As the shipping container door closed, blocking out the sunlight and whipping wind of a San Francisco summer afternoon, I was instantly transported to Mexico City.
New Elon Musk-designed teleportation device? Nope. This is public art. Specifically, the return of Portals, a project by the local art and design collective Shared_Studios. Portals acts as a virtual bridge to Afghanistan, Honduras, Iraq, Jordan, Germany, Rwanda, and Mexico, where identical shipping containers have been furnished with a simple screen and black soundproof padding on the walls, allowing inhabitants to connect and communicate with people on the other side of the world. San Franciscans will be able to enter these gold-painted containers starting July 20 and—with a little help from some immersive audiovisual technology, the National Parks Service, and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy—be transported to another place.
On my visit earlier this week, a dozen people were crammed together on the screen in front of me, standing in a twin shipping container located in Chapultepec Park, (their version of Central Park) in the Mexican capital. We met several men, who introduced themselves in English: Alejandro, Tomas, Eduardo and Abil. There were toddlers and grandparents among clusters of teenagers who held phones up to record the encounter with us. They asked us about Crissy Field and the man next to me got a crazy idea: “Do you want us to open the doors so you can see it?” The group on the screen gives a chorus of “sí” and “yes” before the metal doors begin to creak open and reveal a perfect view of the Golden Gate Bridge. The flood of light washes out some of their faces, but I could see how wide their eyes were as they all shifted from side to side to get a better angle in their box.
It's the exact effect that the National Parks Service hoped for when it first approached Shared_Studios for the collaboration in 2014. That was when Amar Bakshi and Michelle Moghtader set up the first immersive link between Tehran, Iran, and New York. “We thought that people would speak for five or ten minutes,” Moghtader says. “People actually stayed in for thirty or forty minutes to the point where we had to knock and be like ‘Ok it’s time for you to come out.’”
Today, the project has grown to include Portals in the form of tents, stages, buses, and rooms—and the demand keeps booming. An upgrade from a Skype videophone call, talking into a Portal is more like communicating with someone through thin glass. The surround sound, crisp image, and uninterrupted high-speed internet make you think for just a second that the person could be feet from you. The quality of the connection is even more impressive considering that San Francisco is the first immersive portal completely off the grid, thanks to solar panels from Luminalt Solar Energy Solutions.
There’s only one small problem: Demand vastly outpaces supply and in the past there have been waiting lists to use a Portal. With that in mind, the National Parks Service has secured the Portal until September 24, with a stop in Presidio in August after its residence at Crissy Field. But, says Moghtader, the wait is worth it. “There was this one woman and I think she was about 70...She was Cuban and she hadn’t been to [Cuba] since she was four or five years old,” Moghtader recalls “She comes in and is able to speak with someone from the neighborhood that she grew up in and so she walks out and starts dancing and is like ‘I remember how to speak Spanish again and I just feel alive’.”
On my visit, I notice a young girl in Mexico City with ribbons in her hair that are so long they dust the floor. She leans over to her mother to ask her a question about the strange San Franciscans in front of her. But the daughter chickens out. After the call comes to a close and I am back out on the salty grass of Crissy Field, I can’t help wondering what the little girl wanted to know. Like my companions, I walked away from the Portal with more questions about the people behind the smiling faces I met than answers.