Differences between us and them

by Ricardo Basbaum


Permit me to start this short essay with a slight contradiction: invited to write about us and them, I will put my emphasis in another pronoun, the very common 'nominative singular pronoun' I. In the next pages, my intention is to conduct the discourse around this obvious and overused pronoun, moving it through different and tortuous paths, which will take us to several ends before finally reaching the areas dominated by us and them. Therefore, you are invited to follow a process where you'll be able to witness the procedures of transformation of I into us and I into them. If you consider these particular passages or processes of constituting us just a matter of simply adding several Is (I + I + I + I + I + I ...), or composing them just by putting together several hes and shes (he + she + he + she + he + she ...), then we would not have an interesting problem to deal with. It is much more challenging to search for other forms of relationship between the various nominative pronouns - let's try to find other modes of getting to us and them, escaping the easy way of just adding the same. Other ways of operating and transforming the words will be offered here. The main references will be extracted from a few images that compound certain artworks (or similar devices) which I produced, organized or coordinated in the last years.

1. me & you games and exercises

The first process I would like to discuss involves a project where I invite groups to wear shirts with the printed pronouns 'me' and 'you' ('eu' e 'voce, in Portuguese). The proposal is always to perform games and exercises developed collectively (although sometimes prepared instructions can be used). It is a piece about group dynamics that I always refer to as 'person or group specific'. Every time the results differ, according to the people who take part and the groups that are constituted during the time we practice together (that may range from one day to two weeks). The results are brought about in two different directions: one record is established in terms of body-memory, accessible only to the ones who shared the intensity of the experience, being refractory to documentation; the other, its opposite, is constituted through the images and videos produced during the actions. Those images are conceived and managed without the compromise of depicting the action's reality and thus open terrain to fiction and narrative through video editing and photographic reframing - that is, the intention is to fly away from 'pure' documentation and be free to play with the images according to exhibition purposes, attached to the project's main concepts. So, each me-you games & exercises proposal ends up in two resulting experiences: one for the participants, the other for the audience. Both mean to be intensive. The photograph below, showing a moment from that project, takes us to our first stop:

eu-voce[me-you], silkscreen, shirts, games, exercises. Performed in Diamantina, Brazil, 2000  


When I propose a performance of such series of games and exercises, I always insist in taking part in the group myself, wearing a 'me' or 'you' shirt: I see no point in being apart, acting as a kind of 'director' or performance coordinator, detached from the group.

The work does not function as a set of pre-established acts and movements: any instruction or decision has to come from inside the collective. If I want to contribute I must also be an insider, as the others. What we see in the image above is a set of me and you pronouns that could be described as:



Clearly, being myself one of the 'performative pronouns', I can only refer to the group as us - anyone in the group, I suppose, will speak the same way: 'we are performing together, let us think what to do for the next exercise'. The formula which would stand for the transformation of me and you into us would be something like this:



Nevertheless, I differ from the group in the fact that I work as the one who brings the proposition to the others. Every time the me-you games & exercises are re-enacted (and they never are the same, due not only to 'person' or 'group' specificity but to a direct relation to the sites as well) I have to play the role of a group facilitator, helping to create the sufficient bonds from which the group - and not simply a bunch of persons - will emerge as an entity. Even if I wear the shirts as any other participant, my condition cannot be levelled (note that I am not referring to any kind of hierarchy, but stressing a different role) at an homogeneous rate with anyone among the group. It is more important to emphasize differences and each other's roles than to pre-suppose wrongly that the group structure transforms everyone into one and the same. Thus, if I just take my shirt off during the performances I lose the right to say us; from that moment (for myself), the group moves to the condition of being them:




This shift from us to them, comes closer to the displacement anyone is subjected when confronted with the passage from the inside to the outside of a group, a collective. As in any other process, the 'passage process' has its' own dynamics, bringing about some time-space circumstances that stand for the particularities of a certain crossing. The most evident trace is that the space that hosts the group is mostly paradoxical, in the sense that it does depend on invisible links and lines - belonging to affect and similar forces - which need to be permanently re-negotiated by its' members. Be in or outside can be one and the same thing; actually, one is always playing both roles, administrating the overlapping of diverse inclusive structures and struggling not to be devoured and choked, stuck into (an always) persuasive cul-de-sac. In the particular case of the me you games & exercises, I play the double role of proposing and acting - which means to play either the subject and the object roles in respect to myself and the others. We enter here into a discussion related to the art field: the us and them dynamics is taken as the standard pattern by which the artist's role and image are traded in our society, in terms of market and institutional structures. Commonly, artists get into the field through a transformation process where they abandon progressively their foreign state to inhabit the institutional framework - this reduced conventional condition stands not as a norm, but as set of re-territorialization traits which assets art, making of it a place with safe and secure limits in the society. This is an obvious over-simplification, attached to common-sense stereotypes. A more interesting perspective can be sought in terms of the 'passage process' mentioned above. The contemporary artist breaks the lines that go straight from them to us, making this connection a complex one, which has among its characteristics the continuous flux between individuals, groups, collectives and institutions - coming and going from one to another, playing simultaneous roles and being at more than one condition at the same time. While the over-institutionalized artist is someone stuck at the |them->us| linearity, the interesting artist of today would move both sides us<->them, finding its singularity not at each end but in the set of multiple relationships involved at the diverse becoming processes.

One last remark on the me-you games & exercises: if we watch anyone from the group individually, we can bring some other clues to our discussion regarding the relationship between the nominative pronouns. In the sense that they create patterns for the group, functioning as a sort of identifier, we can take the shirts as uniforms - they bring visibility for the processes and experiences collectively conducted. It is possible to say, at a quick glance, who is or not part of the performing group - the observer views if the group is dispersed in the location or if it concentrates around one site with the participants together (eg: clusters of several me's or you's). As in any group, we can drive the attention to the separate persons who, with their own characteristics, share at that particular moment certain expectations and possibilities of acting. One single individual, dressed with a 'me' (red) or 'you' (yellow) shirt, actually embodies a multi-layer 'pronoun chain': me (or you) as its external interface (the shirt), followed by a he or a she (the one who wears the shirt: "Alan or Jane?"); and a third layer is composed by the subject who performs, I ("I am me, I am you"). These several layers bring to the outside(make visible) the complex circuit embodied by the participant of the me-you games & exercises, indicating how the shirts happen to be just the most external layer from a newly triggered flux of significants. If we consider:


a single individual with a red shirt




a single individual with a yellow shirt


then we can re-work the us and them formulas presented before:




As a result, the condition of being with or without the group becomes far more mixed, involving at least three different states:

(1) the personal framework of the subject, experienced as a reduction of her or his own private space in relation to the group: I<->us;

(2) the condition of being an object for the viewers, that is a she or he acting and moving:she, he<->them;

(3) the condition of carrying an external identifier (the me and you shirts) that marks one as part of the performing group: me, you<->us, them.

Thus, the me-you games & exercises are planned to submit both me and the participants to an intensive investigation on 'shifting pronouns'. In terms of group dynamics - the standard us and them pattern is reworked and expanded through this process.


eu-voce[me-you], silkscreen, shirts, games, exercises. Performed in Wales, UK, 1999


2. superpronoun

Another interesting topic to be discussed here is the creation of the superpronoun. Starting with a piece of work where the words 'eu' and 'voce (me and you) were put side by side without any connective structure (hyphen or blank space) between them, the superpronoun intends to be a new pronoun that includes at the same time the subject (me) and the object (you). It can be used in both directions, forming two different possible verbal particles: meyou, youme. In a recent statement, the superpronoun is delineated as follows:

nominative pronouns, converging in a single word.

meyou, youme

mixture, hybridization, reciprocal contamination

of one by the other, me by you, you by me into one thing.

object's ecstasy, ideal desire synthesis.

tool for negotiating actions towards an embodied otherness, in flight.

Such a word stands for statements related to circumstances where it is important to emphasize the links (affects, membranes, interfaces) between subject and object, bringing out how much of otherness is already installed in the constitutive matter of the subject. The superpronouns follow Rimbaud's famous proposition 'Je est an autre', reducing it to a more compact form. It would be necessary to develop further the superpronoun's use in sentences like "meyou am going away", "youme come closer", etc, to cause their effective presence to be felt in daily language. To insert them into speech is to promote an intervention in the language, introducing meanings that could not be said before. In terms of the us-them dynamics, how can we locate the superpronouns? For sure, it is something which still needs to be accomplished. Only through its use in concrete actions and propositions can the subtle connections be indicated that would link this subject-object aggregate to grouping and ungroupingprocesses. Actually, the superpronoun seems to be a group in itself, in its minimum size: not that a meyou or youme particle corresponds to two individuals, but that it functions on that field of meaning which considers it impossible to develop a singular subject without the other's intensive presence. There is a gap between meyou<->youme and us<->them - the first seems circular and tautological, the second depicts a process between 'concentrate' and 'disperse' (something like an arch) that resembles order<->disorder (entropy). Thus it appears that two different and independent connections should be established, which put the superpronouns in direct contact with us and with them separately. The formula us<->them is remixed as such:



When the superpronoun is submitted to outside forces, strange to its self-enclosed constitution, it is at the same time exposed to its limits (the circle) and expanded to a range of other possibilities (grouping, ungrouping). I expect that this process will find its own way towards full or partial accomplishment, which means that the superpronoun will progressively negotiate its action mode at the field of collective manoeuvres.


superpronoun, metal, earth, plants, 2000.


3. nos nos

Next stop: a brief paragraph to describe the nos nos statement. In fact, this expression is untranslatable out of the Portuguese language. The word nos means, in English, the pronoun we, and at the same time, the plural for the Portuguese word no, meaning node/knot. The literal translation would be we nodes/knots or nodes/knots we (its original is reversible) - but it inevitably loses the homograph characteristic we find in Portuguese. The double meaning found in the original statement establishes a connection between the group or collective and the idea of web or net, bringing up the notion of forming groups departing from a networking process, thus multiplying a circuit through the non-stop job of connecting, dis-connecting and re-connecting. If the group is conceived of as circuit, each node is not a single individual, but another group in itself - the fractal structure is evident. Singularity and group are the same thing, differing only in scale (a circuit can always be re-scaled) and functionality. The nos nos statement was firstly presented in the form of a printed item, the sticker-manifesto nos nos, distributed at several venues in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. It is an affirmative all-inclusive manifesto that does not mention them: not that it tries to avoid the others, but indicates that the otherness problem is treated in a different way. From the point of view of the circuit framework - a structure that exists as a consequence of its 'will to connect' - the other just exists during the time that preceeds the act of linking. It lasts only for the necessary fraction of time that it takes to connect. For nos nos, if them shines it is immediately incorporated in the circuit - them as a fading process towards us. The danger resides in not accepting the outside forces as truly constitutive of the transformation processes, reducing it to just recognizable coupling structures. The interesting thing is to assume that survival techniques completely depend on the process of joining successively more and more nodes and knots. Connective voracity.


Manifesto-sticker nos nos, 2002. The ant stands for the 'coletivo formigueiro', a group dedicated to media activism formed by artists, videomakers, filmakers curators and writers working in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.


4. would you like?

In 1994 I initiated a project called Would you like to participate in an artistic experience? It proved to be successful, and since then it is running continuously, completing its tenth anniversary next year. The project functions around an enamelled steel object, which is offered to be taken home by the participant, who will have one month to realize an 'artistic experience' with it. The documentation, including videos, photos, objects, statements, etc, I ask to be sent to me and I bring it to the public in the form of a website, book and exhibition. Since the beginning, more or less 30 participants (some of them were groups) have produced several 'experiences' and sent extensive and very interesting documentation. The object itself, and sometimes related material as posters or leaflets, has circulated through several cities, from London and San Sebastian (Spain) to Rio de Janeiro, Vitoria, Brasilia, Sao Paulo and Porto Alegre, amongst other Brazilian cities. It is clearly a piece of work in progress, as it finds its way in the very process of being developed and it virtually has no end at all, since its continuity does not depend on its author lifetime (the object is not conceived as an unique original as one or several new objects can be produced every time it is needed).

One of the most interesting features of Would you like to participate in an artistic experience? is how it makes authorship into a problem, providing a way of including the participant as a decisive contributor. Actually, without the participants the work exists only as a potential project - object, diagrams, leaflets - , therefore their effective collaboration through accepting to plan and execute an artistic experience is decisive. The videos and photos the participants send to me, are mine or theirs? Although it is my proposal and my object, the documents and experiences were conceived of and produced by them. This shift interests and pleases me very much. It is clearly a situation of shared authorship, where the participant is fully responsible for decisions of what and how to do it in terms of the proposed experience and its records. What do I do, besides collecting the documentation and planning how to publish and exhibit it? I consider it important to contact (email, letters, telephone) the participants at the beginning and at the end of their experiences, making myself present in the sense of showing interest in the experience, caring for it and the object, and sending some documentation, when requested. What surprises me is that when the project started it was necessary to persist and make a significant effort, involving exhibitions, lectures and personal contacts, to gain people's acceptance and collaboration. But since three years ago, the process was reversed: the object arrives at the participants before me, since the participants themselves are passing it ahead to persons they know. Now I find myself in the interesting situation of knowing people through the object, which is quite nice in terms of accessing other people and circuits.

The Would you like to participate in an artistic experience? project could be described as having two subjects for one object: subject (author)->object<-subject (participant). However, when I invite someone to participate, the collaborator (you) is assumed as an object for the experience I am proposing. The situation is reversed when the participant finishes his or her proposition and sends me back the object and documentation. This time, I am located in the position of being the object of his or her action. Therefore, considered from either the author's or participant's point of view, the project could be described as having one subject and two objects: subject (author)->object->object (participant) or subject (participant)->object->object (author). This 'double object' condition does not imply that both terms are equivalent. There is a basic asymmetric state here, represented by the implicit differences in the pair author-participant. The experience brought about by Would you like to participate in an artistic experience? makes its' particular achievement not in the double object equivalence you = you but in its asymmetrical difference you x you ('x' can be read as versus and times), producing the necessary dynamics that makes its continuity possible at each new collaboration. Considering it as a project that has to carefully maintain its internal links with enough potential to carry over and over open encounters and possibilities, the double object condition can be stated in a very compact formula, as follows:



In this sense, it is by a decisive emphasis on the object's double potential (which can easily be comprehended as an investment on the double potential of the other) that Would you like to participate in an artistic experience? contributes to the discussion proposed here. The tricky aspect of the us and them pattern resides in its subtle scheme for fading out and even hiding the presence and role of the other in its (us and them's) constitutive process.

Here I proposed a few strategies for intervening in such excluding standard conditions, searching for different ways to reinstate the dynamics that could trigger the proper effects produced by otherness in group dynamics, language and other meaning production processes. Without such practices of touching the in-between with the aim of creating flux, movement, diversion and flight, the risk is that us and them just come closer and closer to each other, resulting into the usthem - that is, the 'unlimited everything' (does something exist beyond us and them?) without any interval, mediation, distinction and difference. It is always interesting to open up things through productive gestures, like the games and exercises proposed here - they are the passageways from where you and me can enter.


would you like to participate in an artistic experience?, on-going project since 1994. From the upper left, experiences in Rio de Janeiro, Brasilia, London and Verao Vermelho.



Ricardo Basbaum is an artist, writer, editor. Co-fouder of ITEM magazine, he works at the Instituto de Artes, Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro. Lives and works in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

This essay was originally published in STATIC Pamphlet, October 2003