The mysterious gilded box first arrived on campus last Wednesday. Several students stared with curiosity as workers installed the golden shipping container on the Martha Rivers Ingram Commons lawn. Inside this box is the Vanderbilt Portal to Mexico City.
The Portal — an interactive art installation by a New York based group dedicated to bringing people together — uses audio and video technology to let its users experience realistic face-to-face conversations with people thousands of miles away.
Students who step into the Vanderbilt Portal talk for 20 minutes with another person standing in a similar container in Mexico City.
Conversations are private and are not recorded — allowing users to talk freely about whatever they please. If needed, volunteers from the Center for Latin American Studies can provide translation. The Portal, which officially opened on Friday, will be on campus through October 12th. During the last five days, the Portal will be connected with Honduras.
Vanessa Beasley, dean of The Commons, said that several faculty approached her regarding the idea of the Portal months ago.
Beasley welcomed the idea, hoping to give students a unique experience and possibly push them a little beyond their comfort zone.
“I think sometimes, particularly in our community of achievers here at Vanderbilt, we just need to have an experience that’s a little bit different and talk to somebody that we might not get to talk to otherwise,” Beasley said. “It requires a kind of openness. For people who are high achievers, like most of us at Vanderbilt, it’s not always easy to be that spontaneous and open to a new experience.”
Although Shared Studios has Portals located around the world, Beasley said she pushed for a location in Latin America. In meetings the group discussed Portal locations in the Middle East and South America, but Beasley said Latin or Central America was her first choice.
Part of the reasoning, according to Beasley, was the connections to the freshman summer reading “The Madonnas of Echo Park.”
Figuring out the logistics of bringing the Portal to campus was not an easy task, according to Beasley. She said they had to navigate financial implications, security concerns and scheduling conflicts.
“It’s a weird thing because it’s such a simple concept and then every day (there’s) some kind of new problem or wrinkle, which is just how these things go,” she said laughing.
“It’s like ‘well I guess we’ll just have to wait until it gets here to see how it works’.”
This was seen when a soft launch of the Portal that took place on Thursday afternoon was riddled with technical difficulties. The issues were the result of a storm in Mexico City that had knocked down a satellite. After a short delay, the connection was reestablished and the launch was ultimately a success.
The Portal’s two maiden voyagers were: Shellese Shemwell, a second year grad student, and Samuel Hoskins, a senior in Peabody.
“It’s really cool,” Hoskins said, as he exited the Portal. “It’s very similar to FaceTime and Skype and things like that, but you’re in this big portal and it’s almost like you’re walking into a space together where you can talk to each other, so that was really cool.”
Shemwell had a similar response when exiting the Portal.
“It just seemed very natural,” Shemwell said. “It seemed like I could touch him. It seemed like someone was walking by and I was just like ‘Oh hey how are you’ like ‘How was your day’ type of thing. It didn’t seem like you were on a screen a thousand of miles away in another country.”
“[We talked] about the construction of the box,” Shemwell said. “And just how cool of an experience it was.”
When asked if they would recommend the Portal to their fellow students both Hoskins and Shemwell enthusiastically agreed.
“Oh definitely yes!” Shemwell said with a smile.
On the other end of the Portal, users in Mexico City were excited to converse with students in Nashville.
“[The Portal] is something really beautiful” said Francisco Garcia, an art student in Mexico City. “It really represents the ultimate cultural exchange.” (Quote was translated from Spanish by Haleema Cheek)