With SXSW season approaching, the flood of interactive urbanism projects has begun once again. In years past, Radiolab’s Detour app launched as an interactive storytelling platform taking visitors on a guided walk through sites made famous by the city’s first serial killer, the Servant Girl Annihilator. During the festival, visitors and locals alike flock downtown to visit pop-up marketing installations that transform the city into a surf park or a 1940s era resistance radio station. This year, in conjunction with the opening of Austin’s new public library, the first of this crop of offerings is WANDER.
Funded in part by the city of Austin and part of the city’s Art in Public Places collection, WANDER is an interactive website that allows users to unlock chapters of stories based on their location in the city. Some of the stories are suitable for all ages, like Lucas Schaefer’s “Time Machine Freak Out!”, while others tackle adult themes, like “The Oswald Variations”, Fernando S. Flores’ meditation on the life of Lee Harvey Oswald.
On a chilly weekday morning, I started at the universal starting point for all of WANDER’s stories: a red diamond sculpture just outside of the new central library. Working my way through “Time Machine Freakout!”, I walked to different public art installations around downtown, sometimes thwarted by the area’s numerous construction sites. The site won’t unlock chapters until the participant is within a certain distance of the indicated destination, which meant that I had to do a lot of sticking my phone out and waving it around when the park I was trying to find was completely eclipsed by bulldozers.
The story chapters cleverly unfold in the manner of a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, with each chapter ending in a choice that leads to a different location. Some paths through the story end faster than others. The first choices I made landed me back on W. 2nd street within a matter of minutes. But when I backtracked to make different decisions, I ended up on a meandering path that I didn’t have time to complete, leading to a what amounted to more than a mile of walking.
I found the locations WANDER helped me discover more enjoyable than the story component of the app, although I am intrigued by the more adult stories that I have yet to try. Some of the locations were ordinary buildings that I walk by fairly frequently, but learned new history about thanks to information in the stories. Others were tucked away sculptures and pocket parks that I’ve never taken the time to notice.
Even if WANDER isn’t quite the immersive storytelling platform it promised to be, the possibilities for this type of playful urbanism are exciting. What might seem like a gimmick could be an effective way to get the public invested in the infrastructure of their city, or provide them with a path to discover more about architectural history.
We’ll have to wait a couple of weeks to see what this year’s SXSW has in store for pop up architecture (announced so far: a Roseanne restaurant and a Westworld experience), but judging by years past, none will make much of an attempt to engage with the fabric of the real Austin. WANDER is a step in the right direction, providing both a new way to see the city and celebrating all of its complexities and hidden corners.