Three environmental charities Platform, Liberate Tate and Art not Oil, against the corporate sponsorship of major galleries and museums, have collaborated to commission audio artists in the creation of alternative audio guides for the Tate Modern, Tate Britian and the interim Tate Boat. The guides highlight the corrupt evils of BP and the irony and hypocrisy emanating from their funding of our national treasures.
There is something irresistibly subversive about slinking around an establishment with your headphones in, taking orders from a voice that resembles a TomTom or sleep aid recording. Tate a Tate is at its best when it plays on this subterfuge, asking you to wave and smile for CCTV, draw vistas of industrial devastation on paper set up for imitations of Turner’s landscapes and flail around like an oil-drenched dying seagull in the Turbine Hall to the bemusement of tourists and curators alike.
Less powerful was the somewhat heavy-handed way in which the cause was at times treated. Having just reviewed Kony 2012 and finding Jason Russell’s adorable kid’s pleas for world peace an insult on my intelligence, I was aghast as the scenery from the Thames boat was blighted by a toddler’s voice telling me he’d rather walk than drive to save the ocean’s fish. Hearing BP director Carl HenricSvanberg’s voice distorted into Satanic tones seemed like equally shameless overstated rhetoric.
This said, comprehensive interviews and angles provide interesting insight into corporate sponsorship and the reality of BP’s environmental and humanitarian abuses. Certainly food for thought.
Panaudicon by Ansuman Biswas at the Tate Britain is by far the most successful of the three sections, working around the concept that the site was once home to a prison designed to replicate Bentham’s Panopticon - the ultimate symbol of state control and surveillance. It trumps the Tate Modern Audio Tour by Phil England and Jim Weltonon on two fronts.
Firstly its interaction with and interpretation of its environment is a lot more complex. In The Modern tour you are directed to somewhat obvious choices (Janis Kounelli’sUntitled depicting a portent of industrial wastelands and Joseph Bueys interpretation of renewable energy in Lightning with Stag in its Glare) and then, for the most part, stand lemming-like whilst you absorb an onslaught of facts.
A lyrical and pseudo mythic style of oration at Tate Briatian jars at first, but once you relax into it, provides a much more immersive experience. Imagery and allusions are far from subtle - “giant iron butterflies sucking black nectar for a brief day of flight” - but somehow work.
A particular stroke of genius, is the vision of our past relationship with whales which draws powerful comparison to BP’s current exploitation. Moments of erudite wisdom illuminate the argument which was rammed down your throats at Tate Modern - “...a commercial company cannot be expected to regulate itself, a corporation is the embodiment of desire. It exists only to create wealth thus scorning it is like blaming a dog for barking”.
Finally, the interpretative reading of William Holman Hunt’s The Awakening of Conscience is the pinnacle of the tour’s manipulation of the gallery space, as the painting does not contain obviously relevant content, yet is used to perfectly illustrate a point. I would like to have seen more interaction with the artwork in this fashion, otherwise one could just as well listen to the guide on the tube in rush hour.
As a frequent gallery goer I tend to shun audio guides as magic-spoilers, opting instead to meander around clueless, taking in the ambiguous ambiance exuding from great art that I don’t pretend to understand. However I enjoyed the new take, Tate a Tate provided on old terrain - for its informative qualities, but also for the precious sensation acquired from knowing you are doing something a bit subversive!