A Portal to Our Best Selves

— Emilie von Unwerth

When I first heard about the Shared Studios’ Portal in Monroe Park — a big gold shipping container where you video chat with people from other countries — I thought, ok, a controlled (read: less predatory) version of ChatRoulette.

Technically an arts initiative, the Portal is similar in structure to the mostly obsolete video shuffle service: you interact with strangers you’d likely never meet otherwise. Differently, the portal is a physical space curated by “ambassadors,” with set dates and times for interaction with certain cities.

So, what’s the art portion of this initiative? “Human connection is the art,” says Richmond portal ambassador Karen Manning. “The portal is the channel, and at some level, the human is the channel, too. The art is the conversation.”

I’ve gone to two portal discussions now: one freeform conversation with Ipswich, Massachusetts, and one topic discussion — on monuments — with Berlin. You can enter and leave at your leisure. The conversation flows freely, doesn’t feel too awkward, and is surprisingly rewarding.

“Something happened last night when we were speaking to Ipswich,” says Karen. “Someone asked what was going on with the Richmond governor, and I thought, ‘oh no, where is this going to go?’ And everyone in the portal — they had differing opinions — but everyone remained respectful, and people actually listened to each other. People were taking it all in, people were hearing each other. There’s something about the atmosphere of the Portal.”

It’s true. It’s weird. I’ve not experienced anything quite like it before. There’s something about choosing to step into this 8 x 20-foot box that tempers judgment, that heightens our empathy, that piques our interest, and enhances our ability to learn from one another.

“One of the most interesting things, to me,” says Taylor Logue, another Richmond portal ambassador, “is that everyone is an expert on something, but also doesn’t know basic information about something else. It’s so cool to watch people educate each other.”

This learning from each other in a safe environment has produced an unintended benefit: instead of only connecting with strangers on the other side of the earth, people are also connecting with their neighbors. “It’s such a magical thing to watch,” says Karen.

One of the most major surprises of the portal? Conversation doesn’t gravitate to politics anywhere near as much as I thought it would. Both ambassadors agreed politics comes up 25% of the time or less. And when the subject does come up? “It has not gotten anywhere close to out of hand.” says Taylor.

"We really are more alike than different." 

“We had a VCU doctoral student come into the portal when were connecting with Mexico. And she asked, ‘would it be ok if I asked you about what’s going on with the wall?’ And, you know, I got nervous,” says Karen. “But, the people in Mexico said yes. And the student here started asking all these great questions, and — oh, my gosh! — I learned so much! Here’s this robust conversation… here we are being educated.”

So, does something like the Portal really attract people from all walks of life, or is it only drawing progressives? “Oh, no, it’s everyone.” says Taylor.

“We had a man come in a few weeks ago, during another call with Mexico City. It became apparent pretty quickly that he was very sheltered,” says Karen. She explains the man started to ask about normal, daily life things: how is the weather, what did you eat for breakfast, what do you do for fun?

“At the end of the conversation, he said: ‘you guys are so cool, you’re not like what they say in the newspapers. You’re just like us.’” Karen says, at that moment, she knew the Portal had served its purpose: that simple conversation shattered biases, destroyed preconceived notions. “We really are more alike than different,” she says.

Maybe we just all need to walk into a Portal for every important conversation we need to have. Maybe we need to stand in shipping container and ask a stranger on a screen about their daily life, about their thoughts and opinions, their joys and their struggles… or just what they ate for breakfast. Maybe a big gold box in the middle of a park could they key to regaining (or, to be honest, just gaining) empathy for our fellow humans.

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