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Database | Narrative | Archive

Seven interactive essays on digital nonlinear storytelling
edited by Matt Soar & Monika Gagnon

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Case Study: The Wilderness Downtown

Launched in 2010 and produced by director/interactive media innovator Chris Milk in conjunction with Google’s Creative Lab, The Wilderness Downtown is an interactive music video for Arcade Fire’s song "We Used to Wait." Created in HTML5 as a showcase piece for Google’s then-new Chrome browser, the project asks the participant to start by inputting the address of their childhood home, which is then used to call up Google Earth and Google Street View images as source files in the proceeding music video. The video takes over the browser, triggering pop-up windows with their own video content, some of which include map images of the provided address. During the video, participants are also asked to write a note to their former selves using a built-in “notepad” that allows typed or handwritten lettering. Code-generated birds then interact with the participant’s words by landing on what they’ve written.

While not an example of conventional crowdsourcing – a kind of aggregate work produced by a large number of individuals – The Wilderness Downtown nonetheless achieves emotional engagement because of the way it integrates the participant’s contribution to the work. Indeed, without the participant’s input, the project would lack significant emotional impact at all.

The song and video play largely on the value of nostalgia (hence the request for the address of a former home) – the memories of childhood, of old neighborhoods, of family, and of finding one’s own identity through coming of age. The images of a childhood home in the context of the song and video connect these universal themes with more personal, individualized experiences – they, quite literally, insert the participant in the story world of the music video. Indeed, the participant IS the subject of the video.

Milk’s goal was to produce a work that would “suture” the viewer into the experience as a fully-realized character. He wanted to “require minimal time investment up front with maximum ‘you’ in the film. The only way to do that is to deliver a different film to every viewer.” So, while the project doesn’t aggregate multiple contributions to complete the work, it produces a “crowd” of individual stories – individual iterations of the music video. The replacement of one of the vertical or paradigmatic elements – the home address – radically changes the meaning in the horizontal or syntagmatic viewing experience.

Milk recognizes the tension between the exterior, "outside-the-skull" interaction with a database and the interior, paradigmatic engagement needed for meaningful storytelling. “I love trying to tell stories in new ways using technology,” he says. “My biggest concern though was finding something that would emotionally resonate with people, without getting them bogged down in that technology. It's easy to lose the humanity when you start showcasing tech. Google maps and streetview embody that contradiction though. It’s cold high-tech that can be incredibly emotional when used in the right context. The whole piece is full of contradictions. It's essentially human nostalgia produced by the most advanced technology available today."

The Wilderness Downtown finds the intersection between the paradigmatic meanings – the personal, emotional, metaphoric meanings, the meanings that produce depth – and the fascination of the syntagmatic movement of the plot structure and multi-window spatial montage. As Milk puts it, the inclusion of the participant’s contribution, which draws simple mapping information from a database, places these otherwise valueless (“cold”) images into a rich context. The participant expands the meaning of the Google data by attaching their own history and memories to it, which is further enriched by the song’s lyrics, melody, and the video’s nostalgic narrative. The collision of the forms of music video and interactive database cinema, together with a personal contribution, produce an emergent meaning evocative of the “synthesis” of Sergei Eisenstein's intellectual montage theories. The dialectic of these opposing, but merging, forms produces a meaning not inherent in any one element individually.
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