Ghosts hovering around an abandoned hotel and the streets of a neighborhood where the fences lean and paint crackles on the walls — these are your messengers to the past in Circa 1948. Created by artist Stan Douglas with the National Film Board of Canada’s Digital Studio, the interactive art app takes users back to postwar Vancouver through an incredibly detailed digital landscape.
Circa 1948 was released last April and got an update last month on iTunes. The free iOS app for iPad and iPhone uses the mechanics of a point-and-click adventure game to transport users between two areas of Canada’s largest city on the west coast: the wealthy Hotel Vancouver and the rougher Hogan’s Alley. Exploring both reveals the class and racial divides of the city in a fragmented narrative that feels like an old film noir. “A rain-soaked city caught between the ruins of an old order and the shape of things to come,” an introduction screen reads before you’re offered a map to choose between the two places and encounter its voices.
Douglas is better known for his photography and film installations, although he’s long been at the front of experimenting with technology both new and old. When Circa 1948 premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival as an installation last year, people progressed through its scenes with the movement of their bodies. While the app is different from anything he’s done in terms of its medium, it continues his investigation of our relationship to a reconstructed past, such as in his recent recreation of the 1940s in his staged Midcentury Studio photography series. The nonlinear narrative where you start in the middle and never leave is similar to his 2002–03 Suspira video installation that programmed a horror film so that the storyline was never the same, even during 100 days at Documenta. Some of the characters from Circa 1948 even made it into a play Douglas collaborated on with screenwriter Chris Haddock called Helen Lawrence.
There are 45 different stories you can find in Circa 1948 by clicking on illuminated objects, but there is no end and you’re not required to linger over any of the conversations that drag in ways similar to what you’d hear eavesdropping in the real world. A woman looking for clues to her husband’s murder, a corrupt police officer, a brothel owner, and others emerge from the tapestry of beautifully rendered spaces, all based on research into archive photographs and maps.
However, those gorgeous pixels do create a hefty app (1.28 GB) and at least for this author it crashed a couple of times in use (the motion on the small screen of the iPhone also can be a little dizzying if you’re prone to visually-induced motion sickness). Like all good noir, there’s the blurring between right and wrong, and the hardboiled grit of a city of wounded returned soldiers and people getting by through bending the law, whether with gambling or prostitution. You’re left to be the observer, to experience for a moment a portal into the past, but never forgetting that the access is through a highly designed environment where you can never get the whole story, no matter how long you wander.