A Golden Portal
Shared Studios: Interview with Michelle Moghtader, Global Director of Development
Creating encounters between diverse populations through new technologies by carving ‘wormholes’ throughout the world.
The media connects us with world issues immediately and constantly. But how often are we able to sit down and have a conversation with someone in Iran or Cuba,as if we are in the same room? Shared Studios is a multidisciplinary arts, design and technology collective providing people with the opportunity to have an encounter with someone from a seemingly disparate environment. Through their use of new connective technologies, people are able to have free, unmediated and unrestricted conversations despite the geographical, political or cultural borders they may usually encounter.
Can you tell us a bit about Shared Studios and how it came to be? What inspired this project?
My former colleague at CNN, Amar Bakshi, the founder of Shared Studios, used to travel around the world as a journalist. Along the way, he had interesting conversations with people and he wanted to create a space where other people could have similar experiences, without having to leave the comfort of their home cities. Most conversations these days are for a purpose, but the conversations one has with someone when they are traveling are unique in the sense that they are not instrumental. The Portal—a gold shipping container equipped with audiovisual technology that allows for face-to-face conversations between two people— recreates this experience.
Today, we are surrounded by technology, but we rarely use it to speak with people unlike ourselves. We like to tweet, post and comment but often times in echo chambers. If we don’t like what someone says we can hide their comments, or disagree behind the comfort of our computer screens. This creates an atmosphere where fiercely exclusionary groups can thrive and our capacity for empathy and compassion weakens. By having a face-to-to-face conversations with someone in a Portal, we hope to increase our ability to empathize with people different to ourselves.
Amar told me about this idea last year and said he’d like to set one up between the US and Tehran. I found the idea very compelling both professionally and personally. As a journalist who covered Iran for a primarily Western audience, my job was to explain a complex country through the medium of words. After some time, I felt limited in my words, the external word limit—literally, I couldn’t write more than 400 words and my editors’ decisions. As an Iranian American, I constantly felt the need to explain Iran to people when in the US as Iran was in the news typically for something controversial. I knew that for most people in Iran, those controversial issues were far removed from their day-to-day lives. As a result, I always tried to tell people about the other sides of Iran that are equally interesting, but not necessarily covered by mainstream media.
The Portal allowed me to remove myself from the equation of explaining Iran to people. I no longer had to be the middle-person.. I connected the audience, New York, and the source, Iran, through the Portal. Moreover, unlike an article where it is unidirectional, the Portal provides a space for bidirectional learning and exchange.
I scoured Iran’s art scene and found a perfect partner for Portals. Sohrab Kashani an artist and founder of Sazmanab Art Center used technology in his art well before I approached him about Portals. He was very receptive to the idea. We had 26 artist collaborations during our first Portal. Sohrab, Mahsa Biglow, Homa and the entire team in Tehran brought to light an entire array of artists that we wouldn’t have had access to due to distance and politics.
Why do you think it's important that these conversations are being had between Tehran and NYC?
Iranians and Americans constantly hear about each other’s countries through the media and politicians words. They are limited in their ways of learning about the country through books, articles, films, movies, media and public personals. Due to the difficulty in traveling to the two countries, it’s very difficult for citizens of both countries to learn about each others countries organically away from the dominate media narrative that tends to demonize one another. I’ve seen that people are tired of the dominate media narrative because when people enter the Portal, their conversations run the gamut. They speak about food, culture, art, relationships, love and their ambitions. As you can see, they don’t want to talk about the nuclear issue, geopolitics or other topics that trend in media today.
The gold container is already alludes something magical happening inside - but on the inside, what are some especially special conversations that you've heard about? What've been some highlights?
Gold is often seen as sacred color. What we are trying to do is make the mundane, sacred. These conversations are between two people who share a unique, intimate moment together across distance. In many ways, we are collapsing distance—which as you put it, is quite magical!
We rarely film or tape the conversations unless both sides agree. But people have told us about some of their conversations and you can see some of our testimonials. One of the most moving moments I remember is when James Koroni and Jonah Bokaer performed in the Portal for the Tehran side. James, who is Iranian American sent us this afterwards: "Life has thrown me a gift. It was given to me by Jonah Bokaer and the Shared Studios and wrapped in a gold shipping crate. I have been given the opportunity to laugh, dance and stand face to face for the first time in my life with my family in Tehran, Iran. I felt as though we were breathing the same air. At 19 years old my father lost his fight to cancer, I didn't know the magnitude of what I had lost. I'd just finished my teenage years, left the Mormon church and came out of the closet. My confused and distracted heart was not fully open to knowing my father. It's been ten years and my longing to connect with him eats away at me. Not because I haven't accepted the loss, but because I haven't found a satisfying way to truly connect with my extended family who live in Iran.”
Jonah was familiar with my family heritage and knew the Shared Studios space and "Portal To Tehran" project would ripen my relationship with them. The potential to bridge the gap between unlikely spaces, people and time with this project is remarkable!
I've read that Shared Studios are doing some other interesting projects with public interventions all over the world - can you tell me a bit more about these?
Our goal at Shared Studios is to carve wormholes in the world to make unlikely encounters. Portals is the first iteration of that idea, but we also have several other projects that also allow for bidirectional communication.
Channels,another iteration are large scale, continuous video communications walls. They provide a free, unmediated link between disparate publics. Channels are outward facing, installed on the side of buildings. Passersby can engage or ignore — but in passing, they will almost certainly become aware of the open connecMion. Members of the Channels network can opt to switch pairings regularly. One month a site may connect to Budapest, the next to Cairo.
Phonos are continuous audio communication spheres. They provide a free, unmediated, live aural link between disparate publics. Phonos are installed at ground level. Passersby can talk to those in the distant location or just listen to the sounds that surround them. Phonos consists of six speakers connected by detachable metal piping. The speakers and the piping can be airmailed to location and assembled on site without any prior training. Potential pairings include Central Park and Hyde Park; the Hermitage and the National Museum in Kiev; Gaza and Jerusalem.
Shared Space Studios is launching the initial pairings and encouraging other artists and organizations to join our network. Members of the Phonos network can opt to switch pairings regularly. One month a site may connect to Beijing, the next to Bogota. Unfortunately, both Channels and Phonos are a bit more expensive than Portals, so we have yet to install those.
What's next for Shared Studios? Or, where's next?
We want to grow Portals by adding a new location every month in 2015. All told, each new Portal costs about $30,000 for the technology (cameras, microphones, audio and projectors), the material (the shipping container and its outfitting) and some labor (someone at the front of the container when it is open and a curator to help facilitate artist collaborations). But once a Portal is placed, it never has to move again. Each new Portal is permanently linked to the growing network, and can swap pairings – from Tehran to Mexico City, each month. So by placing a Portal, you join and help build a growing, global network of shared spaces. We are raising money right now to put a Portal in Havana, Cuba and connect it with Washington, D.C. Our D.C. location is covered, but we need help covering Havana.
If we raise $30,000, we can reach our goal and launch the Havana-D.C. Portal this coming May. If we raise $60,000, we can also keep Tehran permanently plugged into the network and add Herat, Afghanistan. If we raise $90,000, we can have Havana, Tehran, Herat, D.C. and Ferguson all join before the middle of 2015. And if we raise $150,000, we can create a mobile Portal to traverse the United States!
Is there any way that anyone out there reading this can get involved, or help out?
Yes! People can firstly donate to our Kickstarter campaign and share the link on their social media sites! Any amount helps! People can also help place a Portal in their city. They can help by donating space for a Portal and their time to help with outreach and logistics. We’ve been amazed by the organic outreach from people. Someone from Herat reached out to us and is now helping us place a Portal in Afghanistan. We hope that with the necessary funding we can bring Portals to more places that need context and colour.