Vision for the digital age

21st February 2003 at 00:00
New media

There's more than meets the eye at a just-launched centre devoted to innovation in film and art education.

Fifteen to 24-year-olds may provide today's cinema chains with most of their paying customers, but the range of films on offer to young people is often shamefully narrow. Outside London, choice rarely extends beyond a handful of jackpot-chasing Hollywood blockbusters.

But in Liverpool that is all set to change, with the opening this month of a cinema dedicated to arthouse, foreign-language and independent film. More importantly, the cinema is just one feature of a purpose-built arts centre that places film in the context of the digital age.

As well as three screens, the Fact centre will house two galleries, providing space for temporary exhibitions of film, video and new media projects, as well as a curated space for internet-based art. A state-of-the-art Medialab studio will incorporate digital video and audio editing, multimedia and streaming media facilities. Designed to support the production and training needs of local artists, the Medialab will also be used for training art teachers in new technology.

Built on the site of a former warehouse, the Fact centre is the brainchild of the Foundation for Art amp; Creative Technology, an agency set up in 1988 to support, develop and exhibit the work of artists in film, video and new media.

The pound;10 million centre has been developed in association with City Screen, which operates the Picturehouse network of 14 independent cinemas.

Housed over five floors, which include a cafe and bar, it is part of a pound;110 million redevelopment of the Ropewalks district of Liverpool's city centre and a flagship project in the city's Capital of Culture bid.

The centre opens with the regional premiere of Revengers' Tragedy, a film shot in Liverpool and directed by one of the city's own sons, Alex Cox.

Over coming weeks, a diverse programme includes a season of new films from Kazakhstan, contemporary European films that have not found a UK distributor and highlights from the Sheffield documentary film festival.

Programmers have even managed to squeeze in three classic British films from the early 1960s, including A Taste of Honey, which stars Liverpool actress Rita Tushingham. Like Cox, Tushingham is one of Fact's impressive line-up of patrons.

But film is only part of the Fact story: much of the focus will be on participation, rather than viewing. A central part of Fact's philosophy is to develop the creative potential to use new and emerging media technologies within local communities. Young people, explains head of collaborations and education Maria Brewster, are crucial to this. Miss Brewster is about to recruit the "Factory" - a team of 15 to 18-year-olds who will be given a budget to devise events and projects and market them to their peers. "The aim is to build an audience who would never have thought of coming here," she says. Around 15 members are being nominated by careers advisers and teachers.

* "It's a big commitment of attending weekly for a year, and we want people who will benefit from the experience, some of whom might not have achieved formally in school."

The schools programme has been running since last term, when Emma Letheren, an art and multimedia teacher at Holly Lodge girls college, was appointed teacher-in-residence. BT's funding for schools sessions and teacher training includes cover for Miss Letheren to spend half her week at Fact.

She sees her role as giving art teachers the confidence to teach new technology in the art room. She has a textile design background, and worked briefly in industry (now 29, she moved into teaching just two years ago), which showed her the importance of building confidence in using technology.

"I'd had one week on a Photoshop course and I was told to go and design some mood boards on my first day. I didn't know what had hit me.

Learning to do something in a supportive environment is so important."

She says it is teachers rather than pupils who find technology intimidating. "Kids will go up to any computer and press buttons. And if it goes wrong, so what? Teachers are much more concerned about the consequences of doing the wrong thing."

This mission to empower lies at the heart of the project. "Every art teacher already has the art skills. It's just a question of being able to translate them to a computer, and of how best to use that within the art room."

Miss Letheren is passionate about the importance of art in education. "Art develops communication skills, teamwork and problem-solving," she says.

Perhaps ironically for someone who specialised in weaving at art college, she is equally passionate about multimedia and the need to bring art teaching into the 21st century.

"When I decided to study art, I didn't think about getting a job. But nowadays, the emphasis has to be, 'What can I do with this?' You're making a major financial commitment when you go to university, so you have to be more focused."

She finds that introducing new technology to the art room, and enabling pupils to meet working artists, makes them realise they can earn a living from digital art, graphic design and web design.

"When pupils visit a website and you point out that someone designed it using the same software they're using, it brings home to them that they're not just sitting there doodling."

She has already run three-week twilight training courses for teachers, led by working artists, in image editing, digital animation, webcasting and video editing. The programme is open to teachers across north-west England who can reach the centre by 4.30pm.

A series of new media masterclasses for small groups of teachers will start in April. These will be intensive one-day workshops led by artists working in new media. Emma Letheren is organising pupil-artist collaborations with other local schools: a film collage by pupils at West Derby boys'

comprehensive working with artist Jackie Passmore will be previewed by teachers next month.

Miss Letheren believes one of the most valuable aspects of the twilight training sessions is that they allow hard-pressed teachers the time to develop their skills in a supportive environment.

She accepts that many schools are held back by poor facilities - Holly Lodge has art college status and its media suite, fitted with 20 iMac computers, is not typical - but she believes the confidence training brings can help. "It's ammunition to go back to the school and say, 'I've got these skills, I can teach these skills, let's apply for funding to get the equipment'."

Another confidence-booster is the art teachers' forum, once a term for an afternoon - new members welcome. "The only criterion is being interested."

Miss Letheren is in no doubt about the significance of the new centre.

"It's important that all kids gain a digital literacy by the time they leave school," she says. "The creative industries are so important now.

There's no going back."

The Fact centre opens tomorrow (February 22) at 88 Wood Street, Liverpool L1, tel: 0151 707 4444 or see The teachers' preview on March 4, 4.30-6.30pm, includes a behind-the-scenes tour and a chance to talk to curators. Details from Angharad Williams on 0151 707 4410 or For more information about the teacher-in-residence project, contact Emma Letheren at

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