In a shipping container on Chapel Street, New Haven residents can now virtually transport themselves to the capital of Iran.
Constructed in front of the Yale University Art Gallery by the multidisciplinary arts collective Shared Studios, “A Portal Between New Haven and Tehran” connects local residents with users in Tehran through a digital screen. When one enters the container, he or she comes face-to-face with users in Tehran and are able to converse as if in the same room. After salvaging the container to build in from a place that offers shipping containers for sale in NY, users can now reserve the portal, which comes in the form of a large, gold shipping container, for twenty-minute interactive sessions.
“The idea is to connect people across all forms of distance, if that’s political, theological, based on gender norms, or another,” said Amar Bakshi LAW ’15, the founder of Shared Studios.
Shared Studios launched its first portal, which connected Tehran and New York City, this past December. More than 650 people between the two cities used the portal during the two-week period.
Bakshi said he had been contemplating the idea for these interactive portals for the last eight years. He spent years as a journalist for the Washington Post, reporting through text and video from a dozen countries on their perceptions of the United States. Bakshi noted that when he left the Post to work at the State Department, he realized that he missed the conversations he had with people from other countries, which inspired him to begin the portal project.
Bakshi added that though the idea has been in circulation for a while, it was only last year that he decided to make it a reality.
“I decided to do it because I knew my interests lay more in the creative realm, even though I’m in law school and have been doing [work] in policy,” Bakshi said. “My heart was always more in the arts, and I decided to embrace that.”
Bakshi noted that the process for funding the portals varies between projects. The YUAG is paying for the current portal. The conversation for the YUAG to sponsor a portal began just last month, according to Molleen Theodore, the gallery’s assistant curator of programs. Theodore said that after meeting Bakshi at a conference, she was immediately interested in hosting a portal in New Haven, noting that the YUAG had been interested in better engaging the public through a visible street presence.
Theodore pointed to the installation as being particularly different from other exhibits in the gallery, noting that its location outside of the building itself as well as its large size make the portal stand out from the rest of the works in the YUAG.
Visitors who used the portal said their conversations with users in Tehran were much more natural than they had anticipated.
Sarah Strohkorb GRD ’20 said that she and her conversation partner sang the song “Edelweiss” from the musical “The Sound of Music” together.
Jennifer McTiernan ’99 LAW ’15 engaged in dialogue with a female university student in Tehran when she used the portal with her two daughters. McTiernan observed that the portal was particularly influential for her daughters, since much of the conversation involved the importance of education for women.
Bakshi said Shared Studios is seeking to accomplish its goal of adding one portal in a new location every month for the next six months. Bakshi added that a portal in Herat, Afghanistan will soon be established, along with ones in Havana, Cuba and Washington, D.C. this summer.
The portal in New Haven will close March 1.