MSNBC: Take me to Tehran

By Grace Paine March 6, 2015

I  walked by the Yale Art Gallery last week on my usual trek to class, head bowed down to shield my face from the onslaught of snow. Fixated only on my increasingly numb toes, I glanced up just in time to avoid running headfirst into the large, golden box planted on the sidewalk in front of me. Curious, I stepped closer, peering at the words carved on its shimmering exterior: “A Portal Between Tehran and New Haven.” First thought: had I missed humanity’s leap into teleportation? I decided to investigate further.

The exhibit is the brainchild of Amar Bakshi, LAW ’15, founder of the art and technology collective Shared Studios. The golden boxes first appeared in New York City and connected at least 650 people between Manhattan and Iran—a country that most Americans learn about only through newspapers and movies like Argo.

It turns out we haven’t yet achieved teleportation, but the New Haven portal, which sat outside the YUAG until March 1, exudes an aura of the metaphysical. Once participants enter and the door is shut behind them, live-stream video allows two participants in corresponding boxes to chat as if in the same room. The portal itself is actually a repurposed shipping container, and the idea behind the experience is simple: to facilitate conversations between two strangers who would never get a chance to speak otherwise.

“The first time I remember being aware that Iran existed was some time around Bush’s Axis of Evil speech,” said Carmen Baskauf, SY ’17, who was partnered in the portal with an Iranian university student getting his Masters in English Literature. “It was really interesting for me to talk with someone in this place that always seemed so inaccessible, who is in the same point in life as me and doing such similar things.”

The exhibit has generated press, from the Yale Daily News to the New York Times. It has also enlisted some notable participants, including journalist Fareed Zakaria in the New York exhibit and Yale’s own Dean Jonathan Holloway in the New Haven one.

Perhaps the exhibit has achieved such popularity due to an innate human curiosity about foreign lands. Yet in such a technologically connected world, we already have the power to Skype random Iranians at our fingertips. Of course, most of us choose not to. While there are some obvious barriers to communication across distance (language being a big one), the most important barrier, Bakshi says, is the psychological.

“We have connective potentials all around us, but we often use them to secure ourselves in our existing social networks,” Bakshi explained. “On Facebook, for example, we just add our friends and see their content. We use social media to normalize our views of the world.” The missing component for expanding beyond our personal networks, he said, is “the context to satiate our curiosity. The portals provide a moment to do that.”

He also seeks to de-instrumentalize our usage of technology; this is why Shared Studios is equal parts art and tech. Conceptually, the project seems simple—put some cameras in some shipping containers and voila—but the portals actually offer a medium to learn about other people that is unprecedented: these interactions are completely de-contextualized. When pairs step into the box, they don’t feel the pressure to represent the entirety of their culture or their nation’s political policies. Rather, participants stand as they are, just two individuals chatting about their daily lives.

The image of being locked in a private space with another person may bring to mind incredibly awkward Seven Minutes in Heaven make-out sessions, and the only reason we sit down to Skype with a stranger today is the (equally terrifying) quest for employment. Rarely do we have intimate, twenty-minute conversations with strangers without any expectations or notions of what an ideal outcome would be.

“We want this to be an experience that is special and sacred,” Bakshi said. “That is why art is so important. It allows for this kind of project. You’re going into the portal for the experience alone. You’re not going in for any reason that you would if it were [administered by] the government or Google.”

On a bleak Monday afternoon later that week, after all the other participants had their turns, I pulled open the heavy container wall and tiptoed inside. I suddenly felt the pressure to emerge from the experience with a newfound understanding of humanity’s commonality. But when I first stepped into the dimly lit container and felt the comfy carpeting beneath my feet, my primary instinct was just to lie down and take a nap. (For the record, although I resisted the urge, Bakshi has apparently fallen asleep in the portal on a few separate occasions.)

Instead I looked up to see Sohrab Kashani, Bakshi’s partner in Tehran, who has installed their portal in his own gallery, projected on the wall in front of me. His voice came out clear and crisp as we chatted about his involvement in the project, and his entire figure was illuminated against the black backdrop a few feet in front of me. Achieving this clear image is no easy feat: the organizers spend hours each day perfecting the positioning of the lights to simulate a real-life conversation as closely as possible.

“People come out of the portal very excited,” Kashani noted. “Partners sometimes exchange contact information. People have come out with tears. In this private and intimate setting with a stranger, people see that they’re not that different from one another after all.”

Emma Sky, Senior Fellow at the Jackson Institute and expert on Middle Eastern politics, agreed with this sentiment after emerging from her own portal meeting. “I spoke with two Iranian photographers,” she said. “They were optimistic about peace between the American and Iranian peoples because people everywhere basically want the same things: to live, to love, and to work.”

But she added, “They were less optimistic that their politicians would make the right decisions.” In today’s global economy, Sky posits that confidence in traditional institutions of power is weakening while trust in strangers in growing. This idea seems to affirm the portal’s goals. “We’ve seen this trend with AirB&B, with Uber, and now with portal,” Sky noted.

For Bakshi, the most exciting aspect of the portal project could very well be its potential for worldwide implementation. Beginning in Iran was a strategic move, as Bakshi knew that locating the first portal in a nation considered to be a political adversary would make a powerful statement. Ultimately, the only limit on the project’s capability is funding—those interested in the project are encouraged to donate to its online Kickstarter campaign—so he and his team needed as much media attention as possible to drive the project forward.

“Iran hit the narrative of anxiety, distance, and exoticism we were looking for,” Bakshi said at a YUAG speaking event on Feb. 26. What’s more, they wanted to prove that their project was feasible for even the most inaccessible parts of the globe. Iran has notoriously low bandwidth, so Bakshi reasoned, “If we can do it in Iran, we can do it anywhere.” Shared Studios has already begun installation on a portal in Afghanistan, and is now interested in setting up portals in Cuba. All that’s needed is an Internet connection, some large boxes, and eager participants.

But it doesn’t matter how far away you live. Equally intriguing may be the potential for connecting people within communities that are separated by something less tangible than physical space. “We could set this up in two different parts of New Haven and we would see great distance,” Bakshi noted.

Now that they have gained momentum, Bakshi and his team are looking into exploring “softer differences.” He and his team have even considered the prospect of moving a set of portals to Ferguson, Missouri, putting one in a community that is heavily policed and another in a community in which many police live. Such portals would not only facilitate communication and, perhaps, increased understanding within one community, but it would also connect them to what Bakshi envisions as a global network of portals.

“Part of the reason we’re growing [the portals] this way is to situate the network in certain spaces so that it is rare, special, and surprising.” Bakshi said. When they use the portal to connect two parts of the same community, this sense of novelty is preserved. Connecting people across New Haven might seem silly—you could just walk down the street instead of locking yourself in a box. But, said Bakshi, “the point is that you don’t.”