Lis Rhodes' film installation Light Music in the oil tanks at Tate Modern
A previous installation in the Oil Tanks; Lis Rhodes, Light Music 1975

In just over one month the world’s first museum galleries permanently dedicated to exhibiting live art, performance, installation and film works will open to the public in London. The Tanks at Tate Modern launches with a fifteen-week festival that will include recent acquisitions as well as a major new commission. Here the Director of Tate Modern, Chris Dercon, gives an inside view 

The Tanks at Tate Modern open with a 15-week festival programme of international performance, film, talks and live events, alongside works from the collection by true pioneers of social performance (Suzanne Lacy The Crystal Quilt 1987) and expanded cinema (Lis Rhodes Light Music 1976), and a major new commission from South Korean artist Sung Hwan Kim, who represents a young generation of artists working across media and disciplines. Finally, the Tanks focus on presenting œuvres of a range of very different artists – from dancers such as Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Boris Charmatz to intermedia practitioners such as Aldo Tambellini, Tania Bruguera and dubmorthology – which force us to redefine what a museum space is or can be.

Following decades of inactivity, and an extensive period of redevelopment, the cavernous underground oil tanks of the former power station are transformed and returned to daily use, becoming once again active and working components of a larger building. Raw, versatile, circular and unique, neither white cube nor black box, they provide an entirely new type of space for Tate Modern, and for museums internationally. No longer generators of electrical energy, they are instead generators of ideas, creative energy and new possibilities for artists and audiences. They challenge many aspects of what historically has been important to museums – their collections and modes of display and archive – and ask vital new questions of what it is to be a museum in the twenty-first century.

Since the 1950s contemporary art practice has evolved significantly in areas of performance and film, as well as through works that incorporate active social relations between artists, collaborators and audiences. Such works pose many questions for museums, not least because they are often complex to show and do not readily fit into existing frameworks, through space, audiences or context. But while live pieces naturally celebrate the moment in which they are performed, they also form part of a longer and more extensive history of gesture, movement, activism and physical action. This is a rich and variable history that is easily bypassed in museums and overlooked in collections. The Tanks provide an opportunity not just to revisit this history, but to place it centrally in a new conversation that questions how live works function in relation to traditional understandings of museum collections, and how an evolving history of contemporary art and action whose roots stretch back to the beginning of the twentieth century can be presented, researched and archived.

A further question that the Tanks bring to the forefront of discussion for museums is the changing role of the audience at a moment dominated by social media and new modes of broadcast. Many of the works presented in the Tanks address their audiences directly, emphasising the visitor’s own physical presence, whether that be by being part of a crowd surrounding a performer, becoming part of a conversation, or walking through and around an immersive installation. With these complexities and the advent of new recording technologies, the live event takes on new meanings and possibilities. The audience’s experiences can be immediately recorded and disseminated in a way that is unprecedented in historical terms. As such, it is also the audience that forms a central component of what happens in the Tanks. This is why the opening programme is presented as an ‘open manifesto’ – a call to define and shape the programme. Within Tate Modern’s new generator it is the true meeting of artworks and audiences that will establish what the Tanks are and can be.

- Chris Dercon is Director of Tate Modern

- The Tanks 2012: 15 Weeks of Art in Action, Tate Modern, 18 July – 28 October. The Tanks programme is supported by a number of private donors. The Tate Modern Project is being made possible with the support of the UK Government, the London Development Agency, Tate Members and a number of private donors. The launch is part of the London 2012 Festival, the culmination of the Cultural Olympiad