‘The thing that ties it together is the notion of play.’ That, in a nutshell, is the philosophy of British-born interaction guru Andy Cameron, creative director in interaction design at Fabrica, the northern Italian research centre established by Benetton in 1994.
‘Play is a basic thing [behind the work], whether it’s above- or below-the-line, or art,’ he says. ‘Thirty years ago we didn’t have this.’
And what better place to play than Fabrica. Set in the countryside just outside Treviso, it occupies a Venetian villa, which has been extended dramatically by celebrated Japanese architect Tadao Ando. There are chickens in the yard, a shallow lake on the approach to the complex, and avant-garde artworks in the grounds.
Inside the spacious volumes of the curvy concrete extension, teams work on publications such as Benetton’s legendary Colors magazine and Notebook series featuring user-generated content and a visual communications team, led by Omar Vulpinari, promotes the Benetton brand. There are music and sound, video and photography. Then there is the research element, which operates almost as a finishing school for 40 creatives aged 25 and under from across the globe, handpicked to work together on projects and learn by doing. Each stays for up to a year and receives a bursary from the organisation.
The 3D side of Fabrica has three main activities: pure research; Fabrica Features, a collection of own-brand products generated by a team led by French head of product design Sam Baron and sold through the five Fabrica shops; and external commissions, collaborating with manufacturers to create product ranges.
Cameron’s involvement is slightly different. He is responsible for the research programme in interactive media at Fabrica, running workshops with external ‘greats’ and engaging ‘students’ in ground-breaking projects. But he is also the guiding light behind Benetton’s online and in-store communications strategy.
A couple of years ago, he and Baron created a mixed media installation for iconic Paris retailer Colette, where passers-by became the on-screen entertainment. This built on Benetton in-store installations such as the United People video he created in 2002. Now he is pushing the interaction boundaries in-store, with innovations such as Benettonplay, an interactive gaming website that combines play with user-generated content.
And that’s not all. Cameron, who divides his time between Treviso and London, teaches interaction art at IUAV University in Venice, directs Filmit, an Internet video project for British primary schools developed with the Helen Hamlyn Centre at London’s Royal College of Art, and is a regular on the global conference circuit.
Cameron cares about emotion and elements such as light and space. He speaks enthusiastically about the work of Scandinavian artist Olufur Eliasson, whose media include light and air. When I visited Fabrica, he and his team set up a project for me, relating to the human relationship with nature and the experience of feeling intense heat on your face while swinging through a cool breeze.
‘We don’t see ourselves as technologists. We are designers working with situations,’ he says of the Fabrica team, though technology plays a huge part in his work.
Cameron talks of ‘relational aesthetics’ underpinning everything that he does. ‘It’s all about the notion of spectatorship, ‘ he says. It is not surprising to learn that he set out by studying film, given his interest in ‘the audience’.
But film was only the starting point for Cameron and in 1994 he co-founded design and art collective Antirom – home to interaction giants such as Tom and Nik Roope in its day – and set up the Hypermedia Research Centre at the University of Westminster. He went on to co-found Romandson Interactive in London in 1999 with Antirom members Andy Allenson and Joe Stephenson before becoming involved with Fabrica two years later.
Cameron describes himself as an artist primarily, but slips ‘designer, curator, writer and educator’ in there too. It’s hard to pin any badge on him. He is a passionately creative person with a deep interest in human experience, and that is what sets him apart from more geeky interaction activists.