With FACT Liverpool turning ten this month, we look back at how far it’s come – & how far it has to go.
Ten years ago this month, FACT, the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology, opened to the public, marking its place at the international arts table via a major exhibition by Turner Prize nominee, Isaac Julien. Yet as impressive as the new building was, and alongside the nabbing of Isaac Julien for its opening show, this wasn’t where FACT began. For that, you’d have to go back almost 30 years, to 1985, when curators Josie Barnard and Lisa Haskel launched Merseyside Moviola, a project designed to showcase independent and experimental film. A couple of years later, Eddie Berg got on board, joining from the Everyman Theatre, and it was Berg who set the groundwork for what would eventually follow by establishing Video Positive, a biennial festival of video art and new media – which at that time really could be defined as ground-breaking. “I had this idea of working with artists who were working with film, video and new media and then presenting it in galleries,” said Berg, now at the BFI, “…I had this ambition that Liverpool would be the centre of this kind of practice.”
It was no mean feat. This was way before Liverpool wore its Capital of Culture crown, and long before the city had any inkling of just how culture would come to define it. And yet for Eddie Berg it made perfect sense: “I was convinced about the cultural identity of this city… it was going to be local and national in definition.” Within ten years, under Berg’s stewardship, Moviola had become FACT, and by the turn of the new millennium construction had begun on a new, purpose-built arts centre. Significant in itself, but also because it was the first building of its kind in Liverpool for over 60 years, making it both experiment and figurehead, at the heart of the £100 million redevelopment of the Ropewalks district of the city and a major part of Liverpool’s successful bid to be Capital of Culture in 2008.
I was convinced about the cultural identity of this city… it was going to be local and national in definition
Writing this, knowing the space so well, the idea of FACT celebrating its first decade seems slightly odd. It feels like it’s always been there, yet still has a comparative newness about it – perhaps because it’s young enough for us to remember so many of the exhibitions staged since 2003. Of those, there are three that stand out and, in very different ways, sum up what FACT does best. The first was a hauntingly beautiful, 10-screen installation by the Shanghai-based artist, Yang Fudong. Part of Liverpool Biennial in 2004, Close to the Sea depicted a couple’s doomed love affair – and it was a stunning piece of bravura art that has stayed with us ever since.
Four years later, the stand-out show was by Pipilotti Rist. An immersive exhibition that was as popular as it was critically-acclaimed, it called for you to take off your shoes, lie down beneath a confluence of psychedelic imagery, close your eyes – and enjoy. Current director Mike Stubbs admits to “missing a meeting or two” thanks to Rist’s genius. And more recently, Kurt Hentschlager’s so-called monsterpiece, ZEE, part of 2011’s AND Festival, grabbed us. Reviewing it was difficult. An extremely personal experience (whether you were in the smoke-filled gallery alone or with 20 others), it defied description. Having suffered a sheltered upbringing, we’d say it’s the closest we’ve come to a narcotic-inspired experience.
But if FACT’s roots lie in cinema – and experimental, challenging cinema at that – this is where things get sticky. In many ways FACT is more than a match for Manchester’s Cornerhouse, but filmically there’s little doubt which institution comes out on top. Search the Cornerhouse website right now and you’ll see the excellent Spanish and Latin American Film Festival, ¡VIVA! coming up, alongside which are regular and frequent screenings of films not on general release. You can take your pick from multiple screenings of the likes of Michael Haneke’s Amour and Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, and that’s just for starters. A quick glance at FACT’s listings suggests a similar offer: at time of writing, The Big Sleep, Clerks, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s are all to come, but these are one-off screenings. Last year, the cinema itself was sold to multiplex chain Cineworld, and while The Box, a sort of boutique cinema space that has been used by cine-clubs, may be a means of the organisation hanging on to its cineaste audience, Cineworld’s priority will surely be to cater for the bigger, more commercially viable audiences that blockbusters pull in.
Ten years in, then, and FACT’s future as a gallery prepared to programme progressive, ahead of the curve artworks appears to be in good hands. That original idea, of a Liverpool organisation being at the centre of international art practice, has remained intact despite changes in artistic leadership. But a little more bravery and stubbornness is needed if its cinema offer is to match its exhibitions. Don’t get us wrong, FACT has had an astonishing first decade, and its impact on Liverpool’s cultural landscape shouldn’t be underestimated, but with the Cineworld takeover, and Cornerhouse about to move into a bigger, new-build Home, committed arthouse fans may find themselves looking elsewhere for their fix.