Nick Meeker made a new Facebook friend last week.
Her name is Mahsa Biglow, and she is a 25-year-old Iranian graduate student in photography at the University of Tehran. They met on the Internet — but not in any of the usual ways.
Unlike most friendships formed online, theirs didn’t start with instant messaging or social media. Meeker met Biglow in a Portal.
It’s not quite a wardrobe to Narnia or Harry Potter’s Platform 9 ¾, and it certainly won’t take you through outer space or back in time. But if you’re walking through Woodrow Wilson Plaza this week, the Portal will be hard to miss. Spray-painted gold on the outside and equipped with WiFi-connected audiovisual technology on the inside, it’s a used shipping container that has continued to bridge distances long past its expiration date.
“PLEASE DO NOT OPEN THIS DOOR UNACCOMPANIED,” proclaim dark letters stamped on one corner of the box. Emblazoned on another, in partially faded text: “WHEN YOU ENTER, YOU COME FACE-TO-FACE WITH A STRANGER ABROAD.”
Several passersby — mostly men and women in business suits heading to lunch — paused to gawk at the hulking gold mass. A wide-eyed woman, ignoring the bold signage, poked her head inside the entrance and asked, “What’s in there?”
Meeker, a 30-year-old sports consultant from Falls Church, Va., stood in the container’s pitch-black interior. He faced a wall displaying a full-body live video of Biglow, who was standing in a similar room in the Iranian capital.
“What would make today a good day for you?” asked Meeker, opening with the recommended starter to all Portal conversations. Though Meeker and Biglow were half a world apart, for the next 20 minutes, they eased into a flowing conversation, bonding over their mutual devotion to Penn State — she’s matriculating there in the fall, a football coach there is one of his clients — and the tribulations of growing up in a hyper-political city.
Portals, a series of audiovisual installations in several cities around the world, was created by recent Yale Law School graduate and artist Amar Bakshi to bring people who wouldn’t otherwise meet together in the same simulated room. The containers have hosted musical performances, guest speakers and even family reunions. And the private, one-on-one conversations taking place (sometimes with the aid of closed-caption translations) have sparked surprising realizations, leaving visitors “in joy” and “in tears,” says artist Sohrab Kashani, Bakshi’s partner in Iran.
Since the project’s launch in December through the traveling artist collective Shared Studios, Portals have cropped up in a handful of cities in the United States and abroad. In Washington, visitors can connect with people in three locations: Tehran, Havana and Herat, Afghanistan. (The second one’s a little iffy, though, because — surprise — the Internet connection in Cuba has been erratic lately. Just consider the technical difficulties part of the art.)
If you didn’t manage to snag one of the nine daily slots per country, you’ll have to get in a virtual line for reservations, where you’ll have plenty of company on the waiting list of 200. But don’t give up hope — after the Portal finishes its run at Woodrow Wilson Plaza on June 21, Bakshi wants to find it a permanent home in the city.
Bakshi says that the goal of Portals is to bridge “psychic” distance more than physical distance. You could gather similar insights by placing Portals in two different D.C. neighborhoods, he notes. He was inspired to create the project by his grandmother’s curiosity about Pakistan when he visited the country as a reporter (he worked for The Washington Post from 2006 to 2008). She had fled the country as an 8-year-old during the partition of India, and she yearned to recover her memories of the place through his on-the-ground experiences. It struck Bakshi that all her questions came down to: “What’s it like?”
“There’s so many ways in which we perform online and with strangers,” he says. “In this kind of setup, there’s less pressure. The usual performativity is stripped away.”
Many Portal participants find that they have more in common with the person on the other end than they expected. “I was surprised to hear that [Biglow] had Facebook, because I know a lot of sites are blocked in Iran,” said Meeker. But like an American teenager who has had her Internet browsing restricted by the authorities in her life, Biglow — and many others — have found a way around the firewall.
When a group of third-graders entered the shipping container, the sounds of their singing soon reverberated from inside. Go figure: Kids in the Middle East listen to Taylor Swift, too.
Rock-climbing instructor Nate Abel, 24, ventured into the Portal on a day off and was connected with a young Iranian artist. He expected to talk about the cultural differences between Iran and the United States, but instead they bonded over a mutual interest in mountaineering. “It was very natural,” Abel said with a smile and a shrug. “Just like having a conversation with anyone else.”
As for the future of Portals, Bakshi’s thinking big: He aims to place permanent installations across the globe. Though admission is free, he encourages each visitor to donate one one-thousandth of their annual income. So you don’t have to own a Fortune 500 company to slip a few bills into his little gold box.
On your way out, you can use a metallic-gold pen to record your reactions in a scrapbook. One visitor wrote of the encounter: “We were so similar in sensibility it’s hard to believe the meeting wasn’t rigged.” The third-graders, meanwhile, scrawled these astute observations: “They have video games. They have video games. AWESOME!!”
And then there are the folks who extend their experiences beyond their 20 minutes in the Portal. Michelle Moghtader, Shared Studio’s director of global development, says she has heard stories of pairings who have met up in real life or have become artistic collaborators.
“I’m just waiting for the first Portal marriage,” she says.