It is rare that one gets to experience heartfelt conversations with strangers who live hundreds of miles away in various countries. But with the BaruchPortal, that rare scenario has been made possible. BaruchPortal is an extension of the show produced by the Baruch Performing Arts Center, Arden/Everywhere: The As You Like It Project, which is an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s As You Like It. The director, Jessica Bauman, wanted to give the audience a way to interact with real refugees being affected by the issues her play illustrates. From the outside, Baruch_Portal looks like a shiny, inflatable, golden cube made of bounce house material. Inside is a floor-to-ceiling screen on which visitors can see and talk to individuals from around the globe.
“Portals are gold spaces equipped with immersive audiovisual technology. When you enter a Portal, you come face-to-face with someone in a distant Portal live and full-body, as if in the same room,” advertises the website of Shared_Studios, the developers of the Portal.
Portals were invented by Amar Bakshi, an artist who uses technology to help connect people globally. A Portals is meant to be a place of cross-cultural interaction in all of its forms. Sometimes people play games, hold parties or even share meals together. There are currently 24 active Portals like this around the world, including one in Times Square.
“Portals began as a daydream,” writes Bakshi on the SharedStudios website. “We’ve all read stories about people walking through a mirror, fireplace, cabinet, pond, tollbooth, tree hole, rabbit hole and so on…and emerging in another world, a different time, another space.” Visitors get to talk to individuals from all over the world, including refugees. Recently, BaruchPortal connected to Mexico City, San Pedro Sula and Erbil.
The Portal’s curators guide visitors through the experience by facilitating conversations and acting as translators. Visitors are encouraged to talk about their passions and their day-to-day lives. Individuals often ask one another what they are studying or what their favorite foods are, keeping the conversations light. Curators encourage students not to talk about topics that might be sensitive.
Located in the Newman Vertical Campus lobby, Baruch_Portal is open before and after performances of Arden/Everywhere, playing from Oct. 8-28. Reservations for the Portal can be made online for free and visitors are also welcome to step in anytime the Portal is available. So far Baruch students have reacted very positively to the installation.
“I loved it,” said Natalie Fischetti, a Baruch senior. “I thought this is so relevant to what I watch on TV and what I read about. You’re just finding this common ground and it’s very humanizing speaking to people that the media wants to portray as this and that. You get to speak one-on-one with someone directly.” “It’s a great way for us to connect cultures,” said Steven Cerquera, a former Baruch student.
Rami Mohammad is a curator and computer science student at the UNICEF-sponsored Erbil_Portal in Iraq. He was born and raised in Mosul, but was displaced by fighting and now lives in a refugee camp outside of Erbil. When asked about the Portal’s purpose, he said “The goal of this Portal is to make a relationship between different communities and different cultures. With the Portal you can travel to any country in a minute.” Mohammad also added that in the age of television and social media, it is hard to get news that is always accurate, but the Portal brings the real experiences of people to you.
Stanley Bahorek, a BPAC programming associate, recounted some unique interactions the Portal produced. “… Rami, he’s a rapper, so when the students found that out they asked him if he would rap, and he rapped in Arabic for them. They talked about Hamilton, because he was like ‘Yeah I know about Hamilton,’” said Bahorek. “I witnessed a really incredible conversation. It was the first day of LGBTQ month and one of the students had a rainbow flag and we were connected with Iraq and one of the guys asked ‘Oh, what country does that flag represent?’ And the student was like, ‘Oh, it’s not a country’ and then the conversation continued from there. It was a really fascinating exchange,” Bahorek added.
Curators at the Portal do a great job in facilitating conversations. However, reactions vary depending on the people interacting, which is part of what makes the experience genuine.
“Some of them are very shy, so they feel kind of uncomfortable. But that’s also part of the project as well,” said Baruch_Portal curator Alejandro Veciana. “Everybody reacts differently to strangers.” “It’s a rare opportunity to talk to some folks who have been through that,” said Veciana about being able to talk to refugees. “You hear about it in the news and you read about it, you know about it, but talking to people over there is nice.”
After exiting the Portal, visitors are also given the option to write about their experiences in the Portal’s visitor log.