A Portal to the Other Side of the Earth

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Portal at Yale University (image courtesy Shared_Studios)

WASHINGTON, DC — If pricey airfares have kept you from going abroad lately, you can travel by shipping container for free thanks to Shared_Studios’ Portals. Painted a lustrous gold on the outside and furnished with premier audio-visual technology inside, these spacious crates offer incomparably quick travel times to Mexico, Honduras, Cuba, Afghanistan, Iran, and more. The only downside is your adventure is limited to 20 minutes.

Shared_Studios launched the portals in December 2014, and they’ve been making their way across the world ever since. The latest portal cropped up on the University of Maryland’s campus, where participants signed up for 20-minute immersive video chat sessions with people located in either Herat, Afghanistan; Tehran, Iran; Mexico City, Mexico; or El Progresso, Honduras. Translators are on hand to facilitate conversation, but if you share a language with your chat buddy, you’re left alone with them to make small talk in what feels like the same room.

An art, design, and technology collective, Shared_Studios’ projects all have a social practice bent to them, seeking to connect disparate communities through communication and creative collaboration. Founders Amar Bakshi and Michelle Moghtader both have a background in foreign correspondence — Bakshi used to travel on behalf of the Washington Post and Moghtader has traveled throughout the Middle East and her writing has been featured on Reuters and CNN. By connecting geographically distant people in an immediate and sensorial way through their projects, Bakshi and Moghtader essentially cut out the media middleman — the journalist.

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Afghan participants perform for American visitors in UMD’s Portal (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Nevertheless, the project faces some of the same hurdles journalists come up against, namely that of unbiased reportage. Consider that the majority of the portals have been set up on leading college campuses (US venues include Yale, Georgetown, and soon Vanderbilt) or in conjunction with art galleries. Alternatively, the portals are installed in large, expensive, liberal cities like New York, San Francisco, Mexico City, Herat, etc. To a point, this is unavoidable since universities and urban centers have the necessary resources and people to enable the portals. Yet it also skews the participating demographic toward affluent (or at least comfortable), educated, and open-minded young professionals.

I stepped into the University of Maryland portal at 10:30 pm and met Omid, a 20-something in Afghanistan who was just waking up (it was 7:30 am over there). I don’t speak Farsi, but thankfully he spoke perfect English. We chatted congenially about our jobs, upcoming holidays, and what we studied in school. Omid is in the process of applying to scholarship programs to go abroad for his Master’s; having recently completed my own MA, we commiserated over the outlandish cost of graduate programs. His smartphone dinged a few times with Facebook Messenger notifications — a reassuring global constant. I pulled out my phone and suggested we become Facebook friends; within a few minutes we were messaging each other outside of the portal.

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Herat portal under construction (image courtesy Shared_Studios)

In reality, the portals offer a glimpse of distant lives, but not-so-distant lifestyles. Perhaps in an effort to expand the conversation, Shared_Studios recently announced that they will connect to Zimbabwe and Jordan’s Zaatari Camp for Syrian refugees at the end of the month. But for now, as millennials with access to education and wifi, it’s fairly easy for Omid and me to be friends.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Michelle Moghtader was from Iran and wrote for CNN and Reuters while she was there. This has been fixed.

The Portal at the University of Maryland was on view at the Clarice Center for the Performing Arts (College Park, Maryland) from September 9–15; it will reopen at Vanderbilt University’s South Patio Lawn on September 18 and remain on view through October 18.

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