Perdiz Magazine: Portals

By Johnny Crisp

In the last couple of decades, we’ve come a long way in terms of long distance communication. Think of typewritten letters dictated to a secretary by a puffed-up businessman in a faded brown suit before being painstakingly faxed cross-country. Now think about the state of your email inbox. Those at the forefront of technological innovation have always worked towards new solutions to that age-old problem – how to talk to someone who isn’t exactly within earshot. And, as a general rule, the tools that connect us grow ever sleeker, ever more discreet.

So if you had to guess what form the next iteration of this process would take, very possibly the last thing to come to mind would be a horde of giant, golden shipping containers. Well then, perhaps you ought to take a look at Portals, from art and technology collective Shared Studios. A global public art project that, since launching in 2014, has connected over 30,000 strangers into one-on-one dialogues. From Gaza City to Washington, Yangon to El Progreso, Kigali to Los Angeles.

It works like this: all the crates (there are currently some 20 sites set up across the globe) are equipped with state of the art immersive video and audio technology. You step inside, and out of the darkness at the other end of the container, somebody appears. Only they’re not really there, of course, they’re in an identical golden box, in Baltimore, Kabul or Berlin. But you can see and hear them just as clearly as if they were really there in front of you.

According to Shared Studios’ founder Amar Bakshi, “the idea is to create a global network of these publicly accessible one-on-one booths”. Imagine that! Once facing your opposite number, you can more or less do what you want – aided by a curator/translator staffing each Portal, you can talk about your day, the weather, your childhood, or if you like just sit there in silence … the beauty of Portals is that the interactions are essentially pressure-less. There is no agenda other than to spend time with each other. To exchange ideas. To learn from a stranger precisely because of everything you don’t know about them. And, best of all, to genuinely engage with somebody in a way that most other social networks – for all the vastness of their reach – actively discourage.

Beyond this random approach, Shared Studios has also been exploring the possibilities of curating specific combinations. A collaboration with UNICEF saw Barack Obama in the same room (sort of) as four young entrepreneurs from Seoul, London, Baghdad, and Mexico City. A recent exhibition held at the US Memorial Holocaust museum in Washington allowed museum-goers to talk things over with a modern day refugee for 20 minutes in a bid to raise awareness of the threat of modern-day genocide.

More lighthearted connections have so far run from (to name a few): drummers from Mumbai jamming with drummers from Chicago; a K-pop boy band in Miami transmitting a mini concert to portals across the globe; global art exhibitions; and events designed to bring together global social entrepreneurs, thought leaders and strategic partners committed to finding solutions to the world’s problems.

Portal ambassador Omid Hadibi will be talking at IAM Weekend 2017, themed The Renaisance of Utopias, and committed to “sharing stories, thoughts and questions about how the futures of media, education and the arts can blend to radically improve how we live, learn, communicate, work and play.”

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