc… e) Enjoy your blindness.

          1. An un-numbered list of great, relevant artists does not a ranking make. Begone troll, begone. Fumble blindly back to your lair.

          2. You compared the artist above to artists you’ll “continue to pay attention” to. Looks pretty evaluative to me, but since you are dismissing Kidwell from the start, to you it doesn’t even register.

            It’s not trolling to point out facile arguments delivered through overt prejudice. You’re just continuing to hand-wave Kidwell (without evidence of having even read her article) and make false analogies (e.g., film vs. ongoing performance collaboration, historically canonized collaborations vs. present day pieces). There is no reason to dismiss me as blind or a troll when you’ve not even answered Kidwell’s rebuke. Trolling can take many forms but my urging you to take her remarks seriously instead of offer committed dismissals is not one of them. But given that you got nothing from her article (I am still pretending you read it), I’m sure you’ll get even less from what I write.

            So, have a good night.

          3. When Kidwell makes work on her own, when she is no longer ‘collaborating’ with Mr. Scanlan, I will welcome the opportunity to experience her work. I will even reassess her contributions to the ‘collaborative’ project entitled Donelle Woolford.

            Sleep tight. Don’t let the bedbugs…

          4. Inconsistent – the work you linked to is obviously presented in a theatrical context vs the fine art context of Woolford. Let me see another work presented for a fine-art audience. I’m waiting…

          5. SHE makes the distinction and takes issue with being called an actor: “Despite the fact that we complement this project, we are most often parenthetically referred to as the “actors” Joe has “hired” for “his piece,”

          6. This does not make a distinction between working in two different worlds. She is characterizing how the fine art world has glossed over her contributions by using “actor” as a pejorative, in that she has just been “hired” (another pejorative) by scanlan. The distinction she is making is between how the the fine art audience views acting (as a means to an end that has been dictated by an ultimate author) and how an audience of theater views acting (as an artistic contribution to a collaborative piece of art, where all parts are necessary and distinct for the successful reception of the work). Furthermore it is clear from this article that her involvement was beyond just being an actor. she was a collaborator.

          7. I’ve made my position very clear – until she creates a solo work within a fine art context she is not a fine artist any more than the go-go dancer hired to periodically dance on Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ “Untitled” (Go-Go Dancing Platform)” is an artist despite his improvised dance contribution.

          8. and there you go again doing exactly what kidwell criticizes. you are using the word “actor” as a pejorative, stripping her of agency, positioning fine art as arbitrarily greater than the art of acting without providing any logical argument for why you have created this hierarchy. what difference does it make if someone is an actor-artist versus a fine-artist? both have the power to express profound ideas about the human experience. both have the power to critique systems of injustice. you’ve stated a position yes, but you have not argued for your position. You’ve just spat out insults when challenged.

          9. Fine art is not greater than acting or performance or any of the arts. It is different. They are different artforms the same way that sound installation and classical music are different artforms despite both using sound. Context matters. It may be the ONLY thing that matters in contemporary fine art.

          10. very well its different, I can accept that. But what makes them mutually exclusive? or if not mutually exclusive, why does someone need to be a fine artist to collaborate with a fine artist? why must someone be a fine artist to produce fine art?

          11. i agree that context matters, but the context is determined in part by Jennifer Kidwell. Why doesn’t her voice inform the context and content of the piece?

          12. I’m sorry BT, I just don’t care enough about this artist’s work to continue to reply. The work isn’t good and i’m not willing to spend any more time and energy attending to it or explaining why it isn’t good to you if it isn’t obvious. Maybe someone else who cares about this man’s work and presence in the art world will do it. Until then, you win the internet. Huzzah.

          13. this argument wasn’t fully about this piece to me. It was a case study of the pretension and exclusivity of the art world and its continued failure to see outside of its own dogma.

        1. I think you need to slow down here a bit… To go back to your first argument you write:

          “Jennifer Kidwell and Abigail Ramsay are not the ultimate authors of Donelle Woolford no matter how extensive their contributions (though I suspect their agency over what ‘Donelle’ says and does, and the work she makes is limited – i.e. if they were truly authors they would be able to conceive of performances and unique works without Scanlan’s input at all,”

          First, here is a quote from the article above (maybe you missed it):

          “We are the performative authors in this project and Joe the visual author. We perform Donelle at her openings — Abigail even spent a month in residence at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts — as well as her performance pieces, which so far include her take on Dan Graham’s seminal “Performer/Audience/Mirror“ (in our case a duet performed by me and Abigail), as well as “Dick’s Jokes,” a re-creation of a ’70s-era Richard Pryor stand-up routine (a solo piece created/performed by me).”

          Now to me that sounds like Kidwell is saying herself that she DOES INDEED have artistic agency and creative agency within the character of Donelle Woolford. Since this is written by Kidwell, its hard for me to know for sure how Ramsey feels about it, but it sure seems here that she also feels that she has artistic agency in the piece.

          It seems to me that your argument posits that authorship must reside within one person (and your lists of artists who all are backed by teams of assistants certainly upholds that agenda). Why must that be the case? Why will Scanlan always be the author? There are many artists groups or collaborative pairs who share authorship–Allora and Calzadilla for example–where authorship occurs in the shared space between artists. Together they are greater than their individual sums. That is the beauty of collaboration. We need to kill this modernist idea of the “auteur” because clearly here it is failing us miserable. This to me seems to be what Kidwell is getting at in the last two paragraphs published here, and generally through this article. But you do what all have done before, you do what Kidwell rails against in this article–YOU MAKE HER INVISIBLE.

          Have you ever worked with actors? or even had a conversation with an actor about their art? It is impossible not to give over authorship of a character in a film to an actor. Actors are not monkeys who dance on command, they are artists who interpret and express characters through their bodies. Their art is in their ability to mask and transform–they are key to bringing the audience into a narrative. Furthermore, to be a collaborator on a project is not to be used–if Kidwell and Ramsey feel that they have artistic agency then it should be treated as such, AND we should instead ask, what is preventing us from allowing them authorship (as well as all her other fabulous questions at the end of her article). Perhaps you should take a moment and ask yourself why you refuse to give Kidwell and Ramsay artistic agency over their own piece, especially when Kidwell has expressed very clearly above that she has artistic agency within the piece.

          In the case of the Yves Klein piece you once again fail to look deeply into your examples. Yves Kleins performance occurred decades ago. His performers were not remembered perhaps because of the failure of a sexist art world and the failure of history (as well as the modernist conception of “auteur” that plagues the art world). We can choose to be cynical and say, “well history repeats itself so joe scanlan will be remembered, the actors “will never be seen as more than hired help” (your words), and so the piece is bad because of how history remembers it” Or we can stop and interrogate that cynicism, and remember that we have some power to affect how history is written! How this piece is remembered! We can stop and choose to start a conversation about authorship, about racial exploitation, about an art world that is dominated by straight white men with money, and about how this piece situates itself within that dialogue. We have the opportunity RIGHT NOW to open art up and give agency back to these woman instead of erasing them.

          Donelle comes alive through Kidwell and Ramsay–they breathe life into the character, they are the reason the artist Donelle exists. They tell Donelle when she moves an arm, they dictate the timbre of her voice, they dictate how donelle carries herself. Donelle looks out at the world through their eyes, and they look out at an audience through Donelle’s. In some ways that gives them more creative agency than scanlan has. Scanlan may have written her into existence, may have produced the idea, but without these actors she is nothing more than an intangible idea.

          Kidwell is calling for us to cease attacking Scanlan, to return agency to her and Ramsay, and most importantly, to use the existence of Donelle Woolford to interrogate the structure of power that exists within the art world. By dismissing Kidwell and this article, you have upheld the status quo.

  2. “The conceit that a(nother) middle-aged white man is profiting off a young black woman who, not being an actual person, can reap no benefit from this relationship is certainly disturbing.” Kidwell is arguing that in fact she and Ramsey are the actual people who can reap benefit from this relationship and that therefore the disturbing conceit she describes is invalid. By that argument, one would have to evaluate the benefits that playing Woolford has accrued to these two women in order to evaluate the project’s merit. I would counter that if these women have not been acknowledged in the art press it is not because the press rendered them invisible but because the insitutions where Woolford has been performed have consistently identified only Scanlan as author. Where are they getting their info? Most likely from Scanlan himself. How many of the collaborators are attaining art world stardom, and the employment and exhibition opportunities commensurate with that? Only Scanlan so far. Kidwell is indeed naive. Let’s see how this plays out for the three of them in 5-10 years and whether she’s still as protective of the project and Scanlan down the road, or whether she experiences disproportionate rewards for her participation than those extended to her associate.

    1. This is a thoughtful critique, but I don’t think it holds.

      Ms. Kidwell has argued here for her full participation, agency, and interest in the project, as equal to Scanlan’s. *That* is what most reporting and editorials ignored or denied.

      She has *not* argued that the collaboration will result in the advancement of her career in equal proportion to Scanlan’s (whether or not that is true; she is certainly in the spotlight now). The backtracking and reshifting of critique happening in these comments is to (1) now acknowledge she was a real agent in the creation of Donelle Wolford, but (2) recreate the problem as her not getting “enough” credit, or will not go down in history like the white man will. We are to think she is naive, not very aware of what she’s doing, not getting along in her career like we think she should, for whatever reason.

      Back when this story was about Scanlan ‘exploiting actors,’ it seemed to me just as interesting to fashion the Social Justice story as “Black Women Actors Support Racist Artist,” shifting the agency and moral culpability onto Kidwell, who media outlets would not engage. I can see that story getting formed right here in the comments, except she isn’t morally culpable *yet* because we are, for now, calling her “naive.”

      There is a catch 22 for her critics. The more seriously they take her, the more power she has in this project and as an artist in her own right, thereby undermining the basis of the initial criticism itself. All this points to the poverty of art discourse, if you want to call it that, when these complications can’t be seen from the beginning, which is what the work is about.

      At least *she* can’t be called a white supremacist racist privileged whatever to bully her out of the picture, as has been the dirty but defacto move for Scanlan’s critics in debates such as these.

      1. Please don’t conflate the multiplicity of voices here into one monolithic objection and further marginalize minority voices in this dialogue. Kidwell herself acknowledges her naïveté with respect to the art world systems the project engages and her expectations of the legibility of its critique. I stand by my assertion that she is naive about the disproportionate accrual of rewards for participation in the project and the art world, speaking as a woman of color engaged in an ongoing critique of these systems. If you want to counter my argument, I welcome it – but by responding to my point, not by falsely characterizing it as “bullying.”

        1. I should have been more clear that what followed my initial critique of your argument was an expansive critique of the nature of this debate (which is beyond your point, but still encompasses it). You are by no means bullying, which is why I considered it “thoughtful.” Your particular argument, though, that Kidwell is naive about the benefits she will receive from her participation in this work, was already made by nonorientable (see their reference to the future “canon” and their knowing the names of Yves Klein’s collaborators, as if that mattered), and that’s all speculative still. And, again, Kidwell never claims to expect any measure of reward critics of her claim she is expecting. That’s why your argument doesn’t hold. It’s as speculative as nonorientable’s account of the same issue.

          If there are a “multiplicity of minority voices” I am missing them, and frustrated by that, but if you can find criticisms of Scanlan or Kidwell that are not of the same voice (and by this, I mean ‘voices’ holding *mutually exclusive* views that cannot in fact be rolled into one linear argument), I would appreciate you exposing those divergences to me. I think it would be really interesting to read two critiques of Scanlan or Kidwell that are’ incommensurable.’

          1. It’s been correctly observed by others on this thread that Kidwell is a stage performer with little experience in art contexts. She may n

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