The Art of Listening

Andrew Filmer experiences the Tate à Tate audio tour and discovers art and activism aren't always an easy mix

April 10, 2012
5 min read

Tate a Tate Audio Tour

What I love about audio tours – such as Livinia Greenlaw’s recent Audio Obscura, or Platform’s And While London Burns – is the way they help me sidestep the sensory overload of everyday life and put me in another place where I can see and hear more clearly, drawing my attention to aspects of the world that are vitally important but which usually go unnoticed. Now, perhaps BP’s sponsorship of Tate (along with the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Opera House, etc.) doesn’t exactly go unnoticed, but it’s the unthinking acceptance of this sponsorship that the creators of Tate à Tate’s three audio tours seek to disrupt. And, at their best, these works provide a subversive re-scripting of the Tate galleries and the ferry journey between them. By mapping out a web of associations between BP’s dubious corporate record, the galleries, and the art works they house, these tours profoundly question the wisdom of Tate’s current relationship with BP.

In Tate Britain Ansuman Biswas’ Panaudicon looks back to the former Millbank Penitentiary, which stood on the site now occupied by the gallery. The design for the Penitentiary was partly inspired by philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s concept for the ideal prison, the Panopticon. If the Panopticon offered a new and pervasive technology for the visual surveillance of prisoners, then Biswas’ tour employs Tate Britain as a structure that enhances our ability to hear events and activities that are dispersed in time and space. The gallery is opened up to the sounds of ancient forests and far-flung oil fields, and sitting before J.M.W Turner’s Childe Harold’s Pilgramage with its poignant depiction of a ruined civilization, I’m invited to look through the painting, directly towards the Clair oil platform, creaking and groaning, 1500 miles away in the North Sea.

In Tate Modern, Phil England and Jim Welton’s Drilling the Dirt (‘A Temporary Difficulty’) engages more directly with the form of the gallery audio guide, only this is a more playfully subversive guide, which employs selected artworks, by artists including Jannis Kounellis and Marisa Merz, as illustrations of, or metaphors for, aspects of BP’s operations. While touching on more sobering material, including BP’s history in Iran, Iraq and Azerbaijan and the human cost of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Drilling the Dirt (‘A Temporary Difficulty’) is also a bit more fun than Panaudicon, managing to inject humour into the format and actively enlisting the listener in an occasional self-conscious subversion of gallery norms.

This is not an Oil Tanker by Isa Suarez, Mae Martin and Mark McGowan is created for the ‘Tate Boat’ that links the two galleries, and here the format is more fragmentary, using the waters of the Thames as inspiration to reflect on the social, cultural and environmental costs of oil extraction. Cruising downstream, I heard protest song and stand up juxtaposed with recordings of fishermen and a first nations woman whose lives have been directly affected by the dirty realities of oil drilling and oil spills.

Each of these three pieces seeks to disrupt any sense of fit between BP’s profit driven corporate agenda and Tate’s mission as a public arts institution, and the form of the audio tour enables an imaginative and creative re-scripting of the galleries and a re-contextualisation of selected art works that serves this end very well. I’m not going to walk into either Tate Britain or Tate Modern again without remembering what I’ve heard there before and nor am I going to see BP’s logo without immediately associating it with corporate irresponsibility.

But there is also an uneasy fit between art and activism in these works, with heavy-handed moments that feel too didactic. In Panaudicon, when left considering Holman’s The Awakening Conscience, I felt annoyed, as if I wasn’t trusted to join the dots myself and had to have them joined for me. Both Panaudicon and This is not an Oil Tanker exhibit contradictory impulses in this regard: they want to be taken as art works and to stimulate my response, but through narration and sound design they also seek to indicate what my response should be. This is something Drilling the Dirt (‘A Temporary Difficulty’) avoids because of its clearer adherence to the format of a gallery audio guide where instruction and information are the norm.

Tate à Tate presents a thought-provoking experience that asks its listeners to question the ethics of Tate’s acceptance of BP’s sponsorship and to consider this in the wider context of escalating global climate change. It’s well worth taking the tours, wandering the galleries and listening in. Increase the burden of your awareness of these issues, and then choose what your next step will be.

You can download all the audio files and get more instructions of what to do from Tate à Tate. Groups of students, activists, academics, artists or others are welcome to arrange a workshop time alongside their group trip to experience Tate à Tate. Please contact info@platformlondon.org to make arrangements.


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility

Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports

From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices

How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed

In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design

Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform

Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out

Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant

Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’

Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue

A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank

News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions

Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release

Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts

‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette

The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.

How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op

Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU

Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity

Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson

Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release

University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.

Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.

Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History


1