Tate Modern’s Switch House: Taking the art gallery into the 21st century

A brick beehive looms behind the former Bankside Power station – an angular barbican of visual art against the luxury housing developments of Southbank. Inside the Tate Modern’s enormous new extension – named the Switch House – are twisting galleries, subterranean tanks, classrooms and lookouts. This is proudly public space, and it’s one that foregrounds interaction.

Tate Modern’s Switch House: Taking the art gallery into the 21st century

From workshop spaces to installations that encourage you to dip beneath Louise Bourgeois’ giant spiders or walk past Hélio Oiticica’s caged macaws, physical, as much as intellectual, interaction is emphasised.

Tate and Bloomberg have a longstanding relationship in collaborating on projects that bring the history of modern art to the gallery’s wide variety of audiences. Jemma Read, head of philanthropy and engagement EMEA & APAC at Bloomberg, explained to me that this partnership started in 2000 with audio and multimedia guides, and has evolved from there largely as a reaction to the shifting place of technology in people’s lives.  

“The Tate has become a much more global institution, but also a much more participatory organisation,” she said. “In the old days, people expected to be told what to think, whereas now a mobile generation wants to constantly engage and interact.”tate_switch_4

In 2015, the Bloomberg Connects initiative worked with Oscar-winning visual-effects studio Framestore to make an interactive timeline of modern art, allowing visitors to explore more than 3,500 works by 750 artists. Bloomberg has worked with Framestore again for the Switch House, bringing interactive exhibitions to two physical spaces dedicated to cities and performance art respectively.

Explore Artists’ Cities involves a room flooded with projected lights, filling the entire floor surface and back wall with animated images. Using a real-time, GPU-based particle system, Framestore’s installation depicts a moving map, which focuses in on the locations of artists including China’s Ai Weiwei and India’s Sheela Gowda.tate_switch_2

The other room, Explore Performance, supplements a permanent exhibition on performance art. On the wall are fragments of achieved performances, and on the floor are lit circles. Stand in one of these circles and carefully directed audio plays clips that can only be heard by you. It feels a bit like someone is talking inside your head, a decidedly intimate way to have the history of performance art explained to you.

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“It’s not necessarily about intimacy,” explained Tom Schwarz, installation director for Labs at Framestore. “But it’s important that you’re triggering the content with your presence. That was borne of the idea – with performance art especially – that as an audience member you’re an important part of that artwork.”tate_switch_3

Encouraging movement across a space, between choreographed audio spots, is a clever way to impart a sense of performance. Schwarz told me that the sonar sensors in the room were able to judge the height of visitors, and could in theory tailor what is projected depending on how tall the person it. Altogether, there’s a lot of scope to personalise how visitors learn about the art, although Bloomberg seems conscious not to swamp the gallery with excessive digital appendages.

Explicitly interactive rooms like those made by Framestore come up with ways to bring visitors to modern art, weaving new technology into the seams of the gallery experience without detracting from the art itself. Ultimately, however, it is the brick-clad coil of galleries, corridors and stairwells that invites interaction. The gallery as a playground.

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