The Wilderness Machine


Tom Jennings in an interesting guy. He’s an artist, and activist, and an internet pioneer. Tom is probably best known as the creator of FidoNet. Currently he works with students at the University of California, Irvine’s Arts Computation Engineering graduate program, where he produces artwork under the name “World Power Systems.” The work is wide ranging but technology seems to be a fairly unifying theme.

Recently the band Arcade Fire worked with Chris Milk to produce an experimental music video of sorts. Called “The Wilderness Down Town,” it either combines information about the viewer into a cool multimedia music video or it crashes your web browser. It’s all done with HTML 5. Viewers are asked to provide the address of the house they grew up in and then to create a “postcard” to their younger selves. When it works it is really very cool. To be fair, if you use the browser they suggest (i.e., Google’s Chrome), it seems to work every time.

Anyway, the postcards that viewers create aren’t just collected with the rest of the garbage and deleted. They’re saved for Tom’s Wilderness Machine to reproduce as part of Arcade Fire’s stage show. Tom, with Brett Doar, is designing and building a five axis plotter that uses calligraphic brushes to “print” the cards. Obviously, the cards could be printed with any number of high volume digital printers but Tom wants the audience to see the mechanics of the printing process. Tom told me that people (including software engineers) don’t necessarily understand the relationship between the computer code that drives a machine and the mechanics of that machine. In many ways, the Wilderness Machine is an examination of that relationship.

Arcade Fire’s “The Wilderness Down Town” video ends with trees growing wild all over your home town, thanks to some fancy calls to the Google Maps API, and Tom’s cards are printed on paper that is impregnated with seeds. As Arcade fire says on their website: “If you’re lucky enough to get someone’s postcard from it [The Wilderness Machine], plant it. A tree will grow out of it.”

So there you have it: Song –> HTML 5 experiment¬†–> mixed media sculpture –> ink on paper –> tree.

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