By Rachel Sadon
In the middle of a nearly empty Woodrow Wilson Plaza, a handful of people sat languidly chatting at a table outside a shimmering gold shipping container. As the distinctive strains of the Buena Vista Social Club wafted through the humidity, a group of helmeted tourists practiced riding segways around a course marked by orange cones. Silently gliding by, their movements appeared to be choreographed to the twangs of the Spanish guitar. On such a sweltering afternoon, you'd be forgiven for thinking the whole thing was an elaborate mirage—the trick of a water-deprived mind in the heart of federal Washington.
While the "Segs in the City" group was gearing up for a motorized trip around Washington, I was mentally preparing to be going much further away. The gilded shipping container was set up to act as a portal to Havana, and a stranger at the other end was waiting to meet me for no other reason than to have a twenty-minute conversation.
It's a deeply romantic prospect, but what exactly would I say to him or her? And why in the world was I vaguely nervous about the whole thing?
The "Portals" project is the brainchild of D.C.-based artist Amar Bakshi and his art collective, Shared_Studios. On its face, the conceit is simple: set up spaces in two different countries and let visitors talk via web cam. The interaction isn't recorded, there is no entrance fee, and visitors are free to talk about whatever they want; the only instruction they are given, in fact, is a prompt of "what would make today a good day for you?”
The project was inspired by the 31-year-old's experiences as a video journalist traveling the world for The Washington Post. He said the most interesting conversations weren't the ones before the camera he held, but the late night talks on buses when he and perfect strangers had nothing to gain but a good conversation.
Parked outside of the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, the location is a fitting one for a project seeking to bridge distances. Depending on the time of day, the portal is set up to make connections between people in D.C. and counterparts in Tehran, Herat, or Havana.
Bakshi says this is just the beginning. He hopes to add to the number of shiny shipping containers around the world until there is a vast network of interconnected cities (he is working on finding a permanent home for the one in D.C.)
"We wanted to start with Tehran and march back," he said, noting the very obvious distances between the Iranian capital and our own. Once the concept is established, he hopes, the portals could connect communities that are less glaringly opposed. "One day, we would could even do two parts of D.C. and people would know what that means."
He doesn't have illusions, though, about how people might interact or what they are meant to gain from participating. "It's not for a particular purpose," he said. "We're not trying to create world peace through this. People can create their own encounter, their own meaning; they can use it for what they want."
Around 3,000 people have had the opportunity to do that since he set up the first portal between Tehran and a gallery in New York (they have also been set up at Yale and Georgetown universities so far). Twenty minutes isn't very long in the grand scheme of things, but is still a substantial chunk of time. And awkward as it might seem to simply strike up a conversation with someone you've never met and likely will never speak to again, "nobody ever leaves early," Bakshi promised me before I ventured inside.
Meanwhile, I promised myself that, when handed the opportunity to speak to a stranger in a country that I've longed to visit, I'd talk about anything but the weather. I failed in dramatic fashion, babbling almost immediately about the oppressive heat that has enveloped the city.
But inside the cool shipping container—a simple carpeted space with a patio table set up in front of a large screen—the conversation Robin and I shared pretty quickly left the realm of small talk. As he was telling me about his love for Cuban jazz, a flash rain descended in Havana and I could hear it pounding down in the background. Without leaving the District, I was transported to the Cuban capital.
Part of what makes that possible is the physical space that Bakshi and his collaborators have built out. I could have sat at home and opened Chatroulette or any number of sites that promise to connect strangers via video chat, but the portal intensifies the connection. It is just you and a stranger, face-to-face, in a room designed specifically for this single purpose.
And unlike using a webcam, it seems as though the person actually is right in front of you. Bakshi has modified a camera lens to balance out the fish-eye effect you normally get when video chatting on a laptop. "Typically, either you’re going to have eye contact or a flat ground. We made it so you can have both," he explains. It is also a full body view. "You see the other person fidget and move. You can walk around your space. It feels like you’re breathing the same air."
Indeed, I stopped noticing the camera until the internet connection wobbled, which happened a couple of times. Still, I was shocked when a volunteer told me my time was up. Wasn't I just babbling about the weather?
Upon emerging back to the broiling courtyard, the Segway riders had ridden off but the courtyard otherwise looked the same. Yet something about the day seemed to have shifted; it was as though I had really returned from a trip.
"It is this unique space that when you enter it and exit it, people feel very different," Bakshi says. "That's all that it is meant to do to the extent that it's meant to do anything."
The D.C. portal is scheduled to remain up through June 21. There is currently a waitlist, but cancellations mean you might still have a chance at getting in (keep checking the website, too). The portal will also be used to stream a live performance of classical Persian music from Iran on Friday.