WAMU Art Beat: 'Portal': A Shipping Container-Turned-Art Project Connecting People Across the Globe

A global art project recently came to D.C., bringing visitors face-to-face with strangers in Afghanistan, Iran and Cuba. Hundreds of people signed up online to book 20-minute-long one-on-one conversations in the Portal, a shipping container outfitted with video, audio and Internet.

It’s dark and cool inside the Portal, a stark contrast to the summer heat and high sun. Wahid Rasooly, a 21-year-old civil engineering student, is standing in two places at once. His feet are in Herat, Afghanistan, but the screen inside the Portal shows a life-size version of him that can hear and talk in real time.

The camera is placed just to the left of Rasooly’s right eye, so there is direct eye contact. This isn’t like other video chats that zoom in on someone’s head.

Amar Bakshi created Shared_Studios, an arts, design and technology collective. He says the focus is carving wormholes in the world, like Portals, one of Shared_Studios’ three major initiatives.

“When you go in the Portal, you look at another human being and they look at you, and it’s not as if they’re looking below the camera, for example,” he says.

The idea is to get people in a space where, they can meet others across great distances, but feel like they’re in the same room.

“Being full body tells you a lot about a person,” Bakshi says. “People sway, they fidget, they play with their pockets, they turn their bodies around. It is very revealing to stand and to see someone’s full body. People have described it as feeling quite naked. You can’t hide under a table.”

To get the conversation rolling, visitors receive a prompt. They might ask the question “What is your most treasured memory?” or “What would make today a good day for you?” Rasooly says he just wants to hear that his people are safe.

“A good day for me is when I hear that there is no bombing, there is no attacking,” he says. “The danger is always around us but… It’s a life fact that these explosions or these bombing is on us. Just we are continuing our life here.”

A conversation between Herat and D.C.(Shared_Studios)

If not for the Portal, Rasooly would probably never meet the random D.C. resident he’s paired with. That’s the point, according to Amar Bakshi. Before diving headfirst in to the intersection of art and technology, he traveled the globe as a reporter.

“I found that some of the most moving conversations of my time on the road were when I was on a bus, late in the evening, moving from one city to another, having a conversation with a stranger who didn’t know much about me,” he says. “When I came back to the U.S. and I worked in government and the media and in school, I missed those kinds of conversations.”

Early last year, he pitched the idea for Portals to his friend and former CNN colleague Michelle Moghtader. She was working for Reuters at the time, covering Iran. An Iranian-American, she found that people in both countries often had questions for her about the other place. She thought Portals would be a great way to create a direct line of conversation and remove the messenger.

“Iran is often seen as the land of impossibility,” she says. “It’s impossible to do things there, but I had travelled there quite a bit and I started asking people about the art scene there. The art scene is booming. There’s hundreds of galleries in Tehran alone, and I realized that this project was definitely doable there.”

Portals launched in December, connecting Tehran to New York, via a gallery in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

“We had about 1,500 people that participated in total, including 26 artist collaborations, so 13 artists in the U.S., 13 artists in Iran, from musicians to filmmakers to performance artists, collaborated to make joint pieces together,” Moghtader says.

People started reaching out, asking to bring the Portal to South Africa, Monaco and China. Moghtader quit her job and became the Director of Global Development for Shared_Studios. She and Bakshi set their eyes on D.C.

“I had some hesitations,” Moghtader says. “I was like, would this art project work in D.C.? Are people going to get it?”

In New York, people got it. But she says D.C. is more conservative. Still, they gave it a try. Back in April, they brought the Portal to Georgetown University, connecting its Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics to Hariwa University in Herat, Afghanistan.

That was a small-scale operation. Last month, they set up shop just outside the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center’s doors.

“Here at the Woodrow Wilson Plaza, many people have been coming,” Moghtader said last month. “We have a waitlist of 200 people. They get it. You know it’s an international city. They know about all these places. People here are so educated about Iran, about Afghanistan, and they’re drafting policies on these places.”

But, they don’t necessarily get to visit these places or speak to the people who live there. Moghtader says people see the utility and beauty in this space, where they can speak their minds in privacy.

“We have people who come through and they have sensitive jobs,” she says. She assures them not to worry. “I was like, ‘no, just go in. It’s safe, it’s secure, you can talk about whatever you want,’ and the conversations have really run the gamut.”

People dish about love, ambitions, macro level issues, and the weather. D.C. resident Katie Randall emerged from the Portal, blinking in the summer sun.

“It’s just literally a portal going into another world,” she says.

The yoga instructor spent 20 minutes talking to a 19-year-old guy in Afghanistan.

“He really wants to work for the U.N., and so we kind of spoke about what we felt our purpose was,” she says, “and ultimately, we have vastly different ways of wanting to do that, but human to human, soul to soul connecting on the fact that we just want peace and everybody to have freedom and live the way that they want to live without feeling unsafe.”

Paul Koscak works in the building and read about Portal in the newspaper. He dropped by and secured a late morning chat with a stranger in Cuba. He says there are a lot of things he’d be interested in talking to that person about.

“Especially now with this whole change of diplomacy we have between the United States and Cuba, it opens up a lot more questions, especially their economy,” he says. “It’s going to affect their economy.”

Moghtader says people have had all kinds of experiences in the Portal. Take for example the story of two friends who came together to check it out. They both left Cuba as young children.

“This other woman also hadn’t been back for 47 years and she said ‘you know, I met this guy who’s from my neighborhood, who went to my elementary school. I asked him, how did the neighborhoods change? Does this still exist? What are the streets like?’ She forgot,” Moghtader recalls.

Kristin Pedemonti is a professional storyteller. She came to the Portal on multiple occasions to chat with people in Cuba, Iran and Afghanistan.

“The highlights were, I think when I was blowing bubbles for Robin in Havana and he was popping them and we got a picture of it,” she says. “We were both laughing really hard.”

Pedemonti travels all over, trying to break down stereotypes through her cause-focused storytelling. She says human beings are human beings. We’re not that different.

“The one in Herat, we were talking about doing very similar work of building bridges between culture. The guy in Havana, turned out we both loved the Red Hot Chili Peppers,” she says. “Then the one in Tehran is a violinist, so we were talking about the arts.”

There were hiccups too. Her conversation in Tehran didn’t go too smoothly, thanks to slow broadband in Iran. When Pedemonti returns for an evening event, it happens again.

It’s a Friday night, two days before the Portal’s time is up at Woodrow Wilson Plaza. The Portal doors are open and the screen is pushed forward, so the whole group can see it. Under an elegant tent, guests drink wine while a trio of Persian musicians begin to perform…live from Tehran.

But it doesn’t go quite as planned. A few minutes in, the music starts dropping out and the team switches to a recording. Moghtader says each day and each country pose their own challenges.

“Our first couple days in Afghanistan, it was really hot over there, so their electricity kept blowing out because they were trying to cool the Portal, so they had to go to backup generators,” she says. “Our first day, we had a computer problem. In Iran the bandwidth has been super slow…Havana, when it rains, the Internet gets really bad.”

She says each day is “like an art of logistics.” “Sometimes Skype works. Sometimes Zoom works. Sometimes Google Hangout works. For example, in Cuba, Skype is blocked,” she says.

The team at Shared_Studios also needs to find places to keep the 10 by 20 foot shipping container.

“It can be outside. It just needs an Ethernet connection and electricity,” Moghtader says. I’ve been walking around the streets of D.C. looking for empty lots and I found many, I’m just not sure who owns them.”

They’ve booked a few temporary spots. In September, the Portal will spend a few days at The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland.

The ultimate goal is to create a permanent network of interconnected Portals in cities all over the world—Bakshi says they also want to build a mobile unit that can drive around the country, hitting rural communities along the way.

“The power of this is when it is in West Virginia and in Herat and not just in D.C. and New York,” he says.

Bakshi and Moghtader say the gold shipping containers could be used in a number of ways…But first they need to figure out where to put them.

Music: "Half A World Away" by REM from Out of Time