Sarah Cutler: my MAA blast from the past – Arcade Fire’s The Wilderness Downtown

I know this feature is typically reserved for the legends of traditional advertising, but my career has been anything but traditional and I wanted to reflect that in my choice. The interactive music videos of Arcade Fire have always been ahead of their times, ‘Neon Bible’ is one of the interactive experiences that made me want to work in ‘digital’ but for me ‘The Wilderness Downtown’ is the project I wanted to talk about.

As you enter the site you are invited to divulge the address where you lived growing up. As the song begins to play the user is served artfully shot video footage of someone running via a pop up. As the song progresses a combination of different pop up windows appear displaying both original ‘music video’ footage as well as personalised content featuring images, maps and street views from the areas that the user grew up in.

At random, some of this content also has a simple animated filter applied to align it with the look and feel of the website for example the flying birds and the original video content. As the track evolves the user is presented with a multi-sensory visual experience based on their childhood and combining the music, art and personal visuals to create a rich and emotive experience. At the end of this the user has the option to integrate their streets and video with a wider ‘forest’ of user generated content (UGC) from across the world.

A collaboration between Chris Milk, Aaron Koblin, Google Creative Labs and Ben Tricklebank, this still stands up as an exquisite and original experience today. Exquisite animations, personalised UGC and incredible code create an online and physical installation branching users stories into an endless narrative, and using location based data in a way that was meaningful and ahead of its time.

Covid-19 has made us all rethink the positive benefits of how the internet connects and how we can have shared cultural and creative online experiences, The Wilderness Downtown did exactly that tapping into a global consciousness and creating something memorable for the digital and interactive community whilst promoting Google Chrome and the latest Arcade Fire album in an innovative way. More of these projects please for 2020 and beyond, especially now we can create these moments in the palm of peoples smart-phone wielding hands.

It takes me back to an era when digital was brave and bold and less focused on metrics and whether you could share it to social. It was such an incredible thing to create and be served content to you that was lifted from your precise place on planet earth (providing you were on google maps of course) and bring all of our individual stories together to create a single bigger experience that was both huge in reach but deeply personal in content. This project crossed the boundaries between art and advertising beautifully.

Sarah Cutler is director of partnerships at interactive production studio makemepulse.

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