Art Basel project ‘Portals’ hosts international conversations

The Portal, a project of Shared Studios, gave Art Basel Miami Beach visitors a chance to sit in on a video call with international strangers and ask anything. // Photo by Emily Dabau
The Portal, a project of Shared Studios, gave Art Basel Miami Beach visitors a chance to sit in on a video call with international strangers and ask anything. Emily Dabau // Edge Editor

“How’s the weather there?” “What is something beautiful for you?” and “How would you make peace with a friend?” are just a few of the questions that international strangers asked each other during Miami Art Week.

Called the Portal, the project was created by Shared Studios, a design initiative aimed at bringing individuals from across the globe together in immersive face-to-face conversations. Placed outside the Sagamore Hotel from Dec. 1-5, the Portal held a large floor-to-ceiling screen and a few chairs inside. Visitors were invited to step in, take a seat and ask anything to the international people smiling on the other side of the screen – and the world.

The project was created by Shared Studios founder Amar Bakshi, a former Washington Post journalist who edited an international affairs blog. He got the idea after traveling the world for a year with a backpack and video camera on a project to capture the stories of individuals he met along the way. Bakshi wanted others to experience the exchanges he enjoyed enjoyed on his travels.

“He found that some of the most interesting stories he came across were when the camera was off and he was on a bus late at night, talking to a complete stranger,” said Carrie Denning, director of strategy and partnerships for Shared Studios. “He wanted to have that ability again. A way to interact with somebody that you never would otherwise, without traveling and crossing the world.”

Denning’s own favorite experience in the Portal was a conversation she had with the curator of an art museum in Mexico. Being able to speak with someone just as passionate as she was about the subject brought her together with a stranger.

“It’s really nice when you’re in the Portal and you connect with something. You realize that the world is smaller,” Denning said. “One of the most exciting parts is connecting with people in a way that you realize is just like you and what you thought was a foreign other before, like someone in a foreign country, they actually have a lot in common.”

They chose to use shipping containers to house the conversations, Denning explained, because the structures are found all over the world and are easy to assemble anywhere. The ubiquitous box was given its eye-catching golden hue to represent the beauty of the special experience inside.

Art Basel attendee Holly Bass, from Washington, D.C., ran across the Portal on her way back from dinner one night. Curious, she walked in on a conversation with a group of young men from Afghanistan and joined the other participants in asking them get-to-know-you questions. The casualness of the conversation kept her coming back.

“I’ve pretty much come every day,” Bass said. Throughout the weekend she spoke with people from Iran, Afghanistan and Mexico City. In one encounter, she heard a pharmacist recite a Persian poem about being in the moment and living the now. In another, she connected with an artist from Iran and shared her background in dance as well as her work as a performance artist.

“It’s been very interesting to meet artists from different countries and see the similarities and differences, mostly the similarities,” she said. “As an artist I’m really interested in what’s happening in other cultures and the Portal is a really great way to connect with people. It feels much more immediate than just reading about something or even watching a film. You get to actually talk to people, ask questions and learn about them.”

The experience has also helped her understand the less-acknowledged advancements in other countries. “The Portal is something that can really expand your understanding of the world, because I think as Americans we’re given a very U.S.-focused understanding,” Bass said. “We kind of assume that people aren’t as advanced or sophisticated or doing as many interesting things as they actually are.”

Dwight Spence, who works at the Sagamore Hotel, visited the Portal three times during Miami Art Week. He connected with Mexico City and twice with Honduras, where a performer sung a song in Spanish to people in Miami Beach.

“It was definitely an interesting experience, knowing you’re talking to somebody in a whole other world,” Spence said.

The Portal was first presented last December in New York. Having the project at Art Basel Miami Beach is a dream come true for the creative team. Michelle Moghtader, director of global development and co-founder of Shared Studios, said the encounters she’s witness through the Portal, whether a man in Afghanistan explaining that he finds beauty in making his country a better place, or a student singing a Martin Luther King hymn for a group of men in Afghanistan, have moved her. And she hopes others will feel the same.

“Our goal is to create a global civic center where people from all around the world can create, collaborate, discuss and debate inside the Portal,” Moghtader said. “We hope at the base, that people have a memorable moment. We hope they can walk away and say, ‘I remember that day.’”