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A Portal to Genuine Human Connection in One of the Busiest Places on Earth


Angela Serratore | January 11, 2018
In Times Square and beyond, Shared Studios has placed Portals to connect strangers from all over the world.

For many New Yorkers, Times Square is a place to be avoided.

Ask anyone who considers themselves a “real” New Yorker and they’ll tell you, probably with a heavy sigh and a dramatic eye-roll: Times Square is for tourists, for visiting relatives looking to be dazzled by the lights of Broadway. It’s a place only to be entered for a tongue-in-cheek visit to a novel-in-NYC chain restaurant, or to creep beneath (via the underground maze that is the subway station) on the way from one end of the city to the other. Millions of people pass through the neighborhood every day, many of them without stopping or thinking about where they are.

But what if Times Square was more than the sum of its parts? What if, in the busiest neighborhood of the busiest city in America, a person could stop walking and gawking, stop being jostled by the endless crush of crowds, and just stand still? What if Times Square could promise not lights or noise or spectacle, but genuine human connection?

Last fall, Shared Studios, an art and design firm headquartered in the Brooklyn Navy Yard complex, suggested just that when it made Times Square home to one of its Portals, a gold-painted shipping container repurposed as a space in which New Yorkers could, one at a time, use audio-video technology to participate in a conversation with a randomly selected person on the other side of the world. It’s kind of a cross between virtual reality and Skype, with curated art, dance, and theatrical performances organized in cities like Milwaukee, London, Mexico City, and Herat, Afghanistan.

The project is the brainchild of designer Amar Bakshi, who initially imagined Portals to connect Syrian refugees with Westerners in a way that went beyond what was possible using traditional media.

“This is a time when people see each other as ‘types’ too often,” Bakshi told CNN in April. A Portal “adds a level of depth that can break up those hardened narratives.”

While some Portal programming focuses on political and social dialogue — Bakshi is especially optimistic about how the project might benefit communities that are more isolated than New York — they’re also a space in which art is conceived, presented, and recorded. At one Portal, on the campus of New York’s Baruch College, visitors were encouraged to step into the space before or after performances of William Shakespeare’s As You Like It, reimagined by director Jessica Bauman with an international cast and crew, and there’s been talk of a Portal album in which musicians from around the world would use Portal technology to make and record songs together. The San Francisco–based Portal takes collaboration a step further: At that site, artists from the Bay Area are invited to participate in an exchange program with Spanish artists, each considering the role of neighborhood change in their respective homes.

With Portals currently up and running in cities including San Francisco, Nairobi, and Berlin, and soon to appear in Panama, India, and South Korea, the project is one that encourages visitors to truly become immersed in not just one encounter, but in everything that becomes possible when we go all-in with conversation — when we become truly immersed in the lives and stories of other people whose days might look very different from our own.

For many who step into Portals, the magic is working. Visitors are asked to write (in gold pen, to match the containers) short essays about their experiences, some of which appear on the Shared Studios website. “You are standing in front of someone, and this person can see your hands, the way you stand, and more,” wrote one guest. “You are opening your soul and your thoughts to another human being. It’s like a time machine.”

A time machine, a wormhole to another dimension, a chance to take something as ephemeral and fleeting as conversation and make it bigger. “Putting down the technology that ropes you into your own life and losing yourself in the vastness of other people’s lives,” Bakshi told Untapped Cities. “Portals is about that goal.”

To discover more distinctive culture, try Heritage | Fernet-Branca

All images courtesy of Shared Studios

Angela Serratore is a New York City–based writer and historian.


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