Absent Sitter


A Creative Exercise in Absence

By Mark Carlin

York Mediale Executive Producer, Mark Carlin, explores the creative process behind Absent Sitters, a séance for culture in 2020.

Unlike composers in the classical sphere, the presence of the creator/performer holds enormous cultural and commercial clout in the presentation of contemporary popular music. Entering the 2020s, the most significant revenue stream for the music sector was live performance.

Dwindling returns from recording sales and streams have added further pressure on the live ‘presence’ to make musicians careers viable. But what if things were different? How would the world look if this wasn’t the case?

A live crowd
In the earlier 2020s live performance was the main revenue stream for most performers

The Project Origin

Absent Sitters began life in late 2019 as a research and development project called Persona. York Mediale and I brought together creative storytelling collective KMA and the University of York’s Music Department with one of the UK’s most vital contemporary voices in electronic music – Elizabeth Bernholz AKA Gazelle Twin.

The relationship with Elizabeth dates back to 2015 when we worked together on a new audio-visual work that became known as Kingdom Come. Looking back, Kingdom Come was the genesis behind much of the creative thinking that would go on to form Absent Sitters.

An Absent Artist

During the development process of the Kingdom Come project, Elizabeth became pregnant. With this came a realisation that she would no longer be available, either to be ‘present’ with the work or indeed subsequent touring.

This lack of availability seemed a logical starting point for the creation of the Gazelle Twin character. A natural step for Elizabeth, as a creator of compelling story-worlds and characters. This gave us the vehicle to explore the theme of an absent artist, using a character that could live without their human creator inhabiting them.

The importance of this experiment seemed to be timely, in particular, because of the hugely disproportionate female representation in the music industry. The ensuing work debuted in Manchester and went on to perform internationally throughout 2016-2018

Developing the Concept

Fast forward to 2019, and with the development process for the second edition of York Mediale well underway, we began a collaboration with the newly conceived XR stories. A research initiative, based in the Yorkshire and Humber region.

As part of that process, and utilising York Mediale’s network of relationships with artists from across multiple disciplines, Persona/Absent Sitters was selected as one of the 15 XR stories pilot projects. Specifically, we came under the XR stories banner of r&d into the future of immersive and interactive storytelling.

In our initial proposal, we invited Elizabeth to undertake a rigorous collaborative process with internationally respected artist and filmmaker Kit Monkman (best known for his work with KMA and Viridian Studios) in conjunction with University of York Music Department (led by Studio Manager, Ben Eyes and senior lecturer/academic Dr Jez Wells).

Through a series of intensive residencies, based at the University of York, the group set about testing the boundaries of what a live music performance could be in 2020, experimenting with film, photography, FX, theatre, immersive and spatial sound.

Relatively quickly, the work coalesced into three critical areas of enquiry:

  • How is the ‘dynamics’ and ‘atmosphere’ of a live performance generated in a dialogue between performer and audience as an act of collective imagination? How present must a performer be to engender a sense of ‘liveness’..? What’s the audience’s role in generating an ‘atmosphere’ at live events?

  • How artistic exploration and viable creation might be catalysed and enabled by immersive tech and narrative storytelling

  • How the use of technology might create a fundamental shift in the gender inequalities of the performance sector by creating possibilities for experiences to be made without the artist’s presence

An Extra Dimension

Little did we know in those early meetings in York, that we were moving at pace into a world where social distancing, empty spaces and disconnection would become our “new normal”. A world where the very essence of ‘liveness’ would be a question with which we would all have to grapple.

At York Mediale 2020, the first iteration of the project will premiere as an online audio-visual experience for groups of 6 people at a time only. It will be the first in what we hope will be a series of iterations of the project and the audience that join us will become a central part of the next stage of what the idea becomes, shaping it as we go. It will be a documentation of absence. A reflection on what we’ve missed, of what’s been absent during the last six months. An investigation into how we might imagine new ways and means of connecting again in the future. It will be a meditative and unsettling portrayal of these times that we’re living through.

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