North London Food & Culture

Free Weekend? Try the Tate a Tate Guerrilla Audio Tour

Whether an art lover, a protest junkie or just your average culture vulture, hostile soundscape takeovers are where it’s at.

Three totally unofficial, free audio downloads have just been made available for anyone who wishes to take a guerrilla tour of Tate Britain or Tate Modern – and travel between the two on the Tate boat.

The ‘Tate a Tate’ installation hijacks the Tate estate as a backdrop for a tour that provokes questions about the relationship between business and the arts. This isn’t a lecture, or an ordinary audio tour. But it is a phenomenal way to spend a free weekend, especially this forthcoming Easter one.


For those unaware, BP plays a major role in supporting the UK’s cultural institutions and has had a relationship with Tate for over twenty years. But the Deepwater Horizon disaster and investment in Tar Sands in particular has created major concerns amongst sections of the art world, who question if Art and the values that inspire it can go hand in hand with big, ‘dirty’, business.

In December over 8000 Tate members signed a petition calling for trustees not to renew their contract with BP on ethical grounds. A few weeks later, after promises from Tate Director Sir Nicholas Serota that the issue was of upmost seriousness, it emerged that BP had secured a £10m five-year sponsorship deal with the British Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Royal Opera House and Tate.

In response, three activist organisations with pedigree in using arts to campaign for social change – Platform London, Art not Oil, and Liberate Tate, unveiled their latest weapon. ‘Tate a Tate’ allows participants to delve in to another side of the galleries, inviting you to learn a different story that would never be told in a BP-emblazoned brochure.

The three artworks come alive through your participation only. Pressing play immerses you in a subversive world that six award-winning artists narrate. The listener enjoys a sensory experience beyond the curator’s wildest corporate-sponsored dreams, being led gradually through the galleries, spliced together with a cacophony of sounds, spoken word, rhythmic beats and poetry.

An extra thrill comes from wandering around the galleries and noticing other people with their ears plugged in. Are they fellow ‘undercover agents’? There’s little way of finding out without seeing them walk against the usual visitor tide, and possibly smirking a little as they encounter Francis Bacon’s ‘Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion’ in Tate Britain.

Kevin Smith, from Platform London, explained to the Kentishtowner: ‘There have been a lot of performance interventions by Liberate Tate that have been quite edgy and dramatic that people have later enjoyed watching on YouTube. We wanted to create an art experience around the issue of oil sponsorship that was more participatory. Platform has previously created a walking tour opera called While London Burns that takes place over part of the City of London, but as far as we are aware, this is the first audio tour that attempts to hijack the soundscape of an institution like Tate as a political intervention.’

The triumph is that this is a highly effective, unpreventable form of non-violent dissent – and also a sensual, personal work of art in its own right.

Whether you agree with the values behind the Tate a Tate commission or not, as Smith puts it, ‘the beauty of it is that you get to use the space in a very direct way without the institution having any control over it all. There’s been the best part of a thousand downloads and listens since the launch on March 22nd and we’re only just beginning in terms of properly publicizing it. We’re keen to offer the tour out to school groups and art courses and offer a workshop afterwards on the issues.’

The irony is that the actual level of BP funding to Tate is relatively miniscule, around £500k per year in comparison to the £32.3m grant-in-aid Tate received in 2010-11 from the government, or their £27m trading income. But this is an experience well worth taking. If the unintended consequence of BP’s sponsorship is an artistic response this good, maybe the ‘filthy lucre’ is worth it?

Words: Tim Sowula @timsowula

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The award-winning print and online title Kentishtowner was founded in 2010 and is part of London Belongs To Me, a citywide network of travel guides for locals. For more info on what we write about and why, see our About section.