Feature: Out of rom
As part of the Antirom collective, Andy Cameron was at the forefront of new media experimentation. After an eight-year stint at Benetton's Fabrica research centre in Italy, he has recently joined ad agency Wieden + Kennedy in London. Eliza Williams meets a true pioneer
-Web page from Benetton It’s My Time
Twenty years is a long time in digital. Yet it’s been almost that long since Andy Cameron, who has recently left Benetton’s research centre Fabrica to join Wieden + Kennedy in London, first started experimenting with the medium. Describing himself as “the oldest bloke in interactive”, Cameron started tinkering with digital media in the early 1990s after becoming disillusioned with photography. “I realised I was just deeply bored with photography and was really, really excited by the opportunities that interactive representations offered,” he says of the time. “I just thought it was really, really cool that you could interrogate an image and that it would respond to your actions in different ways depending on what you did. I actually still haven’t got over that, I still think it’s really cool.”
Cameron’s career has followed an organic path. He was teaching photography at the University of Westminster when he made the switch to digital media, and he shared his discoveries with his students, who also found them more interesting than the course they’d signed up for. This led to a fruitful collaboration – in Cameron’s first class were Tom Roope, Andy Polaine and Sophie Pendrell. The four went on to found Antirom, the pioneering collective on a mission to explore ideas in interactive media.
The collective’s timing was good – the ‘new media’ of the time was unimaginative and clunky and needed a shot of creativity. Antirom’s first release was a CD-Rom (remember those?), self-published with funding from the Arts Council. It featured graphics by Tomato and music from dance band Underworld. “It was a little interactive CD-Rom full of very, very immediate experiments,” remembers Cameron. “One of the things that we worked out very quickly was that an interactive piece has to engage its audience very rapidly. We used to take our work in installation form to the Big Chill parties on Sundays and set up a computer and then stand back and watch people. It becomes very obvious that if they don’t get it within five or ten seconds then they wander off. We built that into the interface, so if people didn’t engage with an interaction, it would randomly go to another one.”
Brands began to see the potential of interactive and digital media and Antirom started working with Levi’s, creating a series of interactive kiosks for stores, and later an interactive shop window which would respond with different musical notes when sensors on the window were banged. Cameron has combined working on commercial and personal projects ever since, recently showing art pieces as part of Decode at the V&A. While many focus on the differences, he recognises the similarities between the commercial and the art worlds. “Working on commercial projects can be an incredibly important discipline sometimes,” he says. “It’s all about audiences, whether you’re working as a fine artist, or a designer, or as an advertiser or whatever. And particularly in interactive there’s a very clear metric of engagement, about whether something works or not. If you make an interactive piece, and people don’t interact with it, then you’ve definitely failed, whether you’re an artist or whether you’re working for the most commercial player in the world.”
Antirom broke up in 1999 – “basically because we got bored and a little fed up with each other, as collectives often do” – but a talk that Cameron had given on the collective at Fabrica in Treviso a few years earlier led to an invitation to return as a visiting interactive artist. Again his timing was fortuitous and he arrived there at an interesting time – flamboyant photographer Oliviero Toscani, who was behind Benetton’s controversial yet brilliant poster campaigns of the 80s and 90s had just left, leaving a big hole in the company. “He’s a very opinionated, big character so at Fabrica, when he was in charge, everybody was just doing what he was saying, so when he left they were a bit lost. But I think they also realised that they could now take the opportunity to do things that weren’t just photography, because that’s the other thing with Toscani, he does what he does and everything else is ‘shit’.”
Cameron encouraged Fabrica to explore interaction design, and remained at Fabrica for eight years, working first as creative director for interactive and then later becoming executive director of 2 3 Fabrica. He also worked with the international bursary holders, the young artists or designers who received funding to work on creative projects at the centre for a year.
He admits that initially there was hesitation at the company about embracing digital. “There was a lot of resistance to using the word ‘interactive’ – I remember having to constantly correct people when they said ‘this is Andy Cameron, he’s the head of the web department’. I’m not and never have been head of web anything. Web is actually the least interesting aspect, in some ways, of interaction design.”
Despite this, Cameron introduced many innovative projects at Benetton, including United People, a social media platform based within Benetton stores that Fabrica created with Tomato. “We created interactive kiosks where people could record a small image of themselves in a Benetton store and then people in other stores could see your face and click on it and send you messages,” explains Cameron. “This was in 2002, I don’t think Facebook officially existed until 2004.”
Cameron suggested that Benetton use some of the images uploaded by customers as posters for the stores, but the low-resolution effect proved too forward-thinking for a company used to more elegant art direction. “We ended having very beautiful, low-resolution web videos, which I then spent a long time taking key frames from and turning into giant posters,” says Cameron.
“They looked extremely beautiful. But in the early noughties I couldn’t persuade the art director for Benetton or the head of advertising to run the posters.” The posters, shown opposite, reveal an incredibly strong Benetton aesthetic, despite all featuring real people. “It was like life imitating art,” agrees Cameron. “That was the point of the project, that all these years Benetton has shown the world what it thinks the world looks like, and then the world has shown itself to Benetton and it turns out it looks exactly like Benetton thought it did. But they wouldn’t go for it because of the lo-res – eight years ago it was maybe too early for that aesthetic.”
A more recent project by Benetton saw the company wholeheartedly embrace social media, with a global casting campaign, titled It’s My Time, taking place over the internet. Customers uploaded videos of themselves in the hope of being chosen to take part in the brand’s new ad campaign. The community taking part in the online event then voted for its winners. “I’d never been involved in something that had so many people,” says Cameron. “We were doing several million pages a day, the servers kept crashing, we had no idea that there would be quite that much interest. It meant that Benetton reconnected with a demographic that they’re really happy to reconnect with.”
The project also highlighted to Cameron the differences that digital has brought to advertising. “Actually just responding to the emails and just dealing with the complaints… all of a sudden it’s not like putting out an ad,” he says. “You’re in a conversation, in good ways and bad ways. So it’s a different way of thinking.”
Leaving fabrica wasn’t something that Cameron had planned, but a trip to Wieden + Kennedy in London to take part in its Platform project, led to the return to London. He was impressed by the agency’s approach to the potential of digital: “I said straightaway that I didn’t want to be head of an interactive department, that’s not what I do,” he says. “But they said, ‘We want you to help us change the agency, we want you to help us reinvent this industry’, and I just thought, ‘Wow, they actually seem to mean it’. So good for them, not only are they the best at what they do, they really understand the way things are transforming and the opportunities that there are.”
One of the areas where Cameron sees opportunities to come is in retail, an area of marketing that is often overlooked. “I think retail is a really exciting area,” he says. “I think part of the challenge is that the industry is really based around a model from when everybody watched the same TV channel. Things like competitions or point-of-sale stuff is always seen as a little bit smelly but I think it would be great if we could together make those areas seem more interesting and exciting. Because they are – to create an interactive experience within a real space, you’re bringing the sort of strategies and approaches that you bring when you’re making an artwork for the V&A or the Pompidou, it’s the same thing, it’s a live experience.”
Cameron is enthusiastic about the digital talent at W+K but recognises that his “oldest bloke in interactive” status will be useful at a management level, and also help bring senior clients on board – “it’s one thing to have that sort of knowledge at the design level, but it’s another thing to have that knowledge and approach and vision represented on the management team, and also with senior clients,” he says.
And in addition to his work at Wiedens, he’s excited to help unify the digital scene in London generally. “There’s so many great digital media and interactive artists working in London, but there isn’t any centre to it,” he says. “It used to be the ICA, and then the ICA ridiculously just dropped it. That world of interactive digital arts is looking for a sponsor in London and Ekow Eshun and the ICA had it and decided that it didn’t have any future. Which I just thought was a really, really myopic view. So I feel quite strongly that one of the things I wouldn’t mind being involved in, coming back to London, would be to try and unify that…. It’s a very exciting time to be in this industry.”