For dozens, perhaps hundreds of people in New Haven, the metallic, gold-painted shipping container deposited on the broad walkway outside the Yale University Art Gallery last week until Mar. 1, will be a gateway to Iran.
“This gold container equipped with immersive audiovisual technology is a portal,” read the neatly stenciled, upper-case letters on the container doors. “When you enter, you will come face-to-face with a stranger in Tehran. You are encouraged to consider the prompt, ‘What would make today a good day for you?’”
The interactive installation, which had a two-week run in New York City last year, is described as “the first major initiative by the multi-disciplinary arts collective Shared Studios.”
Amar C. Bakshi, an artist and student at Yale Law School, is the collective’s founder and has been on site with support staff to greet participants and guide them through the portal process. Bakshi noted the support of Yale University Art Gallery staff (Molleen Theodore, Pam Franks, and Jock Reynolds) as well as Sean Dunn and his team, in helping facilitate the New Haven project.
For anyone familiar with video chat, the idea of speaking face to face with someone over great distances is not necessarily novel or inspiring. However, stepping into the Shared Studios portal chamber, a darkened, ambient room free of external distractions, is akin to entering a sacred space. The standing person that appears before the viewer, as if in the same room, is both a stranger and a mirror of shared humanity.
Preconceived notions and expectations can be dispelled or confirmed, and questions answered. The communion of strangers during their brief meeting leaves them yearning for more time, and more interaction. In bypassing barriers of strained international relations, politics, expense, and logistics, the one-to-one conduit of human connectedness has enormous implications for the greater global community.
“Governments sometimes try and separate people. Sanctions try to separate people,” said a student who had just used the portal. “But at the end of the day, people want to connect and experience that shared humanity, and through technology, we are able to do that.” The student said she was surprised at the excellent English spoken by her portal-mate, including some “random Americanized phrases.” She also learned that her Iranian counterpart pools money with friends to buy expensive episodes of the long-running American TV comedy “Friends.”
Daniel (pictured), a graduate student in global studies, is American-born of Iranian descent. He had never been to Iran and wanted to know what the country was like from a direct source.
“It’s beautiful You have to come visit,” said the person in Iran.
Daniel’s takeaway from the experience? “It’s not good for people to stay divided. It’s important to talk,” he said. “Not talking and ignoring them is going to create a lack of empathy.”
Last year’s Shared Studios New York project highlighted the portal’s potential for the global arts community: “26 artists in Tehran and New York collaborated through the Portal creating unique dances, plays, sculptures, and ballads. Participating artists included Titus Kaphar and Elizabeth Bick (New Haven based), Jonah Bokaer, Tara Kamangar, Yousha Bashir, Negar Farijiani, and many more,” according to the project’s Kickstarter campaign.
Shared Studio’s plan for the portal concept and others — such as video communication walls called Shared Channels, and Shared Phonos, continuous communication spheres located in public spaces — are as ambitious as they are costly. The plan is to add one portal per month as part of a growing network. A Havana to Washington, DC portal is in the works, followed by portals in Ferguson, Missouri; Afghanistan; a permanent presence in Tehran; and a mobile unit traversing the continental United States. All projects are contingent on the amount of financing raised.
Flyers and contact information on the portal doors directed interested persons to make appointments for the available 20-minute time slots from 8 a.m. to noon daily for the duration of the installation, which ends Mar. 1. The slots filled quickly, though it may still be possible to experience the portal due to cancellations by getting on a waiting list, according to Bakshi.
Those arriving for appointments are invited to join support staff at the nearby Atticus Bookstore and Cafe for a briefing before being escorted to the portal. Participants are encouraged to return to the cafe afterward to write comments in a journal or to have informal discussions about the experience.
Bakshi will join conceptual artist Mary Ellen Carroll at Yale Art Gallery for an artists’ talk/lecture on Thursday, Feb. 26 at 5:30 p.m. There will also be a related symposium, “The Legal Medium,” regarding the use of law, policy, and networks as material in artistic practice at Yale Law School on Saturday, February 28.
To learn more about Shared Studios or to help support evolving Portal projects, visit the Kickstarter campaign.