How Tate Modern is using digital technology to create new experiences for visitors

Tate Modern’s long anticipated Switch House extension opens to the public this weekend. Alongside new exhibition spaces, the building features two digital installations created by Labs at Framestore. We spoke to Tate’s Susan Doyon and Framestore’s Tom Schwarz about the installations and how Tate Modern is using digital technology to engage with visitors

Designed by Herzog and de Meuron, the Switch House is an impressive and imposing building, with raw concrete walls, sweeping staircases and large, bright galleries with exposed ceilings. An open terrace on the top floor offers a panoramic view of London.

On the building’s fourth floor is Living Cities – a collection of artworks which looks at artist responses to urban environments, from a model of an Algerian town made out of couscous by Kader Attia to Marwan Rechmaoui’s intricate rubber map of Beirut.

Living Cities houses one of two new installations created by Labs at Framestore as part of Bloomberg Connects, a partnership between Bloomberg and Tate Modern which funds digital visitor experiences in the gallery. Titled Explore Artists’ Cities, it looks at the relationship between artists and their home cities via a series of short films – in one, Ai Wei discusses life in Beijing in one, while in another, Sheela Gowda reflects on Bangalore. (Only two films have been created so far but more will be added throughout the year and films will also be made available online. Work by both Ai Wei Wei and Gowda is currently on display in Tate Modern and new films will coincide with exhibitions and events).

Films are played out in a small room on a dual-screen display and each one lasts around five minutes. A large map graphic fills the floor of the installation room, which spins around and hones in on the relevant location before each film is played. The graphic is made up of around five hundred thousand squares which Framestore says are rendered in real time.

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Explore Artists’ Cities (above and top). Image courtesy of Framestore
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Explore Artists’ Cities at Tate Modern

Susan Doyon, head of content (Bloomberg & Special Projects) at Tate Modern says the installation aims to connect visitors with artists in a new way. “Tate has a long running partnership through Bloomberg Connects called Tate Shots where we’re visiting artists and putting out films pretty much every week,” she explains. “There are a lot of artists on display for the first time in this new building that we’ve never got to meet or interview before so it was a chance to go see someone like Sheela Gowda in Bangalore in her space,” she says. “Some of the works [in the Tate] are challenging to a broad audience and we feel that we need to try to provide as much chance for them to understand them as much as possible.”

A second installation on the floor below, titled Explore Performance, looks at three different aspects of performance art – the body, choreography and moving image. Each aspect is explored through a mix of audio, video, text and images from Tate Modern’s archives, which are projected on to the walls of a small gallery space. Projections are triggered by standing under spotlights in the space and footage is generated at random in real time, meaning no two visitors are likely to have exactly the same experience. Directional audio is used to focus sound towards visitors standing in front of the display, while ultra short throw projectors stop passing visitors from casting a shadow over footage while walking around the room.

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Explore Performance at Tate Modern
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Explore Performance at Tate Modern

Framestore had to create custom hardware and software to produce the installation, which sits alongside a collection of pieces exploring the artist’s role as performer or choreographer, including Helio Oiticica’s Tropicialia 1966-7 and Suzanne Lacy’s The Crystal Quilt. Doyon says the aim was to create an experience triggered by visitors, mimicking the role of the audience in performance art – but there are seating spaces for those who prefer a more passive experience.

“We challenged ourselves to do something where the visitor has to be a bit more active, like the theme of this entire floor – and also it’s quite challenging material, so it’s good for people to have to try and interact and figure out how the room works a little bit,” she says. “We’re going to be tweaking that I think for a few weeks yet, trying to see how people react in user testing, what clues they need to trigger content and realise that if they move away it stops, because we want it to be quite a playful room.”

Creating an installation that can be adapted in response to audience feedback was a priority, says Doyon. A customer experience team will be watching how people use the space and as a result, Doyon says the installation might be adapted – for example, to place less emphasis on audio and more on visuals, or to include more text. New chapters exploring other aspects of performance art will also be added later in the year.

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Explore Performance at Tate Modern

“It was a really important part of the project that we didn’t just launch it and leave it – my team will work on this through the year and the following year to keep the content in this space going … we’ll keep working to get it right and then hopefully once we’ve got the technical aspect and the kind of content right,then we’ll introduce more topics,” she explains. “It’s definitely a challenge trying to understand what the user experience is going to be and making something rich for everybody.”

It’s a rare approach – often, digital installations are fairly fixed once they’re complete, leaving little room for change, yet it’s difficult to anticipate how an audience will react to a display until the gallery is filled with visitors.

“I think a lot of projects in galleries and big institutions are like … there’s the budget, there’s the brief, do it and make it and then it’s done, and then no matter how users are using it or not using it, you don’t have any flexibility or resource left to change it,” says Doyon. “It was really important seeing this as a long term project that we could change pretty quickly.”

As the installation was created using custom code, installation director Tom Schwarz says Framestore also has “full control” over the experience. “We can always come back to it and adapt it,” he adds. The installation allows the gallery to display a vast collection of archive material, highlighting its role in supporting contemporary performance art, and over time, Doyon says it can be used to document some of the many performance pieces taking place at the gallery this year.

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Labs at Framestore’s Timeline of Modern Art for Tate Modern (2015)

The pieces are the latest in a series of digital projects created as part of Bloomberg Connects – last year, Labs at Framestore created a Timeline of Modern Art for Tate Modern, which presents over 3,500 pieces of art in an interactive touch screen display. Explore Artists’ Cities promises a thought-provoking selection of films while Explore Performance makes clever use of lighting, sound and projection to display a vast collection of content in a small space. Doyon says digital innovation will be a key focus for Tate Modern now the Switch House has opened, with the gallery keen to offer new ways for visitors to experience the art on show and learn more about particular artists and their work.

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Switch House, Tate Modern © Iwan Baan
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Switch House, Tate Modern © Iwan Baan

“One of our jobs at Tate is to make sure that we’re at the cutting edge of art … when people come to Tate I think they expect a kind of innovative experience, and it feels particularly with the new building like we had to find new exciting ways to show [artwork],” says Doyon. “Now the new building’s open, part of my job will be looking at what should we do next and how can we find space to do it for it to live happily with the art? It was something [that was talked about] for quite a few years, that there would be dedicated interpretation spaces throughout the building and we are trying – as much as budget and time allows – for those to be digitally innovative. People expect that now,” she adds.

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Installation view of Between Object and Architecture, Switch House Galleries , Tate Modern. Image courtesy Tate Photography

The Switch House opens to the public this weekend – see tate.org.uk for details of events and opening times.

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