Keith Piper, Reckless Eyeballing, 1995. Interactive installation for “Video Positive 95” commissioned by FACT and the Banff Centre for the Arts, dimensions variable

The FACTs: A Conversation with Eddie Berg

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 city’s £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 there’s FACT’s 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.

Monika Oeschler, Johari’s Window, 2000. Video projections from DVD with sound at Tate Liverpool for “Video Postive 2000” commissioned by FACT, dimensions variable.

Robert Preece: How did you get involved in video, film, and media art?

Eddie Berg: 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.

Putting together projects and ideas in the late ’80s, I didn’t start with a grand plan. I didn’t think, in 12 years’ time, that we’d 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.

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.

Feng 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), dimensions variable.

RP: So there was support.

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 a 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 it’s worked out in a variety of ways at different times. It’s worked through personal preference (things that I like, artists who I felt were interesting for various reasons). It’s also worked through open submission processes, with selection panels working with a set of criteria. But principally, it’s worked through curatorial choice.

RP: What do the artists get?

EB: Money to make work and support with presentation. One of the major issues in the first few years of FACT wasn’t 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 London’s formal and informal networks, Britain has the most centralized media infrastructure in Western Europe. To get that kind of national media exposure, you’ve 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, we’ve been able to argue that because it’s unique, it’s attracted a number of people to the city who wouldn’t otherwise come to Liverpool. They spend their euros in local restaurants, cafés, and so forth.

FACT’s distinctiveness has been very useful as a political argument, but there are other advantages. Liverpool’s visual arts infrastructure, particularly since the Tate’s 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 we’ve 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, it’s been possible to identify common goals.

RP: In your experience, how has the response to these artistic media changed over the years?

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. That’s changed radically in the past 12 or 13 years, partly because since the mid-’90s, video has become mainstream. There’s 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?

EB: I’m looking for different things. Sometimes you recognize a quality at an early stage in an artist’s career. It’s partly instinctive, and it sets them apart from others. I’m looking for artists who aren’t picking up a video camera and just pointing it at something, who aren’t just working with software that does what you expect it to do. I’m looking for artists who are trying to transcend this in some way, and I think I’ve always been looking for that. It’s much more difficult to find these artists. Most often, it’s about trying to find artists who transcend the expected conventions and are working from conceptually challenging positions.

RP: Does an artist’s degree of experience affect your choice?

EB: For us, now, it’s less interesting to work with artists at the top of their trade, who know exactly what they are doing—when you commission a work, you get “another work.” It’s much more interesting to take an artist who is clearly at a point in their practice where there’s a lot more to play with.

From a curatorial perspective, there’s nothing more rewarding than making an intervention in an artist’s 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 very minor, but conceptually very interesting ways.

RP: Which of the projects you’ve worked on were the most challenging and the most rewarding?

EB: The most challenging was ISEA 1998 in Liverpool and Manchester because we’d 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 wasn’t 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 rewarding—because, 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 didn’t, 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 Britain—it 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 haven’t 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?

EB: Yeah. I think reinvention is very important. People do it in different ways, don’t they? I guess I reinvent the organization when it seems to get boring. It’s not quite as crude as that, but I think it’s 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 didn’t have to go outside to get it. I don’t 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 you’re much less flexible. How we maintain flexibility—ability to change, reinvent, and be something different—is part of the next wave of challenges for FACT.

RP: The position that you have today—is it different than you expected earlier in your career?

EB: I see it differently now. In the beginning, I probably worked harder at trying to talk to artists who we weren’t going to work with, actually trying to be in a direct, supportive position to their practice. It wasn’t just about “being nice”: I felt I had a responsibility to explain why we weren’t going to support a project, but it was also about supporting their career in some way. I think it’s important to nurture artists at a certain point in their careers, but it’s 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 it’s appropriate to work with, and it’s about time. Personally, it’s a frustration: not having the level of engagement with people that I used to is a bit disappointing.

RP: What do you think have been the most important developments in video, film, and media art—and why?

EB: Obviously, 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, there’s 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 it’s become mainstream. There’s 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, you’d get this question all the time from the media, and nobody asks that question anymore. All of this has fundamentally changed—practice, process, curating, experience, and presentation.

RP: How do you think these mediums will develop over the next decade?

EB: It’s completely unpredictable. In 1988, I have predicted what would happen in 1998. I think I could see some strands and developments. I mean, clearly atomization—things getting smaller, more portable, and easier to use—will have a huge impact. The impact of the mobile phone—that’s going to be our portable gallery in the future. In terms of conceptual development, clearly we haven’t seen a maturing of practice in on-line environments, and I think that’s going to happen next. I think we’re going to see a desire among artists to work in space—the death of the gallery has been on the cards for a long time—but I still think we’re evolving the kinds of spaces that we need to present new media work. We haven’t got there yet and have a long way to go.

RP: Do you see FACT playing a role in these things?

EB: Definitely.