Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Where the universal present meets the personal past: "The Wilderness Downtown"

For most of us, music videos don’t immediately bring to mind historical engagement. What’s more reflective of the current epoch than a viral YouTube video featuring feline euphony or Rebecca Black’s ultra-present-focused “Friday”?

But Arcade Fire’s “Wilderness Downtown” collaboration with Chris Milk, featuring their hit 2010 single, “We Used to Wait,” is a remarkable exception to this rule. Chris Milk’s interactive video, a “Google Chrome experiment,” got some significant buzz in tech  and advertising circles after its release, but why should it interest public historians?

This interactive video is essentially an exploration of personal nostalgia, providing a bridge between childhood and the present through the wonders of Google street view. There have been some notable digital history projects in recent years that work with this feature, enabling users to superimpose historical views on the present or even overlay multiple historic maps on a given geographical region. But this video gets directly to the emotion of the matter by enabling users to plug their childhood addresses into the video’s algorithm, generating scenes from the places where they grew up as the music evokes a ever-more-distant past when, “we used to wait for letters and sign our names.” At the end of the video, viewers are given the opportunity to “write their childhood selves a letter” using a remarkable digital paint program that turns their words into branches and floods the scene with birds. This evocative moment concludes a “trip” through the universal present and the personal past.

In The Presence of the Past, Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen conclude that our personal histories provide the strongest, most present connection to the past, providing a gateway for broader interest. When I began the process of reviewing this video, beyond my initial “Oh cool!” first reaction, I asked some friends and family members for their thoughts. My brother, Micah Langer, a 21-year-old almost-college-graduate provided a wonderful personal analysis: “Arcade Fire seems to really speak to a generation of people who grew up in between spaces--in the suburbs and edge cities of North America. Growing up in such places, at least for me, it is easy to feel adrift and disconnected from the rest of the world. Perhaps those are universal growing pains, but I think the anonymity and uniformity of suburbs amplify them. It's interesting how the video gives one a bird's-eye-view of a town or a school, places that seemed to be the beginning and end of the world during our childhoods. Seen through a wider lens, one sees how these places fit into a bigger picture. It is an exploration and elaboration of the dizzying nostalgia and disorientation one might feel upon dialing in their sentimental places on googlemaps, and it's somehow comforting to realize that you aren't alone with that feeling.”

I think it’s that notion of not being alone with this fascination with the personal past that makes this video particularly resonant. It’s a useful reminder for public historians that the place we start when we explore history is inevitably our own backyard. 

~ Adina Langer


  1. interesting post! emotion (or affect, to use the theoryhead term) is central to how people connect to history, but how do we tap into an impulse like nostalgia without falling into mindless positivity?

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