The Gold, Skype-Equipped Shipping Container Being Used to Connect America With Iran

A gold-gilded shipping container, currently stationed in Washington, D.C.’s Woodrow Wilson Plaza, provides 20-minute video links to the Iranian capital of Tehran; Herat, Afghanistan; and Havana, Cuba.

Image 1 - Portal at Woodrow Wilson Plaza

Back in 2007, with digital video communication tools such as Skype beginning to gain widespread popularity, the artist Amar Bakshi was sure that his grandmother living in the Washington, D.C. area would soon be having regular chats with old friends in her hometown of Lahore, Pakistan, whom she missed desperately.

But as years went by, that never happened. Bakshi realized that platforms like Google and Facebook often failed to encourage people to connect in meaningful, personal ways over long distances. “We tend to use these technologies to share with our friends, and like what we like, and, you know, hide what we dislike,” Bakshi told Foreign Policy.

Bakshi’s solution: A gold-gilded shipping container, currently stationed in Washington, D.C.’s Woodrow Wilson Plaza, that provides 20-minute video links to the Iranian capital of Tehran; Herat, Afghanistan; and Havana, Cuba. A viewer in Washington steps into the “portal,” darkened to focus attention on the other participant projected on the far wall. She or he then has the chance to have an intimate, one-on-one conversation based around the prompt, “What would make today a good day for you?” (Organizers provide translations if needed.)

Image 10 - Conversation Between D.C. and Herat

Bakshi hopes that by elevating everyday conversations to the level of art, the setup can return some meaning to long-distance communications. “The idea is to bridge various forms of distance, and to make these mundane connections meaningful, sacred,” Bakshi said Friday, when the portal had its opening at the plaza.

In my own experience with the portal, tech problems overshadowed the sacred. My conversation on Friday near noon D.C.-time came on a weekend evening in Tehran, when apparently everyone in the city was trying to get on the Internet. That made for a shaky, halting connection. Mostafa, my conversation partner in Tehran, appeared from the half-life-sized video, scaled down to save bandwidth, to be wearing a white t-shirt, khakis, and sunglasses. He started to explain in English that he had to keep the shades on because his eyes were sensitive that day, but the video cut out before I could hear why. Trying to address the prompt over the halting feed, I told him that at this point, today would be a good day if the connection worked. He laughed and agreed, “It’s pretty much fucked up here.”

As I learned in spurts over the next 15 minutes, Mostafa is writing his master’s thesis on independent American cinema, focusing on indie director Shirley Clarke’s film The Connection. Our own connection continued to suffer until I stepped out to ask Bakshi for help. He switched us to another video software with a clearer line for our last two minutes, before we had to hand the portal over to others.

I left wishing I had more time with Mostafa. While the connection problems had kept us from an in-depth conversation, the problems themselves made me value more the exchange we did manage to have — which, in a way, was Bakshi’s goal.

“Iran-U.S. was the biggest psychic distance I could imagine, at least for me,” said Bakshi, who grew up in Washington and traveled around the world for a year while a reporter with the Washington Post but never made it to Iran. He was sure that a project that encouraged undirected, unmonitored conversations could offer something beyond the usual media narrative of nuclear negotiations and uneasy political relations.

Especially in Washington, Americans often focus whatever attention they give to Iran on the country’s nuclear ambitions and not much on its culture or Iranians’ daily lives, said Michelle Moghtader, an Iranian-American co-founder of the project. Moghtader previously covered Iran for Reuters and arranged to partner with an arts center in Tehran to set up the portal there. “Tehran has a very active art scene, and I’d always tried to write about it through my work as a journalist, but I always felt confined to the media narratives of the current situation,” Moghtader said.

Some Iranians now living in the United States, who left Iran around the 1979 revolution and haven’t been back since, have been shocked to learn through conversations in the portal how much Tehran has changed while they’ve been gone. “They’re like, well, isn’t it like this? And they get very animated about that, which is good,” Moghtader said.

The portal opened in D.C.’s Woodrow Wilson Plaza this month after a stint on a less-trafficked street in the city’s Georgetown neighborhood in April, following time at the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, Connecticut, and in New York City’s Lower East Side starting last December. On Friday, the new location, near a weekly farmer’s market, seemed to be drawing lots of curious passersby. One gray-haired man in a green jacket walked past and stroked the container’s gold exterior before quickly moving on.

“I think it’s the whole idea from your childhood of like, you open a closet and you’re in another world,” Bakshi said. As items that crop up all over the globe, shipping containers are relatively culturally neutral. And because they’re fairly cheap to set up — the project’s organizers raised just over $60,000 on Kickstarter — they allow people from all over to meet on equal terms, Bakshi said.

About 2,500 people so far have connected through the portals, although Internet connection problems set back the launch of the Havana portal a few days. Currently, the U.S. portal has been on one end of each conversation. But in the future, the organizers hope that the other portals will be able to connect with each other — Herat to Tehran, Havana to Herat, Tehran to Havana. And they want to add more hubs around the world. For now, they’re focusing on streaming an Iranian music performance in Tehran next week through the D.C. portal’s doors to an American audience.

Later in the day on Friday, Mostafa sent me a friend request on Facebook. I don’t usually accept friend requests from people I’ve spent only minutes talking to, and whom I don’t really know at all. So maybe it’s evidence of the special sort of connection that Bakshi, Moghtader, and their team are working to create that I did accept Mostafa’s.

Photos courtesy of Amar C. Bakshi/Shared_Studios

Justine Drennan was a fellow at Foreign Policy. She previously reported from Cambodia for the Associated Press and other outlets. Twitter: @jkdrennan

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