A global art project recently came to D.C., bringing visitors face-to-face with strangers in Afghanistan, Iran and Cuba. Hundreds of people signed up online to book 20-minute-long one-on-one conversations in the Portal, a shipping container outfitted with video, audio and Internet.
Inside Yale University Art Gallery there is an exhibit of James Whistler’s etchings from the 1800s; outside, there is an installation of a large golden box with writing engraved on it some 200 years later, inviting people to interconnect between Teheran and New Haven, Connecticut. The bolted door reads, “Strangers in Tehran are encouraged to consider the prompt, what would make it a good day for you?”
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.
“What is your favorite book?” asked the woman. "I don't know, maybe Catcher in the Rye," said the man. The woman is inside a golden shipping container in the Lu Magnus Gallery in the Lower East Side. The man is in an artist's studio in Tehran, Iran. And they have never met before.
On Friday morning, a portal opened between New York City and Tehran. For the next two weeks, people in either city can walk into a scale-replica of a shipping container outfitted with an AV connection to the other city and have a live, impromptu chat with a stranger partway around the globe. The project is called A Portal Between Tehran and NYC.
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.