I May Lack Identity, But I Have Wonderful Teeth is a digital theme park ride in which the audience observes and participates in a sequence of performances depicting displays of social status.
The experience intends to explore how the ever-present and all-consuming media matrix forces individuals into labouring within a symbolic economy of social status. The audience engages in a life where infancy consists of the passive consumption of symbols of status, and maturity is reached when the individual begins to produce and perform this status.
This piece is inspired by the works of French sociologist Jean Baudrillard, who believed that the increasing proliferation of signs in the media would contribute to a warped 'hyperreality' in which meaning is constantly shifting and lost. In the 1980s, Baudrillard travelled to the centre of today's global economics and culture, the United States of America. During this trip, he remarked that 'Americans have no identity, but they have wonderful teeth', aptly capturing the late-capitalist bias towards appearance over content.
The Process (Summarised)
The Groundwork
I began the groundwork for this project in the Summer of 2020, when I began reading the book, French Philosophy in the 20th century by Garry Gutting. Although I only managed to read a fraction of the book, it did introduce me to structuralism and post-structuralism and subsequently I discovered semiotics, Ferdinand de Saussure, Roland Barthes and Jean Baudrillard- who's work would also form the basis for my dissertation on performative acitivism by brands. Simultaneously I began investigating the works of Fluxus. I used Fluxus and the related media art as a sort of philosophical justification for realtime, interactive art.
I believe that the Black Lives Matter protests in May and June of 2020 formed the attitude of this piece. I became increasingly frustrated with the appropriation of class struggle by the media and corporations, and led me down a path in which I considered whether political change was even at all possible under the present conditions of society. A link with this attitude formed with my interest in semiotics when I considered how the aesthetics of poltical struggle could be used to produce capital for brands.
When September arrived, I channeled this attitude and these thoughts into a brief for my project. I had outlined a particular interest in Semiotics, the media and ideology and wanted to create a realtime experience that explored the relationship between political symbols and ideology.
I wanted to work with Unity, as I have always been interested in the production of digital interactive experiences. This was paired with my belief that digital interactivity is currently the best tool for pushing into the fronteir of art. I believed and still believe that interaction holds a unique capacity for artistic expression.
My creative work began with an investigation into giftshop suveniers. I was particularly interested in the car crash of signifiers that could be found in a giftshop, and how complex and meaninful signification could be ravaged and nulled for profit.
After a deeper investigation into the gift shop idea, it fell apart. I remember October being a particularly difficult month as I had a desire to begin creating, yet did not feel as though I did not have a theoretical foundation upon which I could build. At best I had a sort of mood and atmosphere I felt compelled to express through this work and I made a compilation of images and music to try and capture this.
In search for inspiration, I looked to other creative video games like Dear Esther, The Return of the Obra Dinn, What Remains of Edith Finch, INSIDE, and Katamari. Then I became interested in the construction of themepark experiences in Disneyland and even completed an online imagineering course as part of my research- an idea that I would not come back to until December.
I eventually decided just to dive in to Unity and start making. Inspired by Dear Esther, I began to work on an environment that had the player appear in a natural world, floating on a raft. The would then see a strange landmark in the distance that would act as a motive for a player. I think I wanted the experience to be an analogy for some sort of commodified life split into three chapters: childhood, adulthood and death- a thread that can be traced throughout the development of this project.
As I began to consider the aesthetics of this piece, I became fascinated by shaders. I spent a lot of time looking through tutorials to try and get my head around many of the concepts of shading and also how to use Unity's new Shader Graph. At this point, I would scoff at the idea of trying to produce a realistic environment and I was mostly interested in cel-shading approaches similar to the style of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. With the help of many tutorials, I eventually produced my own.
I continued to work on this environment, and eventually it started to become a coherent experience. The audience would enter a tunel leading into a cave where it would open up into a large cathedral. The player is then married to some kind of commodity like a tin of soup, before ascending to the landmark where they will die in a performed empty ritual. I would soon expand on this idea of commodities acting as placeholders for real experience.
At this point I hadn't really considered the hardware this piece would run on. I think in my head I was working towards something that could be navigated using a gamepad, and it was too early to have to consider how the graphics would effect performance.
Eventually I moved on from this idea to further explore signification of commodities. I was reading a book about the Frankfurt school titled 'Grand Hotel Abyss' by Stuart Jeffries where I came across a passage about Walter Benjamin's writing on his youth. The author notes that there are no people in this story, instead there are objects that contain a reference to the people around Benjamin.
I set upon trying to explore this aura invested in objects- in my case commodities- by allowing the audience to enter an object, and explore an environment that was the objects aura. I had three commodities to represent three themes: childhood, adulthood and death.
Now I had to difficult part. What object can effectively symbolise the commodified childhood experience? I was stumped, but found Freud's Interpretation of Dreams and the work of Rene Magritte particularly helpful. Freud believed that birth was often represented in dreams as floating in water, or being pulled from water. I used this symbol to create a world in which the audience is born in a bowl of cereal (cereal being a commodity marketed as a maternal comfort to infants). The audience then navigate a maze of floating cereal being guided by the mascot for the cereal brand.
I became interested in depicting adulthood through sex commodities. In my studies I had found many works of modern art that depict women as sexual objects but I was mostly drawn to Duchamp's Large Glass. I thought it would be interesting to place the audience in the position of the bachelors who signal their desire to the bride by shooting at but never coming in to contact.
I created an environment where the audience sit in a cart on rails that revolves around a giant curved object, designed to be a simplified sexual form. As they revolve, they must shoot at these targets on the object and the more targets they destroy, the greater the reward. At the end of this section, the players cart is filled with slighlty mishapen and broken copies of the sexual object - they don't quite reach the ideal object the player shoots at but can never reach.
It was at this point when I began to consider how this will be played by the audience. I had two main concerns: It had to be portable (it should be easily accessible through digital means) and it had to be accessible (the controls should be as simple as possible). I have these two constraints due to the degree show being online this year, and wantng to create something that can be experienced at home. I settled on the idea of using smartphones and the gyroscope sensor inside them to control it. The player could now interact with items just by looking at them with their smartphone.
I created a scene from which the audience can navigate to each other scene. My idea was to have an artefact presented as though it were some sort of museum exhibit, the player could then look at it using their phone and be transported into the objects aura.
January saw a big shift in my theoretical approach to this problem. I was no longer depicting a life told through the auras of commodities, but instead the life of the individual considered through the roles of production and consumption of cultural capital. My consideration of the relationship between child and mentor seen earlier contained in the aura of the object had become the relationship between child-consumer and adult-producer mediated by social codes and media.
Thus I saw the themepark ride as the perfect metaphor for the individuals experience growing up in today's media-centric economy. The themepark ride guides behaviour, and tells the audience what to look at. The audience have little say in whether they wish to contribute, and only have freedom in choosing what they wish to consume.
I got to work in producing displays for the ride. I had decided that the ride could be split into three themes: wealth, sex and power. I believe these to be a good way to categorise the types of social signs individuals adopt to convey status.
I had begun to consider how to roles of consumer and producer would be expressed. I wanted the consumer to have very little control, and to passively consume what is in front of it. The producer however, would have a more active role in performing for the consumer. The producer would have some freedom to interact, yet their role is still largely dictated. I started modelling, texturing and animating objects to go in the scene. The all used a shader I built that does not any type of lighting, but instead uses directional tints and z-depth to convey three dimensions.
The wealth scene is dominated by a display in which an empty heavily-branded tracksuit, with a watch for a head repeatedly checks its non-existent watch.
I then depicted displays of desire quite bluntly with a blow-doll that gyrates at the cameras on the other side of the water. This was inspired by Duchamp's 'The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelor's Even'. I sought to express how we will often flatten ourselves into images to open oneself up to being desired by others, yet it becomes an symbol that can be passed around and traded for capital much like pornography. Hence the commodified sexual being, dancing for an array of anonymous voyeurs.
The video below shows a basic structure beginning to surface. The audience are led through dark rooms each with a light up central piece.
It is important to note, that I opted for the 40 credit dissertation with a deadline in March. From this point onward I could dedicate 100% of my time to the development of the studio work so March and April have muvh more content in them.
I set upon creating the third chapter in this experience- power and death. I wanted the walls of the ride to come down, and expose the audience to an enormous space with a collosal structure ahead of them. I began to look into expressions of power in memorials or tombs, and was at first interested in pyramids until I came across the Taj Mahal.
The Taj Mahal is a fantastic expression of power in death. The architecture is beautiful, yet it is structural strong. The tomb is elevated, symetrical and has all lines of sight leading towards it. I created my own structure that carried some of the design principles, yet looked more geometric and alien.
I began making subtle hints to poverty throughout the piece, whether it be empty bottles, beds made from cardboard or abandoned trolleys. I wanted to suggest that these performed statusses were still grounded in a world full of inequality, hunger and disease. To carry this through to the power scene, I have the audience levitate above a city, simultaneously above, yet within it.
I also developed a method of having the audience interact with this world. I set up these magenta floating orbs that are supposed to jump out to the player. By looking at these orbs, the player can activate certain events.
I also got to modelling some interesting 3D assets. I had refrained from creating my low poly assets from higher poly assets as is normal in the games industry because I thought it would be too time-consuming. I did eventually give in, and created some body part assets to scatter across the desire scene. I could then use the high poly assets to generate texture maps for a lower poly version to give the illusion that there is more detail in a low-poly model than there really is.
The capturing of a photograph became a motif in this project. The camera acted as a stand-in for the consumer (or at least the mediator between consumer and producer), who is completely alienated from the producer. All of the producers performances are approved by a camera flash.
As I got used to the workflow of creating High-poly assets, I decided I would go back and remodel and rig the blow-up doll. With the new level of detail I could produce seams and folds that better sold the illusion that the blow up doll was inflatable and made from rubber.
I was also considering bringing more religious imagery into the power scene. I was unsure of the giant section of emptiness and thought I should fill it with more content. Eventully I settled on creating a vibrant soundscape so the emptiness was alienating, yet the scene still felt rich. I used my new rigged blow-up doll model and placed it in a 'Christ in Majesty' pose at the end of the power scene to emphasise the reified individual replacing previous power systems as the driving force of society.
I had also developed a new means of moving around this scene as a producer. I created floating green orbs that move camera to their position when they are looked at. This led to a system in which green orbs are unnecessary and purely for movement, whereas magenta orbs are critical and trigger events when interacted with.
I then created an interior to the mausoleum, that is based on the pantheon in Rome. I chose it partly due to the religious and powerful nature to it, but mostly due to its radial form that translates well to the gyroscope controls. In unity, I made the walls blindingly bright, and added fairy, fantasy sounds so it felt mystical like the audience had ascended.
When the audience reaches this room in the production phase, they would watch the player/ camera get crushed by a falling stage light. This was intended to be a abrupt ending and a return to reality. Baudrillard mentioned that the dead were the most discriminated group in Western society stating "it is not normal to be dead". This simulated reality does not account for the abruptness and inevitability of death, but when one sees it, they ask whether everything that came before it had meaning.
To depict this dramatic end, I took a 3D model of a DSLR and a stage light, applied a shatter modifier in Maya, then assigned each part a rigidbody in Unity. As I was testing how this collision looked, I realised that it was much more hard-hitting without the sound of the impact. The audience is given a slighlty uncomfortable length of silence while they are left to gaze upon that corpse of the individual.
At this part of the project, I was beginning to be held back by the aesthetic limitiations of my own shader, so I moved most objects to a simple URP shader that would allow for baked lighting. Although I wanted to avoid realistic aesthetics at the beginning of the project, this lighting just gave the ride so much more drama. I could also use slightly heavier shaders on the few moving objects with realtime lighting making these look much better in the process.
The last major change I made was the introduction of floating text. This text provided a narrative for the experience by framing the text as a dialect between the individual and the underlying systemic codes that drives their behaviour - or in this case, the audience and the ride. However, I discovered that in reading text from left to right, you can actually guide your audience towards things you want them to notice. Quite often the text will have an important orb I want the audience to interact with sitting at the end.
Notes On Content
The vast majority of code is my own, with the exception of the Android gyroscope control script that was created by Kormyen on GitHub.
The water shader was derived from a tutorial created by Binary Lunar.
All audio was sourced from Soundsnap using The Glasgow School of Art's license. This license allows for the editing and remixing of all audio and can be used in films, games and television.
3D Assets
All 3D assets were build by myself using an educational license for Maya granted by Autodesk. Many of the materials for the assets were created from Substance Painter's library of smart materials provided with the educational license.
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