With the award of its annual Turner prize, the Tate is back in the firing line, but the gallery is not afraid of a little criticism, as Kate Worsley reports.
Imagine picking up one of Tate & Lyle's familiar tins of golden syrup to find that the biblical quotation beneath the familiar lion now reads "Out of slavery came forth cheap sugar". Not something scrawled on a paper label by anti-capitalist guerrillas, but actually printed on the tin. You might look twice. You might find is amusing. But despite its self-incrimination, you might respect the company all the more for its honesty.
Such knowing self-flagellation is all the rage among youth-market advertisers and canny governments, but it will be a while before companies such as Tate & Lyle follow suit. But, what about art organisations? As champions of those who ask the difficult questions, how far should they go in questioning their motives?
Daringly, the Tate - the gallery founded by sugar tycoon Sir Henry Tate in 1897 - has taken all this to heart and invited digital art collective Mongrel, headed by Graham Harwood, to develop an alternative Tate website to sit alongside the official version to critique the Tate from the inside.
While digital art is shown at galleries such as the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art, no other British gallery has invited an online critique of this kind. The Tate's director of national programmes, Sandy Nairne, set the £12,000-plus project rolling last year when he asked senior research fellow Matthew Gansallo to investigate the relationship between the artist and the web.
Gansallo sees the Mongrel project as the first "marriage" of web artist and museum. "I wanted to see how a museum of modern art could embrace the internet," he explains. "Not just stick a computer in the gallery, but embrace the work of artists who use the internet. A lot of work on the internet begins by saying, 'Our work is far beyond what is contained in a museum', dispelling the notion of a curator. We wanted to take traditional notions of what a gallery is about and do something within the remit of the internet to begin to define web art."
Gansallo persuaded sceptical Tate colleagues that the project was a valid way of linking this new art form into the history of art, but could be distinct from the official site. When you click on tate.org.uk a "Mongrel" window pops up in front of the home page. The Mongrel site looks similar to the official site, only the content is skewed. So the "Mongrel Tate Britain" (the Millbank gallery) is described as "the home of 500 years of tasty babes, luxury goods, own goals and psychological props of the British social elite". The "Liverpool Mongrel Tate" claims the gallery was "set up with the help of the Toxteth riots", while "Mongrel Tate St Ives" presents "modern British art in a spectacular coastal setting located in one of the lowest waged areas of Britain".
The Mongrel pages put the Tate galleries in their social context by describing the "cultural cosmetics" used by those with money and power to prettify their motives. They are scathing about the social uses of "taste". "The scrapbook of pictorial history has many missing pages," they note, and add some of their own, such as a photograph on the St Ives page of a boarded-up council flat entitled "Council flat after British modernism 1979-2000". Mongrel's approach is a familiar counter-cultural position. But washing the Tate's dirty linen in public like this, on its own website, has something of the frisson of seeing Tracey Emin's unmade bed in the Tate.
Gansallo decided to use Mongrel after a lengthy consultation process blighted by the refusal of many digital artists to collaborate with the corporate establishment. "They felt the project went against everything they were about," he says. Twelve artists were whittled down to eight and Mongrel won.
"Harwood is a very experienced artist," says Gansallo, "and I was impressed by his work from the beginning. He understood the possibilities of the internet and also had an erudite body of work in museums already. He has used various tools of communication to create work that is engaging, and he's interested in looking at the inner histories of people."
Crucially, he also understood that the Tate project could not be too anti-institutional or anti-internet.
Hooking up with the Tate was a bold move for Harwood, who spent the 1980s immersed in a host of low-rent, counter-culture initiatives, in a quest to stay one step ahead of the big corporations and give a voice to the dispossessed. He created Britain's first computer-generated comic, "If comics Mental" ("a satirical work about the Gulf war"), by recycling old printed comic images.
By the 1990s he had submerged himself in a new and perhaps more effectively disruptive field, new media. His first work, Rehearsal of Memory (now at the Pompidou Centre, Paris) was an installation based on Ashworth maximum security hospital in Liverpool. The viewer digitally "peels away" the skin from various parts of inmates' bodies to hear their spoken histories and experiences. He later turned this into a CD-Rom with the help of his students at Artec, the London art-technology centre that provided arts training for the long-term unemployed.
In 1997, some of these students, Richard Pierre-Davis and Mervin, formed Mongrel, in response to the lack of what Harwood calls a "critical attitude to the exclusive nature of the emerging technologies. Some of the black students were finding it hard to get a foothold in the industry," he says, "while other students wanted to explore the technologies for their own social/experimental, artistic reasons. There appeared to be no space for this within Artec or outside."
Harwood's work for the Tate echoes the Ashworth piece in its structure and content, the peeling off of cosmetic layers to reveal hidden histories. He cannot disguise his glee at discovering that Tate Britain was built on the site of the infamous Millbank Penitentiary, for instance.
The site is due for review in January, but the response so far, Gansallo says, has been varied. Some think it shocking, others pointless, most are intrigued. Although museum and gallery people have approached Gansallo to ask how he did it, no other gallery has yet done the same, but he thinks it is only a matter of time before they do. But have any anti-establishment artists actually been prompted to hack into the Tate site themselves? No, laughs Gansallo, "we got there first".
Graham Harwood on the Mongrel Tate
"I found myself torn between admiration for parts of the collection and my equal disdain for the social values behind the creation of much of the art. I felt nervous at having to produce this work in a month from scratch and having to work among the colonial masters. It is easy to wave a bit of **** on a stick and carry it up the stairs until someone sniffs it. But there is little point to this other than notoriety. I hope the Tate can embrace this work as a legitimate counterpoint to some of its agendas.
"This work forced me into an uncomfortable proximity with the economic and social elite's use of aesthetics in their ascendancy to power and what this means in my own work. I was delighted by the creative power and imagination of the artists in the collection. But when I stepped out of the temple and smelt the filth of the Thames, I was reminded that, down there in the silt, under the stones lay the true costs of such a delight.
"The tragedy of the social elite's possession of public creativity has led me to try to map the rituals of tastefulness - how it distances the elite from the mob, and the inherent hypocrisy it implies; and how different people recognise themselves in terms of that tastefulness, or in reaction to it.
"My main interest in the art of places like the Tate is an anthropological one. I feel like an explorer in a primitive tribe of cannibalistic barbarians who, having dressed themselves up in the creativity of someone else, hunt each other down. But this does not really matter because they are dead already. How else could you explain the slave owners' stunning art collections? There is some intimate relationship between aesthetic beauty and social horror that I'm only just beginning to glimpse."