Type in an address (the site urges you to use your childhood home, which is what I did) and watch as a lonely kid — hooded, anxious, driven — runs through a nameless suburban landscape, as "We Used To Wait" plays:
Soon, an aerial view of your neighborhood appears, and is slowly zoomed on, and subsequently offered from different angles and perspectives; at one point, the boy, though winded, spins in place to take in his setting, and your own neighborhood spins with him, becomes, impossibly, his perspective. The feeling is strange, a kind of doppelganger effect. This can't be Amherst Avenue, yet it is:
Midway though the video, you're encouraged to write a note of "advice to the younger you that lived there then." (Later you have the opportunity to share this "postcard" online):
On many smaller simultaneous screens a new video of the running boy appears, as random images from your neighborhood (again, courtesy of Google Maps) flash on the screen:
As the boy continues running, birds fly overhead and dive bomb the boy's terrain, as trees begin exploding from the ground, and multiply:
Eventually the aerial view of your neighborhood reappears as trees take over the landscape in abandon:
At the video's release, Milk was asked by Flux what attracts him to interactive technology:
My real motivation comes from my quest to make videos approach music’s soul-touching, emotional depth and resonance. Honestly, I’m not sure they really ever can. Music scores your life. You interact with it. You sing along to it in the car. It becomes the soundtrack to that one summer with that one girl. Music videos are very concrete and rigid, they don’t allow for that emotional interaction. It’s more of a forced perspective of what a song should look like. That makes me sad because I love music videos as an art form, but I’m uncomfortable pushing my own perspective of a song as some sort of definitive visual. So these are experiments. I’m not saying “this is the way.” I’m just trying to figure out if there even is another way.Ten years ago, Lauren Slater wrote Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir which, though belonging to a tradition, pressed a kind Reset Button for memoirs. Milk might have done something similar. I don't know if The Wilderness Downtown is the future of narrative writing or of memoir, but it feels like an urgent new strand that autobiographers should pick up and follow — to dismiss, if they wish, but to reckon with. I might be embarrassed by my enthusiasm for this video in the near future; as online technology and aesthetics continue to advance, The Wilderness Downtown will look a lot less sophisticated and mind-blowing than it does now. Future tech creakiness is a given; what's less certain is whether what Milk has created will continue to feel urgent as a 21st century memory machine. I hope that when The Wilderness Downtown's curtain is inevitably pulled aside what's revealed is "another way" that still feels fresh, an engine that still surprises.
Photo of Chris Milk via Flux.