It’s like I’m knocking on a stranger’s door; the half-held breath, my stomach twisting, pulse imperceptibly quickening, anxious and excited, unsure about what I will find on the other side; whose world I will be stumbling into and in what way will they be stumbling into mine?
Preparing to enter a performance feels very different when you know you are the only audience member, and that waiting for you is an artist who will be performing only for you. I have been led into rooms of engulfing darkness, had hands pull me up through the rear doors of a truck or out into the rain-spattered streets, I’ve lain alone in woodland, sat on park benches, in churches and basements and on the roofs of tall building, each time expectant and nervous, uncertain where this encounter will take us.
If conventional theatre is structured around the playscript, and dance and performance art begin with the body of the performer, then the foundation of any one-to-one performance is the encounter. It is a meeting between one audience member and one performer, and that meeting is the material of the performance in the same way that canvas and paint are the material of a painting. One to one performance should perhaps thus be thought of as a distinct discipline separate from other performance disciplines; a universe all of its own, with its own history and its own particular preoccupations.
One version of the history of one to one performance begins with the avant-garde art movements of the 1960s and 1970s, with pieces such as Valie Export’s TAP and TOUCH Cinema, in which the performer’s body became a miniature cinema that members of the public were invited to reach into and touch, their skin on hers in a moment of almost transgressive intimacy. A decade later Sophie Calle invited various friends and strangers to sleep for a while in her bed, taking this opportunity to ask them questions and photograph them as they slept. In both cases a motif emerges, to be echoed in many later works, of intimacy refracted through, and perhaps undermined by, the economic and aesthetic apparatus of art and the art market.
Another history of one to one performance, however, starts not with the artworld but instead with a constellation of more everyday human encounters, the kind of decidedly un-theatrical interactions that form a regular part of our ordinary lives; an eye exam, for example or a therapy session, a haircut, a taxi ride, a blind date, the sewing shut of a wound, the sharing of a secret, the making of a promise.
From these uncomplicated acts of duty and devotion one-to-one performance inherits arguably its most reoccurring motif; an emphasis on care. Such care is perhaps a necessary part of the unique meeting between audience and performer that such work creates – their careful meeting of eyes, or the consideration with which an audience member is led by the hand, or instructed to move or to watch. Care is as essential to the work as the space where it happens or the language it is performed in.
No artist better exemplifies the role care plays in such performances than the late Adrian Howells, in pieces such as Footwashing For the Sole in which each audience member was led into a small room where Adrian carefully and methodically washed their feet; an act at once very simple and richly complex, rich in historical and religious connotations. Later pieces such continued this delicate inquiry into acts of tender generosity and almost unbearable intimacy, with Adrian washing audience members, dancing with them, feeding them, and holding them.
In Adrian’s work an identifiable shape begins to emerge for this practice, built around short encounters of generosity and care structured around the repetition of simple tasks or sequences of actions that often bear a closer relationship with non-theatrical events than the kinds of fictions and spectacles that normally occupy a theatre or a gallery. In such actions one-to-one performance manifests a way of thinking embedded in praxis; an understanding of each other that audience and performer slowly unpick together through acts of intimate human exchange. In Exposure by British artist Jo Bannon, we are invited to look at her, and to reflect on what it means to look and to be looked at, as a way of bridging the differences between us, building empathy and understanding in the process; a new way to be with each other in the world. In Abigail Conway’s On Dancefloors we are invited to experience the distinctive joy and liberation that comes from dancing, and to share that experience with her. In our bodies, moving together, breathing and sweating together, our hearts both beating faster, is buried the seeds of a hidden mutuality and solidarity that cannot be articulated in words.
There are of course, other kinds of encounter that one-to-one performance enables, such as the encounter with yourself and your own mortality that is at the centre of French & Mottershead’s Woodland; an invitation to lie amidst the trees and imagine your body slowly decomposing, becoming object, becoming matter, and then slowly melting back into the earth. It is time stolen from our relentlessly busy lives to consider our bodies as muscle and bone, and to delicately reconnect them with the physical world that we are so frequently dislocated from.
In a time of increasingly brutal economic realities and internet-enabled mass communication, the unspectacular, un-declarative actions invited by one-to-one performances, their emphasis on care and on kindness, their foregrounding of the value of simple human encounters, should be understood as radical gestures. They are attempts to redraw the social bonds upon which our lives, and our societies are built. These simple gestures, usually offered for little or no cost, represent a subtle challenge to an art market and a society that are structured around commerce and profitability. They are illogical, unsustainable, requiring long days of repeat performances that often leave the performers on the point of exhaustion. And yet this exhaustion too is part of the politics of the piece, a gift freely given, effort expended in the forging of a new social contract; a new way for us to be together in the world.
Written for the programme for In Time, a festival of one-to-one performances at the Times Museum in Guangzhou.