A public art 'portal' connects Bay Area residents to citizens across the world

Dec 3, 2015

 

Two young trombone players are performing a duet inside a shipping container in a emptied lot in Hayes Valley. The musicians, Harry Gonzalez and Brett Wyatt, are from the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra, and they address their audience through the screen in front of them. 

An interpreter from the U.N. on the other end translates for Amat and Mervat, the Syrian teenagers who are listening intently to this concert through a screen of their own, in a refugee camp more than seven thousand miles away. The sun has just risen in San Francisco — in Jordan, it’s evening.

 

Close to 80,000 Syrians live in Jordan’s Za’atari refugee camp, including more than 40,000 children. The U.N. estimates that more than four million Syrians have fled their homes, seeking refuge from a brutal civil war that’s killed more than 250,000 people since 2011. It’s become a contentious issue here in the U.S. — 31 governors nationwide oppose giving Syrian refugees safe haven in their states. Amat and Mervat, who are both seventeen, have lived at the Za’atari refugee camp since 2013.

They’re talking to the trombonists thanks to an international public art installation by Shared Studios called Portals. In 2014, creator Amar Bakshi came up with the idea to place gold shipping containers like this one across the world — in Cuba, Afghanistan, Honduras, Iran, and Mexico — and encourage strangers in different countries to talk to each other over Skype. He says he was inspired in part by the way we use technology, or rather the way we don’t.

“We have Facebook, Twitter, and Skype,” says Bakshi. “But we usually use it to speak to our own family, speak to our own friends.”

Bakshi used to be a journalist, but over time he found that role to be restricting. He said it got in the way of just getting to know people.

“In the context of art, people can come in and do it without feeling like they have to ask the right question or what they say will be tweeted,” says Bakshi.  

Bakshi hopes that these encounters are “purposeless.” The conversation isn’t tied to any specific agendas. The motive, if any, is to get a sense of other people’s daily lives. People are sent in with only one prompt: what would make today a good day for you?

So far Portals has facilitated 7,000 conversations in seven countries. And though it’s not the main goal, Bakshi believes the conversations could lead to very real outcomes — especially in a city like San Francisco.

 

“There's a lot of excitement in a lot of our Portal connections to connect to San Francisco,” Bakshi tells me. “It's imagined as a place of incredible entrepreneurship, world changing ideas, incredible financial resources, and really smart people here. Our portal locations as people know are similarly talented, they are not as well financially resourced, but have incredible amounts to contribute.”

Bakshi thinks eventually the portals could turn into a platform for a budding microeconomy, or a stage for musicians and artist to demonstrate their gifts —  or even an international classroom.

Another group this morning are here are high schoolers from the nearby French International school. They have 20 minutes and a list of questions they want to ask, filling the silences with their curiosity: And at times it’s awkward and hard to know when to speak up. Still, they share their goals and aspirations, and begin to probe the ways in which their lives are drastically different.

When it’s over, the students say goodbye and file out into the deep blue hues of the early morning to debrief.

 

“It's quite interesting because it's a different perspective versus textbooks. Instead we talked to some real refugees,” says Sophia Clark.  

“We actually had a long list of questions, but I had said before,” says Aureann Bahi. “You don't know what the limit is, what will hurt them in a way.”

After the kids are done reflecting, they gather up their things and shift back into their normal routine. Outside the Portal is a Burning Man art temple, an artisanal ice cream stand, and a truck that sells $7 juice. The dissonance between this environment and that of a Syrian refugee camp feels pretty stark. Bakshi, the creator of Portals, says that uncomfortable feeling is a good thing.

 

“How do people deal with the fact that they go in for twenty minutes and see someone's life whose daily life concerns are radically different from their own?” he asks. “Well that's going to happen either way — it's happening whether or not you know it.”

I tried to get in touch with Mervat and Amat later, but I couldn’t get ahold of them. So I never learned what they took away from this exchange, and I probably never will. But the conversation I heard was still remarkable, if only because without a project like portals it probably would never have happened.

The Portal’s gold-painted shipping container is no longer stationed in Hayes Valley, but the team behind it is actively looking for a new San Francisco location. They'll be stationed at Stanford University during the spring.