The infinite possibilities of "Portals"

Mar 27, 2018

San Luis Obispo County’s Cuesta College has spent the past month connecting individuals across the planet. It’s part of a global art project called "Portals." Unlike media you typically use to connect to the world, Portals is an immersive experience. You are supposed to feel as if you’re in the same room as someone else in another country, or on another continent.

Inside a dark little room in an art gallery in Cuesta College, several strangers face several other strangers on a screen.

“Tell us a little about yourself,” said San Luis Obispo teacher Noha Kolkailah.

“I’m an amazing person,” said Sultan.

Everyone laughed.

Sultan is 22 and an aspiring journalist in the Palestinian territory of Gaza, on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea.

“I graduated a few months ago, I studied media,” said Sultan. “And I’m unemployed right now. So if you guys have a job for me at CNN, Reuters, I’m more than happy to work.

Everyone laughed again.

Sultan’s friends - Ibrahim Hout and Ali Bari - sit on a couch with her inside a Portal in Gaza. They are having a friendly chat with some local San Luis Obispo teachers, Noha Kolkailah and Larry Grant. Kolhailah continued to ask questions. Grant shares his experiences teaching. The group in Gaza share their frustrations with English media in Palestine. 

They are all part of an immersive global art initiative called "Portals: Connecting the World: a Social Practice Exhibition," at Cuesta College from February 22 to March 29.

The Portal at Cuesta is basically a big box. It can hold a small group of people inside.. On the inside of the big box is a video screen where you see other people across the world. It’s kind of dark in there, but there’s also a bright light shining on you. And then there is the sound of air rushing somewhere, too. The whole experience can be kind of loud, hot and disorienting. But meeting new people isn’t always a comfortable experience, especially when the conversations can turn a little somber.

“In Gaza we can have genocides," said Sultan. “We’ve had three in the past 10 years. And children, I don’t know how they take it. But a ten-year-old in Gaza would have experienced three genocides in their lifetime.

Everyone takes time to reflect on the statement. But not every Portals conversation has to be somber or even political.

“I think for me the real interesting thing about Portals is there is infinite possibility,” said Emma Saperstein.

Saperstein is the coordinator for Cuesta College's Harold J. Miossi Art Gallery, which housed Portals for the past month.

“There’s often really light, tender, happy, funny moments. There’s a wide range of variability,” said Saperstein. "Last week we had a connection with our Kigali Portal - we arranged for a women’s health class at Cuesta to come the Portal and they had prepared a list of questions and we had invited to the Kigali Portal practitioners, doctors and health care.”

You could also use a Portal to brush up on your language skills.

“We had a German class came last week to practice German,” said Saperstein.

Portals was conceived a few years ago by journalists Amar Bakshi and Michelle Moghtader, who felt like the best conversations they were having were when the microphone was turned off. They built the first one in a shipping container.

“It was a total experiment,” said Saperstein. “And what ended up happening was, they expected people would go in for five minutes and be like oh cool, ‘Iran!’ and go out. But they had this afternoon where it was kind of quiet. It was a rainy day in New York and they let someone into the Portal and then they forgot about him. And then an hour and half later he came out weeping and was so moved by this experience they were like, ‘We think we are onto something.’”

So while Portals may feel like a novelty to going in, it might be more about what you take out with you.

When Noha Kolkailah left her the Portal after roughly an hour inside, she reflected on her experience.

“You know something like a Portal could bring the world closer together and deepen the understand between people,” said Kolhailah. “I have many Jewish friends here in San Luis Obispo. How cool would it be for us to have conversations and dialogue about how we can bring about peace in that area of the world?"

On Thursday, March 29, "Portals" will be at the downtown Farmers’ Market in San Luis Obispo and connecting with Herat, Afghanistan and Mexico City.