As FACT Liverpool celebrates its first decade, we argue that it changed everything.
Ten years ago I moved to Manchester from Liverpool. I was busy getting to grips with a city that was vastly different from the one that was once my home. In terms of art and architecture, even in terms of ambition – Manchester the swaggering city-on-the-make, Liverpool the more refined, wannabe Capital of Culture – these were two cities that felt more than a motorway apart. Yet despite my leaving of Liverpool, I found myself back there one February evening in 2003. It was the opening night of FACT, and there was no other place I wanted to be.
FACT and I go way back. First, as a student who had her head turned by Video Positive, FACT’s biennial festival of moving-image and media art that kicked off in 1989. The work on show in Liverpool in the early 1990s, by artists who would go on to become giants in their field – Tony Oursler (whom, fact fans, directed the video for David Bowie’s Where Are We Now?), Keith Piper, Gary Hill, Susan Hiller – opened my eyes to the creative possibilities of technology. These were the days when mobiles were a rarity, the internet so slow a book was required to pass the time between crawlingly-slow page load times. This was a period in art history where the validity of video art was still being earnestly debated – was it art, was it “proper” art? – and when video art itself appeared to be mostly confined to small televisions propped up on small plinths, both swallowed up by the echoing space of the white-walled gallery. This was a period, too, when Liverpool felt politically isolated, its population on the decline, the city struggling with recession.
FACT, and the people who worked there, taught me that there had always been everything to play for
And yet Video Positive, along with the newly-minted Tate down the road, signalled the start of something new. That fledgling FACT gave a hint of what was to come, of how technology would come to change everything. Later, I’d land a job at FACT, and I’d come back to Liverpool that February night a decade ago for a reason. FACT, and the people who worked there, from Eddie at the top to Christine in accounts, taught me that there had always been everything to play for. A building – a multi-million pound building with art in the galleries and films flickering on screen – had been conjured from nothing more than an idea. And the idea was that Liverpool, a city that in the early 1990s felt as far from the centre of the international art world as it was possible to be, could one day become integral to it.
It was an audacious thought, but also infectious. The same year that FACT opened, Liverpool won its bid to be the European Capital of Culture in 2008. Five years later and the public image of the Scouse city shifted; this was a place now defined by art and culture, and by a local pride that somehow had international resonance. Liverpool’s new centre for creative technology couldn’t take all the credit, far from it. The fact that Tate Liverpool celebrates its own anniversary this year indicates that the city’s cultural journey has long been a collaborative one. But a decade ago the opening of FACT was an early indication of a new, revived Liverpool.
And ten years on? If ever there was a time when we need to feel that ideas can take shape – even when the economy is tanking and the odds are stacked sky-high against us – it is now. FACT gets that; its programme this year includes Turning FACT Inside Out, a project that defies the conventional notion of an arts centre as a “container” of ideas. The building has now become less fact and more factory. FACT’s tenth birthday, then, is a timely reminder that ideas and innovation are not luxuries. Big ideas are necessary, and they are still entirely possible.