Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.
—“Me and Bobby McGee,” Janice Joplin
I wish I could say that this hasn’t happened to me before, but I’ve been sexually harassed (ranging from sexual advances to coercion to the troubling incident which unfolds below) on multiple occasions by men holding positions in the Swedish art world. I believe that this has much to do with the fact that I’m a female immigrant who is, by most standards, considered marketable to the opposite sex—I’m the ‘right’ age and possess a sound constitution. I’m also a person who does not readily give information about myself, therefore certain men assume I’m either single, unemployed or underemployed, desperate or at some disadvantage associated with also being an immigrant (e.g. separated from core friends and family, no perceived support system). I have dealt with unwanted advances enough times that I can usually predict what most men are going to do before they do it. For the sake of brevity, I will focus on the most recent incident which is most relevant to Stockholm’s art scene—as it now struggles to stand on its own two feet.
I’m an art critic and curator who is often invited to openings, events and other types of meetings—such as lunches or coffees. I consider it standard etiquette to accept most, if not all, invitations by those I know, as well as those I do not yet know. As a general rule, I do not discriminate, for I believe that meeting new individuals and creatives is one of the best ways to engage in fresh tangents. I think of myself as a strong person, not a victim—even when something unfavorable comes my way.
I will now continue writing this text in the form of a veiled parody, for I am unsure of what my exact rights are when attempting to dispel the truth about my interactions with a specific person associated with a commercial exhibition space currently existing in Stockholm’s art scene which advertised a 2016 sales revenue of more than 100 million Swedish crowns. As one can detect, I am hesitant to identify this person and his space because my economic means pale in comparison. I will not mention the name of the person nor the space in question because I have reason to believe that both this individual and his colleagues are ruthless and will stop at almost nothing to maintain their position. Yet hints will be given; you are invited to ‘read between the lines.’ To an extent, I have adopted a Günter Wallraff approach when investigating this individual, his space and his motives. I will refer to this man as THE MAN, his co-partnered exhibition space as THE SPACE, and the museum which he presently stands as one of six board members as THE MUSEUM.
THE LOGISTICS OF A DEFINITION
After residing in Sweden for a while now, I have found myself pushed and pulled into a number of professional roles. In contrast to these roles, a man that I didn’t know at all, THE MAN, thought that I might want to serve him and his so-called ‘ambitious’ agenda by accepting a new, unexpected role: to be his literal ‘art whore,’ without my consent. I know that this is a harsh term to use, so I will explain what I mean by ‘art whore’ as both its metaphorical and literal lexicon apply to Stockholm’s art scene.
In the metaphorical sense, an ‘art whore’ is a man or woman who serves the art scene in a number of less dignified, sullied ways. They are manipulated or considered less significant than those who run the show, otherwise known as: gallerists, directors, collectors, the wealthy/famous. Metaphorical ‘art whores’ are often placed in compromising positions: low wages; working too much or pro bono; enduring rudeness and condescension from others in positions of authority; assisting others with their efforts while waiting for their moment to shine. For those reading who are not from Stockholm, this privileged ‘blue blood’ phenomenon-as-power runs rampant and hardly goes unquestioned—it’s just the way it is.
A metaphorical ‘art whore’ can be: an ambitious gallery assistant who does most (if not all) of the core work to keep a gallery afloat while its owners get credit; a journalist who has been pigeonholed as press and then is used by spaces to promote their endeavors, even though said journalist may have other legitimate skills to offer the art world besides providing media coverage (many people in the art world seem to have trouble visualizing a person who is good at many things—instead, individuals are often assigned specific roles); an unpaid intern or volunteer; an emerging artist who has just graduated from art school and really needs to sell their work now, even though no gallery has chosen to represent them, so they submit to some inequitable circumstance; a person well-aware that a specific person or space is corrupt but turns their head because of an associated perk, whether it be economic gain or social acceptance (e.g., invitations to key events and parties, access to the ‘right’ people and places which are not for those aspiring to maintain astute opinions or key observations about their art scene which, in turn, revolve around a foundation of logic and functioning debate skills—by the way, communication and persuasion skills are not strong points in Sweden’s art education system).
At this moment, a literal version of the ‘art whore’ has made its way to Stockholm’s art scene. A semi-recent addition to Stockholm’s art scene, THE MAN (a fashion industry transplant, CEO of high-profile events, and now creative director of THE SPACE), is testing out the waters for his literal ‘art whore’ prototype. THE SPACE is steadily gaining more money and influence, partially due to its owners being firmly entrenched in Stockholm’s ‘establishment’ (e.g., THE SPACE has connections to multiple auction houses, fashion and publishing industries, as well as select art institutions), so who will be able to stop THE MAN’s literal ‘art whore’ template from realizing its tragic potential? When I say literal ‘art whore,’ I mean that THE MAN suggests attractive job opportunities and career advancement in exchange for sexual favors with selected women who agree to accommodate him in a hush-hush manner.
I will never be able to convince myself that sexual harassment is acceptable or justifiable. Some could argue that I am being prude in taking offense from the following exchange (that I should have been flattered?), but I cannot claim to be a traditionally minded woman who awaits any deceptive knight in shining armor to drag me by the hair to his shallow, well-dressed version of Camelot. Or realistically: to be his mistress when his clueless wife is away on quasi-business trips clicking away in her Gucci heels whilst promoting innovative eye wear and Scandinavian fashion trends. Actually, I doubt that the wives of such men are clueless about their husband’s infidelities, but as long as the wife is able to maintain her public status as one of the best-dressed women in Stockholm, she has perhaps justified it all as a trade-off. Louboutins don’t come easy—refer to Iggy Azalea’s “Work” lyrics/music video.
THE SCENE, THE CRIME
I sometimes get invited to events or meetings where men in positions of power occasionally attempt to treat me like a sexual conquest—shabbily masked as their professional interest in me. Their interaction with me fluctuates between their interest in my aptitude and skills, their interest in wanting to possibly employ me, and: their interest in my body. This is where it gets ‘juicy’—where I attempt to tell you what happened when I was invited to lunch by THE MAN of some influence in Stockholm’s art scene (more specifically: Stockholm’s fashion world now masquerading as Stockholm’s art world) out of nowhere (when I say out of nowhere, I mean that THE MAN was a complete stranger, nor did I have any knowledge of his existence before agreeing to meet him for what seemed to be a harmless meet-and-greet) with the understanding that the meeting would be related to career opportunities and/or professional collaboration. I believed that this meeting with THE MAN was legitimate because of how he expressed himself in his initial email; I had no reason to assume that a stranger would approach me for any other reason. I can be naïve, or rather, my ego told me that something so appalling was not possible—that such things, perhaps, happen to other women—but not me. For all other times when I have been harassed by men, we knew each other on some level beforehand. Never before has a stranger acted this way with me.
When I arrived to meet THE MAN for lunch, he led me to a round booth in the corner of a posh restaurant located directly below THE SPACE. It was, for the most part, empty. The restaurant’s vacancy should have been a red flag. I will never agree to meet an unknown man in a location harboring this same void—omit the waitress and bartender, there was no one in sight. Note: the mentioning of the round booth is significant.
This is how our conversation went; I will now paraphrase. After sitting down at the table, I immediately felt uncomfortable and asked THE MAN from the beginning of our conversation what the purpose of this meeting was, inquiring as to whether or not THE MAN needed help with a specific text or project—since he did contact me via my professional email found on my professional website. THE MAN proceeded to tell me that he was “recently single” and was interested in me. Note: at some point, he casually referred to a woman whom he was supposedly no longer involved with as his ‘ex-girlfriend’—not his wife. In short, THE MAN lied about having a family (a brunette wife and two young boys) from the beginning of our interaction, and at the time, I did not know about their existence. I was taken aback by his blatant declaration, since I was under the impression that this was to be a neutral meeting related to opportunities associated with his entrepreneurial ventures. I responded to THE MAN’s confession by telling him that I was now uncomfortable—that I was under the impression that the purpose of this meeting was neither social nor personal.
THE MAN then tries to make me feel more comfortable by shifting gears; he gives me a bland introduction to his projects, companies and pursuits as if he was giving a 10-minute business pitch on auto-pilot. After getting acquainted with his money-making schemes, THE MAN proceeds to ask personal questions which I didn’t always answer. Some of these questions follow, and I ask the reader to make note: no woman is ever required to answer these types of questions, under any circumstances. These kinds of questions allow the questioner access to more information than they need to have at their disposal. These kinds of questions allow the questioner power to manipulate, assume and even steer the conversation into directions which it doesn’t need to go. When one chooses to answer questions such as these, they are giving the other person an opportunity to position them on a dangerous grid of oversimplified stereotypes—similar to a chessboard, but with human beings as pieces. Once one knows where and how you are positioned, they can better formulate a plan to alter your position. THE MAN asked me the following questions:
– Are you a Swedish citizen?
– What is your citizenship status?
– Do you speak Swedish?
– Are you seeing anyone?
– Are you in a relationship?
– What kind of relationship are you in?
– Are you employed?
– Where do you work?
– Where do you live?
– Do you own your apartment or rent?
– How long have you lived in Sweden?
– Why do you live in Sweden?
– Are you alone, or is someone helping you?
– Do you have children? Do you want children?
– Are you happy with your current situation?
– Do you need money?
– Are you fun?
THE MAN didn’t ask me these questions back-to-back. His strategy was more so to weave his interest in my personal life with his interest in possibly employing me. He asked personal questions, then he pushed the conversation into a seemingly professional direction with questions about my skills and work history. Then he would shift the conversation back and ask even more specific personal questions. As the conversation careens, he then begins to alter the conversational structure by adding more suggestive nuance, innuendo, compliments and flirting—sprinkled throughout to ‘test the waters.’
I’m not responding the way THE MAN wants, so he becomes more assertive, steering the conversation away from harmless topics into more delicate territory—such as my self-esteem, self-image and psychological terrain, searching for holes or shortages in my self-confidence. THE MAN accused me of being ‘used’ by Stockholm’s art scene—of not being appreciated or acknowledged for what I’m worth. He also labeled me as an ‘outsider’—caveat. Being an ‘outsider’ can be code for: being an easy, nonthreatening target disconnected from one’s primary social and professional networks. This is another tactic that some men use to see how fragile a woman’s self-image is, to break her down, so that she might give in to unwanted advances. A similar tactic used by men, especially those who have read Neil Strauss’s The Game, is called ‘negging’ which is, “a rhetorical strategy whereby a person makes a deliberate backhanded compliment or otherwise insulting remark to another person in order to undermine their confidence in a way that gains approval” (Wikipedia). Others might make a heated assumption about an individual—a test to see how the person responds. Will the person agree with assumption x, shrug it off, get offended or retaliate? Depending on any given response, a person might inadvertently admit that assumption x is either true or false (there are exceptions though).
Whether or not I have been ‘used’ by Stockholm’s art scene is another issue, as is which feminist wave or theory I uphold, but at this point in our conversation, I am insulted that a stranger presumes to dissect my supposed position. Note: I feel that any female immigrant entering Stockholm’s art scene can expect the following: stalled communication; administrative red tape; disregard for ideas which are too experimental or political; applying for more jobs than you thought could exist, and not getting much more than an interview or temp position; unadvertised biased recruitment methods; cultural and educational differences which are not taken into account when applying for arts-and-culture jobs; watching an arts-and-culture version of musical chairs where a recycled group of established players rotate public roles among themselves, seemingly oblivious to incoming faces (one director moves from one space to another, one academic moves from one school to another, while new qualified applicants watch from the sidelines); classism; sexism; racism; nepotism; conformity; distrust to promote individuals who have not jumped certain hurdles; distrust to represent artists who have not won fellowships/awards or have not been deemed by an esteemed entity worthy of consideration. In short: Stockholm’s distrust manifests itself as the choices it continues to make or not make. Actions speak louder than words.
After a few more attempts to vilify me at the round booth, THE MAN shifts the conversation towards a more ‘positive’ direction, flooding me with compliments and making suggestive observations about my physicality. THE MAN tells me (in so many words) that he finds it pleasurable to watch me eat my lunch (puke). I watch him shift from snide insults targeting my self-worth and seemingly invisible role in Stockholm’s art scene, to attempting to ‘cheer me up’ by appreciating my physique. I’m nauseous but listen to his vapid theories with constrained contempt; most women probably would have walked away by now, but I want to know how THE MAN functions. Apparently, my silence is interpreted as an invitation for him to move closer to me; we share a round booth. I must emphasize that I never gave any sign of interest in THE MAN on a personal level, I was dressed conservatively, no make-up, devoid of accessories, I was not flirting nor asking him personal questions, I was not answering most of his personal questions, nor was I reciprocating his advances. But I have begun to realize that it is never about me in situations such as these. It is not about what I want or what I express; it is about what THE MAN wants and expresses. THE MAN expressed that his will was more important than mine.
After listening to THE MAN spew textbook flattery, I start laughing. I have decided that THE MAN is absurd—as is the situation in general. THE MAN then lunges towards me to make physical contact; he tries to touch and kiss me. I shield myself from him with my arms, turn my head and lean away. It happened quickly. I said “NO” a few times. I hold up the palm of my hand—the universal sign to stop. THE MAN does move away from me, but only after a brief period of glaring at me first to determine whether or not I might be bluffing—or teasing. The room is empty, and there are no witnesses. I realize that I am again one of many women who has been sexually harassed.
But I did not leave the table after THE MAN made his move. I remain seated; I was shocked into some kind of weird paralysis and disbelief. THE MAN then proceeds to act like nothing happened. He shifts the conversation back over to the professional realm; he wants to give the impression that he is genuinely trying to figure out how to fit me into one of his projects, jumping between aforementioned opportunities. I stare at him, watching him as he appears to be gaslighting me. By definition, to ‘gaslight’ is to “manipulate (someone) by psychological means into doubting their own sanity.” THE MAN tried to erase his actions from the record, with the reminder that a desirable job opportunity awaits if I simply forget what happened.
I leave shortly thereafter—giving THE MAN only a few minutes to attempt to cover his tracks. I demand a respectable exit. My contact with THE MAN doesn’t end here though. THE MAN has initiated the process of attempting to bait me with job opportunities which were difficult to ignore, and I have no concrete proof of what has transpired between us. After much thought, I decide that the situation can be repaired; I even at some point tell myself that I have overreacted. I decide that it is, perhaps, just to attempt to use someone who is trying to use you, believing that I might be able to subvert the power dynamic in my favor. Ironically, I dislike him just enough to keep communication going. The words of Sun Tzu seem indispensable: keep your friends close but your enemies closer. I was rightfully suspicious of THE MAN’s motives, and I made a conscious decision to ‘play detective’ so as to discover how THE MAN functions within Stockholm’s art scene. I would never discover anything by walking away offended; instead, I must appear to comply in order to gather more information.
THE MAN later invites me to a private dinner promoting one of THE SPACE’s exhibitions; THE SPACE regularly sponsors dinners in association with their exhibitions which include carefully selected guests (exhibited artist(s), collectors, owners, journalists, directors, icons from the fashion and entertainment industries). THE MAN’s wife was absent from THE SPACE and dinner when I was present (which I don’t believe was mere coincidence). At this point, I know a lot about THE MAN from online research/image searches; he underestimated me.
After viewing the artist’s work exhibited in THE SPACE, I went off with my friend to get some fresh air before dinner. During our absence, THE MAN calls me (I discover he has saved my #) and asks me where I am, reminds me that there is a seat waiting for me at the dinner sitting next to the director of one of Stockholm’s leading art institutions and one of the most esteemed artists in Stockholm at the moment—how strategic of THE MAN. I tell THE MAN where we are, and that I enjoyed the art exhibited in THE SPACE. Carefully constructed small talk. THE MAN then tells me that I can have one of the art works which I mention that I like most from the show. I do not accept his offer; instead, I tell THE MAN that we are on our way to dinner. THE MAN attempted to bribe me on the phone with an art work—either to please me, persuade me to write about the show or to get me on his good side. I did not take anything from THE MAN at any point. When I later ask THE MAN why he offered to give me the work, reminding him that it is unnecessary and inappropriate to give gifts to those in my position, THE MAN acts like he doesn’t remember our phone conversation taking place at all.
I now summarize the remainder of our interactions. I decided that the only way to salvage this situation was by enforcing a strict professional dynamic. THE MAN made it clear that he believed I was qualified to be an editor for his fashion magazine. I then proceeded to attempt to secure an editorial job working for him. My logic was: once I have the job secured, I would not have to communicate directly with him anymore; rather, I would be working with his subordinates. I might never have to be in the same room with THE MAN again—at least not alone. Yet, what ended up happening was: nothing. THE MAN’s initial job offers were not real. What he ended up assisting with was: applying for a freelance writing job for his fashion magazine, which I could have handled on my own without ever meeting THE MAN—by simply emailing the magazine’s already-existing chief editor.
As time progressed, it become clear that the numerous opportunities in which THE MAN initially mentioned to me were fictional, or even worse: ‘conditional.’ I became angry that someone would go to such great lengths to meet women behind his wife’s back and then attempt to persuade them to do what he wants by including them in his professional endeavors as a cover/alibi. What THE MAN offers is, essentially, an all-or-nothing package: if you want the job/opportunity, you must respond to and accept THE MAN’s sexual advances. I later expressed my anger to him in person at THE SPACE; I demanded an explanation from THE MAN regarding his behavior, as well as an apology. I asked THE MAN how many women he had approached in the same manner. I asked THE MAN if this was his ‘modus operandi,’ or if he had other methods too. His response? I was met with more lying and gaslighting. He would not admit to his mistakes or acknowledge them without a struggle. He did finally give an explanation, which was verbatim: “I’m crazy. I cannot say NO to things.” And the apology that I finally managed to squeeze out of THE MAN resembled an apology given by some punk delinquent caught shoplifting. THE MAN is not sorry for what he does; THE MAN is only sorry that he got caught.
When it became evident that I was not going to walk away empty-handed (whether it be a reasonable explanation, sincere apology or concrete opportunity), he proceeded to tell me that he is currently on the board of THE MUSEUM, and that I should send him one of my exhibition proposals for THE MUSEUM’s consideration—that he will push it through. And with this suggestion to appease me, I’m in over my head. Here lies the root of my conundrum: wouldn’t it be wonderful to finally see one of my curations actualized in Stockholm? But must I take all of this in order for it occur? When/if I accept his gesture to persuade THE MUSEUM’s board to accept my proposal, then I must adhere to the unspoken agreement that we have reached a ‘deal.’ I would have to keep silent about his behavior in exchange for his assistance pushing my exhibition proposal forward and towards fruition, because his ‘generous’ assistance to present, defend and support my proposal was another bribe—but a less obvious one.
After watching THE MAN’s contrived enthusiasm about my exhibition proposal, it became crystal clear: THE MAN is a fraud. A couple of days before THE MAN is scheduled to meet with the board of THE MUSEUM to present my proposal, I instead act out of total disgust and attempt to disassemble THE MAN’s shameful existence—via sms. I then email his wife and tell her what THE MAN has done and is trying to do. I invite THE MAN’s wife to contact me for further details—if she wants them. She remains silent; THE MAN continues to sponsor her ‘on fleek’ wardrobe. Then two days later, I receive an email from THE MAN’s business partner at THE SPACE stating that THE SPACE and its employees end all contact with me—THE MAN and THE SPACE have concluded that I am a security risk, and I have now been banned from setting foot in THE SPACE. THE MAN cannot not risk me being in the same room with his associates—at events he hosts at THE SPACE. What a coincidence. When I speak up about what has happened to me, I am deemed a pariah by those who could not figure out how to use me. THE MAN was denied access to my body and creative energy. THE MAN and THE SPACE (and by association: THE MUSEUM) are now dead to me.
I don’t get much from sharing this account—except catharsis. The responsibility to inform other women about this incident weighs heavily on my mind, especially as I now watch THE MAN and THE SPACE steadily acquire power since the recent inception of THE SPACE. Perhaps, I should have walked away with ‘my tail between my legs,’ filed a police report (which I still might do), or I should have done x (kicked THE MAN where it hurts), y (devised a revenge plan which unfolds years from now), or z (kept my mouth shut and moved on) according to the suggestions of women I later consulted. Instead, I chose to investigate to acquire more information, serving as confirmation of what I instinctively sensed was true. I didn’t go away, and I didn’t make it easy for THE MAN to forget. I demanded an explanation, apology and reparation. I got two out of three; I jumped ship before the reparation could manifest itself because I later re-evaluated the reparation (i.e., actualizing my curation at THE MUSEUM) to be a bribe which I could not accept. No matter how close I hover next to the despicable—it’s almost impossible to maintain an absolutist, black-and-white stance when tangled in any web—I refuse to become like them.
I once accepted the notion that the politics of any space could, under most circumstances, be separated from the politics of the art and artist exhibited in the space itself, and this was my ‘casual’ mandate for occasionally writing about talented artists who were, unfortunately, exhibiting in spaces which were managed by others deemed to be less-than-savory. I’ve reached my breaking point with this last incident—especially, considering the current international socio-political climate. I now re-visit theorists and thinkers to reformulate a more compatible position (e.g., Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space, RIOT Girlz Manifesto and even Valerie Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto). In short, there is nothing ‘casual’ about my position now.
Perhaps, I never wrote this text. Perhaps, one of the women I met with after the incident wrote these words on my behalf. I have no recollection—how’s that for gaslighting? Many of my women friends and colleagues are great writers, listeners and archivists. I consulted with other women because I didn’t know how to react—I wanted advice and support. Whether or not I am the author—or another woman is—doesn’t matter. We share the same tribe, and we now argue that THE MAN and THE SPACE (and by association: THE MUSEUM) are threats to Stockholm’s art scene, impeding progress for those genuinely invested in arts and culture—especially, women and immigrants.
TACTICS TO AVOID BEING MANIPULATED/EXPLOITED
From this shared experience, I hope that someone will gain insight. Here are some suggestions geared towards helping others dodge snakes:
– Maintain a strict division between private and professional spheres: you do not have to answer anyone’s questions ever. Pay close attention to what you share in social networks and with colleagues.
– Form alliances with other women: refer to ‘Female Counter Adaptations’ (if one chooses to think of men as animals) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sexual_coercion#Female_counter-adaptations
– Use the tools that you have: social networks, WWW, events, associations, gossip even (can be true at times) to learn as much as you can about a space, individuals, how the money and power flows, the source.
– Fight fire with fire: if you are being harassed, baited, bribed, lied to or misled, return the favor. Being polite in such instances falls short. But if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.
– Sabotage: e.g., wear a mask in order to gain access to an individual’s behavior or company/organization’s methods. Become whatever you need to become in order to determine what they actually are.
– Change the way you think about the art scene’s structure. For instance, if the art scene is a computer or machine, then hack or break it down into smaller parts which can be understood and altered.
– Become what is projected onto you magnified, exaggerated: if they think you’re stupid, become really stupid. Most snakes cannot figure out how to use a shapeshifting version of yourself—i.e., a contradictory trickster or confusing freak.
– Speak up, be heard: share experiences and research without delay. The more individuals who resist traps, the harder it will be for those in positions of power to manipulate others.
– Depending on the situation, become inaccessible/invisible, or in contrast, be everywhere all of the time.
– If you are in a position to do so, become too expensive for corrupt companies and individuals to buy or use—significantly increase rates and fees.
– Create a paper trail reflecting conversations, interactions and agreements as much as possible.
– Trust your instincts: If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.
WHY THE SPACE IS TOXIC
– One of THE SPACE’s partners lies about his marital status and family, baits women to meet with him for possible career recruitment opportunities, makes unwanted advances, sexually harasses them, then attempts to bait and bribe them further in order to maintain power over them and keep them silent. THE MAN attempts to normalize a working environment where sexual favors are acceptable—the division between private and professional realms is moot.
– THE SPACE makes alternate arrangements with artists who are already represented by galleries without consent or knowledge of the gallery, compromising trust between represented artists and their corresponding gallerists.
– THE SPACE scouts out artists who are winners of fellowships/awards who are not yet represented by a gallery, thereby taking advantage of artists who are more susceptible to manipulation due to the artist’s unstable position. They do not offer artists gallery representation or protection.
– THE SPACE makes arrangements with other organizations, museums and galleries which are not clearly expressed or acknowledged to the public. THE SPACE lacks transparency regarding its associations with other entities.
– The privatized, controlled nature of THE SPACE’s money-driven initiatives and events is not conducive to a democratic art scene which demands open discourse. Instead, THE SPACE supports exclusivity and cultivates a divisive hierarchy which is both unwelcoming and discriminatory.