Life

As coronavirus entangled us in global horrors, while at the same time confining us to our homes, corners of the internet brought the outside in. By Lucy Treloar.

Window gazing

The view from Altan’s window in Rome, Italy.
Credit: WindowSwap

In the morning I move through several windows. There is England – although it is too English, pebble-mix terraces and small, painful squares of lawn. There’s a fog somewhere in New Zealand and a hot, sunlit terrace in Portugal. Edgar’s window in the Dominican Republic – a yard filled with bananas – reminds me of Cambodia and in some reflex I think: must tidy those dead lower leaves. But I move on.

Deep in the tedium of a Melbourne lockdown last year – cocooned but restless, dread-filled and inert – I came across WindowSwap, a site where people upload views taken from their windows: homes, gardens, rooftops in Russia, a cat in a Brooklyn apartment glaring at the street below. Word spread on Twitter, and for a while we were pleasantly gripped by worlds not shaped by the news or TV fiction. The windows were life, and life rippled around and beyond them, and with my world so contracted, they were one of the tethers that stopped me floating away.

In August, Melbourne’s dreariest month, I tweet: “I’m worried if I leave Rome I’ll never get back.” Two replies come: “Finland for me today, a little cabin by a lake” and “Have you seen the cat in Mexico?”

Rome is Altan’s window above a narrow, cobbled street. His view keeps me company for hours as I work. We look down obliquely into a canyon filled with golden sunlight. A man appears and walks along the street, white-haired and elegant. Scattered people move in and out of a doorway – a provedore? There is something hypnotic about it, and I begin to understand that I settle on windows that anaesthetise. A few days earlier, it was a fox poking about a dreamlike garden in Switzerland.

Late in the afternoon the window freezes, and refreshing the screen leaves me on a grim concrete balcony in Romania. Some places I don’t want to stay, but looking and discarding windows too quickly leaves me feeling queasy, as if I’ve eaten too many sweets. I’m consuming the world. I make myself pause on windows where life looks like a grind. Yes, it is serious, this watching other people’s lives. But in the end it is also like travelling, and therefore not quite like life. I can move on.

The Instagram account The Agoraphobic Traveller also crossed my radar last year – I was searching for more escape, I suppose. Like WindowSwap, it opens onto other worlds. Not surprisingly, each grew in popularity as the planet shut down. The coherence of WindowSwap lies only in the framing; the videos are supplied by multitudes. In contrast, agoraphobe Jacqui Kenny uses Google Street View images for her page, as a way to explore her fascination with travel and her fear of it, but the way she selects, crops and filters photographs makes the vision her own.

Her early images resemble WindowSwap’s sensibility. There’s a curiosity to show other ways of living and being. Some photos recall Tarkovsky’s Polaroids or stills: an old woman walking down the verge of a snowy road with her little black cat in Bulgaria; a pony eating roadside weeds in Rio de Janeiro; a man tending a gleaming car outside a tumbledown hut in Kyrgyzstan. The unknowable world expands.

But before the end of that year, Kenny’s characteristic aesthetic – repetition of shapes, exaggerated perspective, deep slanting shadows, a desaturated palette – had appeared. It is not the world that she’s showing, but her world, created in her own psychological image. In their iconography, pastel palette and deep stillness, smooth surfaces and silence, they suggest claustrophobia rather than alleviate it, flattening the world into a sort of beautiful wallpaper and an expression of loneliness.

It’s as if Kenny is somehow persuading us that it doesn’t much matter, after all, where we are. What really is the difference between Arizona and Iraq, her images seem to ask. We regard these countries through her eyes, with a languid appreciation that is mostly aesthetic, even when they have a dystopian air, and I wonder whether this, too, is like life and travel. It seems fitting that they have become objects of a different sort of consumption, the images exhibited and sold.

Her arid small-town streets and landscapes can seem uncanny – but they are affectless, too. The combination of arrested movement and silence and the viewer’s steady gaze is unsettling. A word comes to mind: surveillance, but perhaps that is a Covid-era perception.

Every day or two, during this time, I go to a bakery a few streets away, crossing empty roads, and stand in a silent line of people waiting for bread. The street reminds me of a Kenny landscape: still, empty, lined with terraces and apartment blocks. From the quiet around us we might be the last people alive.

It seems as if The Agoraphobic Traveller’s world has ossified, and since mine has also, sometimes I have to look away. If WindowSwap offers life and a way in for the viewer, The Agoraphobic Traveller suggests not death but non-life, which reverberates in a mysterious and different way. It suits my way of seeing and not feeling.

With each of these sites the question is not if they are art, but what meaning we ascribe them and how that changes with our circumstances. I think of the narratives I constructed around the fragments of life seen on WindowSwap and the pleasure of finding a snowy landscape or olive trees on a hill in Catalonia that would numb my cooped-up agitation. Other people planned travel. The windows were a line of hope cast out, or that we threw our hope towards.

I don’t remember when I stopped watching. Perhaps when Melbourne began opening up again, or spring came and my spirits improved. I went back for a look, recently, after many months away, as if visiting old holiday destinations. I judged the windows more as a consumer than as a grateful prisoner.

A toddler roams around a bucolic garden in Vorsma, Russia; parents drag a toddler-laden sleigh along a snowy street outside Prague; Brussels appears respectable, with a nice magnolia; New York, smoggy. Occasionally a window takes me with piercing memory into the past: needle-like snow and ochre facades in Stockholm is an image from real life, but it is no more potent than the memory of that little fox I watched roaming the edge of a pond in a Swiss garden. How that window had captivated me. I will always remember its strangeness.

WindowSwap recently changed. It offers “new features”. They include a Save function for favourite windows. There, on the website, was Altan’s window view from Rome, and instantly the magic was gone. It was not my street anymore, not a window I had chanced across by luck; it was everyone’s street, and everyone loved it. I was just another tourist skimming the surface of place: a short step from saying, “I’ve done Rome” or “I love Chicago gardens in spring”.

Perhaps I will go back, once in a while, for old time’s sake.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 17, 2021 as "Window blessing".

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Lucy Treloar is a Melbourne-based writer, and the author of the novels Salt Creek and Wolfe Island.