Bridging Iran, the US and the Globe: Two Minutes with Shared_Studios Creator Amar Bakshi

Portal 1

Imagine stepping into a golden shipping container in New York City and suddenly seeing the face of a resident in Tehran, Iran. A stranger at first, yes; however, soon you’re sharing your interests and opinions – maybe even playing music together. Suddenly, you realize, you’ve made a new friend – a connection – with someone not as different as you initially thought from across the globe. This is the basis of Shared_Studios, an initiative that intends to connect people of varying backgrounds and cultures with each other through technology in order to inspire global conversation and collaboration. In this two-minute interview, Shared_Studios Creator Amar Bakshi shares his inspiration and vision, as well as what he hopes participants will learn from this unique experience.

Can you please sum up what Shared_Studios is and does in a few sentences?

The best summation can be found on our website, so I will quote it: “Shared_Studios is a multidisciplinary arts, design and technology collective focused on carving wormholes in the world. We ground the connective potential of new technology in physical spaces to create more accessible, secure, and sacred encounters between diverse populations.”

How did Shared_Studios come to be? In other words, what inspired you to create Shared_Studios?

I spent many years traveling around the world as a reporter, and I found some of the most compelling conversations I had were with strangers, when the camera was off, on bus rides across distance. Out of curiosity and to pass the time – and for no particular purpose such as networking – the stranger and I opened up more meaningful parts of ourselves to one another. I missed those conversations when I was in school and when I worked in larger organizations.

Also, I remember reporting in my grandmother’s hometown of Lahore, Pakistan. She fled during partition and had not returned for decades. She had so many questions about her neighbors and her old neighborhood. It occurred to me that even though the connective potential was there for her to communicate with this place from her childhood, there was not the physical space or community space necessary for her to enter and engage across this form of distance.

What is the primary goal behind Shared_Studios?

The goal of Shared_Studios as a whole is to create unexpected encounters across myriad forms of distance by grounding the connective potential of the Internet in physical spaces.

Could you please explain how your first major initiatives – Portals, Channels and Phonos – work toward the Shared_Studios mission?

Portals are gold-colored shipping containers with immersive audio-visual technology inside. When you enter one, you come face to face with someone in another Portal, live and full-body, and can converse with one another seamlessly, making eye contact and moving throughout the space. Many participants have said they feel like they’re “breathing the same air.”

To see how Portals work, watch the following short video from Shared_Studios:

Channels are large bidirectional video walls. Imagine walking down the street in your neighborhood, looking to a store window on the side of a street and looking across the world at a passerby in another location who turns and looks at you. Channels are like wormholes in the world.

Phonos are ground-level acoustic spheres that function like open telephone lines, so when you walk through one, you hear the sounds of a distant location and they hear you. Imagine walking through a park in your city and hearing the live sounds of Tahrir Square. When you speak, people in Tahrir Square hear you and can respond and vice versa.

What do you hope people take away or learn from the Shared_Studios experience?

I hope they find it unique, meaningful, personal, memorable.

What have you personally learned from Shared_Studios?

I have learned that individual strangers, when placed before one another for a length of time, tend to try to form connections to one another. I think that when groups of people encounter one another, this impulse is not as salient; often the opposite impulse arises.

What’s been most surprising to you so far?

I have been surprised by how moved people have been by having 20 minutes to talk to a stranger for no particular purpose – not trying to necessarily get a job or a date, not necessarily trying to impress. To just be with someone from a different set of codes and conventions and to engage across it.

What’s been the greatest challenge with this project?

Financing is always a challenge. Even though Portals are relatively very inexpensive, we still require $7,000 (USD) to set up each new Portal, and we want everyone to be able to join regardless of ability to pay. This means we need some people who have more to pay more. It’s hard sometimes to explain that this in fact is “fair” because the value of the Portals network comes from its diversity.

Where do you see Shared_Studios in five years? What are your goals?

With Portals, I hope the idea engages communities around the world to join the network and grow it globally. I see Shared_Studios creating a number of new design projects and arts initiatives that collapse various forms of distance in unexpected ways and create expanding, swappable networks through which these unexpected encounters can transpire.

What can educators learn from Shared_Studios and bring into their learning spaces/classrooms?

I have found young people have really been affected by encountering another young person a world away and conversing about nothing other than their day-to-day lives. Kids are curious, they are open, they have wonder. And Portals is a venue for them to explore those features of themselves with others quite different from themselves. With that said, I’ve been amazed by the creative uses people around the world have put Portals to. And I’ve had educators engage through the Portals in dynamic ways.

Based on your experience with Shared_Studios, what is your advice for people who are trying to connect different people and learn about diversity?

Ultimately, you need to find and work with communities of people who are similarly inclined. Technology is a great tool, but it must be rooted in communities that can realize its potential.

To learn more about Shared_Studios and its initiatives, visit the website or check out Shared_Studios’ YouTube channel. If you’re interested in helping the Shared_Studios network expand, visit the donation webpage to find out how you can get involved!

Amar Bakshi is an artist who previously worked as a diplomat and journalist. In all these roles, Amar has focused on creating intimate connections between unlikely pairings of people. Amar created a multimedia series for the Washington Post called How the World Sees America. Over one year, he traveled solo to 12 countries creating text and video vignettes about how people from all walks of life viewed the United States. He reported across the U.S. on race in small towns. Amar also worked as Special Assistant to the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and as managing editor of CNN.com’s premier international analysis. At CNN, Amar created and hosted a live online show called Uncommon Ground, which connected people from around the world who would never otherwise meet. In February 2015, Amar launched The Legal Medium, a first-of-its-kind conference on how artists use law as material. More at www.amarbakshi.com.

NOTE: The content of this blog post is an interview and does not necessarily represent the views of Bon Education.

Sincerely,

Michelle
Editorial and Education Research Project Manager, Bon Education

Image credit: Shared_Studios (photograph by Elizabeth Bick)

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