Bodies in Code, and in the Cultural Imaginary
by Lauren Klein — The Graduate Center and Macaulay Honors College, CUNY
June 23, 2011 – 00:00
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.