Virginia Woolf saw the future. So did EM Forster. Decades after they mocked the shortcomings of their ages with the work that they produced, those of us with a room of our own are trading our lockdown blues with others that have a room with a view. We have grown to appreciate a long take of the London skyline over the Thames from a window even as we hold off the virus at our doors.
Are you sitting by your window, just having finished One Hundred Years of Solitude, gazing endlessly at the uninspiring afternoon traffic, trying hard to convince yourself you are in Aracataca? Window Swap can help you. Or does the monotony of cars trundling across the street make you wonder what a busy intersection in cycle-friendly Copenhagen might look like? Well, Window Swap can show you. Oh, fret not if the only thing you care about is art—it can also show you how a garden in Sankt Augustin in Germany could closely replicate the water lilies in Monet’s flower garden in Giverny.
For the past few days, Window Swap, a new website-based video experience conceptualised by Singapore-based advertising professionals Sonali Ranjit and husband Vaishnav Balasubramaniam, has taken over internet. Even as movement remains restricted and travel continues to be unthinkable, the project has ignited the curiosity of people in over 25 countries, who are sharing long takes of the parking lots, faraway bridges, urban birdlife and the like through clips posted on a community platform. Just pick up your device and switch to a different world courtesy another’s window, several thousand miles away. And gaze away.
On the surface, the project is simple and fairly straightforward—savour window views from remote corners of the places you would one day want to visit, and maybe even add a clip of the view from your own (keep them in the 2-10 minute range). The experience is real-time if not live, unadulterated, comes with the sounds of the surroundings, and works on the under-promise, over-deliver principle. You come for the views, but stay back for the familiarity. Or to just watch an adorable little lab amble into the patio of an urban apartment patio where time is measured with a swinging bamboo hammock.
Some frames deal with simple sights—in essence, more of a nod to the whole aesthetic—with often the majority of the space obscured by a tree, its leaves gently stirring with the wind. Others, however, are innovative and artful set-ups touching upon the principles of photography, often offering the inquisitive viewer a peek into the happenings of a busy street in Hong Kong, or the charming layers of a rural landscape in Villongo in Lombardy, Italy.
For a while, nothing happens. Nobody comes, nobody goes. Then, something stirring in the shadows in a dark alley towards a corner or a bird changing its perch disrupts the monotony, like in Arnulf’s Window in Bavaria, Germany. The element of surprise springing up from the more familiar mundane, much in the way of the views from our own windows, unites both the experiences. Suddenly, the screen you’ve been gazing at thoughtlessly for the past twenty minutes, becomes your own. It’s self-manipulation at its best.
It might seem like the latest in a long line of internet crazes such as soap cutting videos, but at its core, it wouldn’t be amiss to say that the need for such experiences points towards the latent desire for voyeurism—even if harmless—and curiosity within the human psyche. Precedents in cinema and literature are great examples to juxtapose and compare our present predicament in light of the pandemic and the existential crises of our many worlds.
Tied to the bed and the wheelchair, Jimmy Stewart’s LB Jefferies from the Hitchcock film Rear Window is a great study in such an experience. A hotshot photojournalist, Jefferies is the equivalent of a dashing version of Steve McCurry, and his almost-hormonal quest for his next adventure forces him to grab his binoculars and survey and scrutinise, for the first time, the goings-on of his neighbourhood, for hours on end.
Robert Bresson’s suspenseful prison-escape masterpiece A Man Escaped depicts a French PoW in a Nazi prison who communicates with a group of fellow inmates through a little window high up in his cell. In Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott, it is again the decisive window through which the tragic eponymous protagonist glances at Sir Lancelot before the self-fulfilling prophecy strikes her.
Even without pretences such as these, the mere act of getting up to look outside the window, is in itself a uniquely stimulating pastime. Window Swap has seized the window and turned it into a portal to the ordinariness of the extraordinary places of the world. As against active outdoor exploration, this one is an intimate contact with window views as moving tableaux. It’s chicken soup for a virus-infected soul.
Until the day we get to meet Sao Paulo in person, why not see its dusk time shadows, through Alexandre’s window? Or run our eyes up a meadow in Switzerland’s Aeschiried? Thankfully, swaying to the upbeat British pop playing in a Twickenham apartment whose windows have become our eyes, can’t assign us to the fate of the Lady of Shallot.