Bakshi is testing the proposition that the world would be a better place if we could talk directly to each other. One gold shipping container at a time.
Walk into one of the golden “Portals” created by Bakshi and his team at Brooklyn-based Shared_Studios, and you could find yourself in conversation with people in Myanmar, Honduras, or Iraq in a similar Portal. You communicate with them not through a narrow computer monitor or smartphone, but in an immersive audiovisual environment with a ceiling-to-floor video screen.
“You can really focus your attention on another human being, who is in an identical container—see the person in front of you,” says Bakshi, who is Shared_Studios’ founder and creative director.
These global dialogues in real time and true proportion are offering people across the globe a chance to speak to each other in a new sort of public square. Johns Hopkins University is a project partner, and the university’s Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute brought a Portal to the Homewood campus last June.
“Barriers to communication seem to be erected at every turn,” says Elizabeth Smyth, advisor to the president on the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute. “The Portals serve to bring them down. They demonstrate that technology can be used to create connection.”
The Portals project pulls together a number of strands in Bakshi’s wide-ranging career. In addition to graduating from SAIS with an MA in international affairs and international economics, Bakshi has earned a law degree from Yale University, worked as a journalist at The Washington Post and CNN, and served as an assistant to former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice.
Bakshi observes that the education he obtained at SAIS was part of his road map to success for this project and other endeavors. “As much as my SAIS experience focused on politics and policy,” he says, “it didn’t neglect the aspects of story and lived experience at the heart of this project.” He adds that fellow SAIS alumni Afshin Molavi ’97, a senior fellow at the school’s Foreign Policy Institute, and Karim Sadjadpour BO ’02, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, have supported him over the years with the Portals and other projects.
The Portals possess a strong aesthetic sensibility, rooted in their creation in 2014 as a public art project decoupled from the worlds of consulates and commerce. Art’s capacity to be understood broadly across cultures has informed the project’s conception and aims.
“We still think of ourselves as building global public art,” says Bakshi. “Art is a domain where the ends are not given. The Portals are not for a particular predefined purpose. They’re not designed to advance diplomacy or sell widgets.”
Bakshi says a key aim of the project is “curating human diversity.” Institutions around the world subscribe to the Portals network for an annual or monthly fee that supports maintenance and improvement of the project’s infrastructure and technology, “just as they would support a free public library.” Shared_Studios manages the technology and helps its partners create Portals in various locales.
The company has also created a robust network of curators around the Portals to attract this diversity. The technology creates “the feeling of being in the same room,” says Mira Bakri, a Portals coordinator in Palestine, “and a feeling that the world is connected, despite the difficulties facing the Gaza Strip.”
Bakri observes that mothers battling cancer in Gaza and the United States have connected in Portals to share common struggles. Embroiderers from Mexico and Palestine have been able to share and compare their work. The chance to examine Mexican crafts through immersive technology, she adds, “left me feeling I was in the Disney film Coco.”
The Portals also create more structured connections, including projects that focus on refugee issues and criminal justice. Youseph Yazdi, executive director of the Center for Bioengineering Innovation and Design at the Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering, has deployed them to create collaborative design teams and hack-athons with students at American University in Beirut and in Gaza City.
“I wasn’t sure it was going to work,” says Yazdi, who is also an assistant professor of Biomedical Engineering in the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. But as cross-cultural teams worked to tackle issues including health care in humanitarian crises and empowering first responders, he observes, “you almost forget the technology is there.”
These teams even made joint presentations using the Portals. Yazdi says technology enriches these interactions deeply. “It communicates information we just don’t get on a screen,” he says. “There are so many cues you only get in body language. Even in the way someone is dressed.”
Bakshi’s project is creating a compelling model for civic discourse in a global climate in which walls, not bridges, drive political rhetoric and the power of social media is weaponized to sow division.
“We think of civil discourse as formal or political,” says Smyth. “The Portals show that we need to think more broadly about what it is and where it can happen.”
The Portals rely on a renewed faith that cyberspace not only possesses power to convey our statements but also allows us to make a positive difference across the globe.
“We don’t have to think of technology as isolating us and narrowing our horizons,” says Bakshi. “We can think of it as broadening them. We’re thinking deeply about how to pull technology inside out. How do we use it to bring us out of our bubbles and into deeper awareness of the world?”