Grand Theft Smiles

Digital video (3840 x 2160), color, sound, 14′ 15”, 2024.

Game photography, 3840 x 2160 (original resolution), 2020-2022.

During the entirety of our days and lives, we are surrounded by messages that spread invitations to be positive, wealthy, and happy, in pragmatic, abstract, and rhetorical ways together. “Don’t give up!”, “Stay positive!”, “Be yourself!”, are only a few of the always active notifications that dictate how to behave. The purpose of reaching happiness – socially, economically, psychologically – is not an invention of our age. In his The Happiness Industry (2015), William Davies underlines how the measurement of people’s happiness is an old affair that began to evolve in a certain way since the Enlightenment period. The increasing number of motivational manual-books and catchy encouragement phrases based on self-esteem are nowadays permeating the mediascape and mediasphere, with social media that drive the head of the wagon. 

As the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek put it, following Jacques Lacan’s statements, Jouir is the old new black. “Enjoy!” is the invisible code that composes (and encodes) every small icon on our screens. There’s a new kind of social and professional needs: flexibility, adaptation, capacity to mix up work time and free time. But this never-ending request for wellness (and fitness) and positivity has its other side of the coin, translated into disturbing like ADHD, burnout syndrome, depression, and various types of anxieties. Is it possible to search out traces of this paradigm and tendency into the virtual worlds with which we please ourselves in several ways? How the inhabitants of these lands are designed to keep up with their pre-compiled work? Are they happy to stay here/there? How their happiness and positivity are represented if they are? In his Burnout Society (2020) Byung-Chul Han writes that we are no longer in a punitive society but in a performance one. A society that constantly asks for our display of performance. As a medium based, in its commercial forms, on performance acts, the videogame is well suitable for the task of investigating the visual representation of these problems. 

Inspired by the work of Byung-Chul Han and the photographic work The Americans by Robert Frank, I walked far and wide through the map of the video game Grand Theft Auto V (2013) to photograph the representation of the population within it. The result was a display of a generally depressed expression on the face of every inhabitant. None of them had the slightest hint of happiness, but a residual and visceral dissatisfaction. As a virtual reconstruction – it’s not important in this case if for a simulative or a sarcastic intent – San Andreas is a paradigmatic container of the disease that afflicts the “real” population. Representation upon representation upon representation. I’ve documented my wandering with 200 screenshots of San Andreas people, and a few examples are displayed below.