The pool of murky, forbidding water and the unsightly hole in the floor of FACT’s ground floor gallery shows just how far artists can push an arts venue – as long as they have an irresistible vision. The hole is the work of Paris-based art and design duo HeHe, whose Fracking Futures installation has been allowed to eat into the very fabric of the Liverpool city centre building.

He’s literally groundbreaking installation is part of Inside Out, a multi-disciplinary exhibition marking the 10th birthday of FACT. Opening up questions about the controversial process of fracking – the hydraulic fracturing of subterranean rock to release trapped natural gas – the work puts the viewer face-to-face with the subject, as a mock drilling platform sits brooding, humming and occasionally flashing in a dark room.

“He pushed us to the limit,” says FACT Director Mike Stubbs, who has presided over six years of an eventful decade in the still fresh, glass-clad building. “Being able to realise this project was really quite difficult; it plays havoc with the air conditioning system and there are health and safety issues around having live flame in the gallery. But the organisation needs to be able to stretch itself, in terms of bringing a show together and the conversations that happen between the artists and the curators, but also the technical team and how we can push our resources to the limit.”

That Fracking Futures wasn’t working at full pelt the Friday morning of my visit is perhaps indicative of the scale of the challenge. Fully operational or not, the compulsory hard hats and dank, noisy atmosphere within the space provides a brutal view of the threat (or opportunity, depending on your view) that fracking presents to the communities faced with this new industrial neighbour.

Posing questions

Getting the green light to shoot flames into the air and leave craters in the gallery floor is all well and good, but realising the project was no less daunting for the artists themselves, as HeHe’s Helen Evans recalls: “Many of the elements couldn’t be tested in full scale before arriving on site, so the install period was long and intense with many technical surprises along the way. Working with low frequencies that travel beyond the confines of the gallery space posed problems; there were concerns about the projectors vibrating in the cinema upstairs, for example.”

Those low, ominous frequencies rumble through FACT’s public spaces, where people queue to buy cinema tickets or enjoy a coffee in the café. This bleed of work from the gallery spaces to the rest of the building and beyond sits at the heart of Inside Out. Posing questions about how art is developed and consumed now and in the future, it questions whether the fabric of a traditional building will remain a suitable home for art in a digital age.

Many of the works in the exhibition threaten the building as well as celebrate it. While HeHe appear to be drilling through the floor, Uncoded Collective’s TranseuropeSlow offers an instant, virtual escape in the form of a cycle ride around Madrid. Manifest.AR’s augmented reality pieces, meanwhile, push people back out of the door and onto the street to pick up digital objects using mobile applications. So, in celebrating ten years of an arts centre, is FACT simultaneously undermining the need for it to exist?

“That’s the big question,” says Stubbs. “Not just for buildings but the way that we live our lives, because we are being virtualised and distributed differently in everyday life through our general experiences online and with social media. Buildings will continue to be important. People still like to gather for social communion, to look at things and to compare notes. But with works like Invisible ARtaffects by Manifest.AR, the mixed reality situation, the relationships between digital space and physical space become more and more interesting.”

Stubbs is clear when he says that Inside Out is as much a celebration as a statement of intent. The show cements FACT’s commitment to “experimenting with the visitor experience, distributing the work inside, outside and online, going beyond the black or white cube of a gallery space.”

Dismantling barriers

Chute, by architectural artist Katarzyna Krakowiak, is another intervention in the fabric of the FACT building. While offering a sense of rare intimacy, it stays true to the FACT vision of dismantling the barriers between the gallery and the world outside. The title for the piece is drawn from the artist’s experience of communal buildings, where the waste chute is hidden but ever present as the sound of falling debris rattles between people’s walls. The concealed sounds within the FACT building have been cleverly brought to the fore; windows have been removed in order that the gallery can share the sounds of the street outside, and vice versa.

Transforming the space aurally, as well as physically by imposing a dramatic sloping ceiling, Krakowiak seeks to expose FACT’s failings as well as its successes. “I believe that buildings often have a flaw, like a false note, which defines their unique character,” she says.

“In the case of FACT, I thought a lot about silence, how this building would sound without people. Hence the decision to slowly reduce the functionality of the building by throwing away those functional sounds into the chute. The chute can reveal something truthful about that building by allowing one to be able to listen to its hidden spaces. ”

After ten years in the place it calls home, FACT can reflect on numerous successes, with Stubbs pointing to visits by Tehching Hsieh in 2010 and Kurt Hentschläger’s ZEE in 2011 as particular highlights. However, Inside Out suggests that now, perhaps more than ever, the city of Liverpool and the wider arts fraternity can expect FACT to be taking bigger and bolder risks with its programme.

“People expect us and other institutions to continue to be really good at what we do,” Stubbs says. “It’s important to know and be yourself. FACT knows what it is and it continues to work its own way. Taking risks is like riding a motorcycle in that if you go round a corner too slow, you’ll come off. We need to take those corners fast.”

Turning FACT Inside Out continues until 15 September.