This Agency Is Reconnecting the Confined World in One Big Virtual Apartment Building

The distilling power of 'Distant Neighbors'

Few things amuse us more than looking out into the façade across the way. Every window is a tiny live-action feature: There are the neighbors with the middle-aged goth friends, the guy who exercises naked, and that one woman still clapping devotedly for the medical workers at 8 p.m., even though she's alone now.

It's a mix of exhibitionism, however accidental, and intimacy—catnip to minds designed to weave stories.

Appropriate, then, that Dubai Design District (d3) and Serviceplan Middle East have adapted this model for the long, strange days of human society still held in suspended animation by Covid-19.

"Distant Neighbors" lives on Instagram, and the muted lights of its windows, in this digital building designed for eternal scroll, still contains some of the magic of the real thing. The eyes are warmed in these tiny urban hearths. 

Dubai Design District | Distant Neighbors

There is also something in its spirit and coloring of "HBO Voyeur," released well over a decade ago. But the latter felt slightly more frenetic and demanding than its modern cousin: Even as countries begin to de-confine, a lot of advertising feels like it's coming from a more patient place. (Even Viagra's gotten soft on us!)

The rules are simple: Take some photos of things that make your house feel special. Pair them with a quote you like, or other snackable descriptive language. Then share them with @distant.neighbours via direct message. 

Michelle Peric, an Argentina-based artist who studied in Dubai, will take your offering and transform it into a tile with an apartment number. Now you're part of the neighborhood.

We took a picture of one of our favorite tabletops—a messy altar space, busy with art, incense and candles, paired with a quote from the Museum of Whales You Will Never See, one a friend shared with us. The resulting tile came back with three candles, flickering near a drawn curtain.

We're not sure what we expected, but it's strangely pleasing to see the many things you feel define you, distilled into a single focal point for a window. It feels almost like absolution—like yes, of course it's not the stuff that matters, it's a vibe I'm trying to convey, a sense impression. Peric finds it with almost surgical precision.

A med student in apartment 1303DN, according to the hashtag, has a slew of photos, whittled down to a few beloved plants and the distinctive shape of his great black dog:

Another neighbor (1501DN!) shares poetry and art, but it's she herself who appears, a sleek silhouette in a comfy chair, holding a steaming mug:

D3 sits at the heart of Dubai and is a business community revolving around fashion, art and design. It hosts over 9,000 people and 385 business partners, including Zaha Hadid Architects, Dior and Burberry. 

On top of giving people some comfort against the existential howl that seems to be stalking us all, the group hopes "Distant Neighbors" will be used to express creativity.

"Distant Neighbors is an exciting, Dubai-based creative platform that brings people together to connect, collaborate and co-create at a time when socially responsible design has never been so important," says d3's executive director, Khadija Al Bastaki. "With social distancing measures still in place around the world, our community will relish the opportunity to express themselves by joining this vibrant digital neighborhood to showcase local talent."

The project is small for now. But Peric is a fast magician; maybe, at some point, people will interact from their virtual windows, dropping messages for "neighbors" who may well be an ocean away.

I am in apartment 1601DN. Come knock!

Below is a brief Q&A with Peric and Sahar Iqbal, Serviceplan Middle East's head of art. The agency's executive creative director, Aki Bagri, says the project was Iqbal's brainchild, and she is currently doing community management for it. 

Muse: What inspired the format of an apartment façade?

Sahar Iqbal: We were in the midst of lockdown, and isolation was beginning to set in. We are social creatures, and the urge to connect with others grew. That's where our minds were. With nothing to do, people looked at their phones, so that's where we looked, too. The question came up: How do we get strangers to connect on social on a meaningful level? Looking out the window, we realized that, at this moment, we all have a similar view: slices of lives framed within floors and apartments in neighboring buildings. Grids of lives right outside our window. Grids that exist on Instagram as well, so it made sense and fit perfectly.

How many illustrations have been produced so far?

Sahar Iqbal: For now we have 51 illustrations, with more on the way.

Michelle, what are you learning about yourself or others as you produce the art?

Michelle Peric: This is a special project for me—quarantine has affected every person in the world, and being able to capture intimate, personal moments and moods are something I aspire to capture in my work. These stories are and will be relevant throughout our times; the experiences illustrated resonate within each of us affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, [reflecting] how it has shaped our way of living under quarantine. Hopefully we are able to empathize, reconnect and reflect on these times with a sense of wonder, education and sympathy during a strange time for humanity.

Have current events changed how the agency ideated this project or others?

Sahar Iqbal: Yes, most of our work was affected. We had to approach all our projects, and revise those we did before, with the consideration of the strange new reality we were in. There needed to be a sensitivity and kindness in everything that we did.

What do you hope people extract from "Distant Neighbors"?

Sahar Iqbal: Before Covid-19, I feel like we lived our lives in a haze of work and home. Connecting with anyone outside of that seemed unnecessary. For me, being on my own for days on end changed that. We have a newfound appreciation for the connections we have, and those we can build with a tap and a scroll. We hope to inspire people to get to know their digital neighbors, whether it's on "Distant Neighbors" or anywhere else, to look beyond their routine and appreciate the beauty of everyone around them.

Parting words for humanity?

Sahar Iqbal: In this digital age, we can create e-neighbors across the world—the keyword being "create," for it is a step we take to connect with those around us. As creatives, we can realize that in our work, building on ideas that bring people together—appreciating the complexities of people, or easing the burden of isolation.

Profile picture for user Angela Natividad
Angela Natividad
Angela Natividad is a founding contributor to Muse. She is also the co-founder of esports agency Hurrah.gg, and co-author of Generation Creation.

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