Bodies in Code, and in the Cultural Imaginary

Curator's Note

Upon its release last August, "The Wilderness Downtown," the interactive video directed by Chris Milk, with music by the Arcade Fire, was hailed as a technical “tour-de-force.” But it achieves its emotional impact through a carefully calibrated deployment of personal geodata visualization and broad cultural tropes. The viewer is made to feel as if he—and I use that pronoun deliberately—is the subject of the video, as well as its observer. In so doing, "The Wilderness Downtown" provides a rich example of how we constitute ourselves from both internal perceptions and external observations. In addition, it points to the ways in which seemingly universal themes—nostalgia for childhood, for nature, and for material encounters with the world—are in fact culturally-specific, and often exclusionary.   

"The Wilderness Downtown" only runs on web browsers capable of rendering HTML5, which is important to note for two reasons: 1) the clip on the left is a screen capture of one person’s viewing experience; if possible, you should launch the video in a browser of your own; and 2) the video was produced by Google, which makes one of the two major HTML5-capable browsers on the market. Thus, the video functions not only as an example of up-to-the-minute engineering, but also of advertising in the digital age.

In the clip on the left, customized moving images of the viewer's hometown are juxtaposed with prerecorded footage of an adolescent boy in a hooded sweatshirt, his face obscured by shadow, running down a rain-soaked street. The browser windows grow larger and the videos longer, culminating in a three-window display at the center of the screen. As the videos begin to spin in unison, the viewer comes to perceive the customized images and the faceless figure as related—ideally, the viewer sees the figure as himself.

There's no doubt that the technique is effective. The conjunction of images is compelling—startling, even. But it’s also important to ask who might have trouble seeing him or herself in that white, male, able-bodied form; and who might be unable to visualize his or her childhood home, since Google Street View, from which the images are drawn, contains complete data for only certain urban centers. It is not only through our interactions with new technology, but also by interrogating the disjunctions that such technology creates, that we come to constitute our bodies and ourselves.


I remember getting a link to this project when it first came out, and couldn’t make it run at the time (I think I was on a library computer). That’s the last I thought about it until today—I’ve just given it a whirl with a childhood address and the one I’m currently living at. I agree, the marketing partnership most definitely has its negative side. But while today's over-the-top emphasis on customization is usually a point of critique, I do like the way it’s being used here for artistic purposes, and for music videos (full disclosure: not a music video afficionado). I think it’s a nice way of repositioning Google Streetview—making it cinematic, giving it a dynamism we can’t achieve as we click the arrows awkwardly through its piecemeal streets and photographic deadends. (My personalized video displayed quite clunkily, too.) While we need to keep our eye on Google, I do like it when it exercises (and people move it to exercise) its “patron of the arts” side, offering up its data stores for interesting treatments. It reminds me a bit of the “Street With a View” project, in which Pittsburgh residents and the Google car collaborated in rendering their street to include a number of wacky goings-on. If anything, these projects take viewers out of their regular relationships with these services, drawing (potentially critical) attention to them (from “why is my street so fuzzy?” to “why is my street not included” to “I’m grateful my street’s not [yet] included”) and inspiring more critical/artistic interventions. Actually, I think that the kind of emotion that this treatment harnesses could do some good (of the type we've been discussing around Spore 1.1), in terms of directing people to places they haven’t been for a long time, possibly bolstering a sense of responsibility for monitoring or managing that place, or that history. Thanks for the interesting post!

Thanks for the cool post.  I hadn't seen this before—really interesting use of geodata as a way to think about self-representation. It's a bit of a stretch, but this reminds me of a disturbing yet quietly hilarious moment in DeLillo's White Noise, when Jack Gladney checks his bank balance at the "cash terminal" and is comforted by the receipt of data he retrieves (about himself): "what a pleasing interaction. I sensed that something of deep personal value, but not money, not that at all, had been authenticated and confirmed" (46).  This example comes from a different time and a different medium and has a different tone, and I'm wondering if works like "Wilderness Downtown" might reveal a larger shift in cultural attitudes about using data to depict and affirm the self.  The scene in White Noise is funny, at least in part—and at least to me—because of the smug, self-congratulatory tone that Gladney adopts in this quiet, semi-private moment.  In contrast, it doesn't seem like there's much that's quiet or private or even self-sufficiently smug about the way "Wilderness Downtown" pulls data to confirm identity. In fact, maybe the shift I'm trying to sniff out here is this: instead of confirming an identity based on what you’ve spent and how you’ve spent it, and thus locating yourself in terms of your socio-economic class and reminding yourself of your comfortable position in the financial order of things, works like "Wilderness Downtown," by pulling data about where you are and where you’re from, manufacture an identity for you and insert that identity seamlessly into a commercial, commodified, mainstream media form.   



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