June 28, 2106
By Alycin Bektesh
Shining brightly on the Aspen Institute campus this week is a portal to another space. It’s a project of Shared Studios LLC. It’s a temporary set up, mirroring the gold-painted shipping containers placed in public areas all over the world that provide audio and video connection to other portals. Or, more accurately, provide human connection.
Yesterday morning the portal connected visitors to Kigali, Rwanda. On the other end of the experience was 25-year-old Dogon Nshimiyimana. In dress pants and a colored shirt, Nshimiyimana’s image was projected on an entire wall. The real-sized image gave the feeling that he was also standing in the Aspen portal.
“The idea is you can converse live. You basically can walk in and naturally strike up a conversation as if you were in the same room,” Shared Studio’s founder Amar Bakshi said.
Bakshi is an artist, and began the Portals project in his hometown of Washington D.C.
“I built the first one in my parents’ backyard. The neighbors complained. First that they thought it was an eyesore, then they thought I was living in it, and then finally I put ‘portal to Tehran’ on it and they called the FBI saying that it might be a terrorist cell.”
As Bakshi traveled the world as a reporter, he thought of his grandmother, who had never returned to her childhood home of Lahore, Pakistan after fleeing during partition. He wanted a way to take her back to her neighborhood, to speak with people who would connect her to home.
These days the project is something much bigger than a backyard art installation. Last week President Barack Obama was in a portal connecting to five other countries.
Portal communities have moved beyond one-on-one conversations to open up the space for classroom cross-cultural learning, performances and even worldwide rap battles.
Bakshi said the portals become something of a confessional during the 20-minute interaction. Nshimiyimana shared that he is a Congolese refugee who has lived in government run camps most of his life. That’s something he hid from his classmates while he was getting an education degree, because there is stigma and shame associated with being a refugee in Rwanda.
When Nshimiyimana was seven there was a massacre in his camp, he has a scar on his face from being beat with a machete. He only eats one meal a day because that’s all the food that is available.
Nshimiyimana is the only one in his family to go to school. He received scores high enough to get a university scholarship but the government would not honor it because he is a refugee. A private donor helped him with his education.
Every experience in the portals is random. Recently a Cuban-American woman who fled her country 60 years ago was connected to a teenager in Havana who grew up on her same block. A drone pilot spoke with an Afghan resident, and knew his own town as well and he did because he’d seen it from above for years. A man who could get arrested for being gay in his own country has been able to ask American gay men about their experiences.
The randomness is what makes it art, said Bakshi.
“I think there is a tendency everywhere to think immediately about what’s it’s use is… how does it make money? But my point is because it’s art, because it has no particular use, it can be used as an educational tool as a protest tool, whatever. Having no purpose is very important to its purpose.”
The portal is on the Paepcke lawn at the Aspen Institute through Thursday as part of the Aspen Ideas Festival. Visitors can reserve a time here.