The Ethical Agency of One-to-One Performance
On the 17th May, after having spent an hour in a one-to-one performance entitled ‘The 14 Stations of the Life and History of Adrian Howells’, I found myself sitting on a wooden bench tucked behind a grand staircase with coloured light reflecting on my skin from the stained glass roof above me. I was crying. I felt completely overwhelmed and shocked that I could be caught off guard by a sudden flood of emotion. My usual barriers had breached and I was doing my best to repair them, with soggy tissues and embarrassed laughter. My unexpected reaction left me feeling exhausted and shaking as I began to reflect on what had caused me to respond so physically.
Throughout the performance, I had been taken (at times led by a firmly grasping hand) to various sites in Battersea Arts Centre, from the bar to the entrance; to a dark, creepy crypt; storerooms and corridors; winding up stairs until we finished in a brightly lit back room high above the streets. At each site we visited, Adrian Howells alternately confessed stories of his life, showed me objects and images, performed actions, talked with me and invited me to participate as we navigated our way through his autobiographical reappropriation of the 14 Stations of the Cross.
It was as we climbed the stairs after the 12th station (He Dies) that I responded automatically in the positive to Adrian’s questions of, ‘are you alright?’, that I realized I was not ‘alright’, and in fact felt extremely emotional. During the 11th Station, He is Made to Suffer, I had poured a bucket of freezing water and ice cubes over his naked, kneeling body – an act in which I felt somewhat divided about participating in. The knowledge that I was about to cause pain to this person and that perhaps by refraining from the act I could reduce his discomfort, had been overridden by an acknowledgement that this was HIS responsibility – it was his choice to perform. I was also aware of a deeper sense of curiosity and a child-like malevolence. Did I want to inflict pain on him? Did I feel that he deserved this punishment for Jim, for Jordan, for Colin, for his mother, for his selfishness? These thoughts evaporated as he stood before me, naked and shivering and took me by the hand - he wasn’t performing. I felt responsible.He led me down a pitch black corridor constructed of old shelving units, reassuring me of our direction. This was the 12th station, where Jesus dies on the cross. We entered a small room, with rubbish, debris, waste scattered on the floor. As he gingerly, still naked with bare feet, clambered to a pile at the back I traced his footsteps and prayed he would avoid the sharp nails and splinters I could see on the floor. Balanced at the summit of the rubbish, naked, cold and wet, he held my gaze as he sang in a pitiful, anguished voice Celine Dion’s song ‘All by myself’. A vivid picture came to my mind from when I was at university, of an ex-partner in midst breakdown… his room full of rubbish, completely absorbed in his own imagined reality, so lost and frightened. I wanted to do something to help. As I watched the pitiful singer in front of me, I experienced another split in my reaction. The inviting dry, fluffy towel was within inches of my grasp, and I could have easily walked over to him, put it round him and relieved some of his suffering from the icy cold water, perhaps even from his mental pain as he relived his breakdown in front of me. But I didn’t. I sat and watched and felt complicit in this strangely intense personal theatre of pure misery and hopelessness.
Let’s return to the stairs, where I realized I wasn’t ‘alright’. I felt my cheeks getting hot. We climbed to the top of the stairs, hand in hand, Adrian finally wrapped in the warm towel. It was the 13th Station He is Given to His Mother. We watched an old family video of his mother holding him as a baby. I was only partially aware of what he said and what was being shown as I battled with my burning face and sweaty palms, quite disturbed by my lack of emotional control. Below the television screen was a tray with tea lights and Adrian invited me to light a candle for my mother. He remembered her name ‘Joyce’ from an earlier conversation we had had. I bent down, and offered to light one for his mother too. I can’t remember her name, but I think it was Sheila. I felt dislocated. I couldn’t let myself dwell too much on my mother, knowing that it could quite possibly send me over the edge into tears, so I attempted to compose myself. When I stood up, I inhaled a deep breath of relief.
We continued to the final station – Jesus is laid in the tomb. Adrian opened the door into a white room, brightly lit by flood-lamps and climbed into the large, mahogany bed. He asked me to wrap the duvet around him and spoon behind, which I did. I was immediately comforted by the smell and touch of the thick duvet, an object I always associate with safety - safety in my parents’ house, safety from the cold, safety from the outside world. I felt that this redemptive act, of giving comfort, was meant for me as much as for him. As I lay on the bed, I relaxed, drifted off. He got up, leaving me there by myself to listen to a poem played on a small speaker by my head. I only remember the first line. It was something like ‘You don’t have to be good’. I was told that I didn’t need to try so hard, that I should value myself as I was. Burying my face into the pillow I thought of all the times as a child I had spent in church, how I had known from the age of 6 that God was the most important person in the family, how many times I had been told that God loved me ‘even though’ I was a sinner.
I got up and stood at the end of the bed, where Adrian introduced the ‘surprise’ 15th station. The Resurrection. In the bright, white room he handed me a flying saucer sweet. Before we ate them, he said, “Next time you eat one of these, I’d like you to remember me”. The symbolism was not lost on me and I laughed out loud at this sacrilegious celebration we were having. He poured out 2 glasses of cranberry juice and asked me to remember him once again as we drank together.
This one-to-one performance produced multiple affects, and through the use of critical narrative and anecdotal theory, it’s possible to exemplify the productivity of such an encounter for the spectator/participant. Two coextensive frames of agency will be discussed, the first being that of ethical responsibility and engagement - a debate that draws upon the work of Emmanuel Levinas. As previously recounted, 14 Stations contained several events that produced a splitting of emotional, personal and physical responses, creating ethical dilemmas for the spectator/participant (for example, voyeurism, pouring of the ice, giving of the towel, wrapping in the duvet). All of which are underpinned by a notion of responsibility - responsibility for one’s own actions/reactions, and responsibility of the other.
In Ethics and Infinity, Levinas writes that he understands responsibility as “…responsibility for the Other, thus as responsibility for what is not my deed, or for what does not even matter to me; or which precisely does matter to me, is met by me as face.” (95) The confrontation with the face of the other acts as a reflection of the self, of one’s own humanity and this, in the context of the performance, is heightened by the considered use of eye contact, physical contact and close proximity. Levinas continues to say that, “…since the Other looks at me, I am responsible for him, without even having taken on responsibilities in his regard; his responsibility is incumbent on me.” (96) The ‘incumbency’ is located within a hiatus between the necessity of responsibility as care for the other and the subjective response towards the other. Within the obligation to act lies the ethical dilemma. The ethical agency of 14 Stations employs subjective choice – if one chooses to act, then one becomes complicit in particular scenarios, if one chooses not to act, then one becomes a voyeur, a witness. Through self-conscious awareness of choice the spectator/participant reflects on personal ethical decisions and produces connections with lived experience.
In Precarious Lives, Judith Butler writes of vulnerability, loss and grief and takes these as points for reflection on ethical and political life. She approaches the question of a “non-violent ethics, one that is based upon an understanding of how easily a life is annulled.”(17) Drawing upon Levinas’s work, Butler positions ethical struggle within the awareness of the ‘precariousness’ of life of the Other. Implications of mortality and of violence are echoed throughout 14 Stations, through the obvious relation to the brutal death of Christ and through the confessions and revelations of injurious actions and words; rejection, betrayal; physical pain and mental suffering. The vulnerability of Howells’ body, illustrates the precariousness of the Other as a site of grief and exposure.
This brings us to the second frame of agency (interconnected with the discussion of the ethical) which is one of autobiographical recollection. By recounting my emotional response through the narrative of the event, I hoped to capture the manner in which the performance vividly called forth personal histories. The propensity of the one-to-one performance to mobilize the spectator/participants histories was repeatedly dependant on moments of precariousness – moments of vulnerability, loss or grief. These moments, when recounted or performed by Howells, produce unexpected, empathic recollections that directly relate to one’s own experience of ‘precariousness’. This doubling, or reflection, is the encounter with the ‘face’ of the other - a revelation of the bond that exists between beings, and an acknowledgement of one’s own humanity through vulnerability.
Vikki Bell in her recent publication, Culture and Performance, questions the effects produced when vulnerability and grief are revealed to the other, how through, to quote Judith Butler in Violence, Mourning and Politics, the “enigmatic traces of the others” we become aware of our dependence on relations. Bell asks that, “…might not this feeling of exposure lead one to comprehend one’s self as multiply connected and indebted?” (24) As I progressed through the 14 stations, my experience of ethical dilemma, the recollection of past events, the sharing of stories, the acts I performed and the confessions given generated autobiographical memories within me that were very much connected to relations with others.
Nicholas Bourriaud explores the possibility of art being a relational encounter in Relational Aesthetics. He writes about his investigation of “an art taking as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space.” (14)
I find his assertion to be a paradoxical statement. How can one experience ‘art’ in its social context without asserting private, personal and independent responses or judgments? This performance has the potentiality to bring both the social and the personal to the surface. When Howells recounted a narrative of a past, childhood incident, I - as complicit audience - felt persuaded to make a ‘judgement’ against or towards him, (or his behaviour). This ethical act was very much based upon my own recollected childhood experiences and the ‘judgements’ made about me, and by me – within a social context.
When discussing the performance within the realm of social interaction, it is the possibility of interruption that transforms moments of the performance from spectacle to participation and creates a potentially dialogic space. Howells periodically attempts to open up opportunities for communication through the sharing of stories and intimate confessions of unrequited love. His offer of autobiographical details connects to experiences had by the spectator/participant, and exposes a gap of exchange within an intense, and at times disturbing, hour. Autobiographical performance can often be labeled as narcissistic and self-indulgent, yet 14 Stations invites the spectator/participant to speak of their own ‘self’. Deirdre Heddon in Autobiography and Performance (2008) writes in her analysis of autobiographical performance that she has most often encountered…
“…performances that strategically walk the fine line between essentialising the individual and assuming a common ‘we’; between insisting on lived experience whilst also recognizing the historical, cultural and discursive imperatives enabling that experience; between ‘the past’ and ‘the future’. Talking from the experience of the ‘self’, whilst also subjecting these experiences to critical scrutiny, performers enable or instigate a dialogue, recognizing that the act of performance is an act of communication.”
To conclude, The 14 Stations of the Life and History of Adrian Howells opens up possibilities for connections and relations, particularly in its employment of ethical questioning and autobiographical recollections. The productivity of the work lies in its ability to activate the subject in the construction of relations. The performative force or agency of the encounter does not diminish in its rehearsal or staged-ness, as multiple relations are produced anew each time it is performed, engaging new autobiographical and ethical responses within each individual participant/spectator.