LOS ANGELES (CN) – Inside the gleaming dark gold shipping container in LA’s Grand Park, the three art students giggled uneasily. They sat in a room carpeted from floor to ceiling in charcoal gray, facing a screen that showed two Iraqi men, Muhammad and Rami, sitting on lime-green plastic chairs in a similarly enclosed space.
It was a warm and sunny Thursday at the Harsham refugee camp in Erbil, Iraq, and bright and balmy outside the shipping container in an area of downtown Los Angeles between the Performing Arts Center and City Hall. All that separated the three students – Lulu, Liam and Helena – and the two men was a flickering screen and 7,450 miles. As the students settled into their seats and oriented themselves to the jarring effect of distance in proximity, 19-year-old Muhammad, dressed in a white shirt and black pants, asked the young students about their favorite sports.
Lulu, a blond-haired girl wearing a black beret and a chain around her neck, said she liked soccer. Liam said he did too. There were smiles all round as the teenagers talked about their favorite teams from Spain’s top division, La Liga.
“Barcelona,” Liam said.
“Real Madrid,” Lulu chimed in.
After a few minutes, the students said they had to leave to hurry back to class. On their way out of the 12-square-meter container, they passed a message on the gold-colored door stenciled in bold black type: “This Gold Container Equipped with Immersive Audiovisual Technology is a portal. When you enter, you come face-to-face with someone in a distant portal and can converse as if in the same room.”
The gold containers are the creation of Brooklyn-based artist, former law school student and Washington Post reporter Amar Bakshi. He wandered bleary-eyed around the installation last week, at regular intervals giving interviews to broadcasters, including the local Fox affiliate and CNN.
Dressed in a loose cream top and black jeans, Bakshi sat at a pink picnic table close to his installation on Thursday morning during a break. He scanned his smartphone and registered shock as he learned the United States had just dropped the most powerful conventional weapon in its arsenal, the MOAB or “mother of all bombs,” on a cave complex used by Islamic State militants in Afghanistan.
As news of the U.S. action filtered through, Fazeel Chauhan, 53, an analyst from Pomona, and his friend Karen Dinehart emerged from the darkness of the gold container into the mid-morning sun.
They had just been talking to three young men at the Harsham camp who were in a portal that had been converted from a disused pumping station. Some 1,500 Iraqi families who fled Mosul live at the camp.
Pakistani-born Chauhan gestured to two bulletin boards in the park where people had left post-it notes. One of them struck a chord. The writer noted that if people talked more often it could lead to world peace.
“I know with Trump it seems impossible because he just dropped the biggest bomb like it’s nothing,” Chauhan said. “If American people in general had more interactions with Muslim people or they knew about Islam, then they would not be easily manipulated by ideas like Muslims are trying to implement Sharia law or hate their women, or they’re violent, or they’re terrorists.”
Bakshi built the portal in 2014, and the political climate since has drastically changed. The election of President Donald Trump has provoked fear among communities in Los Angeles where according to recent Pew study, 375,000 unauthorized immigrants live.
The same populist wave that swept Trump to power had already touched Britons, who voted to leave the European Union in part because of anxieties over migration. In mainland Europe, there is a growing intolerance as Syrian refugees have fled their war-torn country for the continent.
As French voters go to the polls in the first round of voting in the presidential election on Sunday, far-right politician Marine Le Pen is expected to enter a runoff with Emmanuel Macron. The vote comes after the shooting of a Paris police officer on the Champs Élysées on Thursday night.
While the shifting political landscape seems to some to be driving people farther apart, the portals project is all about bring people together.
Bakshi seemed preoccupied with adding “something beautiful to the world” rather than making a bold political statement. He said in an interview that he wanted to create a space where people can converse freely with little purpose, or even make music. He is, however, aware of the timeliness of his work.
“Human beings have a lot to gain from one another and diversity is fundamentally valuable, important and beautiful. And the inclination to demonize diversity is dangerous,” Bakshi said. “If you think that one group is being brought to say something then it’s a fight, it’s a war, instead of a conversation. But when you pay attention to people’s unique stories and hear them with no purpose, I think that’s the basis of self-government for a diverse community.”
Kim Noonan is a 44-year-old teacher and filmmaker who lives in Highland Park and talked with the Iraqi refugees in the portal last week. He came to the United States from Vietnam as a refugee, and said he was curious about what the refugees had been through in the Middle East. But he said he understood when the two teens he talked to were more eager to discuss their favorite foods: pizza and sandwiches.
“I think they preferred to keep it simple and I understand that. But there’s also part of me that’s interested in what the perception of America is as well,” Noonan said.
Julia Diamond, the director of programming for Grand Park, said the beauty of the exhibit is that it allows people to bond over everyday concerns like a mutual love of Oreos.
“Some of it is so mundane. And I think what’s really great is this can very easily take people in faraway places who feel like they have nothing in common and help them very quickly find common ground,” she said.
During his time as a Post reporter, Bakshi traveled around the world and – unencumbered from his iPhone or laptop – found himself having carefree conversations with strangers during bus rides and on the road. He heard the story of a Filipino woman in search of her lost father and a dying Mexican revolutionary making his final pilgrimage.
“When I came home, every conversation I had was for work or to get a job or get a date, and there was not that experience of just basic human curiosity and connection,” Bakshi said.
His reporting sent him to Pakistan in 2007 during the George W. Bush years. His grandmother Shashi Chopra had fled by train at night from Lahore in 1947 during the Partition of India, watching as fires lit up the city. His grandmother read all of his stories but wanted to know more. He said the project was both a meditation on his “Nanny,” who passed away in 2009 at 76, and a desire to capture what was so special about the conversations he had while on his travels.
“She just wanted to talk to someone from Lahore but she didn’t have any friends left, and this was 2007,” Bakshi said. “So I thought what would she have wanted? She would have wanted to be able to enter a coffee shop, sit down and just talk to someone, drinking tea, about nothing. She would have laughed and enjoyed the hell out of it.”
After buying a used shipping container and knocking down his parents’ fence to place it in their backyard, Bakshi enlisted the help of a 75-year-old handyman named Ed to build the portal.
The container attracted some unwanted attention. Bakshi’s neighbors suspected that Bakshi was living in the shipping container and called local law enforcement. They notified the FBI when he spray-painted it gold and stenciled “Tehran” on the exterior. Bakshi suddenly found himself being interrogated by a federal agent.
“I think they just really wanted it to be gone but they were grasping at straws,” Bakshi said of his neighbors. “So the FBI rolled up, but the guy from the FBI was all about it, thought it was a great idea. So it was ﬁne.”
Since launching the portal in a gallery in New York and in Tehran in 2014, Bakshi’s organization Shared Studios has placed portals in 17 nations, including the Templehof building in Berlin, the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and a tech incubator in Gaza City.
The Portals Project opened in Los Angeles Grand Park on April 10 and has captured the imagination. Reservations were snapped up quickly. Diamond said part of its appeal is that it is more than just an art installation.
“We have so much amazing technology at our fingertips, and it feels like we can talk to everyone,” Diamond said. “But in some ways we sort of need a specific invitation or context to do that. And this really does that. It really opens up a portal, it opens up a line of dialogue, and I felt like that was unique and something I wasn’t finding in other places.”
Bakshi said part of the portals’ adaptability is bringing people from different walks of life and political ideologies together. He said people wearing Trump hats had entered the portal to talk to refugees in Berlin, and drone operators talked to Afghans in 20-minute conversations.
Celebrities and politicians have given the portal experience a whirl too. Ewan McGregor, Dutch Foreign Minster Bert Koenders and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi have spoken to refugees in Erbil as has President Barack Obama, who talked to a young Iraqi entrepreneur named Ali.
Bakshi has not yet extended an invitation to Trump, but said he would love for the 45th president to try it out.
“When you’re alone in a room with someone else, you’re not grandstanding for a big audience. It really doesn’t do much for you to go in there and just scream at someone through a digital screen,” Bakshi said. “We’ve had a lot of the kinds of conversations you wouldn’t expect to go well. And you know, they don’t go badly.”
After his experience in the portal, Noonan summed up the project in one word: empathy. He said the installation reminds him that the world does not revolve around Los Angeles and the United States.
“There are other people out there that have the same dreams, same ideas and they’re not these evil-doers, they’re not fanatical,” Noonan said. “These are just normal people trying to get through the day like everyone else.”
LA Voices Portals Project is at Grand Park until April 23.