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.

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally

Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

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


1