Exhibition Review: Out My Window

Out My Window: Katerina Cizek image


Released in 2010, Out My Window is a multi-year project of Highrise, an initiative supported by the National Film Board of Canada (NFBC).  Highrise seeks to explore one of the most common structures built on the periphery of the city, the highrise, through the personal stories of people who live within the structure.  Out My Window project director and NFBC artist-in-residence Katerina Cizek is a strong supporter of ‘interventionist media,’ which works towards an adherence to a documentary process that supports social engagement.

Cizek “liaised with local photographers, activists, journalists and researchers using e-mail, Skype and Facebook” (Semley) to create a collaborative documentary that includes 49 stories situated within 13 different highrise units, in 13 cities around the world.  As this project is supported by the Canadian government and situated on a website that houses documentary works, it has been described as both a study in urban infrastructure (Kasprzak) and as art.

Choice of Medium

Within each unit, the viewer is transported into a collage of photographs that fit together to form a 360 degree view of a single unit within a highrise.  According to her Director’s Statement, Cizek did not want these views to be “seamless, like the ones on real estate websites.”  Instead, the photographs overlap, emphasizing the seams and inviting the viewer to “sew them together.”  In this way, the “increase in abstraction” (Brown 52) between the physical object and its photograph makes sense artistically.  The viewer participates in creating a more tangible aesthetic by connecting the narrative dots that the cool medium of photography leaves behind.

The audio acts as ambient sound, usually reflecting the sounds of objects in the room or in the lives of the people who live there.  The sound supports the movement that the photographs evoke, also creating a symphony of the internal and external worlds of the residents.  The sounds of kitchen appliances, birds chirping, outside construction, local music and footsteps are present in most units.

It is fascinating to think about the intentional use of the more hot medium of video as a hidden medium within the work.  Although Out My Window is often described as a documentary with 49 distinct stories, these stories are embedded within the units, hidden unless happened upon.  As video is discovered, the cursor illuminates its possibility with both a sound indicating the video content and a handwritten illustration surrounding an object or person in the unit that is featured in the video.  The agency now rests with the viewer – they decide whether they want to leave the unit to enter the story.

Sonja Neef and Jose van Djick’s discussion of “the authenticity of handwriting [and its] potential to refer to an un-exchangable individual” (13) could further explain the decision to use handwriting as a way to illustrate hidden video stories.  Handwriting brings about the sense of individuality of the person and their particular culture.  Handwriting is the anti-highrise, yet another distinct fingerprint in the “towers of concrete and glass.”  If the videos were marked by the typical play symbol, the magic of the individual unit would be broken by the similarity of symbols, bland in their quality of sameness.

Emphasis on Object Meaning

There are three layers of materiality within this exhibit:  The highrise, the window and the unit’s interior.

The highrise is a vessel for meaning.  The first screen before entering the introductory page is the simplistic graphic of squares that are stacked on top of each other, representing the individual units of a highrise.  These squares evoke a feeling of a mundane, industrial emptiness.  Written below the squares is the phrase, “the towers in the world, the world in the towers,” implying that there is meaning to be uncovered within these bland physical containers.  From the moment the viewer enters this exhibit, the language of harsh materialism is also present in describing the highrise.  The “concrete-slab highrise tower,” the “towers of concrete and glass,” and “the ruins of modernism” are all phrases within the introduction.  On the exhibit page, the highrise structure maintains its black-and-white quality even as its interior units are lit up with color as the cursor moves over them.

Sao Paulo, Brazil highrise squat from Vancouver Sun

Within the introduction to the exhibit, the close-up image of a curtain introduces the window as an obvious metaphor within the exhibit.  Each of the units sharply depicts the division between outside and inside as the window becomes an entrance through which the viewer can actively enter the “world in the towers.”

There is specific attention to the contents of the unit as objects of meaning within the highrise.  Jane Bennett’s notion of the story as a way to “highlight the extent to which human being and thinghood overlap” (4) provides perfect illustration of Cizek’s own use of the material object as a way to introduce the personal.

Out My Window: Amchok's stuffed yak, Toronto

Most often, objects are invitations to watch videos.  Amchok’s stuffed yak that sits on top of a radiator in Toronto opens up his background as a Tibetan immigrant as he describes his childhood and the materials used to build homes where he is from.  A letter sits next to Durdane on her sofa in Istanbul.  The first line of the film that the letter invites you to watch is, “When I look at that letter, it reminds me of my son.”

Out My Window: Highrise cemetery, Tainan

Objects within Out My Window also often allude to what Bill Brown, in his article “Thing Theory” considers “the magic by which objects become values, fetishes, idols and totems” (Brown 5), as they become entrenched memories or belief systems.  The Buddhist figurine with the word “Religion” in Amsterdam, the photographs of deceased family members in Chicago with the handwritten words, “Friends are gone” and the highrise cemetery in Tainan illustrate the totem-power of the object.




Katerina Cizek’s face is posted throughout the Highrise website, a figurehead of the initiative.  Out My Window, however, is built upon principles of global participation.  It seems confusing to posit Cizek as the creator, when so much of the project’s goal is to promote a collaborative understanding of urban identity. Additonally, Cizek’s version of global participation seems to be based on her own curation of journalist-selected stories from around the world.  As a result, this exhibit largely displays highrise units occupied by artists.  How can a more diverse representation of voices be incorporated into the mix?

Out My Window: Katerina Cizek, from Director's Statement

This process of collaborative global involvement in the building of the exhibit, brings up important questions surrounding authorship, asked specifically in Christiane Paul’s discussion of net art.  Is Cizek the author of this exhibit or is she actually just the conductor of its multiple parts?  Paul writes that “the agency of the creator/user/public/audience is highly dependent on the extent of control over production and distribution of work” (Paul 87).  It seems that Cizek’s vision of interventionist art that provokes action might only be fully realizable in the post-production, or the sharing and use practices that follow its release.

Viewership and Participation

The press received for this exhibition offers insight into its use value and audience scope.  Out My Window was written about in popular news media, activist blog sites and architecture and design resources from around the world.  In what ways, however, can this exhibition reach the highrise population that it depicts, more fully achieving its goal of exploring how “documentary can drive or participate in social change, rather then just documenting it” (Cizek)?

Rose Lavan of Power to the Pixel suggests that “for a project that was brought together through social networks it is appropriate that these same channels are now playing their part in promoting it.” Online social networks are still digital, however, inaccessible for both those who cannot afford them and invisible to those who do not happen upon them.

In Fall 2010, this exhibit was transformed into an interactive StorySpace Installation, projecting all 49 stories onto 8 meters of interactive wall space.  The question of “native space” comes up in discussion of using an art gallery or other physical space to display this work.  What is the true native space of this exhibit?  Is it meant to be viewed in private or in public?  The discussion in the brief film about the Amsterdam installation does not get into the specifics of physical space location.

Out My Window: Interactive art piece in Amsterdam

It seems as though a live presentation of Out My Window on the side of a highrise would bring the type of change and community awareness beyond the predictable groups of activists, journalists and academics.  Of course, it is important that the outsiders see in, but there is an important self-awareness for highrise residents that might connect this project even further to its goals of community engagement and participatory action.

Out My Window: Participation page

A more recently added feature to the exhibition begins to invite viewers into the process of documenting their own personal highrise experiences and adopting more agency in the curatorial process.  This feature allows people to submit photographs of their personal highrise experience, as a way to be actively engaged in the process.  One adjustment to this feature that would make it even more participatory is to create a way for peoples’ photographs to be plugged into the same code that the original website was created with, allowing for a democratic standardization of this participation, so that all photographs will be 360 degrees and not just those within the original exhibit context.

Personal Project Relevance

Out My Window brings up several important questions for me as I begin to construct my own exhibit on the Thing-Power of the Pawned Object, which similarly fills the impersonal business transaction (similar to the impersonal highrise) with meaning, as constructed through object stories:

  • How does my method become a platform for future participation?
  • What levels of materiality (beyond the object) are present in the pawn shop?
  • How can I support the democratic model of net art curation through my own process of subject selection?

Works Cited

Bennett, Jane. “The Force of Things.” In Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things.  Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010: 1 – 19.

Brown, Bill. “Thing Theory.” Critical Inquiry 28:1 (August 2001): 1-22.

Brown, Bill.  “Materiality.” In Critical Terms for Media Studies. Ed. W. J. T. Mitchell and Mark B.N. Hansen. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010. 49-63.

Cizek, Katerina.  “Director’s Statement.” Out My Window.

Kasprzak, Michelle. “The NFB’s Innovative Online Out My Window Documentary Looks Out of Toronto’s Windows and Beyond.”  Yonge Street Blog.  10 November 2010.

Lavan, Rosie.  “Documentary Scales New Heights with Tall Tales.” Power to the Pixel.      11 February 2011.

Neef, Sonja & José van Dijck. “Sign Here! Handwriting in the Age of Technical Reproduction: Introduction.” Sign Here!: Handwriting in the Age of New Media (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006): 7-19.

Paul, Christiane.  “Flexible Contexts, Democratic Filtering and Computer-Aided Curating: Models for Online Curatorial Practice” In Joasia Krysa, Ed., Curating, Immateriality, Systems: On Curating Digital Media, Data Browser Series Vol. 3 (New York: Autonomedia Press, 2006): 85-105.

Semley, John.  “Thinking Outside the Blocks.”  Torontoist.  7 January 2011.




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