Joseph Pleass, a designer and web developer based between London and Amsterdam, never really expected to enter into the creative industry professionally. Despite the fact that he used computers for creativity growing up and that he would spend most of his time in front of the screen, it wasn’t always a clear path. Fortuitously, he ended up going to the University of East London, was “convinced” by his teachers that he was good at graphic design, and suddenly the idea of a digitally creative career blossomed.
“A lot of decisions I was making up until that point were about getting out of my hometown in Boston, Lincolnshire, and not about my career,” Joseph tells It’s Nice That. “So studying at art school felt really incidental to that.” After his studies, Joseph recalls being “super motived” and resultantly worked with Yuri Suzuki at Dentaku – a three person studio that made interactive sound installations. “This was how I ended up dipping my toes into coding and interaction; from here I jumped into web design and development, and that’s where I’ve been for the past five years.”
Recently, Joseph graduated from an MA at the University of the Underground, a hosted programme at the Sandberg Instituut in Amsterdam. This step was an experience that “definitely shook up [his] practice”, and one that gave life to his latest project, I’ve Been To Paradise. But before delving into the details, it’s important to note that Joseph’s work is formed primarily from an inherent enthusiasm for video games. “I’m interested in listing ideas from that world because they’re so rich and full of world-building possibilities,” he says. Most of his work is written in code, too, so his projects tend be built on a laptop in a studio before a “weird layer” is added on top. In this sense, he likes to add a layer that breaks this “fourth wall”, whether it be his words or something more tangible – a tactic which can be seen with his newly designed website, where cinematic subtitles navigate the viewer though his portfolio.
Now back to the project. I’ve Been To Paradise, devised during his final year after a brief to develop “the design of experience”, is a video game that explores euthanasia onboard a speculative cruise ship. By his own definition, “the design of experience” is a “combination of performance and design to affect political spaces,” which led him towards institutions. “One day I was in Amsterdam getting the ferry to Noord, and this huge cruise ship came down the river and essentially blotted out the sun – and I just figured they were about the most interesting political space I could imagine – hyped-up capitalist-utopian-idealism floating around the world in this watery vacuum,” says Joseph. Later, at a party, a friend told him that many people die on cruises due to the older demographic of attendees; Joseph did some research and found that this was mostly true, where some ships even had morgues onboard, as well as chaplains and frameworks to deal with the inevitability of death. “But,” he continues, “I noticed how this was being reported in a manner that implied that this was an ‘incorrect’ way to die, and this is where the project came from.”
Channelling this idea – that death should be prevented – I’ve Been To Paradise takes a deep look at this concept and use of euthanasia, a controversial means of assisted dying that is in fact legal in the Netherlands. Having met with people going through the process and discussed with those from relevant institutions and professionals, the game sees a role-play experience where you can choose your character and venture through the procedure virtually. Taking three months to develop, the 15-minute-long game sees a childlike aesthetic sit profoundly against an emotive and controversial topic, an unexpected pairing to say the least, but one that makes these topics just that little bit more approachable.
Alongside this, Joseph has created a “forever looping” music video called Absent Friends that places its audience in a forest setting, with rain dripping on the screen and stylistically huge subtitles. Another sees an interactive music video take the form of a game, where you can collect posters and then get a link to band camp page. “So much of my working process is about understanding the limitations of what you can do with computers – which is the best thing about learning to code – suddenly you unlock the potential of not only your own devices, but every device around you,” says Joseph. “Most of my practice as a web developer is about figuring out what you can reasonably get away with inside a web browser.”
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