The Global Meets the Local: The Wilderness Downtown Project

When I started my foray into the blogosphere less than a month ago, I was looking forward to sharing many of the amazing and creative projects/ideas/information that my students have pointed me to over the years. Over on the blog’s Facebook page, the wall is beginning to accumulate many of these links, and I wanted to stop, share, and comment on the one Jana posted last night—The Wilderness Downtown.

Screen shot montage of The Wilderness Downtown
In the rapidly expanding and more visually driven cyberspace environment, the potential to move beyond traditional media formats is both inevitable and creatively inspiring. There is also the possibility to critically reflect on the ideas concerning “Intermedia” first introduced with the alternative art movements of the 1960’s, when artists asked questions about what it could mean to work between artistic disciplines and push the boundaries to explore new potentials in both praxis and theory.

This past August, an online collaboration between web giant Google, Montreal-based indie rock band Arcade Fire, and music video director Chris Milk resulted in the difficult-to-categorize project with the provocative title, The Wilderness Downtown. Utilizing Google Chrome (Google’s new web browser) and HTML 5 (the next major revision of the HyperText Markup Language, the predominant language for constructing web pages on the Internet), the film project situates viewers in an individualized filmic experience, utilizing personal location and memory as a vehicle to create a dynamic intersection of the local and global (I don’t want to give the experience away entirely, so go check it out for yourselves here).

The project’s director Chris Milk is a music video director and photographer who has directed videos for Kanye West, U2, Green Day and was even part of Barack Obama’s bio film that helped introduce him to the public at the pivotal Democratic National Convention of 2008. As Milk suggests in an interview with Wired Magazine,“We were excited about breaking out of the traditional 4:3 or 16:9 video box, and thinking about how we could take over the whole browser experience. Further, we wanted to make something that used the power of being connected. In contrast to a traditional experience of downloading a pre-packaged video or playing a DVD, we wanted to make something that was incorporating data feeds on the fly, and tailoring the experience to a specific individual….One of the biggest struggles for a director is to successfully create a sense of empathy with their characters and settings... This effect is a totally different kind of emotional engagement that is both narrative and personally driven."
Screen shot from the film

For their part, Arcade Fire has been able to expand the conceptual potential for the song that inspired the collaboration “We Used to Wait.” With lyrics that refer to the nostalgia of analog letter writing, and the changing nature of intimate connection, the haunting refrain echoes:

Now our lives are changing fast
Now our lives are changing fast
Hope that something pure can last
Hope that something pure can last

Milk hints that there will be more layers added to The Wilderness Downtown project soon: “The second level of social interaction, beyond just the observers and the piece … will unfold over the next few months as people are able to anonymously connect with each other through the postcards created in the film, and output through a number of both digital and physical mediums — one being the traveling ‘Wilderness Machine.’” It will be interesting to critically reflect on how these developments alter our understanding of both Intermedia and the shifting potential of social networking.

For a great Q&A interview with Milk that appeared only two weeks ago on Techland concerning this project, click here.