I just discovered “The Wilderness Downtown“, an interactive video for Arcade Fire’s “We Used to Wait,” from their new album Suburbs. The project was created and directed by Chris Milk, who is responsible for a number of interesting videos and commercials, including one my favorites.
The primary conceit of “The Wilderness Downtown” is relatively simple: the user enters the address of his or her childhood home and hits play, generating an interactive film, designed by Chris Milk but allowing for user-specific content. The video only works using Chrome, which provides some background on the project here and describes it as:
Choreographed windows, interactive flocking, custom rendered maps, real-time compositing, procedural drawing, 3D canvas rendering… this Chrome Experiment has them all. “The Wilderness Downtown” is an interactive interpretation of Arcade Fire’s song “We Used To Wait” and was built entirely with the latest open web technologies, including HTML5 video, audio, and canvas.
The project makes excellent use of new media. However, much of the the emotional power of the video derives from the air of nostalgia imbued in the experience. I lived in three homes until the age of 18. Even though I lived in the first one for 10 years, I could not remember the exact address. The third one did not have enough street views available to generate a proper video. However, the second one, the one my family lived in while I was in second and third grade, worked.
This geographic and temporal nostalgia reminded me of The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard’s classic phenomenological study. I’ve always had mixed feelings about the book because while it is one of the most lyrically literary works of spatial theory, it is also unapologetically reactionary, sentimental and nostalgic. Of the phenomenologists, I find myself citing Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty more often, but gleaning my highlighted passages in The Poetics of Space again reminded me that Bachelard is much more quotable.
In the book, Bachelard elucidates a “topography of our intimate being,” the spaces of creativity and imagination often associated with childhood wonder and a poetic privacy. The book is all about subjective experiences and formations with little attention given to concepts of universality or social construction (though The Poetics of Space was apparently the inspiration for Foucault’s concept of heterotopia and space of others). The stories and spaces here are personal as are Bachelard’s ideas concerning the emergence of ideas and creative genesis of thought.
Appearing in 1964, The Poetics of Space was part of a larger backlash against aesthetic and functional modernism, as well as its influence on urbanism. However, The Poetics of Space is notably reactionary in its pronounced antipathy to all (or at least most) things modern, including technology. Bachelard draws a clear distinction between nature, the inspiration for Bachelard’s pre-modern archetype of space, and culture, the space of undifferentiated repetition. For Bachelard, the modernist, urban house is artificial and separate from nature; it lacks differentiation and intimacy.
The Poetics of Space is problematic for architectural theory, criticism and history, as well, because it contains no references to styles, form, function or any theoretical concept for common discourse. Bachelard emerges more as an archaeologist, lecturing us on the significant yet unsung details of dwelling: cellars, attics, angles of the lamplight, seasonal differences, locks. Finally, it seems as though he is concerned with only one building – his own childhood home. He writes:
It therefore makes sense from our standpoint of a philosophy of literature and poetry to say that we ‘write a room’, ‘read a room’, ‘read a house’. Thus, very quickly, at the very first word, at the first poetic overture, the reader who is ‘ reading a room’ leaves off reading and starts to think of same place in his own past […] The values of intimacy are so absorbing that the reader has ceased to read your room; he sees his own again (14).
However, there are instances that make Bachelard’s work more useful beyond the pleasure of the prose. According to Blanchot:
Bachelard makes us attentive to a very fine and very precious distinction. Resonance does no more than bring us sentimentally back to our own experience. What alone places us at the level of poetic power is reverberation, the images’s summoning to what in it is initial, an instant summons to leave ourselves and to move in the shaking of its immobility. This “reverberation” is not, then, the image that resounds (in me, the reader, and the on the basis of my self), it is rather the very space of the image, the animation proper to it, the point of its springing forth where, speaking within, it already speaks entirely on the outside (The Infinite Conversation 321).
Bachelard is concerned, then, with the affective instensity, as well as its physical and temporal extension, that moves us out of the cellar and attic and into a realm of creation, that is incapable of being divided or reduced to its quantitative, three-dimensional and rational origins. Poetic space introduces us to the Blanchotian Outside, the space of the unknown, or what Bachelard earlier in his career called epistemological rupture. In the end, poetic space is ephemeral, attentive to the dynamics of chance and change.
Which brings us back to “The Wilderness Project”. Chris Milk’s imagery and the Arcade Fire’s lyrics suggest a take on modernism and (sub)urbanism more ambivalent than Bachelard, whose critical bifurcation of nature and culture is either supported or (my preference) radically undermined by the video, depending on one’s interpretation.
But the film is also undeniably progressive. The project is enabled and inspired by a productive connection between modern technology and experiences of suburbia, the ultiamte meaning of which only emerges through their collaboration here. The interactive interface, like the suburbs, is partly about disconnection and the growing divide between people, spaces and time, between social interlocutors and participants in the creation of meaning. However, the content of the video, like Bachelard’s house, reconnects us temporally to the space and time of the past, a personal and subjective past enabled by the most communal of media.
And there is it is: my childhood home. Its the one my family lived in the the shortest amount of time (2 years). Its the most foreign, located in suburban Bonn. It’s the only home I haven’t returned to since moving out. It’s been here on Google maps for years, but I’ve never bothered to look. There are features of the house I didn’t remember: our house is disjointed from its extended context. Our house and the nine that make up our block have flat roofs, the rest of the neighborhood has pitched. Our houses have small yards formed by interstitial space of the closely-knit, nearly conjoined masses. The houses also touch in some places making our block read of a much larger scale than those surrounding. All the houses on our block are turned 45 degrees from the rest of the neighborhood making them even more distinct, especially in the aerial views.
Most surprisingly, there has been little development. The neighborhood looks the same. When I lived there, the lot next to ours was a pit of dirt awaiting further development. At this point, more than twenty years later, I was expecting a sea of new buildings. But there was only one. The rest of the pit was filled in with landscape.
The Poetics of Space and “The Wilderness Project” share a spatio-temporal mission. They just differ on the tactics to accomplish it.
In related news, a family of five has been found alive in the suburbs.