One of the joys of the old “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, popular in the 1980s and 1990s, was the dead ends. In the series of books, flipping to a page to continue the story could result in your character’s death. But you could always backtrack and take an alternate path and see where the story would go if you had made a different choice.
That sense of playful exploration is what prompted artist and architect Chris Gannon to co-create “Wander,” a new Art in Public Places project that’s been in the works for three and a half years.
Gannon previously worked on a “CYOA”-inspired art project that blew up pages from the books as wheatpaste images in downtown alleys. “It was supposed to be something mysterious you stumbled on. When (AIPP) sent out the request, I thought it would be a cool thing to re-tool the idea and bring it out to the public,” he said.
Gannon partnered with digital app creator Chadwick Wood and fellow architect Brockett Davidson to build out “Wander,” a free web app you can access from any smartphone at wanderatx.com. It offers four separate stories by Austin-area writers and illustrators, each piece tied by location to downtown spots. The project launches officially on Saturday with an event from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the Austin Central Library, but if you’re curious, you can use “Wander” ahead of that and start playing through the adventures.
Gannon says each story, two of which are geared toward kids, has 20 chapters, each corresponding to a downtown location such as the Driskill Hotel or the Willie Nelson Statue on 2nd Street. The stories lead you from location to location in “Choose Your Own Adventure” style.
“The goal of the project is just to get people out and move around downtown and hopefully seeing something they would have missed if they were just on their commute,” Gannon said. “We wanted to make it so people paused and just took a look around.”
The project isn’t just digital; a metal sculpture called “Beacon” sits in front of the 2nd Street entrance of the Austin Central Library, serving as the starting point for all four stories. It’s in the familiar shape of a red online map pin, such as the kind you’d find in Google Maps. As readers go from location to location, new bits of story are unlocked. A death in the story or other dead end doesn’t mean the adventure is over; readers can backtrack and choose a different path without having to walk back to their last location.
Theres no login or download required. “Wander” works in a smartphone’s web browser and the only information it requests other than access to location tracking is a user’s zip code in order for AIPP to keep track of whether Austin residents or tourists are accessing “Wander.”
The stories, from authors Lucas Schaefer, Jessica Topacio Long, Janalyn Guo and Fernando Flores, are illustrated by Davidson, Matt Rebholz, Hallie Rose Taylor and Brian Maclaskey. They include the kids’ stories “Tinaus” and “Time Machine Freak Out!” as well as “The Oswald Variations,” a Lee Harvey Oswald-themed story, and “The Lost Silver of San Saba,” a treasure hunt featuring Jim Bowie.
“Tinaus,” as an example, ties to locations along Shoal Creek and features underwater bats and plants that talk. In addition to the stories, there’s also information in “Wander” about the 80 locations themselves.
“Wander” is part of the Downtown Austin Wayfinding Project, adopted by the Austin City Council in 2011 to promote downtown through signage, brochures, kiosks and smart-phone apps and make it easier to find destinations and attractions. In its mission of demystifying downtown, it’s not like “Detour,” an audio-based app that in 2015 created a downtown Austin exploration program with Radiolab called, “The Year That Broke Austin.”
Susan Lambe, program administrator of Art in Public Places, said the starting point for “Wander” is well-chosen for the project.
“We finally realized a really ideal location would be the Seaholm District. It’s highly populated and has a direct connection with the artists to do it at the library,” Lambe said.
The project’s total cost was about $91,000, Lambe said.
For those without a smartphone, “Wander” is offered in printed format available inside the library. “We wanted to make sure it’s accessible to anyone, no matter what kind of technology they own,” Lambe said.
Gannon said the web app contains photos of all 80 locations and readers will find not only historical and art spots in “Wander,” but unexpected and forgotten areas of downtown.
“That’s definitely my favorite category,” he said, “the weird alleys or little pieces of urban infrastructure, like stairs that lead to nowhere. The nooks and crannies.”