Utopia is a speculative design exploration into a dystopian future America.
I designed, wrote, and created Utopia as part of my studio work at Parsons School of Design. The piece incorporates my own videography work, motion graphics, illustration, and animation.
A reel of ads builds a cultural landscape in which a corporate-government oligarchy has infiltrated every aspect of our lives through both digital and physical surveillance. With unclear motives, they are in our love lives, our careers, and our heads.
Through this dystopian lens, we can examine unsettling aspects of our present society more clearly, provoke discussion, and start to question just how far into the future this utopia is.
The flow chart details the gradual decline from a democratic republic – with free will, capitalism, and all that we think of when we think of the US – to the future fascist surveillance state I have developed.
Important points have been highlighted with grey, including our present levels of corporate and government surveillance (which are already alarmingly high), the consolidation of the corporate/government oligarchy and creation of the fascist state – still nominally democratic but with no real voice for the populace, and the ensuing monetization of the human.
Within this all-encompassing surveillance state, the corporate/government oligarchy – hereafter referred to as the government – has a complete biography for each citizen. From lifetime surveillance and genetic mapping, personality, intelligence, decision-making skills, and abilities are all known and categorized. Every citizen is profiled, categorized, and listed.
This project focuses on the government’s incentive program for a directed life. Based on each person’s dossier, the government will suggest a particular career placement. They will suggest the perfect mate for you, and even how many particular children you and your new mate should have, and when. The push is in the incentives. If you go along with their program and follow their regimen, you will get tax breaks, you will get your record cleared, you will get that promotion or publication. Monetary and the more intangible rewards will make your life so much easier. Enrollment in this program is not mandatory, but it is strongly suggested, and you would pretty much be crazy not to sign up.
Juniper and Badge, as projected products, allow the collection of your innermost thoughts and closest-kept secrets, government intrusion on the deepest level. Juniper connects and collects data directly from your head – constantly reads and analyzes your thoughts. Badge brings all your identification, resources, health, and movement into one closely monitored place. Ostensibly for your convenience, ease, and health benefits, Juniper and Badge both allow unprecedented access to every aspect of You.
In planning Utopia, I researched extensively into historical precedents and fictional dystopias. I re-read several of my favorite fictional dystopian novels, including Vonnegut's Player Piano, Zamiatin's We, and Nabokov's Bend Sinister. Nazi era and Cold War propaganda – foreign and domestic, current North Korean oppression and propaganda techiques, all were complex influences on my conceptual future.
Initially I planned a future 100-200 years from now, but as I kept working, the vague “date” of this dystopia loomed ever nearer, until it is closer to twenty or fifty years than 100. Many of the major elements of the surveillance state are already in place, and just the large-scale usage and detailed individual profiling are not quite at the American Dream level. Other factors, such as the official merging of the corporate and government oligarchy, might be further in the future – as much as it already seems to be the case unofficially.
I settled on a promotional advertisement reel as the best method of expressing the dystopia; I was attracted by the flexibility of multiple vignettes of the world. A clear picture of the society’s structure and political system can be put together through short snapshots of the products and programs offered in the future state, and I liked this puzzle-piece-like element to the shaping of the narrative.
Each piece plays with tropes of different types of media – there are propaganda methodologies and techniques of political campaigns, corporate reels, and dating and drug commercials. Each plays on the expected pattern, tapping into the familiar and then offering a twist.
Keeping all of these techniques in mind, I started to shape the message, write the script, and storyboard out the shots. I quickly came upon the brick wall that is expensive stock footage, so I thought I would simply shoot my own instead. How hard could it be? … hard.
I have never filmed more than my dog, and that with my phone, so attempting to film decent footage of actual people was quite a step. The learning curve has been steep. I mapped out the shots I wanted onto the script I had written – as the message itself is the most important aspect of the pieces, I wanted the visuals to support that.
I conscripted my peers into my piece, quickly finding that directing presents its own challenges. I filmed more of the depressing old times by windows to create dramatic lighting with large dark portions, and the positive, American Dream footage outside and in bright locales – and emphasized the dichotomy further with editing. Audio was its own dilemma.
Recording in a room with egg carton foam on the walls was not enough; the sound was sharp and tinny, with odd burring at certain points in the script. Another session in an actual recording suite did wonders, and my actor neighbor, Tadesh Inagaki, has a voice perfect for my intentions – personable, friendly, with just a hint of smoothness that suggests a slick corporate/government influence.
I then carefully interspersed motion graphics into the filmed footage. I wanted to keep the balance throughout the piece, as well as use the graphics to emphasize key elements of the message and intensify the over-the-top drama found in infomercials, dramatizations, and public service announcements.
For Juniper, I drew several iterations of illustrations, all with the same hand-drawn, simple feel, and settled on the little bow-tie guy. My cheerful dog, Bo, also makes a small cameo – a recurring theme in my work, it seems – to illustrate the happy times one can have once Juniper is regulating your thoughts for you.
I recorded myself in the audio suite and used a smooth, artificially calm voice to communicate the mind-altering implant’s artificially positive results. Again, the visuals allude to well known tropes in modern advertisements, specifically drug commercials, but play with them.
The American Dream Program sounds great on the surface, obstensibly just a progression of the well-established American premise of opportunity for career, family, etc. But red flags immediately surface.
Juniper tests the limits of what one is comfortable giving up for a calm, happy existence.
It sparks questions of mind control on both the small scale – I can choose to take something or not – and the large scale – what happens when an outside entity decides what thoughts I should and should not be having – as well as the data collection and storage element – who has access, what is being stored and for how long, what is the algorithm by which it is analyzed.
A small reference to yet another program, Badge, brings an alarming tagline of "goes where you go" to further chip away at your sense of stability.
Each is unnerving enough, but together form a distinctly invasive and totalitarian view of the future – all packaged in a warm and friendly little package.
For the exhibition of Utopia at the group show Major Major, I crafted a living room of the future. Armchair, blanket, bookcase, and tv arranged in a home-like atmosphere complete with trinkets and accessories.
The reel of ads comprising Utopia is meant to be seen as if in that future – so the living room setting is important to its experience. Brochures for the Juniper and Badge programs are on the side table, enticing the future occupant to enroll.