The Muse: How a Shipping Container Can Connect You to Anyone in the World

By Natalie Jesionka

Imagine if you could step into a gold shipping container that could instantly connect you with anyone in the world. Who would you want to talk to? What would you talk about?

Believe it or not, these gateways exist—well, kind of. Amar Bakshi, the founder of the global art project “Portals,” is connecting people in this exact way. In the last week, if you entered one of the portals in New York or Tehran, you may have encountered famous filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, musician Kamie Babaie, or Yale Law School dean Robert Post via live video feed.

The purpose is to get people to chat—to create global dialogue by asking people to think about the question, “What would make tomorrow a good day?”

But art isn’t his only passion. He’s also worked for CNN, The Washington Post, and the United Nations and is now pursuing a law degree at Yale. I was able to catch up with Bakshi about Shared Studios, the collective behind the project, “Portals,” and how he’s been able to successfully intersect multiple career fields, as he brings art, law, media, and diplomacy into his work.

When did you initially have the vision for Shared Studios, and how long did it take from your idea to manifest into what it is today?

The idea emerged slowly. I first thought of something like the portals project back in 2007 when I was a reporter for the Washington Post looking at how people around the world perceive America. I loved meeting strangers and entering their homes, staying up late, and asking whatever questions I wanted. Journalism gives great cover for indulging curiosity.

And when I was abroad, I met incredible characters from Pakistan to the Philippines—people I wanted to introduce to my mom, grandmother, friends and neighbors. I assumed Google or Skype could take care of it, but I’ve found that technology alone isn’t enough. There needs to be a quiet, purposive moment to set the stage for and facilitate such encounters.

Why is it important to get people from different countries talking?

This project is about connecting people from all walks of life in direct dialogue about day-to-day life—what makes a day in Tehran or the U.S.? In Accra or Beijing? What we hope to achieve is to link cities around the world into an expanding network.

Why should the U.S. care about the way the rest of the world sees it?

Every country wants to exert a positive presence on the world; to share its cultural strengths and ideas. The U.S. should care just as any other country does—to share what it loves about itself.

What’s the significance of the gold color of the shipping containers?

The project is about making the mundane sacred. It’s not about fancy technology—we use Skype, pretty cheap cameras, and some speakers. To me, gold conveys that sacredness.

I first wanted to scrape all the paint off the shipping container and buff it, but that was expensive, difficult, and bad for the environment. After that, gold emerged through trial and error. Black was too hot and made me think of a black box. White was too much the white cube. Silver made it seem like we weren’t able to strip the paint. I kept coming back to gold. Finally, artist Mary Ellen Carroll told me to go for it. And as she is the “queen of minimalism,” I overcame my inhibitions and am glad I did.

How do you plan to grow Shared Studios?

We want to expand to a different country every month and grow the network: Beijing to Mexico City; Havana to Accra; Moscow to Mumbai. If you want to learn more or get involved, you can visit the Shared Studios website, reach out to us over email, or offer to host a Portal in your neighborhood, city, or town. There is a lot you can do.

Your work intersects so many fields, including art, law, media, and diplomacy. How have you avoided being defined by one industry or field?

I’ve had experiences working within a variety of institutions, and now that I’ve seen inside the belly of so many beasts and have a better sense of their strengths and weaknesses, I feel a greater degree of freedom moving among them.

Over time, I’ve learned a great deal about how institutions like Time Warner, the United Nations, and the State Department work. I’ve seen the many talented people working within a massive enterprise, and I’ve seen the good and bad of large bureaucracies.

Most importantly, I realized that my strengths lay outside those structures—or perhaps moving among them—because an idea like the Portals project doesn't fit neatly in any of them.