It isn’t at all surprising that the U.S. president and U.S. politics came up in conversation between Americans and Afghans who had just met over video, before anything came up about Afghanistan, its politics, or its reality in general. America in conversation with the rest of the world very often takes on a “world as it relates to America” angle.
Amar Bakshi, creator of the global public art initiative Portals, is not as interested in how America sees the world — mainstream media is doing enough work on this narrative — as he is in how the world sees America. This is the theme of his work as a reporter for the Washington Post, for which he traveled all over the world looking for these perspectives, and he has now brought the same intent through his public art project, which now has a new site in Times Square.
Portals are a collection of trailer-like structures set up in public spaces in twenty-four cities in eighteen countries around the world. They contain “immersive audiovisual technology” and connect to each other, so people passing by a portal in their city can see and talk to anyone passing by a portal in other cities around the world. At the opening of TimesSquare_Portal on Tuesday, passersby and media met students at the Hariwa University campus in Herat, Afghanistan. One student is planning on working with the government of Afghanistan after he graduates to provide IT solutions as well as to help encourage more people to go into academia, since Afghanistan faces a shortage of teachers. Another student wants to complete his PhD in economics and then become a minister.
Amar Bakshi (center)
Amar Bakshi described his travel reporting experience as involving “some of the most moving conversations of [his] life…lost in the world with a stranger.” Trying to recreate the opportunity for this kind of human connection when he returned, he proposed the idea of interconnected “portals.”
“Putting down the technology that ropes you into your own life and losing yourself in the vastness of other peoples’ lives,” he said, “Portals is about that goal.” Of course, being lost in the vastness of other peoples’ lives is also necessary for a reporter, but the general public doesn’t share the same obligations. Still dialogue is important in terms of free speech, interconnectedness, and democracy — all of which, as Times Square Alliance President Tim Tompkins said, are in many ways threatened today.
Khaled Salar, the South Asia and Middle East Portal Director at Shared Studios, the art and tech collective that made the portals, spoke to State Senator Brad Hoylman and State Assemblyman Richard Gottfried at the opening of the portal on Tuesday. “There are a lot of stereotypes about ‘East’ and ‘West,’” Khaled said. “We need to understand each other more, and how that happens is through getting to know each other, not only through media and politics.” For example, they noted that most people who come to Afghanistan or read about it know only about its cities, and that it has a relatively untouched and beautiful natural landscape that often goes entirely unnoticed. State Senator Hoylman was also pleasantly surprised to learn that last academic year more women were university students than men.
Assemblyman Gottfried declared that the portal, which will be in Times Square for six weeks, should ideally be a permanent fixture in the space. Shared Studios is also organizing a “shared meal” where people in New York can eat breakfast together and join Afghans in eating dinner, as well as a 24 hour dance party with DJs from different countries.
“Human faces are complex, and when you just hear about them in one format or from one source, it’s hard to fully realize that complexity,” Amar Bakshi said. “We hope Portals becomes a fixture of cities and communities all over the world.”
TimesSquare_Portal is now on view from October 10th to November 21st. Portals exist in a variety of places including refugee camps, art museums and public plazas. Each week of the installation will focus on a different theme ranging from food to identity. Free timed reservations can be booked at www.TimesSquarePortal.com, but walk-ins are welcome.