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Arcade Fire's Wilderness Machine: Too sensitive for this world? [Updated]

October 12, 2010 |  8:10 am

WildernessMachine2 On Friday night at the second of two sold-out shows that Arcade Fire played at the Shrine Auditorium, a group of anxious journalists and bloggers stood around a primitive-looking contraption called the Wilderness Machine. Beside them in the Shrine's lobby was the machine's creator, director Chris Milk of Radical Media, appearing a little nervous.

The Wilderness Machine is an art piece and serves as the physical sequel to the digital masterwork that is Milk's interactive Arcade Fire video, called "The Wilderness Downtown." Friday night was to mark the official unveiling of the machine to the world. Only the machine wasn't working.

A group of tech guys from World Power Systems, which helped build it, buzzed around its 1,000-pound Plexiglas shell. Despite their efforts, it remained motionless, a sullen relic seemingly plucked from Thomas Edison's basement.

"Two days ago, its claw arm attacked its suction arm," said Milk, adjusting his thick, black-framed glasses on the bridge of his nose. "When that happened, it destroyed a servo motor. Although I personally think it was an attempt at robot suicide."

[Update, 11:47 a.m.: A previous version of this post referred to the "servo motor" as a "server modem."]

Soon, a tech guy was sent to retrieve a computer that the group hoped would rectify the situation. The machine had worked beautifully a few days ago, Milk said. And he assured those assembled that it would work again, before describing in great detail how it functioned.

The journey of this particular art project begins with "The Wilderness Downtown" video. That video, which was programmed in cutting-edge HTML5, utilized Google maps and street view to take the viewer on a sentimental journey back to the streets of their hometown, and right to their own front door.

At the end of the video, which was released a month ago and became an instant sensation, the viewer writes a digital postcard to their younger self and has the option to press a button to send the "postcard downtown." The Wilderness Machine picks up where the video leaves off. It has a stack of real postcards that it picks up one by one with a suction arm that transfers the postcard to a metal podium where a pen is programmed to write the contents of actual viewer postcards, then a claw arm tosses the postcards out a slot in its Plexiglas casing and scatters them around the floor of the lobby.

The postcards are also imprinted with a singular code that allows the receiver of the random message to go online and respond to its author. It's a potent trick -- birthing a digital entity into analog form. At least in theory.

As the waiting commenced, the audience for that evening's show began surging into the lobby.

"What's this?" asked a man in jeans and a white baseball cap.

"I guess it's a piece of art," said his equally jocular friend.

"What does it do?" asked the first man.

"Let's turn it on," said the second, pressing with mock sincerity at an invisible button in the center of the Plexiglas.

Milk shifted his weight from one foot to the other and looked into the distance uncomfortably before continuing with his explanation of the machine.

"It's both a memory machine and a mysterious pen pal," he said. "And I wanted to introduce the idea of waiting, because e-mail is so instantaneous. There's not that, 'Did it get lost in the mail or accidentally get delivered to my neighbor?' There is no longer a time that is colored by waiting in the physical landscape."

The Wilderness Machine will remain mysterious by virtue of the fact that it will not make scheduled appearances. It will pop up at different Arcade Fire shows along the band's tour, or maybe at a train station in Austin or a bank lobby in Chicago. Milk is also in talks with an L.A. museum about scheduling an appearance with the machine there.

As far as the postcards themselves go, Milk says that more than 100,000 have been submitted, with hundreds more coming in each week. The messages are almost universally warm, tender and profound.

"It's really interesting to me that where we came from always seems to hold more emotional resonance than where we are now," said Milk, flipping a postcard over in his hand. The postcards are embedded with dormant birch tree seeds so they can be buried and a tree will grow.

Postcard "The postcards are subversively trying to create the end of the online video," says Milk, referring to the climax of the video, when trees appear to explode and grow like atom bombs on your old street.

As 8 p.m. rolls around and the opening band strikes up, the journalists begin to straggle away. The Wilderness Machine remains unchanged -- a reminder that no matter how technically advanced we are as a people, a $15 servo motor from Taiwan is all it takes to bring our grandest plans to a screeching halt.

It's a thought that Milk ponders sanguinely. "It attacked itself at 11 p.m. at night," he says of the unfortunate episode. "Our roboticist called us in a panic and Jen got on the phone with Taiwan to see where we could find a new one. But it was so late."

Postscript: After this journalist vacated the Shrine, the machine had a change of heart and I received this note from Milk's camp:

I also wanted to let you know that the machine started working right after you left and the band saw it at the end and loved it.  So far there are 125k submitted postcards in the database.  That’s about 4 years worth if we left the wilderness machine running 24 hours a day.

Maybe it wasn't life that the Wilderness Machine didn't like. Maybe it was me. 

-- Jessica Gelt 

Photos: Jessica Gelt / Los Angeles Times