When the Harvard- and Yale Law-educated artist and journalist Amar Bakshi, born and raised in Washington D.C., was traveling the globe seven years ago for his How the World Sees America interview series, he realized something: People often kept letters from American pen pals dating back to the 1980s, before the Internet made other modes of international correspondence possible. “I thought, ‘There’s nothing really quite like that now,'” says Bakshi, 30, noting that even platforms like Skype hadn’t necessarily encouraged strangers from foreign lands to get to know each other on an intimate, one-on-one level. “Before high tech existed,” he says, “we had that sense of sacredness and mystery” about faraway lives.
Bakshi wants to recapture that, albeit in a cutting-edge way. This week, together with collaborators in Tehran, his Shared Studios collective launches “Portals,” a project meant to get everyday people from very different cultures standing face to face and talking — virtually so. This week, anyone who’s interested can register online for a time slot to step inside a custom-designed shipping container at the Lower East Side’sLu Magnus Gallery and then talk, complete with text translation, with someone in Tehran, via a special Sentech camera that projects each party fully onto a wall. Each party will respond to the question, “What would make tomorrow a good day for me?” (Answers could be as simple as having time to read to one’s kids, or buying new art supplies.) Then both will have the chance to converse freely for up to 15 minutes. Each day at the New York site, boldfaced names — including the Yale Art School dean Rob Storr, the journalist Fareed Zakaria and the documentarian Morgan Spurlock — will be on hand for an hour or so to take part.
A rendering of the projection.
Courtesy Julia Gallagher and Jill Hanson/Shared Studios
The New York-Tehran hookup will be but the first of many such portals to come around the world, Bakshi hopes. “The idea is to create a global network of these publicly accessible one-on-one booths,” he says. “It’ll be an exciting cultural moment to have these big things in public squares.” He’s aiming in the coming year to set up portals in Mexico City, New Delhi, Cape Town, Miami and Haiti. As for his Iranian partners, Bakshi says that they’ve not (yet?) received flack from their government for opening a communication channel with the United Stated. “There’s a psychic charge between these two countries,” he says. But he also stresses that the point of “Portals” is to get people to focus on the everydayness of life in very different places. During one of the pilot conversations, he recounts, “Someone in Tehran was talking about their pet bird and whether they needed to get a cage for it or let it just fly around the house.”
“Portals” will be open from 7:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., Dec. 5 through Dec. 19, at Lu Magnus Gallery, 55 Hester Street, sharedstudios.com.