The incredible windowlandscape of Rotterdam

Windowstills is an interactive map that allows the viewer to explore Rotterdam as if the city was a social network in which the profiles are the windows of the inhabitant’s apartments. The content of those profiles is determined by the content people have put in their windows to be seen publicly by pedestrians. The map can be sorted by tags and categories in order to create a new view on the window landscape. The work questions the thin line between public and private space based on a typical Dutch tradition of open curtains and the intentional decoration of this exposed area.

The artist’s view
As opposed to common city maps, windowstills shows a map of Rotterdam that mainly consists of touristically irrelevant residential areas. Instead of marking historical places, attractions and commercial hotspots the map shows a composition of photos taken from people’s apartment windows.
Over 800 pictures were taken across many of Rotterdam’s neighborhoods, tagged on content and geotagged. This collection of photos taken of outstanding windows of Rotterdammers, resulted in a database that allows the user to create a geographically correct maps of windows based on the content they show. Through a simple web interface the very small details, as well as the very common ways of window decorations can be put into a map, revealing a banal, but yet very intimate face of the city.

Windows simultaneously separate and connect the inhabitant’s very private and personal space from the public area. The windows serve as the eyes of a house, through which the resident can visually stay in touch with the outside world. At the same time the pedestrian has the chance to catch a glimpse of the person’s surrounding. When looking through a window, one observes the interior, the furniture or, when at home, even the inhabitants themselves.
It seems that people are very aware of the fact that their street-facing windows could give a pedestrian an impression on who is living behind those windows, because some decoration is obviously not only meant to be seen by people inside the house. Out of this awareness of the presentational value of a window, they are also used as private billboards to convey more explicit messages, such as the support for political parties during an election campaign, for a specific country during the World Cup Football, or simply the admiration of a king and queen. Proof of this awareness lies in the fact that most windows facing a public area such as a street or a square are more affectionately decorated than the ones facing a backyard.

From a distance people’s windows can be seen as screens to the outside world that represent a very different face of a city than the commonly known landmarks. Thus the whole visual impression of a city changes when shifting the point of reference on what is relevant to be shown on a map. The buildings and the architecture of a city form a rather static environment. As such, the city can be seen as the container for city life rather then portraying life itself. Windows on the other hand form the individual’s coloration of the buildings and, in the end, form city life.
The customized decoration shows the picture that is drawn by the hands of the actual inhabitants, the people that create and live the city’s life.

During my first walks through Rotterdam, the grey harbor city turned out to be an exhibition of curious scenarios containing plants, lamps, puppets, dolls, animals, statues and other odd items.
In all of this, there seems to be a connection to the intriguing and paradoxical love many Rotterdam inhabitants have for the city: It might be ugly and seemingly incoherent, but they have an inexplicable pride and admiration for their city. For them, the form and shape of the container is irrelevant, whereas their pride lies in coloring the city, even to the extent that the city slogan portrays not the city, but the behavior of it’s inhabitants in how they live city life: ‘Rotterdam Dares’. This is a striking contrast to the Amsterdam slogan ‘I AM Amsterdam’, which describes the personifying with the city rather than its city life. In a city that is superfluous with architectural and cultural landmarks it seems to be hard to distinguish the city’s life from it’s tactile beauty. In Rotterdam on the other hand the coloring of city life, its public display visualized through window decoration, might actually be more interesting than the touristic image of the city.

Public display
Many windows of Rotterdam are visible to the public, some on street level or even lower, some more or less accessible for the pedestrian’s gaze. The glass is a transparent boundary, customization of the window helps to create a more physical barrier between home and public.
The impersonality of serial houses, whose facades look monotone and sterile, is broken by the customization of their inhabitants. Giving the home a personal note, not only on the inside but communicating something to the street seems to be important in certain neighborhoods.
There are patterns of window decorations, representative for a street or a whole neighborhood, recurring items, similar formation, striking symmetries. Apart from all arrangements that solely serve the intention of gaining more privacy in a dense neighborhood such as milk glass foils, sun blinds or curtains, there are also many fondly exhibited items to be seen in people’s windows. Starting from the classical setting of a flowerpot or statue on a windowsill, one might discover curious sceneries and objects in the jungle of Rotterdam’s windows. Statues of animals or puppets, collector’s items or souvenirs from holidays can be seen as well as seasonally changing items related to holidays, sports events or elections. Some of those items are meant to serve as a shield from curious gazes while some intentionally catch the attention of the pedestrian and call for a closer look.

The decoration and customization of the windows resembles the way people customize their public viewable profiles on social networking sites such as facebook or hyves. Those online websites automatically connect related profiles to each other, detect similarities in interests and common networks and suggest new contacts to the profile owner according to that information. In contrast to that, the windows communicate their content to the street without having a predefined network that connects them. This network is now woven by hand, by taking photographs of relevant windows and tagging them based on their content. The application makes use of that data and is able to display the photographs in a geographically representative map and filter them by content. Therefore not only the quantity of a certain tag is visible but also the geographic relation of the taken photos.
During the parliamentary elections in 2010 election posters became a popular item in apartment windows. This example shows that people are aware of their window being a space that can be used as a billboard, that is able to communicate to the masses or at least to the neighborhood. In this case, the poster is not only a public display of supporting one party but also an appeal to the neighbor to vote for that party as well. Strikingly these posters are mainly found rather outside the commercial city center on windows that face busy streets in order to communicate to a large group of spectators. Within mixed neighborhoods with rather low average income left-winged parties are dominating the windows whereas in more wealthy neighborhoods the right-winged parties are prominent. There were no posters of the extremist right-wing party PVV, which eventually achieved the greatest growth in votes. So the occurrence of posters is not representative for the outcome of the overall elections, but does show the areas of Rotterdam where people are politically active and do openly communicate their mindset to the public. The windows containing political messages are represented in the category “Voters”, a temporary map of the politically dedicated residents of Rotterdam.

By taking photos of decorated windows and putting them categorized and tagged into a public database I want to provoke the window owners’ awareness of their public prominence. In the course of the graduation exhibition “disrupting systems” in July 2010 the work was shown in public for the first time and I seized this opportunity to get in touch with the inhabitants of Rotterdam, whose windows were included in the database. With an award-like flyer stuck onto the participating windows people were invited to come to see the exhibition. Also, a jury of fellow students of PZI selected the top 20 award winning windows. There was a satisfying response, leading to interesting insights into the people and their intentions with their window decorations.

Further research
Windowstills aims to address a question that is unanswered in the debate on Google Street View’s picture collection of houses of entire cities and towns. Google Street View provides a registry of publicly accessible streets. They are registered seemingly value free in order to create a valuable addition to Google Maps. The photographic content is published openly, and free to the public. It allows the user to navigate through a surprisingly realistic three-dimensional model of a city and to experience the city. At first sight, the service seems to be harmless. From a privacy protection point of view however, this practice cannot be seen as an attribute to the collective good. It takes away the anonymity of people and their homes, and limits their private space to what is invisible from street level. For many, the only thing that stands between the private domain and the publicly available registration of their outer walls, is the reflection of a window. Windowstills examines exactly that border: the window. This grey area between the public and private domain is the subject of careful examination. Instead of a car taking a continuous stream of pictures of streets and houses, the photographer carefully selects relevant windows in a street to be added to the collection. By doing this, the photographer takes on the role of a curator rather than a collector. The pictures in windowstills form a network outside of the realm of any Google service. It offers an alternative online map that does not feature streets or addresses. Not the residents per se are brought into picture but the items that they chose to be visible from the street.

An effort to portray not only the street but also the people living there was done in the project “Street with a view” by Robin Hewlett and Ben Kinsley from 2008. The artists invited residents of Sampsonia Way, Pittsburgh to come out on the street and participate in an intervention in Google Street View.
“Street With A View introduces fiction, both subtle and spectacular, into the doppelganger world of Google Street View. Street View technicians captured 360-degree photographs of the street with the scenes in action and integrated the images into the Street View mapping platform. Neighbors, and other participants from around the city, staged scenes ranging from a parade and a marathon, to a garage band practice, a seventeenth century sword fight, a heroic rescue and much more… “
The project raises the topic of surveillance as well as interferes with the trivial character of Google Street View’s capturing methods. By offering the inhabitants of Sampsonia way the opportunity – or even the privilege – to create their own spectacle for Google Street View, they allowed them to alter the captured reality.

In contrast to windowstills the participants of Street with a View were invited to participate and therefore aware of their appearance before the pictures were taken. The spectacle was created solely through this call and could only take place as a result of the project itself whereas the windows were in put in the state unintentionally and independently of the project. Both the dressed up participants of ‘Street with a view’ and the decorated apartment windows serve a similar purpose. They give the city a face. The difference is the fact that the participants of windowsills were only aware of their participation after the capturing of their display. They therefore turn the city into a passive spectacle.

Street with a View needed the active participation of the inhabitants while windowstills required passive participation in order to capture the essence of the ethical question they intended to address. Both projects portray the unusual, uncommon, sometimes even enchanting side of cities and their inhabitants while raising the question what content of a city can be made public. Both question the significance of data that has been collected from the street.

Windowstills in the end unveils a more profound paradox dilemma. A city can only come alive when people allow others to observe elements of their personal – and private – space or interests. Only by bringing like-minded people together using an alternative, interactive map of the city, people are enabled to participate in forming their city using their newly found awareness of the impact their windows have.