Who ever thought a gold-clad shipping container could be a window to another world? And yet, when you step into one of Amar Bakshi’s Portals, a massive shipping container covered in gold paint, you’re instantly transported.
“To me, gold conveys that sacredness,” says Bakshi. Inside, he’s packed the container with immersive video and audio technology, which projects a full-size version of you to another, identical container somewhere around the world. And when you say “hello,” some other projected person across the world says “hello” back.
A “Portal” can be a “a doorway” or “an Internet site providing access to other sites.” Both definitions seem relevant to Bakshi’s project. It’s a doorway, but somehow also a Internet site—bridging the vast technological blip between two people as remote as Tehran and San Francisco. He recently sat down with IVY Magazine to talk about how this new art project is reinventing the way we communicate.
You’ve talked about how this project was inspired by communication: or really, the lack of communication. Do you think the age of technology has made us worse at communicating?
We have all these new and incredible tools that enable us to connect across distances like never before, but we use them to ensconce ourselves in existing friend groups and communities. By grounding the potential of these Internet connections in physical spaces—by making the mundane more meaningful—Portals tries to make a moment out of an unexpected encounter. We’re striving to make those kinds of encounters unique and special in a real way.
People are connected, but they’re not talking.
Yes, it’s easy as ever to talk to people technologically, but we’re missing the moments to do so. Even riding the subway, we don’t tend to talk to strangers that often. Instead, we listen to music, play a game, read the news, or something else. Portals tries to carve out spaces in time where people can enter and have conversations without a particular purpose. They’re meeting other strangers. They may be bored or curious; they may want to create world peace or argue vociferously. Everyone walks in with a different intention. Portals allows for all of those kinds of engagements and encounters in a space where people can construct their own experience.
These people are sometimes in countries with radically different traditions. Do you ever think of portals as an intersection between art and policy in the sense that it’s inspiring connection between different nations or cultures?
Well, I would say policy is the construction of codes and plans for exercise of power. I don’t really consider portals in any way engaged with policy—politics, maybe, but not policy. We’re not advancing one policy or another; we’re creating a space for the engagement of two people or more in what I call a “de-instrumentalized” way. We’re not trying to foster peace or understanding or further a position on one policy or another. We’re working in the context of art, which means that purpose is not predetermined.
How do you think the lack of predetermination applies to politics more broadly?
Non-predetermined dialogues are the foundation of political life. The only way to have a real politics about collective hopes and dreams is if we have a space for dialogue for no particular purpose and therefore any purpose. Art and politics are two domains in life where the ends are not predetermined.
The domain of politics is meant to question its own assumptions, just like art. There’s no firm bedrock; no scientific method. It’s a constant, on-going discourse. I personally look at art this way. If you look at the world around us, so much is instrumentalized toward a predetermined end. (For example, businesses make money.) Art is a domain where people presume there is no immediate goal; it’s not clear what the instrumentalized purpose is.
So, maybe you’re transcending politics in a way. You’re transcending the differences between people.
We’re trying to create a neutral space, but of course nothing is depoliticized. With Portals, ultimately, our goal is to construct a space where no particular politics apply. Sure, we’re connecting Iran and the U.S., but also Iran and Mexico, Iran and Honduras. In creating this space, our core impetus is to ground digital technology in a physical space to make unexpected encounters possible, as part of a global work of art.
Can you talk more about what it means for something to be a global work of art?
The current definitions of art that circulate globally are varied, as always, but what’s rather remarkable is over the past 100 years, a particular definition of art has acquired recognition rather broadly. Art has become broadly understood as a space without a particular purpose. That idea is rather specific and relatively recent, and the fact it has resonance in different countries is remarkable—it definitely speaks to the spread of certain intellectual traditions and globalization.
What this current, broadly understood definition means in practice is that when we set up a portal in Afghanistan, there may be extreme differences in place, but there’s a thread of common understanding about what Portals seeks to be. The portal is a community space; it’s not oriented to a particular outcome. You are free to enter and engage in your own way with diverse people. They are connecting individuals to varied communities.
How does that community connection work?
We’re not connecting individuals in the privacy of their own home—people are going into a public space, passing through explicit and implicit contextual spaces, and then entering a private one. Then, they’re leaving. Practically, this means you’re less likely to take off your pants—it’s not Chatroulette—but emotionally, Portals presents itself as this gold object of curiosity. You’re required to reserve in advance, and you actually have to travel to get there. All of this effort builds up the specialness of the moment.
There’s a sociality in that: you’re passing from a public space into a private space within a community of others. So, we’re taking digital technology that’s very oriented around an individual and grounding it in something very tangible and publicly visible. That process makes the experience much more about a broader community, even though you generally enter alone. It’s like being an atom floating in an environment; you’re caught in the liminal space in between.
That’s very interesting—the idea of liminality, a disorienting in-between space. Often people come out of liminal moments as radically changed. What’s been your experience with the feedback from Portals?
When we first launched, we were definitely really shocked by the intensity of people’s responses. We knew people were going to go in anxious with lots of questions. Everyone gets anxious—I get anxious. The beginning first 1 or 2 minutes are mostly an awkward exchange of pleasantries. You’re talking to someone very different than you, but then you settle into it.
Maybe it’s because you’re not in the Portal for a lot of time or maybe because it’s dark, private, and intimate, but people tend to talk about really deep subjects very quickly: loss of relatives, marriage, dating, freedoms. When they come out, they’re often giddy, or moved, weeping.
For many people, it’s a really strange moment where you’re in the belly of the internet and you’re feeling what you feel.
It’s a different perspective that’s affecting you in ways you can’t quite articulate. You’re seeing and talking to a digital apparition representation of someone. Often people describe feeling like they’re in the same room, and at the end, they try to hug the other person or slap hands, but then they block off the projection. They’re reminded it’s not real. It’s a bittersweet, sad reminder that there is still a very real distance.
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