When I was in high school, my two favorite movies were The Truman Show and The Village. At first glance, these two movies have little in common: one is a dramedy about a man whose entire life has been turned into a “reality” television show and the other is a pseudo-horror film about a small Puritan community. Yet when I reflect on what drew me to these films, I realize how I may have been predisposed to like them, that they perhaps shaped my life in ways I only later realized, and that they were a lot more alike than I knew.
The Truman Show, starring Jim Carrey and directed by Peter Weir, was released in 1998 and, in many ways, predicts the rapid rise of reality television (and even more so the democratization of sharing your life online on social media platforms). Carrey plays Truman Burbank, an insurance salesman who is also unknowingly the star of a popular television show, also called “The Truman Show.” Truman was adopted at birth by a television studio where his entire life would be broadcast twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. “Directed” by the mercurial Christof, played brilliantly by Ed Harris, Truman’s entire life exists inside a massive soundstage — the first, we’re told, that can be seen from space. Every action, every event in Truman’s life has been choreographed by Christof. Every relationship is staged; his family and friends are hired actors. Truman starts to suspect that something is off and the facade is slowly revealed. Friends show up at opportune times, cars drive on a loop, a stage light falls from the “sky”. The film ends — spoiler alert — with Truman sailing to the edge of the soundstage, hitting a wall painted with a fake horizon line before walking out the only door.
The Village, too, is a story of false realities. (More spoilers, obviously). Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan and released a few years after The Truman Show, in 2004, the Puritan community, seemingly set in the 1800s, is positioned in a valley surrounded by woods that no one has ventured beyond because of mysterious monsters who lurk at night. Rules are created to keep the monsters at bay: red is outlawed because they are drawn to red, and yellow is encouraged as it repels them. Townspeople patrol the village border each night. What starts like a horror film, subtly turns into a love story, as two young members of the community, the blind Ivy (played by Bryce Dallas Howard) and Noah (Adrien Brody), form a bond. When Noah, jealous of the attention Ivy gets from Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix), he stabs him, setting in motion the film’s true narrative.
To get medicine to save Lucious, someone has to leave the village, and venture beyond the woods — venture beyond the monsters — to the nearest town to get remedies. At the end of the film it is revealed that the film takes place not in the 1800s but in the present day. The village leader is revealed to be a wealthy businessman who, in an attempt to escape the evils of the world builds this community, paying people to keep it a secret and paying governments to reroute planes over the land, in hopes of creating a pure, innocent new world. They ask Ivy to get the medicine, for she can travel through the woods, talk to people in the present day, and never see the real world. Their way of life can live on.
Where The Truman Show doesn’t hide its conceit, The Village, as with all Shyamalan films, revels in the twist ending, the slow reveal. But despite their differences, the films are more alike than they seem: they are both stories of constructed environments and fictionalized realities. They are stories about power and control, truth and experience. When I was in high school, I’m not sure I could tell you what drew me to both of these stories but looking back, it couldn’t be more clear: I also lived in a constructed environment and fictionalized reality.
When I was in middle school, between the ages of ten and thirteen, we lived in a small home on the edge of the woods — a landscape much like the one I saw a few years later in The Village. Our house was a dirty tan one-story home, the last house on an unpaved gravel road with three other homes. They all looked the same, just with different colors: white, blue, yellow, and tan. Through the woods was a suspension bridge — the largest in the state of Indiana — that crossed a lake. On the other side of the lake were a series of cabins surrounded by animals — goats, sheep, horses. This was the petting zoo, a small corner of Camp Tecumseh, a nearly 700-acre summer camp and outdoor center situated between two small Indiana towns, Brookston and Delphi. We lived at the camp for two and a half years, moving there a few years after The Truman Show was released and a few years before The Village.
My father joined the staff as one of the directors in March 2000, prompting us to move from where we were living in Pennsylvania to the camp, 800 miles away. Like all of the camp staff, we lived on the campgrounds. Between the camper cabins and climbing walls, between the pools and the archery ranges were homes for the camp staff and their families. This was a culture shock for my younger sister and me, made harder by the fact that we were taken out of school — I was in fifth grade, she was in second — and placed in a new school halfway through the year. My mom grew up in Indiana and her entire family still lived nearby so Indiana felt familiar. But to move there? This turned our lives upside down and was a hard adjustment, I think, for all of us — something my parents only confessed to years later.
There were other kids at camp — the campers who arrived each week, obviously, but also other “camp kids”, the children of the other employees. Our neighbors had a son who was a few years younger than my sister, who was born at camp, this was the only place he knew. Most of the camp kids, in fact, were born there, grew up there, loved it there. They participated in camp activities: going to bonfires, attending classes in basketweaving and rifelry. The families joined campers each night in the cafeteria to eat together.
The cafeteria, one of the biggest buildings on the grounds, was centrally located: one side touched the river, the back sat against the tree line, and it opened up to large green pasture with climbing walls, sports fields, and obstacle courses. The building housed the camp offices and kitchens. There were exposed wood beams and wood-paneled walls. Taxidermied animals sat on ledges just below the ceiling. Browns and tans and deep reds everywhere. We tried eating in the cafeteria but it never quite stuck. I remember eating a few dinners in the cafeteria but my dominant memories are of our family preferring to eat around our table in our house.
I wasn’t an outdoor child, never was. I didn’t play sports or like hiking and swimming and fishing. The appeal of camp was lost on me, a child who preferred sitting inside, playing on a computer or spending time alone drawing, creating, and making in my room. But when I think back to those years, I’m struck by the environment that surrounded us. The landscapes were gorgeous: lush forests, lakeside views, open fields filled with horses, long unpaved roads that seemingly stretched forever over the midwest flatlands. The joke is that if your dog runs away in Indiana, you can see it running for three days.
But more than that, I remember the visual vernacular. Everything on the campgrounds was built by the camp maintenance and construction staff. The lake behind our house with the suspension bridge? They were both man-made by and for the camp. A mere few feet from our back door stood a concrete replica of the largest tree stump in Indiana. The real tree was on the other side of the state. We had a simulation.
The building that sticks most vividly in my mind was called The Creative Arts Center, or “the CAC” as it was called by campers. The CAC was nothing more than a large multi-purpose room — it had a stage on one side and an indoor climbing wall on the other. The space would be reconfigured depending on the needs: one day it might be filled with round tables surrounded by chairs for shared meals, another time rows of chairs for a presentation. Still another, it’d be empty, waiting to be filled by campers who would play camp games on the tiled floor. But it was the outside that I marveled at, even back then as a ten-year-old. They built a facade around the front of the building — which otherwise was just a big box — that was meant to look like an old Western. There were fake storefronts, saloons, jails. There were false windows and painted doors.
Everything at camp was like this. The campgrounds were always in flux — new buildings and cabins, new trails or outdoor ropes courses — yet they were designed to look like they’d always been there, like everything belonged with everything else. There were recreations of the West, of early American settlements which borrowed heavily — culturally insensitively, probably — from Native American imagery. The camp store was called “The Trading Post” and was filled with raccoon hats and taxidermied animals alongside t-shirts, keychains, and hats with the camp logo on them. Canoes hung from the ceiling in the dining halls and the signs on every building were machine-carved in wood. This vernacular extended down to the road signs, also in wood. (I remember noticing, even at that age, that the letters were fonts I knew: Comic Sans, Cooper Black, Hobo.)
We all live in constructed realities, of course, it’s just that mine was more glaring. Everything that surrounds us has been designed. “The entire globe,” wrote Beatrice Colomina and Mark Wigley in the introduction to their 2015 Venice Biennale, “has been encrusted by a geological layer of design.” The typography on the phones we look at when we wake up, the roads we drive on to get to work, the buildings we reside in, the furniture we sit on, and the clothes on our bodies have been designed. The sidewalks, the roadsigns, the Constitution have been designed. The definition of design I’ve come to use and reuse over the last decade is that design — in all its forms — is ideology made artifact. It turns ways of seeing the world, points of view, ideas about how we should and could live together, and makes them concrete. “Design solidifies, and naturalizes, things that start off as opinions, stories and traditions and so supplies the form to the fictions by which we live,” wrote Michael Rock. “To wit: we rarely stop to consider the faith-based proposition represented by the physicality of our money or the imagined national narratives engendered by border walls.”
The Truman Show and The Village show us the extremes of this. Both films make us consider the narratives around which we live our own lives. This is what theorists call “imagined realities”. Yuval Noah Harari, in his book Sapiens, writes that it is these imagined realities — these stories — that shape how we live. “Over the years, people have woven an incredibly complex network of stories,” he writes. “The kinds of things that people create through this network of stories are known in academic circles as ‘fictions’, ‘social constructs,’ or ‘imagined realities’.” The imagined realities I experienced at Camp Tecumseh were not nefarious like those in The Village and The Truman Show, but more like Disney World, a knowingly-constructed facade meant to conjure a particular experience where reality and entertainment blur.
It’s easy to make connections when looking back, to give moments more weight than they deserve. It’s no surprise, however, that an interest in design would crystalize while we lived at camp. Here I was surrounded by, living inside of, a wholly designed environment where every detail from the placement of roads to the typography on the street signs, was designed. It was at Camp that I first saw how everything around us came from somewhere: they were planned, designed, built, and constructed by people. Every day, I witnessed the design — and redesign — of the camp.
So it was while we lived at Camp that my interest in design began. First, it was architecture, then interior design. I had a fleeting interest in furniture design before finding graphic design a few years later. During this time, I got interested in maps and floorplans, recreating the documents used to build the camp. We got a computer and I started making logos and signs and posters for my windows. I used hyperlinking in PowerPoint to make my first “website”. I rearranged my room and designed furniture to be built to replace the furniture I already had. I wrote and designed personal newsletters that would be distributed to the family.
I never made the connection at the time; it was only many years later that I wonder how I couldn’t have discovered design while we lived there.
My dad left his job at camp after two and a half years. We packed up our small home, said goodbye, and moved back to Pennsylvania, to the same town we lived in before. This town was also designed, as all are, but its planning was less obvious.
In our new house, I designed my new room from scratch, picking furniture and wall colors, drawing detailed floorplans for where everything would go. I made art for the walls. Again, I was constructing a new environment. It was in that new room that I first watched The Truman Show and The Village. I was taken by both immediately but I never understood why. It’s only now, two decades later, that I suspect a connection: they reminded me of camp. And they were about design.