Summer 2005

Fabrica’s grand tomb of shock

Fabrica 10: From Chaos to Order and Back

Electa, €99<br>

Fabrica 10 is a book with ten covers. About four inches thick, it is almost too heavy to pick up. It reflects ten years of output from Fabrica, the art and design academy run by Benetton for students nominated from around the world.

The concept of Fabrica is an interesting one, more interesting perhaps than this book would indicate. It acts as an ideas lab and offers a postgraduate experience very different from that usually available in the field of art and design. Its personality is, without a doubt, highly influenced by the design values of the Benetton company, which, over the past decade, has re-situated the boundaries for product promotion. Benetton, as we know, is a manufacturer and high street retailer of womenswear, and the chief thrust of its promotions campaign has been to invest a modest product with controversial glamour.

Fabrica has performed a valuable service to young art and design students particularly from countries in the former Soviet bloc where resources have been hard to come by and freedom of expression an elusive quality. It has given these young people an internationalist gloss. However this begs the question, whether in ‘internationalising’ its students, it has, inevitably, made them all the same, globalised them into perfect images of the Benetton brand.

For many years, Benetton’s image was directed and dominated by the photographer Olivero Toscani, who was responsible for the series of advertisement campaigns which presented images designed to shock – an AIDS victim, death row prisoners in the US, a just-delivered baby.

It was with the birth of Colors magazine, under the editorship of Tibor Kalman, that Benetton began to gain a very particular design and social credibility. Kalman’s issues of Colors were the perfect postmodernist, internationalist experiment, in which the notion of globalisation was voiced by way of the collection of quixotic fragments from around the world. Each issue had a particular theme or concept, including Trash, Death, Home, Smoking and Toys. Colors took simple, everyday concepts and universalised them, becoming the only style publication of the 1990s that went beyond fashion and music to promote a very particular view of world society.

In the outputs from Fabrica, as illustrated in this ten-year anniversary book, there is much which follows the Kalman / Toscani theme. The majority of the work shown is out to shock – and much of the shock revolves around images of the body – the infected, distorted body. Its effectiveness comes from the juxtaposition of the ordinary and the grotesque. So powerful is the impact of the Benetton / Fabrica / Colors brand that even the ordinary straightforward photographs illustrated here are difficult to take at face value. We look for the weirdness until it finally appears. Pictures of children are blurred and incoherent, a football match becomes a grande guignol, a set of people with their eyes closed becomes a mysterious rite. In Fabrica, all is context. Encased in this grand tomb, every poster or snapshot becomes remarkable and illuminating.

Yet, when released from its context, there is much in this book which is mundane, frustrating and, like the book itself, overdone and even flashy. Image follows image, uncredited with an author – to find this information the book must be wrestled with, an entry found on the yellow pages at the back and traced back to the original item. To use this book effectively, a large sturdy table, a notebook, a pen and much patience is required. One wonders who this book is for; it smacks of a particular kind of corporate vanity, absorbed in its own delight in its ‘otherness’. It exists to convince us that we are involved and complicit in some fundamental contemporary experience, absorbed in the experience of a welter of sensations, a remix of culture and society, an exquisite sampling experience. It is a kind of oversized flick book from which a kaleidoscopic sense of a violent, and challenging cultural experience emerges. If the sum of the whole should be greater than its parts, then this book is effective as a conveyor of a sensation of creativity and activity. But beneath the sensation and the glamour, the shock and the inventiveness, there is, undoubtedly, more style and less substance.

First published in Eye no. 56 vol. 14, summer 2005.