Portals: interactive video boxes connect strangers world over

Interactive art project is connecting Americans with people in Iran, Cuba and Afghanistan - breaking down psychic as well as physical barriers

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 June, 2015, 11:02pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 June, 2015, 11:02pm

Nick Meeker recently made a new Facebook friend. Her name is Mahsa Biglow, and she is a 25-year-old Iranian graduate student in photography at the University of Tehran. They met on the internet - but not in any of the usual ways.

Unlike most friendships formed online, theirs did not start with instant messaging or social media. Meeker met Biglow in a portal.

It is not quite a wardrobe to Narnia or Harry Potter's Platform 9¾ at King's Cross Station, and it certainly will not take you through outer space or back in time. But if you walk through Woodrow Wilson Plaza in Washington it is hard to miss. Spray-painted gold on the outside and equipped with Wi-fi-connected audiovisual technology on the inside, it is a used shipping container that has continued to bridge distances long past its expiration date.

"Please do not open this door unaccompanied," proclaim dark letters stamped on one corner of the box. Emblazoned on another, in partially faded text: "When you enter, you come face-to-face with a stranger abroad."

Several passers-by - mostly men and women in business suits heading to lunch - pause to gawk at the gold mass. A wide-eyed woman, ignoring the bold signage, pokes her head inside the entrance and asks: "What's in there?"

Meeker, a 30-year-old sports consultant from a Washington suburb, is standing in the container's pitch-black interior. He faces a wall displaying a full-body live video of Biglow, who is standing in a similar room in the Iranian capital.

"What would make today a good day for you?" asks Meeker, opening with the recommended starter to all Portal conversations. Though Meeker and Biglow are half a world apart, for the next 20 minutes, they ease into a flowing conversation, bonding over their mutual devotion to Penn State - she is matriculating there in the autumn, and a football coach there is one of his clients - and the tribulations of growing up in a hyper-political city.

Portals - a series of audiovisual installations in several cities around the world - were created by recent Yale Law School graduate and artist Amar Bakshi to bring people who would not otherwise meet into the same simulated room. The containers have hosted musical performances, guest speakers and even family reunions. And the private, one-on-one conversations taking place (sometimes with the aid of closed-caption translations) have sparked surprising realisations, leaving visitors "in joy" and "in tears", says artist Sohrab Kashani, Bakshi's partner in Iran.

In this kind of set-up, there is less pressure. The usual performativity is stripped away

There is a similar live, interactive video installation by Pakistani artist Rashid Rana on show at the Venice Biennale that connects visitors in Venice with those in Lahore's Liberty Market in an exhibition called "My East is Your West". The piece, titled Viewing, Viewer and Viewed, breaks down the distance between people in these two cities. This collateral event, supported by the Gujral Foundation, has also brought together artists from India and Pakistan for the first time in the prestigious international contemporary art showcase.

Back in the US, Portals have cropped up in a handful of cities across the country and abroad since the project's launch in December through the travelling artist collective Shared Studios. In Washington, visitors can connect with people in three locations: Tehran, Havana and Herat, Afghanistan. (The second one is a little iffy, though, because the internet connection in Cuba has been erratic lately. Just consider the technical difficulties part of the art.)

If you can't snag one of the nine daily slots per country, you will have to get in a virtual queue for reservations, where you will have plenty of company on the waiting list of 200. But do not give up hope - after Portals finishes its run at Woodrow Wilson Plaza today - Bakshi wants to find it a permanent home in the city.

Bakshi says that the goal of Portals is to bridge "psychic" distance more than physical distance. You can gather similar insights by placing Portals in two Washington neighbourhoods, he notes.

He was inspired to create the project by his grandmother's curiosity about Pakistan when he visited the country as a reporter. (He worked for The Washington Post from 2006 to 2008.) She had fled the country as an eight-year-old during partition, and yearned to recover her memories of the place through his on-the-ground experiences. It struck Bakshi that all of her questions came down to: "What's it like?"

"There are so many ways in which we perform online and with strangers," he says. "In this kind of set-up, there is less pressure. The usual performativity is stripped away."

Many participants find that they have more in common with the person on the other end than they expected. "I was surprised to hear that [Biglow] had Facebook, because I know a lot of sites are blocked in Iran," says Meeker.

But like an American teenager who has had her internet browsing restricted by the authorities in her life, Biglow - and many others - have found ways around the firewall.

When a group of students, the Hong Kong equivalent of Primary Three, entered the shipping container, the sounds of their singing soon reverberated from inside. Go figure: kids in the Middle East listen to Taylor Swift, too.

Rock-climbing instructor Nate Abel, 24, ventured into the portal on a day off and was connected with a young Iranian artist. He expected to talk about the cultural differences between Iran and the US, but instead they bonded over a mutual interest in mountaineering.

"It was very natural," Abel says with a shrug. "Just like having a conversation with anyone else."

As for the future of Portals, Bakshi is thinking big: he aims to place permanent installations across the globe. Though admission is free, he encourages visitors to donate 0.1 per cent of their annual income. So you do not have to own a Fortune 500 company to slip a few bills into his little box.

On your way out, you can use a metallic-gold pen to record your reactions in a scrapbook. One visitor wrote of the encounter: "We were so similar in sensibility, it's hard to believe the meeting wasn't rigged." The Primary Three pupils, meanwhile, scrawled this astute observation: "They have video games. AWESOME!!"

And then there are the folks who extend their experiences beyond their 20 minutes inside. Michelle Moghtader, Shared Studio's director of global development, says she has heard of pairings who have met in real life or have become artistic collaborators.

"I'm just waiting for the first Portals marriage," she says.

The Washington Post