I was 16 and impressionable when I first walked through the doors of FACT – the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology. After hours spent devouring The Art Of Pop Video (2013), I left armed with a poster and the knowledge that, when it comes to weirdly disturbing music videos, Die Antwoord are the masters. FACT drew me in using popular music, and showed me a glimpse of an art world I knew little about. It was the first time I felt at home in an art gallery and the beginning of a journey that, five years later, would see me return to Liverpool’s art scene as a writer. And so that poster remains on my bedroom wall as a reminder that some things are timeless: my appreciation of FACT and everything it represents being one.
To celebrate FACT’s 15th birthday, I met up with the gallery’s Director and CEO to discuss how the arts centre has evolved since it opened in 2003. Like FACT, Mike Stubbs is unpredictable and we begin our interview on the building’s roof. “For me, it’s interesting to think about this building as a catalyst for cultural regeneration in Liverpool.” He points to the surrounding Ropewalks area: “20 or 30 years ago, this was pretty much derelict and in a state of decline. Now, if we go onto the other side of the building and walk down Bold Street, it’s all coffee shops and restaurants.” It’s a comparison I’m familiar with: one that is frequently used to express how this city has changed. Stubbs tells me that FACT’s biggest challenge was “making people realise that an independent area like the Ropewalks could succeed” – and it did. FACT’s success as an arts centre is reflected in the regeneration of the Ropewalks area, and that alone is worthy of celebration.
So how did FACT begin? In 1988, Eddie Berg – the founder and former executive director of FACT – launched the Video Positive festival. “It started as a community collaboration project,” Stubbs explains, “and then it became a desire to have a national new media arts centre here in Liverpool, and not in London.” Costing £11 million to build, FACT opened in 2003, the same year that Liverpool won the bid to be European Capital Of Culture in 2008. The city beat strong contenders such as Bristol and Newcastle/Gateshead, and Stubbs suggests that FACT was instrumental to this success: “When the judging team came up here, they saw this futuristic building looking at modern media and thought that Liverpool must be really forward thinking. Prior to this, the last new arts building in Liverpool was the Philharmonic in 1939. So in a sense, it was a really brave, confident move for the city to invest in FACT; it was a signal that Liverpool was confident in its future as a creative city.”
When Stubbs arrived at FACT in 2007, preparations for Liverpool’s Capital Of Culture year were in full swing. He describes a city on the brink of change: “We’d be looking out here at a sea of cranes. The whole city was like a building site.” It strikes me that this is similar to what I am looking at now; with new luxury flats and student accommodation, the regeneration of the Ropewalks area is an ongoing process that some feel has gone too far. I ask Stubbs about the dangers of gentrification and he is quick to point towards some of the city’s success stories: Baltic Creative, for example, and the Kazimier merging with Invisible Wind Factory. However, he is adamant that Liverpool must keep its “idiosyncrasy and let people be truly creative, not a corporatised version of what creativity can deliver.”
2008 was a year of celebration and culture for Liverpool, and Stubbs believes it had a lasting impact on the arts industry. “The European Capital of Culture was in my view really successful. The local authority and everybody in this city has continued to believe that arts and culture is important.” He remembers the exhibitions from that year with particular affection. Jens Hauser curated sk-interfaces, in which artists used their own biological materials as art material and modified their bodies as artwork – as Stubbs summarises, “this was some pretty weird shit.” FACT also hosted the UK premiere of Gravity By My Friend, a “beautifully immersive work” by Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist. ‘Immersive’ pops up repeatedly throughout our conversation, and I realise that this quality is what makes many of FACT’s exhibitions so exciting: the feeling that you are a part of the artwork.
I ask Stubbs to recall the other projects that have stood out in the 11 years he has worked at FACT. He names Chicago-based Austrian artist Kurt Hentschlager and his work ZEE (2011), which “blew people away, and blew me away.” The audiovisual installation invited audience members to wander through a heavy fog; it was designed to give the impression of time standing still. Stubbs explains further: “We filled the gallery space downstairs with a very heavy fog using dry ice. It triggered all sorts of brain activity using non-ocular vision, just by playing light through this heavy mist into your eye. It was weird and fantastic.”
He also mentions Tehching Hsieh’s One Year Performance, 1980 – 1981, which was curated by FACT for the Liverpool Biennial in 2010. The exhibition documented one year in which Hsieh punched a clocking-on machine every hour for a year. Every time he clocked on, a frame of 16mm film was taken and a time-lapse movie was formed. Hsieh was interrogating the idea of wasted time. “It was an extremely formal, regimented artwork. He managed to get up every hour for the duration of the year, except for 133 times, and then he made this extremely beautiful artwork out of the documentation, which FACT displayed.” Stubbs shows me the photography, and I notice the length of his hair changing as time passes. Boredom and bodily-punishment appear oddly calming on paper.
There have been many seminal exhibitions at FACT over the past 15 years. Readers might remember Shia LaBeouf’s #TOUCHMYSOUL performative exhibition with Nastja Sãde Rönkkö and Luke Turner in 2015 – but it was 2017’s HEWILLNOTDIVIDEUS, in response to Donald Trump’s election as US President, which caught international attention when it angered members of an alt-right discussion board on 4chan. After being forced to remove their live webcam stream from outside New York’s Museum Of The Moving Image, LaBeouf, Rönkkö and Turner started a live-stream of a white flag bearing the words ‘HE WILL NOT DIVIDE US’, and the alt-right tracked down its location using a variety of complex methods. After a bizarre series of events that resembled a message board game of capture the flag, it appeared on the roof of FACT. Within hours, it had been taken down due to trespassers. The whole escapade was an important reminder of how powerful art can be in the digital age, and of its potential to reach masses of people. In a beautiful example of irony, the alt-right’s desire to silence the three artists only reinforced their message.
Each of the exhibitions that Stubbs mentions is unlike anything I have heard of before. It’s a quality I enjoy about FACT: not knowing what I am going to get when I walk into the gallery space. It makes this arts centre a welcome accompaniment to some of the more traditional galleries in the city, and I am keen to know how they choose which artworks to exhibit. “It’s about choosing the right projects that people can get an easy entry point to.” He mentions Richard Ramchurn’s The Moment, which will be on show as part of the FACT At 15 celebrations. “In this new project, visitors will wear a headset and sit in a caravan in Ropewalks Square. It’s quite an attractive thing for people who might not go into a gallery space first thing. Except they will go into a gallery space: it will be the caravan.” He finishes: “We want to make work that is critical, but also accessible.”
Stubbs also wants to ensure that FACT remains politically relevant. “We allow artists licence to ask questions that other people feel they can’t.” He cites a recent project called Future Aleppo (2017 – 2018), in which “people could see a model of what Aleppo looked like before it was bombed, and have a go on VR for the first time.” In 2019, an exhibition called After The End Of The World will explore climate change and sustainability 20 years on from the Paris Accord. Being internationally focused also helps FACT to remain relevant and at the forefront of technology and art. Stubbs points to projects in Shanghai and Panama as well as a partnership with CERN in Switzerland as examples of FACT’s broad, ambitious reach.
But FACT is not just known for its art. The building, which contains a café, bar and cinema, has become a staple community space for members of the public. The high, swooping ceilings of the atrium and the floor-length windows create a welcoming and calming atmosphere; a visit to FACT becomes a quiet respite from busy Bold Street. Stubbs explains that the atrium used to be sectioned into smaller, closed spaces before they opened it up: “We wanted to make everything more public, and treat the entire building as a gallery space. We also wanted to merge the people who came for the cinema experience with those that come for the galleries.” It is this open approach that makes it so easy to dip into FACT’s exhibitions: a cinema or café-goer with 10 minutes to spare is welcome to explore the galleries while they wait.
Not wanting to get too wrapped up in nostalgia, the gallery is dedicating a week of programming to mark its anniversary, and a major part of FACT At 15 will involve looking at the future of the building. Though it has served as an excellent space for the past 15 years, Stubbs is keen to improve its accessibility and proximity to Bold Street. “When the building was built, we had the option of having two lifts or a fancy staircase and one lift. We chose the latter.” The fancy staircase is now a staple of the building, but Stubbs is keen to address the lack of accessibility. “We’ve had far too many complaints from people tripping on cobbles or not being able to get into the building – so we have ambition to redevelop the building as much as we can.” Another issue is space: “We’re always trying to use the space in lots of new ways. We’ve got two galleries but we’d like more – we could use it.” Like the surrounding area it has helped to shape, FACT must keep evolving.
Above all, FACT At 15 will be a celebration. “There will be some pomp and splendour,” Stubbs assures me, “and we’ll be marking all the people that helped make the original building possible. Then we’ll thank all the people that have grown it.” Highlights of the week-long activity include a live set from Robin Fox at 24 Kitchen Street, which Stubbs points out is a very FACT thing to be playing host to. “Robin is somewhere between a sonic artist, musician and DJ. He started mucking about with lasers and before you know it, you’ve got these incredible audiovisual works. This links to my point of letting people muck about.”
Speaking with Stubbs is like being given a whirlwind of fascinating information; I spend hours afterwards absorbing the brilliant stories and peculiarities that make up FACT’s history. It is clear that FACT At 15 is both a celebration of the past and a nod towards a bright and innovative future. 10 years after it was named the European Capital Of Culture, Liverpool is leading the way as a city of the arts and it has this building to thank. As conversations on how to build this success into something sustainable come to the fore a decade after 08, Stubbs has one piece of advice for this evolving city, which sticks in my mind long after we cease talking: “Whatever you do, create open space for people to fuck about, play and try things out that they don’t understand.” It is a perfect description of FACT.
FACT At 15 runs between 11th and 15th April. As part of the celebrations, FACT is asking for members of the public to share their personal memories and experiences of the building. Tweet your memories @FACT_Liverpool to join in.
[The online version of this article was edited on 23.04.18 to correctly credit the HEWILLNOTDIVIDEUS project to LaBeouf, Rönkkö and Turner]