publication of the International Sculpture Center
The FACTs: A Conversation
with Eddie Berg
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Piper, Reckless Eyeballing, 1995. Interactive installation for
"Video Positive 95" commissioned by FACT and the Banff
for the Arts, dimensions variable
Any history of the
mutating developments in 90s new media art must include Eddie Berg.
Born and raised in Liverpool, England, the art-Berg began as an enthusiast
and made something out of nothing. In 1988, he founded the
Foundation for Art and Creative Technology (FACT), a Liverpool-based agency
for the exhibition, support, and development of artists film, video,
and new media projects. His hard work over the years has paid off, in
the form of a purpose-built permanent venue for FACT. Described as one
of the flagship projects in the citys £70 million regeneration
plan, the FACT Centre has two galleries featuring new media commissions,
three state-of-the art cinemas dedicated to new and retrospective work,
an on-line research facility, a media lab, café, and bar.
Since 1988, Berg
and FACT have built up an impressive list of projects. The Video Positive
festival began in 1989, a showcase for video and new technologies organized
and curated by Berg. Since 1988, the commissioning program has resulted
in over 100 new digital media artworks. Also under the FACT umbrella,
Berg initiated a collaborative program that brings together artists, groups,
and individuals with the aim of producing artworks with and for, rather
than about, those groups and their communities. Then theres FACTs
MITES (Moving Image Touring and Exhibition Services), Britain's only national
resource for exhibition technologies, which provides specialist technical
expertise to artists and galleries. Developed in partnership with Clive
Gillman, over 1,000 artists and exhibitors have used this service.
How did you get involved in video, film, and media art?
I developed a few independent projects, and there was enthusiasm. I felt
empowered by that. I was primarily an enthusiast rather than an authority,
and I think that people valued my enthusiasm in a world often characterized
by cynicism and pessimism.
projects and ideas in the late 80s, I didnt start with a grand
plan. I didnt think, in 12 years time, that wed have
a building where all these projects and ideas would find a different form.
In the beginning, I just did things, and when they worked, I did something
else with that "thing." With the first Video Positive, I had
no idea if it would be viable, because at the time, the British art world
viewed video art with some suspicion.
Oeschler, Johari's Window, 2000. Video projections from DVD with
sound at Tate Liverpool for "Video Postive 2000" commissioned
by FACT, dimensions variable
RP: How does the FACT agency structure work?
EB: In 1988,
the idea was to create a commissioning and presentation agency. Very little
new media or video was being commissioned by anyone, so I wanted to create
a commissioning base in Liverpool but to work nationally and internationally.
Initially, the aim was commissioning an exhibition or presentation, and
the best way of combining this at the time seemed to be an installation-based
festival. In 88, there was nothing like that in the U.K. We received
funding from the Arts Council, some from the city council, from sponsors,
trusts, and foundations. Basically, I put the money together single-handedly
for the first one.
RP: So there
EB: Yes, but
on a modest scale. People recognized that something significant was happening.
One of the key developments was Tate Liverpool opening in 1988, and I
was interested in making an move into a major contemporary space. Allying
what we were doing with the Tate was important in raising the visibility
of our little agency. Suddenly, by associating with Tate Liverpool, we
were operating in an international context.
RP: How does
the commissioning agency structure work?
EB: I think
its worked out in a variety of ways at different times. Its
worked through personal preference (things that I like, artists who I
felt were interesting for various reasons). Its also worked through
open submission processes, with selection panels working with a set of
criteria. But principally, its worked through curatorial choice
RP: What do
the artists get?
to make work and support with presentation. One of the major issues in
the first few years of FACT wasnt funding but access to exhibition
technologies. Then, most artists and venues relied on the goodwill of
the commercial sector to support exhibition technologies. We began brokering
on behalf of artists and venues for these technologies, and we did pretty
well. Then we founded MITES in 1991, to create an exhibition technology
resource in Liverpool to support the entire U.K. visual arts sector.
RP: The British
media and art worlds are centered in London. How does this affect FACT,
which is based away from the center?
EB: We have to work
a lot harder to get the same kind of exposure as a similar organization
in London. Besides Londons formal and informal networks, Britain
has the most centralized media infrastructure in Western Europe. To get
that kind of national media exposure, youve got to sell your projects
that much harder.
RP: What are
the benefits in being located in Liverpool?
EB: For us,
it meant being able to argue for something different, that could add distinct
social and economic value to the city. With Video Positive, weve
been able to argue that because its unique, its attracted
a number of people to the city who wouldnt otherwise come to Liverpool.
They spend their euros in local restaurants, cafés, and so forth.
has been very useful as a political argument, but there are other advantages.
Liverpools visual arts infrastructure, particularly since the Tates
arrival, is very good. And the visual arts sector of the city has supported
Video Positive really well. Without that support, we couldn't have done
what weve done; we rely on partnerships with venues and the goodwill
of lots of individuals.
RP: Does that
mean that a place like FACT could not do or could not have done what it
has in London?
EB: I think
it would be much harder because of the level of competitiveness. Creating
a common sense of purpose across a city on that scale is much tougher.
In Liverpool, its been possible to identify common goals.
Mengbo, Taking Mt. Doom by Strategy, 1998. Interactive CD-Rom
installation for "Revolution 98" (a partnership between
FACT, John Moores Univesrity, and Manchester Metropolitan University),
RP: In your
experience, how has the response to these artistic media changed over
EB: In terms
of the funding system, in 1988, this activity was very marginalized. It
was at the "blind edge" of the visual arts. The funding system
really created a little ghetto for it, and it became known as artists
film and video at a national level; there were comparatively few
funds to support practice, presentation, and infrastructure. Thats
changed radically in the past 12 or 13 years, partly because since the
mid-90s, video has become mainstream. Theres been a massive
transformation in terms of practice, and many more college programs are
geared toward video, the moving image, and new media. The funding system
now structurally supports that growth and development, responding to the
emerging practices circumstances much more effectively than it ever
did historically. The advent of the arts lottery has boosted that as well.
In terms of curatorial practice, the growth of activity around the moving
image and new media is reflected in the number of people specializing
in the field.
RP: When you
select work, what are you looking for?
looking for different things. Sometimes you recognize a quality at an
early stage in an artists career. Its partly instinctive,
and it sets them apart from others. Im looking for artists who arent
picking up a video camera and just pointing it at something, who arent
just working with software that does what you expect it to do. Im
looking for artists who are trying to transcend this in some way, and
I think Ive always been looking for that. Its much more difficult
to find these artists. Most often, its about trying to find artists
who transcend the expected conventions and are working from conceptually
RP: Does an
artist's degree of experience affect your choice?
EB: For us,
now, its less interesting to work with artists at the top of their
trade, who know exactly what they are doingwhen you commission a
work, you get "another work." Its much more interesting
to take an artist who is clearly at a point in their practice where theres
a lot more to play with.
From a curatorial
perspective, theres nothing more rewarding than making an intervention
in an artists career at a pivotal point in time when you can help
shape or move that career up several notches. I think the work we did
with Superflex and Superchannel reshaped their thinking about that project.
It began with a few pilot ideas and manifested in some veryminor, but
conceptually very interesting ways.
of the projects youve worked on were the most challenging and the
EB: The most
challenging was ISEA 1998 in Liverpool and Manchester because wed
never done so many projects all at once. We commissioned around 30 projects
and exhibited 60, in 25 venues. We did a lot of demanding, challenging
things. Partly because we were making a lot of new work with a lot of
artists, work that was technological and some of it with brand-new software.
There was a huge danger that a lot of it wasnt going to work. Plus
there were the logistical complications of managing a project on this
scale across two cities. ISEA 98 was the most challenging project,
but, in many ways, it was one of the most rewardingbecause, by and
large, it was very successful. But for me personally, Video Positive 91
was the most rewarding. The initial Video Positive was mixed for me: some
of it worked, some of didnt, while 91 was a much more expansive
festival. It was much more coherent in terms of projects, and it featured
artists like Tony Oursler, whom I felt I discovered for Britainit
was the first time his installations were shown in the U.K., and we commissioned
a new work with him. And there were practically no technical problems,
which was almost unheard of then. After VP 91, I felt a sense of
satisfaction and achievement that I havent quite felt since.
RP: One runs
the risk of re-playing the same thing. Do you have to reinvent things
in order to stay interested?
I think reinvention is very important. People do it in different ways,
dont they? I guess I reinvent the organization when it seems to
get boring. Its not quite as crude as that, but I think its
been important to keep reinventing things: first, to sustain my interest
and, second, to create a challenge for the people working with me. Often
people move on, and one interesting thing about FACT is that some people,
who are very good at what they do, have stayed with us for a long time.
This is partly because FACT has reinvented itself; they found a challenge
within the organization and didnt have to go outside to get it.
I dont know how long we can sustain this, because once you have
a building, things change. But reinvention of the organization has been
a central part of FACT's development and a central part of keeping things
fresh. This is a major issue for us now because a building means youre
much less flexible. How we maintain flexibilityability to change,
reinvent, and be something differentis part of the next wave of
challenges for FACT.
RP: The position
that you have todayis it different than you expected earlier in
EB: I see
it differently now. In the beginning, I probably worked harder at trying
to talk to artists who we werent going to work with, actually trying
to be in a direct, supportive position to their practice. It wasnt
just about "being nice": I felt I had a responsibility to explain
why we werent going to support a project, but it was also about
supporting their career in some way. I think its important to nurture
artists at a certain point in their careers, but its almost impossible
to have that sort of relationship with so many artists. There are only
so many we can work with, and only so many that its appropriate
to work with, and its about time. Personally, its a frustration:
not having the level of engagement with people that I used to is a bit
RP: What do
you think have been the most important developments in video, film, and
media artand why?
there have been profound technological developments over the past 15 years.
The way that work is presented has changed massively, and that has had
a huge impact on practices and experiencing the work. The way artists
think about space and the presentation of work in space. The way that
audiences have engaged with that work in space. Then, theres the
Internet. The personal computer is 150 times faster than it was 14 years
ago. All of these developments have contributed to a different process
in terms of production, different way of working as an artist with media
forms, and ultimately a different way in which we might experience it.
The number of artists working with new media has increased massively,
and its become mainstream. Theres a lot more funding available
now. Audiences have become used to it. When I started out, there was this
question, Is this art? For four to five years, youd
get this question all the time from the media, and nobody asks that question
anymore. All of this has fundamentally changedpractice, process,
curating, experience, and presentation.
RP: How do
you think these mediums will develop over the next decade?
completely unpredictable. In 1988, I have predicted what would happen
in 1998. I think I could see some strands and developments. I mean, clearly
atomizationthings getting smaller, more portable, and easier to
usewill have a huge impact. The impact of the mobile phonethats
going to be our portable gallery in the future. In terms of conceptual
development, clearly we havent seen a maturing of practice in on-line
environments, and I think thats going to happen next. I think were
going to see a desire among artists to work in spacethe death of
the gallery has been on the cards for a long timebut I still think
were evolving the kinds of spaces that we need to present new media
work. We havent got there yet and have a long way to go.
RP: Do you
see FACT playing a role in these things?