Nothing about us, without us

Spring Chickens Theatre Group members by Mik Godley

The draft text of Winter Fires should be complete by the end of August. Everyone who has contributed to it through our conversations over the past year will then be asked for their thoughts and reactions to what I’ve written. They might have questions or additional thoughts. They might want changes, especially where I quote them directly. They will, I hope find things they like and approve. There’ll be further exchanges between us that will, on past experience, deepen our mutual understanding of the issues the book deals with.

This is a process of co-production, in which the text begins in dialogue and then develops through individual work and reflection and further dialogue. Ultimately, the dialogue is opened up to readers that none of us will ever meet. What they make of the published work—their side of the dialogue—will be up to them (although, as Victoria Alexander has written, ‘the semiotic materials available within a single art object are not unlimited’).

There are several reasons for developing this approach, but perhaps the simplest is that it articulates the principle ‘nothing about us without us’.  It also reflects a commitment to the idea that iterative dialogic processes can be effective obstacles to the abuse of power. Slowing things down, making time for reflection and questioning the authority of any voice are all forms of resistance available to the weak or powerless.

But this is not copy approval, which undermines journalistic independence and corrupts the relationship between reporter and reported. The people who demand copy approval are generally famous, rich or powerful (or probably all three). It is part of a continuing attempt to manipulate their public image in order to preserve their fame, wealth and power. It is the job—and the value—of a free press to hold such people to account on behalf of the rest of us.

The people who contribute to ‘Regular Marvels’ are not rich, powerful or even celebrated. Nor did they ask to be written about, though they have agreed to take part. In such circumstances power lies with the writer. Like all forms of power, the power of authorship, of saying what is and what isn’t, has dangers. The connection between author and authority is not accidental and the writer’s power can be misused in many ways, as the Leveson Inquiry has shown.

Shared or cooperative authorship is intrinsic to ‘Regular Marvels’ since it aims, among other things, to bring unheard or undervalued voices into the vast conversation that forms our culture. Unlike some participatory art, the intention is neither to present the creative work of others nor to use it as raw material for an artist’s authorship. Rather, it walks a faint, shifting path between those practices, valuing the process of co-production in all its tensions and ambiguities. It may be rather postmodern.

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