The large gold shipping container seems out of place in a courtyard of the University of Maryland’s performing arts center.
But when it comes to art, expect the unexpected - this container is actually a portal, an entryway for a visitor to be teleported. Here you can have a conversation with a stranger in a far-off place who appears to be standing right in front of you.
This is interactive public art, a Star Trek experience with a millenial edge.
Entering the container, there is a dividing wall that you have to walk around. The interior is covered with a grey sound-proof-like material, making it feel like a radio studio. And when you do make the turn, you are startled to see at the other end of the space the mirror image of where you are, only there’s another person standing there.
In my case, it’s Tomas Ramirez, who’s in Mexico City, the curator for this experience, a cheerful virtual connection who doesn’t seem far away at all.
“It makes you feel the world is very small,” said Ramirez, who works in the music industry and as an interpreter.
The portal is the brainchild of two young Americans, Amar Bakshi, who thought of it when he was working as a journalist, and Michelle Moghtader, another former journalist. Both millenials with international backgrounds - his family is from India, hers from Iran - they are co-founders of Shared Studios, the nonprofit that provides the experience.
“Some of the best conversations I had with people happened when I wasn’t reporting but traveling,” said Bakshi. “We just talked about anything and everything. This was born of that experience. I was missing these encounters when we didn’t have any references in common.” The first portal launched last December and there are now 10 around the world.
The 20 minute per visitor interaction - free but they take donations - is now being shared with U.S. points (the portals move around) and spaces in Tehran, Iran; Herat, Afghanistan; El Progreso, Honduras; and Mexico City.
“We are building a global, public, inter-connected community,” said Moghtader.
The art experience - designed to make you think and feel different things - has been off to a good start since the first portal New York City - Tehran opened last December. Sometimes there are unlikely exchanges between a policeman and a student or art performances with singers or dancers restricted in their part of the world. There have even been children in two parts of the world playing together.
Cities as varied as Havana, Cuba and San Francisco have had portals and next week Bakshi said there will be one at the United Nations General Assembly connected to a Syrian refugee camp in Zaatari, in the north of Jordan. Other cities in discussions for the portals are Wichita and Charlotte.
Everywhere the portals go, they become their own conversation pieces, even on a college campus. Wallace Loh, president of the University of Maryland, had to see what it was all about and told Bakshi and Moghtader he’d like to see one on the campus mall.
There was one downtown near my office at the plaza in front of the Ronald Reagan Center for International Trade a few weeks ago. I’d like to have it back, too, for a return transport visit.