Conference of the Absent
Spiritualist technology

In a certain sense, “Conference of the Absent” has all the characteristics of a spiritualist séance. The show is guided by a disembodied voice whose metallic tone seems not quite human. Everyone present hears the voice but no-one can place it.

By Caroline Godart

When the voice requests something or gives an order, the participants obey – they stand up, dance, even climb onto the stage. Absent voices reach us from far away, speaking through these bodies foreign to them, which appear as though by magic on the screen behind the stage. There is even a skull on a low table! Yet crowded as our world may be with phenomena long considered magical, the depth of its disenchantment is evident: in contrast to the séances of the 19th century, all the mechanisms are visible here. The phantoms whose testimony members of the audience read on stage are living persons, named and situated. The stage set is a regular domestic living room, and we’re told that that the skull on the table comes from a production of Hamlet.

Conference of the Absent in Brussels
Conference of the Absent in Brussels | © Goethe-Institut Brüssel | Photo: Sebastian Hoppe
Even the disembodied voice explains its own character and origins: rather than any sort of messenger from beyond, it turns out to be an assemblage programmed from voice recordings to sound at once assured and sympathetic.But still the mystery stubbornly persists. Modern and rational as the whole transparent set-up may seem to the audience, there remains a sense that the technology itself is displaying its esoteric powers here: where exactly does it come from, this voice whose instructions we follow? What limit point of the material world do we reach there? What parallel universe do we enter when we form an emotive, intellectual, aesthetic relationship with this phantom? And these absent persons who testify through the bodies physically present, are they even still alive? Can we be sure of that?  

Against the flow

Theater normally operates under rules diametrically opposed to those encountered here. Under ordinary circumstances, actors are definitely alive and physically present. In the rare cases where offstage voices are involved, the voice comes from someone in the wings, not from a phantom haunting the space. Bodies are visible, active and real, and of course the audience stay in their seats. Everything in theater is artifice, but the artifice itself reaffirms onstage the physical and logical world as we know it, playing on conventions familiar to all in its short-lived suggestion of another reality.

Conference of the Absent departs from these conventions, leading us into the density of the technological mystery which now paradoxically forms our routine worldly reality. We may prize our rationalism like a trophy, but the esoteric, the invisible and the omnipresent - the voices of disembodied creatures – have become the matter of our everyday life. As Rimini Protokoll show, it is within that reality – always already double and disturbing, actual and virtual – that we must bring to life and multiply everything that constitutes our humanity and our materiality: by sharing emotions, telling stories and formulating ideas, and in doing so forming communities, ephemeral or imagined as those may be.

Caroline Godart

Caroline Godart is a writer based in Brussels. She holds a PhD in Comparative Literature (Rutgers University, USA, 2014). Her publications include The Dimensions of Difference: Space, Time and Bodies in Women's Cinema and Continental Philosophy (Rowman and Littlefield, London 2015). She is co-editor of the journal Alternatives Théâtrales and was dramaturg at Théâtre La Bellone in Brussels. She teaches literature and philosophy at the Ecole de Recherches Graphiques (ERG).