Time seems to stop when you are stuck in quarantine, like I am right now. Everything at home is still, and if you live in a quiet residential area with little foot traffic, even the landscape seems to have frozen. Against all odds, I found some relief to my restlessness in a fairly new app that uses art as a tool for self-exploration. This morning, for example, I went around the apartment looking for movement that would make for a good time-lapse video. My search led me to the window, where I spent a minute admiring—and filming—the slight tremor of the curtain under the breeze.
Like millions of Americans over the holidays, I got Covid (most likely omicron) and found myself stuck in Bulgaria, which has a mandatory quarantine period of 14 days. (I’m on day seven, though really, I’m on day twelve because my husband tested first and his quarantine rolled into mine.) First came the movies, then the boredom, then a deep sense of resignation that led me to hours of doomscrolling on my phone.
That’s when I fell for an Instagram story advertising a new app called w1d1 (it stands for week 1 day 1). Created by Russian designers Alexey Ivanovsky and Andrei Keske, the app made its timely debut at the start of the pandemic. The slew of lockdowns exacerbated our obsession with screens—the average time we spent on our phones went up by 25% to almost 7 hours in 2020. There’s an app for everything; the irony of this one is that it reminds you to look up from your phone.
“It’s a weird creature to come up with,” Ivanovsky tells me on a Zoom call (the founders parted ways before the app launched and Ivanovsky now runs the company with three other people). The app costs $50 for a year, which is more than I’ve ever spent on an app (thank you, quarantine desperation). In return, you can opt for a daily challenge or choose from a series of so-called “blocks,” or themes that align with your interests: I picked photography, collage, personal history, and reflection.
The overarching goal is to make room for creativity every day, and to do so in an accessible way. “We are all afraid of the white canvas,” he says, but these everyday prompts turn the creative practice into a ritual, like 10 minutes of meditation a day.
The creative brain behind the daily challenges is w1d1’s head of content, Nina Zakharova. My first prompt was inspired by American photographer Edward Weston, who, as I learned, was known for turning subjects like cabbage leaves and cone snails into abstract shapes and patterns. My husband and I even made it into a game, challenging each other to find the mysterious object based solely on the picture. I shot a stack of DVDs from above and at such an angle they were unrecognizable. He zoomed in on the holes of a saltshaker until his camera lost focus and they looked like two yellow orbs. (He won.)
The app is inspired by the work of 20th-century literary critic Victor Shklovsky, for whom the purpose of art was to help us see things like we see them for the first time—”to make things strange again,” as Ivanovsky says. Every task culminates in something that you share on the app’s platform, like on Instagram, except answers remain anonymous. Ivanovsky says about 30,000 people use the app, many of them in Russia but also the U.S., U.K., Australia, and Canada. (The app is available in Russian and English, with a version in Japanese coming soon.)
The idea here is to build a diverse community with people around the world who can see how others are reacting to the same challenge. But only a fraction of users actually do the challenges. That’s the thing with apps, they have to contend with human procrastination and very short attention spans, because ultimately the app can only work if you’re willing to extract yourself from the couch and play along.
The irony that this is app exists to remind us of the outside world isn’t lost on Ivanovsky, who describes himself as “an offline type of person.” But to him, technology can be a means to a more “conscious and observant life.” Fundamentally, he says, it’s all about how “ridiculously interesting everything is.”