Professor Hilary Marland, Dr Rachel Bennett, and Flo Swann consider their experiences of exhibiting at Tate Modern.
When the opportunity arose to participate in the University of Warwick’s week at Tate Modern, as part of their Tate Exchange programme, we grabbed it with both hands. How many times in life might someone get the chance to have their work on show in the UK’s most prestigious modern art gallery?
Lots of our public engagement work that already existed, or was in the planning stages, seemed a good fit for the provocation chosen by Warwick, The Production of Truth, Justice and History. The coordinators of the event wanted each of the displays and installations to explore different ideas of truth and justice in a creative way and to question the process by which certain stories – or certain truths – become history.
Lock Her Up
We had already commissioned Fuel to create some audio work for us responding to women’s experiences of incarceration, and, with a very open brief, the only fixed request was that it would have a digital legacy.
Warwick Tate Exchange helped crystallise the potential for the work to be a series of physical installations, and this new opportunity drove the creation of the pieces which became Lock Her Up. Each was conceived with the physicality of the listener in mind.
In the Time After the Raids, by Paula Varjack, places the listener in a closed booth with surround sounds; No Soft Place, by Rachel Mars, sets the listener with headphones on a cell-proportioned floor space; and Sabrina Mahfouz’s This is How it Was uses a ‘birthing’ chair to enhance the listener’s experience.
What we learned was that people were drawn to the physicality of the work; it really looked like a triptych and not a series of ‘listening stations’. And, because one of us was on hand all the time, listeners were very keen to discuss their experience of the pieces and asked lots of questions about the underpinning historical research.
We had a very valuable discussion panel with a varied audience to hear Fuel and Paula Varjack discuss with Rachel and Hilary what it was like to work with archive materials, what responsibility they felt they had to the ‘truth’ of the history, and how history and art together can speak to contemporary issues relating to the incarceration of women.
We were hoping to exhibit some of the photography from Past Time somewhere, so this was a fantastic opportunity to scale up to A0 size and hang a display about the project with Rideout at the Tate. We were lucky that we were positioned in a space in the gallery that people had to walk through and had a lot of footfall. People were keenly interested in the concept of health and nutrition in prison in the accompanying and well-attended panel discussion with Flo, Hilary and Saul Hewish from Rideout.
We had already completed Disorder Contained: A Theatrical Examination of Madness, Prison and Solitary Confinement, our play created with Talking Birds and developed from research into the introduction of the Separate System (solitary confinement) by Hilary and Associate Professor Catherine Cox at University College Dublin. This had been filmed so we thought that it would be a good opportunity to show it publicly, and to work with some schools from Coventry who would be attending the event.
What we learned from doing this was that despite 60 people booking tickets for the free showing, far fewer actually arrived. But, we had great post-film discussions with both audiences and were delighted to see the young people really engage with the themes.
Overall learning points
Working in a gallery was different to being in other venues, like a theatre. People drifted in and out, and we got much more of a section of the ‘general public’, especially being at the Tate where a good proportion of visitors were tourists from overseas. That in itself was fascinating, as we had the chance to talk about incarceration and its health consequences in other contexts.
To engage with a broad range of visitors, and encourage them to visit Tate Exchange, Rachel was asked to select a piece of art in the Tate Modern and reflect on how it resonated with the themes of our own exhibition. She chose George Condo’s L’Amour. She spoke about her own observations on the piece and why it resonated particularly with the theme of women in prison. The talk attracted the attention of passing visitors and prompted them to venture up to Tate Exchange to view our displays and enquire further about the historical research that inspired their creation.
Generally, it’s harder to evaluate the impact of the displays – because of the drifting nature of the visitors you have to be on the ball to engage with them by drawing them in and then following up. It’s about ‘hosting’ as much as anything, making someone feel welcome at your exhibit.
In some ways, the demands put on us for evaluating public engagement are almost opposed to the way people experience a gallery – that meditative quality of letting the work filter in to you is quite at odds with then having to ‘give feedback’. And when success, for us, is measured on how we might have affected someone’s opinion or outlook, we are keen to capture what they thought, a process potentially disruptive to the gallery experience. None the less, visitors described their impressions. The responses we received included “very evocative”, “shocking but fascinating” and a “powerful and haunting [mix] of words and experience”.
Our own impression was that many visitors carried their thoughts on the work beyond experiencing the displays and installations. We were asked by several visitors for further information about the underpinning research and about accessing more details about the prisons project as a whole. By observing the different responses of visitors before they experienced the installations and immediately after, it was clear to us that the exhibition has a legacy beyond our week in the Tate.
Photographs by George Blower