Clive Gillman's concern for the creative process and his understanding of a building's dialogue with its audience informed his vision of the new FACT centre, the arts foundation of which he is lead artist and associate director
Digital artist Clive Gillman feels slightly ambivalent about having a desk, he says, or for that matter an office, let alone a whole building. But as lead artist and associate director of the Foundation for Art & Creative Technology (FACT), the Liverpool-based arts organisation that recently opened its new Austin-Smith: Lord-designed home to the public, there's no turning back.
'We did think long and hard about concretising our position in this way, ' he admits. 'We wanted a presence and a platform, but didn't want to be constrained.
It was a hard job for the architect, ' he adds with a laugh.
Gillman, a 42-year-old Londoner and one of the first graduates of Sheffield's Communication Arts degree course, has a long association with FACT. He originally came to Liverpool 12 years ago for an exhibition commission. He never left.
'As an art form, new media has a resonance and a chance to engage with a city and this is a really good place to do it. You can be radical in London, but you do it largely in a bubble, ' he says. 'Here, people are receptive, but there's also a sharp sense that people feel they own their culture, so you have to be accountable.'
FACT was founded in Liverpool in the late 1980s and is one of only three new media art organisations in the UK backed by the Arts Council, which contributed £4 million of the total £10 million to the centre. It was originally a fairly fluid set-up, focused on the Video Positive arts festival and supporting video and new media artists, as well as running MITES, the national technical support service for artists.
For this emerging, convention-flouting artform, permanent galleries were not the top priority, and Liverpool offered a multitude of formal and informal spaces to present work. But gradually the desire for a more permanent position for FACT came to the fore, and it seemed logical to achieve this with a capital build. Because of his experience with earlier Lottery bids, rather than any prior architectural knowledge, Gillman found himself FACT's client representative to Austin-Smith: Lord.
'I admit I thought I'd have to fight the architects. We were worried that we would have to fit in with their vision of what the building should be, ' he says.
The design had to be determined for the most part by its black box spaces - as well as FACT's galleries, it houses a three-screen arthouse cinema.
'Arts Council Lottery funding is predicated on additionality and legacy, and I suppose we were afraid that this would naturally lead to just a building stuffed full of computers, which could become quite threatening to the art. It has happened before with Lottery projects.
'But we were an established organisation and for us it was about building audiences and confidence in the artform, so it had to be a building that encouraged people to come in and connect with it.We didn't want hostile spaces, and we wanted galleries that didn't limit the presentation of the work.
The spaces had to be mutable enough to do all that.'
FACT also wanted the exterior of the building to become an artwork - to tell its own story, as Gillman puts it. The five-storey building is in the Ropewalks area of the city centre - a jumble of 18th- and 19th-century backstreet workshops and warehouses built up around the old docks. The area has been a test bed for various post-riot regeneration initiatives, from the dubious to the doomed, but now it is finally taking off with AustinSmith: Lord's flagship project.
As it turned out Gillman's concerns were unfounded. It quickly became clear that Austin-Smith: Lord recognised the FACT board's needs and fears, and what Gillman describes as a 'luxurious process' ensued.
'Some fairly fundamental decisions were made early on. They understood that it was not about a set of features but about creating an environment. For example, the lighting is theatrical rather than conventional gallery lighting. We decided to move the air conditioning grilles to the edges of the floorspace, so as not to obstruct potential installations. The builders pointed out that we wouldn't be able to hang pictures on the walls with the grilles beneath them but, of course, it's not about paintings on walls, and ASL always gave us this flexibility.'
Gillman and Austin-Smith: Lord had many meetings and workshops, sometimes tortuous but always informed by the question of what the building was about.
'I'm interested in systems and the way they work. If you have designed a building that is effectively a system, it has to work for the people within it, to protect their needs.
We were very aware that all the effort that has gone into creating the building can stall creativity if it just becomes about managing the building. By the same token, we didn't want to make the building more than a space within which art happens.We didn't want to drown what's in it. So it was about paring it down, going back to raw, fundamental materials, so that the artists could take their own direction.'
Gillman's own art is fascinated by its dialogue with its audience, and he has exploited every opportunity to recreate this interface between the building and the public, both inside and out.
'I was interested in how the building would look in five or 10 years' time, and Austin-Smith: Lord was not afraid to design a 'dirty' building that was comfortable in its skin. Because of the black box design, the opportunities for windows were minimal, and we played a lot with the idea of the external cladding wrapping the building like a screen - but a computer screen rather than cinema screen.'
The external rainscreen is made of partly weathered zinc tiles, which produce a pixel effect. The external lighting is based on the colours of the television test screen.
For Gillman, the experience has been deeply rewarding. 'I can now spot an architectural cliché a mile off, and I know what an interstitial space is, ' he laughs.