FACT not Fiction

By Kieron Corless


Liverpool’s dynamic new media centre offers the city radical image possibilities

The Liverpool-based arts organisation FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) was founded in 1988 to commission and promote artists’ film and video and new media art within Liverpool and beyond. The organisation has made quite a name for itself since its inception, producing over 140 commissions from artists internationally; since February this year however, FACT has been housed in an impressive £10 million purpose-built centre in the Ropewalks area of the city, containing two exhibition spaces, three cinemas and a Media Lounge featuring artists’ online work. Operating with a turnover of around £2 million, FACT receives funding from several arts bodies and the local authority, and additionally generates income from trusts, foundations and sponsorship.

As the name suggests, FACT’s lifeblood is new media and digital art, much more of a mainstream staple now than when the organisation was first set up. It’s longstanding commitment to the kind of work which explores the connections between art, new media technology and film/video-making processes was exemplified on the weekend I visited by an exhibition entitled Robot Films, assembled by New York-based husband and wife team, artists the McCoys. Working across a range of media in several exhibition spaces, they used software systems to interrogate and problematise our fascinations with narrative and genre, often by breaking down stories into their component parts.

To this end, their artworks referenced popular TV shows like Starsky and Hutch and reworked iconic moments from films such as Body Heat and Evil Dead 2; in the latter, computers housed in suitcases make decisions about how scenes should proceed, generally confounding audience expectations of closure and resolution. Computer technology was the ordering principle throughout the exhibition, posing questions about what’s gained and lost when cinematic history and automated processes come together, and exploring how new narratives can emerge from that interaction. Technology is reshaping the stories we tell ourselves, the exhibition seemed to suggest, generating fresh modes of consciousness and subjectivity.

As FACT’s first full year in its new home draws to a close, it seems a timely moment to reflect on the experience so far and, as Liverpool gears up to becoming European City of Culture in 2008, to look ahead to what the future might hold. Eddie Berg, executive director of FACT, takes up the story.

robot-films-1.jpgfrom Robot Films

Kieron Corless: What was the initial impetus behind the creation of FACT?

Eddie Berg: To go back to the beginning in 1988, there was hardly any activity in terms of artists’ film and video or new media work happening outside London in general. There was certainly very little in the way of organisational models which supported practice or commissioned projects. It wasn’t in response to a Liverpool situation particularly or a national situation – I started it from the position of being an enthusiast in a sense, someone who felt very energised by what I was seeing, and I felt instinctively that this was going to become a much more important part of the vocabulary of contemporary art. I wanted to have a go at being part of creating something, but from Liverpool. FACT’s a kind of home-grown organic thing but it’s not parochial and it’s working at an international level. In some ways that’s an unusual story. When you look at the history of building-based cultural provision in Britain, it usually comes about from a top-down approach and we’ve grown from the bottom up.

KC: Now you have an actual building to focus your activities, how do you attempt to blur the boundaries between different media within the building?

EB: We’re looking to do that in several ways. We’re changing the spaces physically as often as we can, to make the experience of the exhibition spaces particularly as different as possible. It’s partly about the programme in those spaces but also what we do about those other spaces that have a greater degree of fixity. The cinemas are very obviously cinema spaces but recently we did this project with the American filmmaker Cameron Jamie and the US band the Melvins. They performed a live soundtrack to three of his films, which was a sell-out event. It brought a new audience to the building and I’m very interested in doing more of those kind of crossover things.

KC: Given that FACT commissions and promotes new media art, is there an inbuilt bias towards a younger audience?

EB: This was part of the rhetoric before we opened up – it’s only young people who’ll get it, it’s aimed at them. But one of the most important projects we’ve developed and which has been going on for more than three years now is a streaming media channel called tenantspin, a webcasting project with tenants in social housing, most of whom are between 60-80. They are producers rather than consumers, they do everything, including pre-editing material, sound, streaming media and operating cameras, and they are some of the best advocates we could ever have. And if you go downstairs now, you’ll see the age profile covers four generations.

robot-films-2.jpgfrom Robot Films

KC: Liverpool traditionally has been ill-served for contemporary art of any kind, and even art house cinema. How do you plan to attract your potential audience in Liverpool?

EB: Partly it’s about developing the relationships we’ve got with communities, working with people and turning them from consumers into producers. It’s also about helping them develop a critical language – I don’t mean in any horrible academic sense, but just a few critical tools to look at what we’re doing. With all of those things, it’s about small incremental processes of change, but it’ll be really significant in time. There’s a gap now between where FACT is and where its audiences are. A lot of people haven’t quite got what this is all about, at all sorts of levels. But in a sense that’s not hugely important right now. I think it’s important to measure that over a period of time. Historically audiences for all sorts of things in Liverpool have never reached the kind of levels that they’re reaching right now in Manchester. That takes time to develop and it isn’t at that level in Liverpool. That’s a problem not just for FACT but for all cultural institutions in Liverpool, so we’ve got to work in imaginative ways to address that.

KC: How important was it for FACT to forge a link with City Screen and include a programme of art house and independent cinema within the building?

EB: Liverpool has never had a proper art cinema; having the two together, the exhibition spaces and the cinemas, for me just makes so much sense. It’s essential, it doesn’t work without that relationship. There are always going to be people who are between cinema and art and that’s where we are. That’s our framework of reference. In terms of art house cinema over the last 20 years, so much has been missed out on here. There are lots of historical things we can tap into. And we’ve got really good membership numbers for the centre, at nearly 2,600, so there’s a lot of people joining. That’s a major achievement in a city without a membership culture, so we’ve got a very firm foundation from which to develop and grow.

Kieron Corless works at Time Out London.