Next month, Tate plans to relaunch part of its website with an ambitious new film and video resource, Tate Channel. It already disseminates news and other material related to Tate activities, and it now intends to make and commission films recording its own history, as well as offering an instant archive—a priceless research tool, if the problem of digital preservation can be resolved. This will do much to remedy the scarcity of serious visual art programming on British television.
Can such a vision be realised? Statistics suggest that interest is growing, following the establishment of Tate Media in September 2006, and the drive of its energetic director Will Gompertz to make Tate Online a richer experience. In 2006, 700,000 visitors spent some six minutes per visit on the website. Those numbers have increased to 1.4m unique hits a month, lasting on average 20 minutes, figures comparable with audiences for serious art programmes on television.
Tate’s long-term goal is to match its museum profile with an equally high-profile digital presence. It also aims to make its activities available to a larger national and international public—its exhibitions, live events, educational programmes, curatorial knowledge and other intellectual property, notably its valuable audio-visual archive. BT Tate Player, launched this summer, marked the first phase in this expansion, upgrading the audio-visual material and assembling it into a single database. Tate Channel is the second phase in the development, and the future promises further user involvement and participation, with Tate hinting that it might invite the public to submit its own films to the channel.
The range of material on Tate’s site currently includes programmes such as the BT Series—interactive video exchanges with Tracey Emin and others; Explore Tate Britain and Tate Modern, a real time exploration of the collection gallery by gallery; TateShots, a smartly made monthly magazine with topical highlights; audio-visual material from the Tate archive and Learn Online— courses on modern and contemporary art.
From November, visitors to Tate’s redesigned homepage will find links to Tate Channel.
The homepage will also highlight newly commissioned films, the latest talks, or recent additions to the digitalised archive, such as the film made by the philosopher Jacques Derrida in the 1980s. Derrida sent it to London as his contribution to a conference on deconstruction, which he could not attend, and Tate has finally cleared the rights to show it.
The major new attraction will be Tate Channel’s elaborate cross-referencing system, overseen by John Stack, head of Tate Online. This will allow the visitor to explore the video database in a more sophisticated way. Though the technology is widely available commercially, Tate is the first art institution in the UK to use it. With the previous version of BT Tate Player you had to know what you were looking for, such as films on Gilbert & George. Using the same facility after the relaunch, you will be able to request, for example, every reference to sculpture of the 1960s. The channel marks a further advance in Tate’s interactive approach, encouraging visitors to comment on and rate the viewed content. If you request further information on a particular subject, it will show you related material, and if you mark items that you found enjoyable, it will make recommendations. Other users can then ask for the most popular hits.
A significant feature of the new channel will be its creative independence. Mr Gompertz says: “When Tate Media was set up to restructure and expand Tate’s activities online, we knew then that if we were to make a success of it, and retain the material online, we needed to make and own the rights to our audio-visual output.” His growing department, now comprising seven editors, is already producing in-house material.
Jane Burton, editor of TateShots, explains how Tate Media will exploit its material: “A good example is the Peter Blake retrospective at Tate Liverpool. We filmed Blake as he took us round his show, and edited two films from this footage, one of five-minute highlights for TateShots, the other a 20-minute film shown in the gallery. We also filmed him in conversation with Tracey Emin, creating an hour-long record of the event. At the moment that material is dispersed around the website or is only being shown in the gallery. The Tate Channel will bring all this together.”
With the growth in broadband it is apparent that internet users will look for greater and more sophisticated content. According to national statistics, in June 2007, 51% of all households had broadband, an increase of 11% in the past year. But of these, over half have access at speeds of less than the optimum 2Mbps. The number of people who can watch high quality digital material, though rising year on year, is therefore relatively small, and has to be born in mind when weighing the cost of Tate’s enterprise against its vision. At the moment, simple three- to five-minute films like TateShots are produced on a modest budget of around £200 a minute. If independent film-makers are commissioned to produce works, costs may escalate. “Over the next decade, Tate Online will have to finance itself like any traditional gallery,” Mr Gompertz says. Besides funding from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, it must raise income from sponsors such as Bloomberg, advertising, trading, and downloading. It must cultivate its links with Channel 4, which aired Tate’s Three Minute Wonders series. “We’ll continue working with other broadcasters,” says Jane Burton. “We can now offer to produce programmes for them, like the series of short films we’re making about the Turner Prize for Channel 4. This has the advantage of allowing us to use the footage on the Tate Channel as well.”
Tate in partnership with BT is now the national leader in museum and gallery webcasting, and is probably ahead of the game in embracing the digital culture of the future. If the new channel succeeds in being all that it promises, the prospects are exciting.
o Tate Online www.tate.org.uk.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Turn on, log in, watch Tate'