Approaching the staircase leading down to “Les Yeux Ouverts” (“Open Eyes”), an exhibition of Fabrica currently on display at Paris’s Centre Pompidou, I braced myself for the expected succession of blunt, cause-driven campaigns and personal experiments following the design rubric for which Benetton’s creative laboratory is best known: stark background/shocking image/statistic-blaring headline. Indeed, the centerpiece of the exhibition—a clutch of totem-like panels rising up to the museum’s ground floor—is layered with print campaigns that make ample use of blood, ground meat, nudity, and needles. Photoshopped eye candy at every turn (an aged Marilyn Monroe, a breast “biting” its mate,
a man’s face emerging from a wide-open mouth) confronts viewers with messages about violence, hunger, AIDS, smoking, racism, and other issues.But the staircase itself, wired to sound musical notes triggered by one’s footsteps, signals that Fabrica and the curators have a more varied, engaging, and playful experience in store for us. “Tuned Stairway,” along with other recent pieces in the show, reveals Fabrica’s ability to push innovation and temper its tendency to preach and oversell. The exhibition, curated by the Pompidou’s Marie-Laure Jousset and full of delightful interactive features, is on display until November 6.
Organized into four zones, “Les Yeux Ouverts” is comprised of past projects as well as new commissions by young professionals accepted into Fabrica’s year-long scholarship program, which was formed in 1994 by Benetton founder Luciano Benetton and photographer Oliviero Toscani. Beyond the thicket of graphic broadsheets, you’ll find compelling, addictive motion and interactive projects of recent years, like Juan Ospina’s digital Flipbook!, which enables DIY animations; Jonathan Harris’s 10X10 website, which displays the day’s 100 most significant words and images; and Rodfrey Reggio’s 1995 short film Evidence, which documents children’s trancelike behavior while watching television.
But it’s the new commissions that surprise and inspire even more. “I See,” a series of six photo essays by a range of international photojournalists documenting a social, political, or environmental issue of their choosing, will remind the viewer of Colors magazine’s best efforts at unhindered visual narration as well as the glaring dearth of the form in the mainstream media. “Colors Notebook,” a collaborative project with Reporters Without Borders that gave 10,000 blank copies of the magazine to young people to fill, likewise points to the company’s ongoing commitment to relating the rich stories of a diverse range of cultures. While Tibor Kalman’s classic issues of the magazine were not on view, his influence was touchingly evident in the children’s saturation of the pages with photographs of family members and villagers.
What really opened eyes, though, were new interactive projects that play off the contemporary atmosphere of fear, suspicion, and the mindless escapism of reality TV. “Dialogs,” an interactive piece intending to create awareness of ingrained prejudices, forces you to shift your body to a precise point in a field in order to hear messages such as “Who’s the terrorist now?” delivered in a chilling Vincent Price-like voice. On the other hand, across the room, “We are the Time. We are the Famous” is a Warholian celebration of unabashed narcissm, allowing you to stand before a screen and watch your image simultaneously displayed as a still projection as well as a cascading filmstrip—to escape the didacticism for a bit and just have fun. Playful, assaulting, accusatory, enlightening: The exhibition hits all those notes, allowing you to sample Fabrica’s wares, not suffocate underneath them. Particularly in the buoyant environment of the Pompidou, it feels just right.