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Swinging for a cause

A quirky class assignment has grown into an international initiative - to fill up austere public spaces with playfulness and optimism

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In 2007, two students of the School of Architecture in the University of Texas in the had a wacky idea for their class assignment. They were given the task to develop conceptually an urban intervention programme within the city of Austin. The duo of and — they prefer not to have their last names published — put up red swings around the city and simply watched how people reacted.

Put up in different settings, “this familiar object in unfamiliar places”, as the duo call it, invited varying reactions — from curious onlookers to active participants. While the primary intention was to infuse an element of playfulness in an increasingly complex urban environment, the red swing quickly reminded passersby of the childhood innocence and joys of simplicity. The red plank of wood suspended on rope from trees offered different meanings — a tribute to the spirit of childhood, a testimonial to playfulness, a marker of optimism in the face of despair, or simply a plaything for children.

On seeing the success of their experiment in Austin, they went to Boston and New Orleans to put up red swings. Five years after what Sourav and Andrew describe as a “mischievous class assignment”, there are over 200 red swings put up anonymously across 10 countries, including India. The is now an international initiative with a mission to “positively impact under-utilised public spaces with simple red swings”.

In 2008 Sourav and Andrew visited India and put up the first red swing in Puducherry. This was followed by swings in Mysore, Gokarna and Udaipur. In 2009, Sourav attempted to carry out his experiment in Mumbai. “I put up three red swings in Mahalaxmi and overnight, all of them were taken away,” recollects Sourav who is in Mumbai again, this time to put up as many as 30 red swings across Colaba, Mahim, Dharavi and Bandra Kurla Complex.

“The project can take on very different meanings with the more places we put the swings in,” he says. “We are curious about cities and more interested to put them in an urban setup because of the human density in such places,” he adds. However, he says, the project is also interested in the poetic moment which these swings may create. “If we put it in the middle of nowhere and someone finds it, it is very special to us.”

The swing that Sourav put up in in Fort on the weekend was removed overnight. Undeterred, he hung it at the same spot a second time. The two don’t worry about swings being stolen, cut down and taken away. “We are not really concerned about them being taken away. If one person has sat on it and enjoyed a moment of play and [if the swing has] put a smile on his or her face, that is good enough. It is really about getting the opportunity for a moment. If there are more swings out there, we are increasing the odds for that moment to happen,” he adds.

On the subject of the project’s anonymity and swings being put up without permissions, Andrew, in an Erin Harris-directed documentary on Red Swings Project, says: “In terms of it being legal or illegal, it is really a matter of interpretation. Because it is a funny thing to explain to a police officer.”

Being anonymous helps keep the project magical and wonderful, he believes. “It makes the project more about the swing and the people who use it, rather than the story of the person hanging the swing,” says Andrew in the documentary. “I think it would hurt the project if there is a name attached to it.”

Anybody can be part of the project and hang a swing. The website www.redswingproject.org offers an instructional video and manual, inviting others to join the project, take control and improve their public environments.

For the founders, a red wooden seat and a pair of ropes in an urban zone is a gift to the people as an appropriation of the public space. It is, to a large extent, an apolitical device which is symbolic of a more democratic common territory.

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