BY CALLIE BARLOW — MARCH 28, 2017
In 2009 the New Museum in New York presented “It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq,” a commission by British Artist Jeremy Deller. I left the museum with quiet tears streaming down my face, deeply moved by the experience. Deller placed a living room setup in the middle of the floor and curated a group of veterans, journalists, scholars, and Iraqi nationals to have an unrestrained open dialogue with the visitors.
I sat alone with Nour al-Khal, who worked as a translator in Basra and survived journalist Steven Vincent in 2005 when they were abducted, beaten, and shot by armed men. We spoke about her nightmares, the isolation she feels living as a refugee in New York, her incessant fear for her family still in Iraq, and the brutal reality of young girls in conflict zones too often becoming sex slaves. This relatively brief conversation had a profound impact on me, and I was immediately reminded of it when I stepped into a Portal.
Portals are gold-painted immersive shipping containers that connect people in separate geographic locations, allowing them to engage in conversations, workshops, and performances. The experience was created by multidisciplinary art, design, and technology collective Shared_Studios, who “envision a world where we all talk, work, collaborate, debate, and play across all forms of distance.” Paramount to the impact of Portals are the diverse curators embedded within the communities where the Portals are located. Permanent Portals can be found in twelve countries, including Afghanistan, Honduras, and Rwanda.
Recently, I spoke with Amar Bakshi, founder Shared_Studios, about the vision behind Portals, and what lies ahead for the project.
CB: In 1947 your grandmother fled from Pakistan during the Partition by train at night with fires burning outside her window. Since you launched Portals in 2014, more than 25,000 people have been connected in conversations. How did you get here?
AB: I got here through at least three threads of my life simultaneously converging:
First, I grew up with minimal knowledge of my Indian heritage. When my mother left India, she vowed never to return, and I grew up ashamed of my heritage. I explored my identity indirectly through painting and acting, and I found through art an indirect connection to this past through the colors, forms, and narratives that struck me.
Second, as a brown American in a predominantly white environment and in a segregated city, I was always concerned with fostering dialogue between people who wouldn’t otherwise connect. I sought to do this by starting a student newspaper to connect public and private schools, by advocating for gay rights in my all-boys school, and then later through documentary video projects focused on shunned communities.
Third, in my post-grad years as a journalist, I had some of the most meaningful experiences of my life traveling around the world speaking to people off-camera to pass the time. In those fleeting encounters, conversing with no particular purpose, I had some of the most profound conversations of my life.
These threads converged gradually while I was in law school, and my attention moved from institutions of law, finance, journalism, and governance toward the world of art, which in large measure is defined contemporarily as that domain of public life not oriented toward a particular purpose.
I felt that in a time when so much of our public discourse is mediated by these institutions, and when so often when we meet a stranger it is because we are trying to achieve something—a job, a date, etc.—there was something powerful in those threads of my past that could only manifest itself within the context of art. Portals grew from those unconscious realizations. It grew from a sense of thinking what needs to exist currently does not.
CB: Is it true that your neighbors called the FBI when you were making your first Portal?
AB: Someone called the FBI. (I’m pretty sure it was the FBI, but it could have been some other homeland security–related agency; I’m not sure.) My mother got a call from some authoritative male asking to speak with me. My mother then called me in a contained panic. So I called the agent right back and the following day we spoke.
The agent was exceedingly nice and was, in fact, quite apologetic about having to follow up on the call. But he said it was his job and asked me in detail about what I was doing. I explained the vision of Portals as a public art initiative. This was back before any Portal had been launched, so I was still describing a goal at this point, rather than anything in particular. But by the end of the conversation he got quite jazzed by the Portals idea and wished me the best of luck. That was it.
CB: At the core of Portals is a conversation and an exchange between people. Were there any particularly formative conversations or exchanges you experienced during your time as a journalist that sparked the idea for Portals?
AB: Not one moment, but rather the feeling of losing myself in the world at a precise moment in time and space, and doing so unexpectedly. I spent a year traveling around the world as a backpack journalist reporting on how people see America, and then many more months traveling around America in 2008 reporting on race and politics. I talked to so many different people every day: a young man in India preparing for a wedding; a woman in the Philippines trying to find her father; a reverend in West Virginia proud of his flock; and a Hispanic union organizer worried about the future of his.
What struck me over time was how much more I gained when I spoke to people with the camera off. In fact, the best conversations were on long bus rides with no technology at all—computer and phone dead, camera off, and time to kill. For hours, to pass the time, I listened to the stories of the person sitting next to me and shared mine. I revealed things about myself that I hesitate to do even with close friends at home.
CB: Marina Abramovic often says, “If you make bread in the bakery, you are the baker. But if you make bread in the gallery, you’re the artist. The difference is about the context.” What role does context play in the ways in which the people interact with and create their own spaces within Portals?
AB: The context of art is critical to Portals. The contemporary gallery absolutely is not. Portals is a global public artwork that can exist only because there is a common global understanding of at least one definition of art that positions art as de-instrumentalized, without purpose, without objective measure of its worth. This vision has been nurtured by museums, galleries, art schools, collectors, fairs, public art institutions, and others. Now, because of their work, Portals can exist as art outside the art world institutions as long as participants understand it as such.
So we position Portals as art around the world very consciously, as an organizer might—by building our internal culture, developing compelling partnerships, and deploying external messaging with an eye toward its reception.
It's important to note here that all of our Portals are staffed by part-time or full-time paid Portal Curators. These Curators engage their communities, program their Portal, and connect constantly with Portal Curators around the world to make one conversation, event, play date, or performance after another possible. Gaza connects to Brooklyn one day and Yangon the next. They also seek local support to ensure the durability of their Portal over time. None of this is charity. It all grows the value of our network.
And what excites me is that unlike many object-based artworks, Portals acquires its value through proliferation, not scarcity, and through distribution across groups with radically different levels of art world connoisseurship. Portals is valuable, durable, compelling, confusing, problematic, desolate, and hopeful because it exists from a contemporary art museum in Mexico to a church on the the South Side of Chicago; from a tech hub in Gaza City to a refugee resettlement site in Tempelhof, Berlin.
And because we survive, and grow, with payments from a wide range of institutions—cities, museums, universities, NGOs, galleries, and others – we think deeply about the economic structure underpinning Portals as a global public artwork. We consider these economic considerations as part of the work itself and as a rich domain for artistic exploration. Money is a vital part of the definition of art we take advantage of—as a fuel for its creation, a site for its contestation, a mechanism for its proliferation. But money as a measure of art’s value kills that earnest definition and undermines the public understanding of the definition of art that Portals relies on.
CB: Has the history of public artworks and art interventions informed the narrative of Portals?
AB: Deeply. We have actually written a history of bi-directional telematic art, or artwork that uses telecommunications as its medium to connect two places in time. We will release this historical research later this year. It spends a good amount of time exploring the intersection of this lineage with public artworks and art interventions over the past century and will show that even prior to the technology existing, ideas for creating systems to connect two places stretch back to the 1600s.
Portals builds on an incredibly rich history of public artwork. I hesitate to name any one artist at the risk of not naming them all, or at the risk of having that artist rise up and denounce my attempt to associate with him or her, so I will resist! In brief, without the performance art and conceptual art movements of the last century, Portals could never exist. Redefining the art object to locate it within human interaction is an enduring legacy of much performance art, relational aesthetics, social practice, institutional critique, and so forth. Their lessons also help us think more critically about how to use law, policy, economics, and institutional arrangements in developing and growing Portals. I think of this as using law as a medium, and actually organized a conference with that title several years ago (more at www.TheLegalMedium.com).
CB: Eric Schmidt aptly predicted that people will have a hard time consuming things that have not been tailored for them. We are living in an age of digital connectivity that reflects our bubbles and biases. What is your take on our current state of digital culture and exchange, and how does Portals address or combat these issues?
AB: I think social networks have been drawn far too tightly around us. The move toward personalization makes sense for commodities, but is perilous when applied to human interaction. We see this in opinion and news bubbles, hardening social divisions, and so forth. Portals takes now-mundane connective technologies—a shipping container, the Internet, a carpet—and builds up associations of art, sacredness, even commercial value, around it through the gold color, the narrative, the experience. It then carves out a space and time in which, potentially, people can create their own private meanings.
CB: Is there one particularly moving Portals exchange you’d like to share as a testament to the power of the project?
AB: We have had powerful exchanges, but they are not all recorded—they are private to the participants. Those participants often write in our gold books in gold pen, and we have thousands of these responses (which we look forward to posting online in the coming year), but I do not witness the encounters. No one but the participants witnesses their encounter.
But some of those encounters I have heard or read about include a drone pilot who had flown sorties over Afghanistan for years but only spoke to an Afghan for the first time through the Portal. Another participant was a Cuban-American woman who, like my grandmother, had fled her home country as a child and never returned. She came to the Portal and spoke to someone who grew up on the same street as she did. Young people in inner-city America syncopated last week with youth in Dharavi in Mumbai, while people in Mexico City happened by a Portal and struck up conversations with strangers in Yangon.
But whatever power there is in these encounters comes from human beings stepping out of their daily lives, carving out time and space, and engaging another human being with no goal in mind but to communicate.
CB: Does Portals have any plans to combat the divide that we are currently seeing in America post-election?
AB: We are working to bring together a coalition of partners and supporters to help place Portals in 50 states this year to begin connecting diverse parts of the country together for conversation, collaboration, and play. The dialogues, like all of our dialogues, do not necessarily address a single divide, or seek to combat any particular rifts. And they do not seek a particular outcome, but rather probe what we, as a group, a network, a community, are curious about. What happens when Americans who would not likely encounter one another do so? From Native American reservations to Aspen ski lodges, Manhattan sidewalks to a Portal Barge traveling down the Mississippi, we aim to create Portal connections across America. (Now, of course, the fact that this is all done digitally adds many layers for us to discuss, but that's for another time.)
CB: Do you think we would have had a more engaging interview if we had spoken in a Portal? Just kidding, sort of . . .
AB: Well, relative to phone, email, or tiny computer cameras, absolutely! Relative to in-person, of course not.