Interview: Amar Bakshi, Portals
Amar Bakshi explored the relationship between AV technology and public spaces when he spoke at the InfoComm 2018 TIDE conference. Anna Mitchell catches up with him about his recent project: Portals.
It was an assignment for the Washington
Post that sent then reporter and video
blogger Amar Bakshi on a mission
around the world to gather opinions of
America that sparked the idea of Portals
(more on them later).
“I found some of the most powerful conversations
of that year on the road were when the camera was
off and the computer was dead,” he says of what
would later prove to be an inspirational trip. “I was
taking long bus rides from one part of a country to
another and out of sheer boredom would strike up
conversations with fellow passengers.”
That was the ﬁrst step toward Portals.
However, it wasn’t until Bakshi became the
ﬁrst member of his family to go to Pakistan
since his grandmother ﬂed violence amid the
Partition of India in 1947, that the idea took
another step closer to reality.
Bakshi was reporting from Lahore with his
grandmother following his posts and watching
his videos. “What she really wanted was just to
get a sense of what her home community felt
like,” says Bakshi.
He started to think about how his grandmother
would feel comfortable using technology to talk
with someone in Lahore. That was the second
step toward Portals.
Now, Bakshi, founder and creative director of
Shared_Studios, has spent the last three years
establishing Portals in cities across the globe:
from Brooklyn to Berlin; Kigali to Kabul.
So what is a Portal? Well, it’s a gold space
– more often than not a shipping container
but they come in numerous forms: inﬂatable
rooms, repurposed huts, a single screen, even
a bus. Walk inside and generally you’ll ﬁnd
an NEC short-throw projector, Biamp Devio
microphones and Community loudspeakers.
Behind the scenes Zoom videoconferencing is at
work. All manufacturers are working as sponsors
of the project.
You’ll also ﬁnd someone else from a completely
different place because that technology will be
connecting you with someone in another Portal,
perhaps the other side of the world. It will
allow you to talk, learn and share experiences
naturally, or in Bakshi’s words: “it’s an internet
you can walk through”.
Bakshi’s been tied up with the ﬁner details
of the technology used in Portals from the
beginning. “Portals began in my parents’
backyard,” he laughs. “I had the fortune of
having an uncle that was an optical engineer
and we spent months sitting in a shipping
container constantly playing with cameras,
lens conﬁgurations; trying to ﬁgure out how
to reconcile a range of goals that were often
in conﬂict simultaneously, such as good image
quality and high ambient light levels.
“Whilst we turn to our partners for most of
the technology, we are developing the camera,
lens and software package ourselves,” he adds.
So that’s what Portals are, but what do they
do and what are they for?
Well that’s quite hard to deﬁne partly because
it depends on who’s using them, partly because it
changes all the time and partly because it’s very
often dictated by people having conversations
with no agenda and initially no purpose or
speciﬁed end result.
“We have a portal in inner-city Milwaukee,
in the Amani community, the 53206 ZIP code,
which has the highest black male incarceration
rate in America,” offers Bakshi in an example of
the surprising, unexpected and often unplanned
impacts Portals are having.
Each Portal has a curator, tasked with
operating their Portal and facilitating the
interactions between Portals. When the curator
in Milwaukee, Lewis Lee, connected with the
Portal curator in Herat, Afghanistan they had a
shared challenge. Both Portals were placed on
disputed land. In Milwaukee because of gang
rivalries, in Herat because of tribal claims.
“One curator was organising tribal leaders
in Afghanistan, the other gang leaders in
Milwaukee,” says Bakshi. “They had to get the
groups to come together and sort of ordain
the Portal as something they were all excited
about. What was fascinating was the curators
connected with one another to talk about
strategies to reconcile groups locally. The end
result was basically a neighbourhood watch
group and strategy that both curators deployed
in their respective country.”
Bakshi is excited about technology
developments that could push the Portals project
further. “We’re working hard on compelling ways
of engaging through a Portal screen,” he says.
“We’ve been doing work with things like natural
Whilst the technology is important and
will allow Portals to grow in different ways,
it is people that hold the key for Bakshi. “We
consider the network of human beings who
we either employ or are connected in common
vision as fundamental to our growth.”
And his vision for the future? “I would love
Portals to basically be a new addendum to
public squares around the world,” says Bakshi.
And who wouldn’t want to share that vision?
In a world that can look more insular and
protectionist by the day, Portals – tearing down
barriers, reducing distances and allowing shared
experiences - represents the exact opposite.