Gabby Luu and Jas Brooks of Perfect Melon Credit: Jeff Marini for chicago reader

You’re standing in pure sunlight in a crystal pavilion levitating over an infinite green melon patch. You move into the structure and pedestals rise from a platform, each one supporting a perfectly spherical green melon. 

But is it really a perfect melon? 

There’s only one way to know. You reach out and slap it: doink! It sounds like a deflated basketball hitting the floor. Probably not perfect. You reach for another, and this one resonates: sounding somehow at once dense and hollow, a melon of sweet substance. You decide that this could be the one, and with a squeeze of your hand, a honeyed, floral, fruity liquid squirts into your mouth. 

It’s perfect.

Meanwhile, a soothing disembodied narrator congratulates you: “We made this,” she says. “Together.”

Welcome to Perfect Melon, a “community-building” marketing campaign from the Perfect Melon beverage corporation, whose intention isn’t just to sell a soft drink, but “to bring people closer to nature.” 

The fictional corporation and marketing campaign are the creation of artists Jas Brooks, Li Yao, and Gabby Luu (who also supplies the voice in your head). They aren’t overearnest pseudoscientific corporate drones, but they play them in Perfect Melon, a prototype virtual reality performance installation that has taken on added resonance in the new waking nightmare of mass self-isolation. 

In the real world, there may not be a more physically intimate supermarket experience than melon selection. You eyeball the colors and shapes on display. You lift one and measure its heft. Hold it to your nose and take a whiff. Critically, you give it a thump.

“But what does it mean for the melon to sound good?” asks Luu, a Los Angeles-based artist who recently earned a master’s in art history at the University of Chicago. “Everyone has a shifting idea of what that is.” That’s one of many absurdities that sprout from this virtual melon patch whose airborne architecture was inspired by the plate-glass Crystal Palace that was home to London’s Great Exhibition of 1851, a structure that was “a manifestation of human architectural power [attempting] to perfect nature,” according to Yao, who earned his MFA in art and technology at the School of the Art Institute and is designing the virtual universe of the melon patch.

Brooks is the artist constructing the very real backpack that will contain a “taste display” that pumps randomized liquid flavor combinations through an array of converging straws into the waiting mouths of players each time one approves of a particular melon’s sound and elects to take a taste.

“The basic idea is you enter a virtual melon patch that is infinite, which is absurd,” says Brooks. “You’re given a task—which makes no sense—where you’re supposed to find a perfect melon: what you believe a melon should taste like. So you’re put on this infinite quest in VR, basically picking up melons and interacting with them in ways that are deemed natural but mean nothing.”

The people of Perfect Melon got together in the summer of 2018 during an ad hoc gathering of artists, students, and researchers that met each Saturday at Marisol at the MCA. “We wanted to see if we could make a group of people that were interested in flavor as a medium,” says Brooks, who is working toward a PhD in computer science at the University of Chicago, focusing on “wearable devices that modulate our sense of smell and taste.” The group researched and discussed a broad range of source materials, taking inspiration from everything from Italo Calvino, to Chanel advertisements, to records of the first synthetic chemical flavor essences to be commodified for industrial purposes in the late 19th century (and which were displayed at the Crystal Palace). They did a lot of tasting too—MSG, salt, citric acid, sugar, caffeine—“in an attempt to isolate different tastes,” according to Luu, eventually graduating to a variety of Asian melon-flavored soft drinks such as Binggrae Melon, Melon Ramune, and Suika Watermelon Soda.

“We focused on the melon as an image because of the Japanese food culture of cultivating perfect foods as gifts,” says Luu, referring to the country’s appetite for obsessively nurtured and fetishized hand-massaged fruit that individually can command millions of yen.

For the last year and a half, much of the narrative, virtual, and mechanical work on Perfect Melon has taken place at the University of Chicago’s Media Arts, Data, and Design Center. That’s where Yao fitted me with a tetchy VR headset to get a look at an infinity of melons, and I took whiffs from the bottles of concentrated ethyl butyrate, ethyl 2-methylbutyrate, and ethyl formate that are the first compounds Brooks secured to flow from the pump-straw mechanism whose prototypical parts were arranged across a table in a common area outside the center’s Hack Arts Lab space.

“One of our goals is to be able to stream all of the information of what players choose as their perfect melon,” says Luu. “Then mix those and create an average flavor for the perfect melon that people can then taste.” The ultimate goal was to test and tweak the process over the summer and go live in September with the three artists donning lab coats and guiding players through the game, staged on a carpet of artificial grass.

But the group had a lot more work to do before they were ready to invite an audience to crowdsource the perfect melon. For one thing they still needed to secure more synthetic flavors, which, as it turns out, aren’t simple to get a hold of. 

Another challenge loomed: “We’re starting to develop a full sanitization protocol,” says Brooks. They were imagining interchangeable metal straws that could be swapped out each time a new player donned the backpack and headset, and sterilizing the used ones with ultrasonic baths and UV light. 

All of this work would require funding. Grant applications were in the works. 

A month later, after the university shut down the campus, we all spoke on the phone. Luu was sheltering in place in LA but looking for work. Yao was applying for an online teaching gig in Shanghai after emerging from self-quarantine; a colleague’s wife was potentially exposed to COVID-19 but eventually tested negative. 

The trio didn’t seem to think that the pandemic meant the end of the infinite quest for the perfect melon. The lab where Brooks worked had been shut down, but they had brought home a distillation unit and a VR headset and were continuing to work on the taste display. But, they say, “the reality is, people are not gonna be as open to interacting with this very strange, intimate interface.”

 “Most of the art will require an able-bodied viewer with some confidence in their autoimmune system to participate in the process,” says Yao. Apart from that, the sanitation protocol needs to be as reassuring and transparent as an open restaurant kitchen.

But if anything, the pandemic underscored many of the themes Perfect Melon was meant to address: isolation, community, and “our thesis about how reality is constructed by corporations,” Yao says.

With Starbucks giving out free coffee to first responders, and Louis Vuitton pivoting from perfume to hand sanitizer, “it really hearkens back to corporate mobilization during wartime efforts,” says Brooks, something that ought not to be entirely trusted. “An opportunity for future profit.”

“In this moment it’s really highlighting the way corporations see themselves as community members,” says Luu. “It’s not a great situation to be in, but it’s unfolding before our eyes. These are things to continue thinking about.”  v