Before we settled on ‘we’ in the first draft of the first letter, before we’d really charted a now familiar way of doing things.
We didn’t know what voice to address readers from, and I (Gordon, author of the first draft, and primary author of our third invitation and these appendices) wasn’t totally comfortable with the idea of using ‘we’. I was worried ‘we’ might imply that we were writing from one perspective, that we see eye-to-eye (or stand shoulder-to-shoulder) and agree on everything. I know we’ve been using it in these invitations, and allowing the appendices to hold space for individually-authored responses, but I’m still uncomfortable with it because (as you mentioned) it assumes an institutional voice and perhaps suggests to our readers that we are ‘neutral’, or hold a ‘professional’ sequence of protocols. You mentioned institutional style-guides and a consistency in tone in the communication. Institutions sound like their directors, mediated through their marketing departments. I’m glad you raised it because I remember we talked at length about how we should think about our tone with the same scrutiny as what we might look like. Or perhaps how the two of us should contradict one another? I feel like this is a problem with a lot of collaborative practice—what is the most accurate tech for imaging collaborative voice in a way that captures the shared motion, but also the complicated power dynamics that a word like ‘we’ might flatten.
I feel ‘we’ can be slightly problematic in reading as well—it’s super contingent on context and a pre-knowledge of particular group dynamics. The first person plural pronoun ‘we’ speaks not only of an undefinable group with minimum two people, but also could be so invasive as to assume the inclusion of the reader within its limitless embrace. In Malay and several other languages, there’s a way of distinguishing this. Kita includes the listener in the speakers’ group (We plus You); and Kami excluding the listener from the group (We minus You). I don’t think this variance in clusivity is a feature of romantic root languages, a lot is missed or taken advantage of in that Euro-centric rhetoric. ‘We’ is also the way that I’m involved with you and how my authorship is wrapped up in you. ‘You’ could be you in this case Cicely; or ‘you’ could be you the reader. Apologies for that, as ‘we’ is also definitely a way of implicating a reader within an argument, getting them on your side.
I’ve involved myself in many ‘we’s before, sometimes unaware of the depths to which I’ve gotten into. That history makes me apprehensive of ‘we’. At times I’ve felt really uncomfortable performing. In other people’s works, I’ve been part of staged intimacies with other performers, opening space for the ways that systemic preconditioning slips into intimate space. I remember that hostile and hospitable share the same etymological root, hostis, a relationship to the stranger. I was thinking about that while stripping into my sweaty boxers in front of people. I hid myself away after, drank, cried. The intimacy I thought was free of capitalism, wasn’t. I had to go to work the next day, a shop, and someone came in, a stranger who saw it—to my dismay they loved it and wanted to talk all about it. I have always worked in shops so my response was to gloss over it with my retail assistant performance, but at the same time, learned that it was an important discomfort—it changed me to my core, like art can do (or at least the art that made me want to get into making art in the first place; that art that de-stabilises your world-view, inherently discomforting in its challenge to you). I trusted that particular ‘we’ again of course. However, to be able to accept the challenge, we need to first come from a place of comfort, from a ‘we’ that we’re comfortable in, a ‘we’ that provides the standards of comfort required to engage in aesthetic contemplation.
So when should we institute, when should we use ‘we’ in that way? Does it demand that we be in a virtuous jazz with one another? Or that our balance is reciprocal? Or purely that we believe the ‘we’ to be a protective and anonymous mask to hide behind? Maybe we started using we too early, and I recognise that in me writing the exclusive ‘we’, I might also be framing this as an imposition on your opinions in the matter so maybe we should talk about it.
*pacing through shallow water*
‘How’re we doing?’: my trail of writing is interjected by the barista who sees my empty coffee cup and implies that I order another or leave.
‘Fine thanks, it might be time for the bill though’: aware that I have vastly overstayed any welcomes now that I’m no longer a customer and the water my sock has brought in has made a little pool on the floor.
Gordon Douglas is a performance artist in Glasgow. He plays games with organisational staff and their stakeholders, celebrates birthdays amidst austerity, and holds it together before breaking down in offices. He is currently cardbearer for Good on Paper.
Cicely Farrer is a curator on the North East Coast of Scotland. Day to day she facilitates artist residencies, pedagogical events and workshops and supports artists to create new work including performance. She invests her time considering the invisible support structures for artists.
Good on Paper is a research project initiated by Gordon Douglas and Cicely Farrer looking into the futures of performance art making in Scotland. They are working with MAP Magazine on a series of texts through spring/summer 2022.
Good on Paper is supported by the National Lottery through Creative Scotland.
Click on links below this article for the third invitation appendices.