Amar C. Bakshi is an artist whose work focuses on how to integrate technology into environments and across pronounced distance to create new forms of digital-physical public spaces that challenge and subvert existing norms. In particular, he works to connect members of diverse communities who would likely not otherwise meet in intimate environments to create their own meanings.

As an artist, Amar treats the formation of institutions as, themselves, sites of creation. Now Founder and Creative Director of Shared_Studios, he has put in place a network of portals for humans to interact, regardless of their location or status.

Amar previously worked as a reporter at The Washington Post, an editor at CNN, and as Special Assistant to the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. Amar, a Soros Fellow and Truman Scholar, has an AB from Harvard University, a MA from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and a JD from Yale Law School. In between achievements, he found a little time to answer our questions.

 

Can you tell us a little bit about Shared_Studios and the Portal project? How did this crazy project begin and why?

Shared_Studios began as an art project. Together with Michelle Moghtader, my co-founder, and artist Sohrab Kashani, we installed one Portal in an art gallery in Manhattan, and a second in a gallery Tehran. The Portal is a shipping container, painted gold, and outfitted with immersive AV technology that creates the feeling of being in the same room as someone in an identical space across the globe. We wanted to give strangers in Iran and the U.S. a chance to speak face-to-face. The images Americans see of Iran, and the images Iranians see of America, often fixate on the politics of the hour. We wanted to create an opportunity for people to see one another as individual human beings.

We gave participants a prompt – ‘What would make today a good day for you?’ – and let them talk. We expected brief, interesting interactions. Instead, people stayed in the Portal for 45 minutes at a time or longer. They had surprising, emotional encounters. We realized then that there was something special about this space, this moment, and this idea.

 

What do you hope to achieve by providing this connective and immersive infrastructure?

The purpose of this global social infrastructure is to provide communities with the tools they need to experience the richness of human diversity. Because every site is staffed by a real human being (a “Curator” who helps connect you with the place and people right for you), the network serves as a resource for local groups — primary schools to universities, museums, performance venues, public parks, and companies. 

If you want to learn about dance in Rwanda, or poetry in Afghanistan, or agriculture in Germany, your local Curator will design a connection with one of those sites themed around your interest. At the other end, the distant Curator will work in their community to connect that local expertise to you, and will make requests of your community.

You have a Berlin-based portal located in the North East of the city, in addition to the 50 you have spread out on all continents. How do you make the Portals interact? 

Our core team works with the Curator network to schedule all connections in advance. Because every Portal can connect with every other, scores of sites could be connected at any time.

What are you plans to grow? Where is your dream place for a portal?

The network is growing rapidly, and schools and universities comprise a large piece of that. In high schools, teachers use the portal in their global education efforts because it introduces the first-person perspective to the classroom. Students learn a lot about the world from the internet and from their textbooks but very rarely are they given a chance to talk directly from a region and culture different from their own.

Refugee camp climate action in Erbil

A portal in Erbil Refugee Camp in Iraq (Credit: Shared_Studios)

To answer your question from a regional perspective, we just finished our biggest-ever event. We had portals in sites like Place de la Republique in Paris, South Bank in London, and Grand Central Station in New York City. We also launched in refugee camps in Uganda and Bangladesh. We are keen on seeing more Portals throughout schools and universities across Europe.

How do you choose Portal Curators and how much freedom do they have to design projects?

When we hire Curators, we look for people who share a curiousity about human beings and an openness to connection. We find people who seem to at a root level understand the value of human diversity. We also look for people who know how to mobilize and organize their community.

“The purpose of this global social infrastructure is to provide communities with the tools they need to experience the richness of human diversity.”

All of our Curators are encouraged to design and craft connections that matter to them and their community. When they have an idea, or when they’ve received a request from their community, they work with the rest of their network to make that happen.

What new happening are you planning these days? What’s next for Shared_Studios?

We just concluded our biggest-ever event, 10 days of profound conversations in partnership with Twitter, called #Tweetups. We have a number of exciting activations in the works, especially in expanding our work in education.

In the era of total connection, how can providing more ways for people to interact support the fight against climate change?

Bringing disparate communities together creates capacity and solidarity. To win the fight against climate change, communities need to coordinate. They need to share best practices and knowledge. At the core of the problem is the fact that global warming is a global problem, but political communities are highly-regionalized. Connecting separated groups is a precondition to coordinated action. The Portal gives communities global access to local knowledge – knowledge they can use in their own fight against a global problem.

What is telematics and how does it shape the world we live in today?

Telematics is the field encompassing telecommunications and interconnected technologies. In our area, telematic art describes any project that uses telecommunications as the medium. The Portal is a classic example of this type of project – you can read more about it in our collection of essays.

Obama discussing entrepreneurship

Former US President Barack Obama himself in one of the portals (Credit: Shared_Studios)

It’s not hard to see how this field promises to radically transform our built environments. Interconnected spaces are as likely to emerge in parks and museums as they are in the workspace. We may find that the social media that have dominated the last decade appear quaint and rudimentary in the next. 

Our choice, then, is to decide what we want this interconnected future to look like. For Shared_Studios, that means being intentional about designing the media through which we communicate. There are no neutral media. We build and deploy them with purpose.

Can technology ever be totally green?

Our technology will be as green as we allow it to be. 

Can art be a factor of change?

Yes. Whether it is a factor of change qua art, or qua manifesto, or in our case, qua social infrastructure, is another matter. The Portal network continues to be a global public art piece. Increasingly it serves other roles: it helps build new communities; it helps exchange trusted information; it allows people to make new meanings together.

What would you say to aspiring designers and experiential adventurers to help them start off on their own journey?

I would say that these projects take grit and patience. But when you know you have found something real, you have to give it everything.