Shona Mac Naughton2
Shona MacNaughton, We Nurture, Education Space, 2019. Photo: Matthew Arthur Williams

A smile brings us together: hair freshly cut, make-up elevated, clothing sculptural and beige. Round her neck, Collective’s turquoise lanyard, a pantomime Staff authority, beams out through the gently spoken, coercive introduction. Her welcome is sincere, setting up our expectations for a guided tour around the organisation’s new home at Edinburgh’s City Observatory. The tenderness is consistent and yet the phrasing sits uncomfortably. We register there are a number of voices and vocabularies at play.

The performance begins by locating us in the gallery’s narrative, the regeneration of the site on Calton Hill and the many ‘moves’ the gallery has made between different architectures and different frames. When our attention shifts from the impressive architecture here to the performer, the word ‘movement’ triggers a cradling of her stomach. This ‘movement’ is physical, maternal even. She asks:

‘How many movements are enough?

What are normal movements?’ [1]

The questions exclaimed are adopted from NHS pamphlets including ‘Ready Steady Baby’ (2017), and ‘My Body Belongs to Me’ (2019), used to disseminate health and wellbeing information to new and expectant mothers. The other voice that she channels, clones phrases from Collective’s archive of newsletters, members’ communications and development proposals. The two are uncannily similar in tone.

Our performer is locked tightly to the words of her script, calling us inside by repeating lines she’s already uttered. Once inside, further instructions command us into various positions: to stand with our feet apart; to extend our spines. We shuffle between gestures until we’re asked to suck our fingers till they’re wet with saliva. An enthusiastic nodding from the performer prompts lots of darting, anxious eyes from audience members while we decide silently and collectively if we’re going to cave. We sheepishly disobey the call, and are left imagining the sensations that doing this together might bring.

Later, in the Education Space, we’re told to sit down, close our eyes, grasp our legs and push against our knees in a pelvic floor exercise. Our breaths are synced, in and out. It’s comforting to breathe together. On breathing out, we’re asked to utter a phrase, something that relaxes us. The performer suggests an example:

‘A Product of Thatcher’s Britain Perhaps?’ [2]

We’re caught off guard by the comedy: this injection of slapstick juxtaposed against uneasy truths about the privatisation of the public-sector, and the pressures for Collective to perform within this seemingly inescapable system.

If Thatcher’s Britain heralded the systemic turn away from a collective responsibility of the state to increased powers and responsibilities of private enterprise, we’re left with a less-than-clear framework for who takes responsibility for what. Who has access to what rights, and what we have to care for on our own?

The Arts are one of those increasingly individualised responsibilities, sadly evidenced through the dropping of the requirement for arts subjects at school. The institutions of the art gallery and the family unit become departments of the state, and assigned arts education to the long list of already delegated responsibilities. The family becomes the lens through which we view this invisible care, with parallels implied and drawn to the ongoing ‘Wages for Housework’ campaign; the Nanny State; the pamphlet reductions of health and wellbeing; self-care as personal resilience; ‘caring’ as a euphemism for state suppression. Care is exposed as a changeable language utilised for a variety of benevolent and malevolent purposes. Filling the gaps in responsibility might not be resisting the conditions of austerity, but instead might propagate it further.

Shona Mac Naughton1
Shona MacNaughton, We Nurture, Calton Hill, 2019. Photo: Matthew Arthur Williams

The performer breaks this train of thought as she leaps into motion, repeating our rhetorical question about the Iron Lady as she glides through the landscaped grounds to the office.

Eyes down, two employees write invoices at a long shared desk. The office is astonishingly tidy, and we position ourselves on either side of the table, respectful of this apparently working environment. Here, Collective itself becomes part of the show, and I’m left wondering if the office has always been this tidy? Maybe more importantly, does a tidy office have anything to do with the delivery of an arts programme?

There’s anxiety in the room, maybe because the two employees present on this Saturday afternoon have transformed into symbols of office performance and its demands. We’re left debating, was it the artist or the organisation that had directed them to act this way? The anxiety leads me to think about the Collective’s invitation to MacNaughton – what was expected of her research practice and critique? We Nurture appears to serve as evidence of the organisation’s will to be a progressive, self-critical institution. As a performance, however it doesn’t entirely act like a call for reform, more like an exposure of a language that has been outgrown by the transformation of the artist-run organisation to a restaurant, shop, gallery and tourist hot spot. As we stand tensely, I wonder how comfortable Collective are, and how they’ll facilitate the affects of the challenge.

Breaking the nervous energy quite suddenly, an instruction asks us to exercise our pelvic muscles as if we’re trying to stop passing wind. We’re also asked to squeeze the parts of our body that block urination. It’s oddly satisfying to look around the Collective office and believe that everyone is doing this intimate, invisible exercise at the same time. We perform together, preparing for a delivery.


Gordon Douglas works in close conversation with organisations and groups towards deconstructing the acts of collaboration and performance. He is a performance artist and curator based in Glasgow.

We Nurture, Shona MacNaughton, commissioned by Collective Gallery Edinburgh and performed March 2019.


[1] ‘Information for you about: Your Baby’s movements in pregnancy.’ NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde. Version 1_1 2017. Included in We Nurture, Scene 2, 2019.

[2] Education Space: letter sent to members prior to EGM 4.2.1990
. Included in We Nurture, Scene 5, 2019.