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I never met Adrian Howells. I never let him wash my feet, hold me, or invite me to launder my clothes with him. Touching, and being touched, by a stranger within the context of a performance has evoked both empathy and apprehension in me, and often raises the question of who is meant to benefit from such an awkward, constructed form of engagement. When confronted with a one-to-one performance, the fear of harm, physical or emotional discomfort, and embarrassment wrestles with my curiosity, potential for titillation, and general interest in the complexities of human interactions.
In intimate performances with the artist Martin O’Brien, who exposes his battle with cystic fibrosis by re-enacting his daily ritual of expulsion, I have been overwhelmed with pathos by being near his body violently reacting to its own limitations. In an early piece by Francesca Steele, I sat in a chair holding a mirror to maintain eye contact with the artist while she stood behind me naked and silently took my pulse through her fingers on my throat. In this moment, I felt myself negotiating power in a way I had never imagined.
Conversely, I’ve engaged with artists in small closets and spaces where they groped me or I was invited to grope them, while they softly stage-wept or used their nudity as a challenge to me that was unclear and elicited no desire for me to investigate further. What makes a one-to-one performance “successful” is highly dependent on the individual needs, desires, and offerings of the performer and the participant; like any relationship, it’s complicated.
The title of the anthology It’s All Allowed invites many possibilities for exploring these complexities, and it doubles as a critical overview of Howells’s life and practice and a tender, thoughtful eulogy for the artist. Indeed, what is most notable throughout the book is Howells’s absence, both as an impossible contributor to his posthumous story and in his physical absence from the planet. When his voice does appear through past interviews with co-editors Dominic Johnson and Deirdre Heddon, there is a recurring sense of premonition of his suicide as Howells talks through his struggles with depression and the risks and rewards of creating intimate performances, in part, as a panacea for dealing with his mental health.
There is one short, sweet essay by Howells recalling the development of the Foot Washing for the Sole performance and his exploration of whether his “hands could be ‘in dialogue’ with another’s feet” through a gentle action of touch and humility (188). For Howells, what appeared to be a mundane or servile act became a deep form of generous exchange that he felt offered insight into the participant’s life and psyche by creating a silent “bodily conversation” through touch (189).
The luxurious quantity of images of Howells—as Adrian and his alter-ego, Adrienne—help illustrate his humor and vulnerability, as well as capture moments of intense tenderness between bodies in the act of allowing themselves to give in to one another’s touch. In many of the single portraits of Adrian/Adrienne, the artist locks eyes with the imagined viewer, willing him or her to enter the performance. There is a sense of timelessness in these images, particularly in the repetitive similarity of the photographs of Adrienne, who maintains the fixed smile and Valium glaze of a 1950s American housewife. The look is campy yet emanates an eerie constructed glamour mixed with a fierce determination to please. I have often read this kind of urgency as desperation in some one-to-one performances, which caused me to shrink away from engaging. However, in the more candid photos of Howells interacting with participants, the urgency is replaced by exquisite belonging and surrender, along with a sense of “wholeness” in the connection being made.
Generosity is a recurring tenet related to Howells’s work; Fintan Walsh’s contribution, “On Generous Performance,” elaborates on the complexities of balancing the social relations built through physical exchange versus the actual labor exerted in his performances. The latter is explored further in Stephen Greer’s “What Money Can’t Buy: The Economies of Adrian Howells,” which not only focuses on the precariousness of Howells’s finances, but also the larger problem of remuneration for artists who create ephemeral work. In addition to identifying the inconsideration of the hours of preparation, requirements for self-care, and general living expenses for artists when negotiating payment for performances, Greer examines the broader obscurity of how exchange is valued in one-to-one performances.
Greer references the anthropologist Marcel Mauss on the dynamics of gifting; he proposed that true giving is impossible because it always demands the recipient reciprocate in kind. In other words, the gift demands the obligation of a return. In relation to Howells’s performances, there is something given and something received, as iterated by each of the contributors of the anthology. Though there are variances, many of the accounts emphasize how Howells wrestled with this imbalance of giving and receiving in his performances. This emphasis may be due to the authors writing about Howells largely in the past tense, as we tend to interpret the stories of the dead differently than those of the living. While the anthology balances anecdotes with critical analyses of the artist and his work well, the loss of Howells in the lives of those who knew him well, or knew him only through engaging with him in his performances, reverberates throughout the book. Running alongside this sense of loss is the recurring sentiment of wishing one could have done more to help him; that more could have been given back in order to save him.
In most forms of performance art it is the liveness—and the unpredictability of strategic yet paradoxically unpredictable interactions—that compels artists to use their bodies as a direct form of communication. There is consent and an agreement that all will be allowed between the participant and artist, but what happens after the performance is outside of this contract. In an interview with Johnson, Howells talks about ensuring that participants feel safe and are doing nothing against their wills. For himself, in contrast, he describes the risk of opening and offering himself in the hope of receiving touch, understanding, recognition—even love—as “a fatal attraction to getting burnt” (118).
While failure or rejection is a potential outcome of any relationship, in these one-to-one performances the lifetime of the relationship, as well as the expectations, are compressed into a few minutes or hours. Given that Howells often repeated these performances with several participants within the context of a festival, the risk of “getting burnt” was multiplied. He tells Johnson that after a series of such performances his depression became amplified, perhaps foreshadowing his early death: “I gave so much of myself to the performance that I have nothing left to fall back on, or to hide behind, when I tried to return to everyday life” (118).
Even as a predominantly academic publication, It’s All Allowed is an intensely personal selection of recollections, observations, and heartfelt attempts to introduce a new audience to Howells and his work and to offer a collective memorialization for those who knew him. For readers outside of performance studies and visual art, there are several points of entry that offer enough universality in terms of the potential for shared experiences to make it accessible. For artists who use one-to-one performance in their own work, this book is an excellent reference for what to consider when constructing new forms of intimate engagement with the public, as well as the potential risks and rewards for creators and their audiences. For everyone, Howells’s story is a reminder of the fragility of life and the idea of using kindness as way to tether ourselves to one another, even at the risk of personal sacrifice.
Co-Director, 2 Gyrlz Performative Arts