Standing in one of Amar Bakshi's shopping container "Portals" is a curious experience. The walls inside are black and all you can see is the 3D full-body image of a stranger in front of you. You feel like you have nothing to say to this person from a distant country, until, somehow, the conversation starts: "Where are you?" "Who are you?" "Do have any brothers or sisters?"
The Portals are part of a growing art project designed to bridge national and cultural divides, and it's interesting how necessary the experience feels. After all, we live in this hyper-connected age where we're supposed to know about other people. But somehow it's different talking to someone's arms and legs, when you see their body language, and it's not just an avatar.
Bakshi, an ex-journalist, says he came up with the concept partly to replace the conversational variety of reporting. "I realized I never had those conversations when it's an evening bus ride and you have a really deep talk with someone," Bakshi says. "It's always about the pitch, getting a job, getting a date. You never meet someone different for no other purpose. And the irony is that it's so much easier to do that now."
Since the project started about 18 months ago, Bakshi's art collective, Shared Studios, has set up about 100 gold shipping containers around the world (in Cuba, Mexico, Honduras, Afghanistan, and Washington, D.C, for example). He's brought together U.S. Army drone operators and their potential targets; Cuban emigres in Florida and Cubans living in the country; and even President Obama, who spoke to several international entrepreneurs recently.
So far, most of the Portals—which cost anywhere from $3,000 to $200,000, depending on the technology and connection quality—have been set up for big events or a temporary basis. But Bakshi hopes to build something more permanent. He sees opportunities to connect classrooms, playgrounds, and even shopping centers, creating "interconnected landscapes" and more random interactions.
"We're trying to re-create that boredom and anxiety you feel on the evening bus ride before you have that really deep conversation. We want spaces where you're lost to the world and just talking," he says.
Have something to say about this article? You can email us and let us know. If it's interesting and thoughtful, we may publish your response.