Forbes: How Two Artists Are Using Shipping Containers To Talk To Refugees Around The World

July 10, 2016

By Emma Sandler

President Obama takes a step inside the portal. (Credit: Shared Studios)

President Obama takes a step inside the portal. (Credit: Shared Studios)

It might not be a magical armoire from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, or Doctor Who’s time-traveling TARDIS, but “Portals” from artist collective Shared Studios certainly has its own story to tell.

Spearheaded by Yale Law School-educated artist and journalist Amar Bakshi and multimedia journalist Michelle Moghtader, the international exhibit takes gold spray-painted shipping containers and outfits them with immersive audio-visual technology to allow strangers to converse with one another from across the globe. The latest “Portal” was unveiled at the United Nations on World Refugees Day on June 20, 2016, as part of the U.N.’s free “Refugees” exhibit that runs until September 2016.

The first portal was set up between New York and Tehran in 2014 and since then portals have appeared in 20 cities, including Havana, Cuba, Kigali, Rwanda and Herat, Afghanistan.

“Our first portal, we gave people prompts to launch the conversation…so we asked ‘what would make today a good day for you,’” Moghtader says in a phone interview, adding, “We hope these simple conversation and questions reveal something deeper and more memorable.”

Portal at the University of Maryland (Credit: Shared Studios)

Portal at the University of Maryland (Credit: Shared Studios)

Bakshi and Moghtader say that the portal at the U.N has already contributed significantly to participants’ understanding of refugees. For instance, a group Syrian refugees in a tech hub were able to discuss with entrepreneurs across the world about their ideas, and a teenage female refugee in Jordan talked to a U.N worker about how the refugee camp is in need of power generators and the pressures young girls face to get married.

“He [came out of the portal and] said ‘Wow, I had no idea. We just keep sending them food,” Moghtader says.

Bakshi says that there have been over 20,000 conversations in the portals and that the intensity of the conversations has surprised even him.

“We’ve had a lot of intense conversations in the portals over the years; sexuality was especially a big one,” he says.

Sixth-grade students in New Haven speak to university students in Tehran about their school experience. (Credit: Shared Studios)

Sixth-grade students in New Haven speak to university students in Tehran about their school experience. (Credit: Shared Studios)

The portal originally came together in Bakshi’s parents’ backyard while earning his law degree, through a process of trial and error, which included a run-in with the FBI at one point when the neighbors mistook the shipping container for a terrorist cell.

“[Everyone] thought it was an eyesore, so I tried to paint it white and it was too arty, black was scary, but darker gold shut the neighbors up but it also alluded to a bit of the commercial and [the] sacred,” Bakshi says.

Bakshi and Moghtader said the next step for “Portals” is to internally discuss if and how they want to grow the project, citing challenges such as international laws and economics, finances, and questions about whether or not to seek investors.

“Are we an art collective, social venture, [or] a tech startup? We are all and none of those things,” Bakshi says, before saying later, “Right now we are trying to solidify the presence of portals around the world…to make it a public utility,” Bakshi says.