Deep in the forest: Theaster Gates at Tate Liverpool

Immersive audio is a central component in helping to bring the latest exhibition from artist Theaster Gates at the Tate Liverpool to life. Paul Milligan visited the site for a tour.

“Sometimes projects can be made with a smaller system, and it’s just about branding it with the term ‘immersive audio’, but here it was designed like that, and it really works because the project was made with this in mind, it’s part of the DNA of the project,” says Guillaume Couturier, sound engineer, HAL Audio.  

Sometimes the term immersive audio, which is undoubtedly a fashionable one right now in the AV world, can be tacked onto projects to make them sound more impressive than they really are, but as Couturier highlights above, this wasn’t the case at Tate Liverpool, with 62 high-end speakers proving the audio.

Installation view of Amalgam at Tate Liverpool3

According to Tim Sherratt, manager, customer development application engineering EMEA from Sennheiser, it’s only recent developments that made this project a realistic one.  “This project wouldn’t have been possible 18 months ago. That’s down to the technology and the reliability of Spat Revolution and of immersive audio hardware and software. You can create your soundscape in your studio and come here and allowed it to be deployed. It’s a combination of making the workflow simple, easy and affordable.”
Couturier was in charge of getting the audio right for the latest exhibition from Theaster Gates, one of the world’s most influential living artists. 

Gates began his career studying urban planning, and many of his pieces are based on how art can transform and improve the lives of the people who live there. His latest work, which runs from six months at the Tate Liverpool, is called Amalgam, and explores the complex and interweaving issues of race, territory, and inequality in America. The exhibition looks at the forgotten history of Malaga, a small island off the coast of Maine, USA, was home to an ethnically-mixed community in the 19th century. Highlights include a new film, Dance of Malaga 2019, which features the choreography of acclaimed American dancer, Kyle Abraham.

Amalgam was first shown in Paris at the Palais de Toyko museum in 2019, and it was through his previous work with other artists there that saw Couturier introduced to Gates. So was it simply a case of replicating the audio model Couturier created in Paris for the Liverpool show? “It was about making the same show, but a lot of tweaking and adaptation was necessary to translate it into this space, which was really, really different in terms of architecture from what we had in Paris.”

Installation view of Amalgam at the Palais de Tokyo4

In those first few meetings with Gates, what was it that the artists specified what he wanted from the AV?  “You start the show with a movie, which is a projection in a dark room. The request from Theaster was that the sound from this movie should be extended and evolve into two other spaces that follow the projection room. So you've got three rooms, the projection room, and two others.  And you go through evolving soundscapes as you move into two other rooms.” Couturier’s company, Hal Audio, specialises in designing and installing audio for art projects so this type of project wasn’t anything new, what was different this time was the scale, with 62 loudspeakers, from a mix of manufacturers, installed in the three different rooms.

In the cinema room an Epson EB7905 projector shows Dance of Malaga 2019 on a loop on a 5x2.8m acoustically transparent Harkness Microperf screen, audio is provided by Neumann speakers, installed behind the screen, and Bose amplifiers. Behind the scenes a Tascam Dante converter transfers the Dante signals to analog, and the audio runs through Reaper software, which syncs everything in one single Reaper session. 

The next two rooms feature 40 JBL Control 25 speakers, installed in a track in the ceiling, and Ashly NXP1504 amplifiers.  This room, positioned in-between the cinema and the ‘forest’ features art from Gates, with bespoke soundscapes by sound designer James William Blades.

Portrait of Theaster Gates

The biggest challenge on this project was its size says Couturier, “The scale could have been a difficulty but it went pretty smoothly because we already had experience in using this kind of technology. We always insist on mixing on-site when you have videos being shown as part of a sound installation. We never just stick to doing something the studio, once we do something the studio we also do it in the museum. We already knew the tools we would need, it was really just about scaling things up.”

A Dante network was chosen to link all of the speakers together to help create the evolving soundscapes the artist had asked for. “The number of speakers is determined both by the scale of the room we were working in, and also by the specialisation algorithm that we use,” says Couturier.  The software used for the specialisation on this project was Spat Revolution from Flux. It incorporates algorithms initially created by IRCAM (The Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music), who are “at the bleeding edge on audio research,” adds Couturier.  “Spat also determined the layout of the speakers, we had to put them where we did for it to make sense for the algorithm.”

So why choose Dante over analog? “To produce the soundscape when you get to this kind of speaker count the cabling just gets nonsensical,” says Couturier. “We've got three pretty big rooms with 62 speakers spread around it, if we were to do it without a network we'd have to run either long XLR lines small amplifiers which we would have to dispatch were we could around the space. That would also involve large multi-castNET XLR which are not very convenient to work with, or we'd have to run all these bigger cable lines from the single point. Because of the distances it would have compromised the audio because you don't want to put speakers too far from the amplifiers because it degrades the audio quality at some point.”  Because the speakers are networked it can be run on just a Mac Mini with Dante and a sound card.

Installation view of Amalgam at the Palais de Tokyo2

The final room (‘the forest’) proved another challenge. Because it features 73 columns, the biggest one of which weighs 400kg, a special floor had to be installed (the exhibition itself is on the third floor of Tate Liverpool). Roger Sinek, AV technician, Tate Liverpool, outlines why it was so difficult. “The lighting could be put straight on to the overhead track, but the speakers had to be wired all the way along. Each of these positions are exact (thanks to Spat), they are measured to the nearest centimetre in height and position, because it's a spatial thing that had to be positioned exactly. In Paris they had fewer speakers, and it was a much bigger space we thought we’d need less speakers and could save some money, but because the ceilings are lower, to get the spatial triangulate for the surround sound Guillaume had to use two rows of speakers so we ended up using more.”

That wasn’t the end of the challenge adds Sinek. “We had to line test all the speakers to check the polarity. And even though we work really, really hard to make sure the polarity was right there were three that appeared to be wrong, so had to be changed around. Then we had to calibrate each speaker so they had the same frequency response.” One request from the artist in the forest room  was for sound that would really represent the ground in which the trees are planted, “so it had to be really deep and really low and so for this we had some massive L-Acoustics subwoofers which gave us a really impressive low end result,” adds Couturier.

The installation part of the whole project took four weeks, with Couturier on-site for three weeks to supervise the installation of the speakers and cabling, then to do the on-site mix. His work on the project (and that of Sinek too) went long beyond that however; “Before the installation was the preparation phase, discussing the spec and layouts and finding the most cost-effective way of making all this happen. All the preparation phase was really spread amongst so many months and so many discussions.” The hard work has paid off, and Sinek is delighted more artists are looking at using AV, “It's great to have someone like this, where audio is such a powerful part of the show, the forest in particular because it's not a film and it has a sculpture area but it has a very strong AV component.”


Ashly NXP1504 Dante enabled amplifiers
Bose PowerMatch PM8500N amplifier
Dante AVIO 2ch Analogue Output Adapters, AVIO AES3 IO Adapters
JBL Control 25 speakers
Flux Spat Revolution software
L-Acoustics LA4X and LA12X Dante amplified controllers, SB15M and KS28 Sub Bass
Netgear JGS524PE Network switch (Dante)
Neumann KH420 (left/right/centre), KH120 (rears) KH870 (subs)
Tascam ML-32D Analog/Dante Converter

Blackmagic Ultrastudio Mini Monitor (SDI out), SDI to HDMI converter

Epson EB7905 projector with ELPLW05 Lens
Harkness Microperf screen

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