By Alicia Che April 10, 2015
As students rushed to and from their classes in the Edmund A. Walsh Memorial building this week, they passed by a nondescript gold shipping container on N Street — unaware that, inside, unprecedented conversations were taking place.
Participants who stepped into the box, titled the “Portal to Afghanistan,” were digitally transported thousands of miles away to have a full-body video chat with a complete stranger in Herat, Afghanistan.
This interactive box studio uses multimedia technology to create accessible, secure and meaningful encounters between people in Washington, D.C., and those in Afghanistan. Developed by emerging artist Amar Bakshi, Portal to Afghanistan is on display at 3622 N St. from April 7 to 18 and offers a unique experience for those interested in exploring how creative use of technology could empower cross-cultural communication. Shared Studios entirely manages and organizes each private session, and interested community members can sign up for a 15-minute session on Shared Studio’s website
“Technology really allows people to talk to one another, but too often new tools are not used to connect people who likely would not otherwise meet,” Bakshi said. “Portals grounds these technologies in a particular context and community that creates room for de-instrumentalized encounters between strangers. Often we use the tools at our disposal online to strengthen our own networks rather than reaching out to strangers across various divides. Portals provide a different avenue to create encounters between people.”
Shared Portals, which includes Portal to Afghanistan, is a major initiative under Shared Studios, a multidisciplinary arts, design and technology collective focused on connecting people from diverse populations and carving wormholes throughout the world. Inside the portals, which are modified from shipping containers and equipped with audio-visual technology, one comes face-to-face with someone in another container anywhere in the world. The two subjects then engage in a conversation as if in the same room.
Since the launch of Shared Portals in December 2014, more than a thousand people in Iran and the United States have carried on private, 15-minute conversations with strangers from the other country. In the past few months, Shared Portals placed exhibits at Yale University and the Lu Magnus Art Gallery in New York City. This time, due to a new partnership with professors at the University of Herat, Shared Portals is bringing its real-time correspondence to Afghanistan for the first time.
The Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics at Georgetown is hosting the Portal Project after reaching out to Bakshi expressing interest in collaboration. Lab Co-Founder and Co-Director Cynthia Schneider, distinguished professor in the practice of diplomacy, said that Georgetown thought the art installation would complement a larger initiative and performance by the Lab in partnership with the Georgetown Department of Performing Arts entitled “Generation (Wh)Y.” The “theatrical experience,” which will incorporate multimedia aspects, was created after Georgetown students experienced video interactions with students from Egypt, Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Qatar and Iraq, among other countries. According to the Department of Performing Arts’ website, the project will run April 17 and 18 in the Davis Performing Arts Center.
“We used intimate live performances and web-based technology and social media platforms to allow viewers to move through multiple spaces exploring real experiences from global voices and the poetry of everyday life,” DPAC Artistic Director Derek Goldman, the Lab co-founder and co-director, said. “It celebrates different encounters that people are having with folks around the world.”
Schneider said she believes that Georgetown’s portal is an invaluable chance to foster deeper cross-cultural understanding.
“In the wake of President [Mohammad Ashraf] Ghani’s visit, we have heard a hopeful message for Afghanistan’s future and for the ongoing positive cooperation between our two countries,” Schneider said. “But against that backdrop come reports of continued violence, endemic poverty, and other challenges. The Portal provides the chance to understand how ordinary Afghans view their lives and their future.”
Bakshi said he envisions that the use of technology could transform the way people communicate and shape their ideas of group identity. He also indicated that he chose shipping containers as a medium to unite participants in a common space with deep symbolism.
“Using shipping containers also has symbolic value, by making a mundane artifact more meaningful and creating a moment around it,” Bakshi said. “Shipping containers are a symbol of global commerce and a trade-centric culture. Here I want to re-purpose these containers in a consistent way and to facilitate de-instrumentalized encounters. The myriad associations enhance this context.”
Those participating in the exchange are expected to respond to the same prompt: “What would make today a good day for you?” Bakshi said the question encourages participants to speak about details of their daily lives and touch on the small things that make a long-lasting memory for them.
During one of the 15-minute conversations that took place on Wednesday, two participants shared insights about their lives, college experiences and personal viewpoints on philosophy and religion. Afghan college student Mohammad Yones said he taught his partner on the other side of the screen greeting phrases in Persian, which carry the meaning of “I wish you happiness.”
After leaving the Portal, participants write about their experiences in a gold book, which are then published on the project’s website.
Besides the 15 minute individual appointments, the Portal can also be used for off-hours reservations for longer stretches of time, enabling artists, students or academics to converse or collaborate.
In the future, Bakshi anticipates the Portal to expand to more countries and more diverse populations. Potential future destinations include Iraq, Monrovia, Liberia and China. Shared Portals hopes to create a portal installation in a different location each month for the next six months.
“The conversation pair does not need to be super-charged,” Bakshi said. “One day you might have Moscow and Ukraine, but it could also be two parts of D.C. The idea is having two groups engage across varying forms of distance.”
Joshua Ramjit (SFS ’15) volunteered at the Portal, but also engaged in a dialogue with an Afghan student. He said that the Portal directly shows the power that open dialogue can have in facilitating understanding across cultures.
“Through the Portal, I gained a friend who reminds me that education, electricity and the economy are not things to take for granted,” Ramjit said.