A portal around the world from Aspen Ideas Fest

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
Art and design collective Shared_Studios has set up a "portal" at the Aspen Ideas Festival this week, connecting participants to people around the world.
Daniel Bayer/Aspen Institute/Courtesy Photo |

Step into a magical booth on the Paepcke Lawn on the Aspen Institute campus today and you’ll find yourself standing face-to-face with someone who has done the same in Isfahan, Iran. You’ll have 20 minutes together – and you’ll join some 13,000 people who’ve met others across continents since late 2014 in Shared_Studios’ public arts initiative “Portals Project.”

The art and design collective has set up portals throughout the week at the Aspen Ideas Festival, linking attendees for open-ended one-on-one dialogues with strangers in portals in Kigali, Rwanda and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. the Iran portal is set up at the Va Gallery, a roving nonprofit space.

“We don’t record it, you just have a conversation,” co-founder and design director John Farrace said Tuesday morning outside the portal.

Farrace said he sees the portals as a public utility, connecting the world and affording people the opportunity to meet people in what may be unfamiliar and far-flung cultures.

The Ideas Fest pop-up portal is in a gold foil tent, though the more permanent ones installed around the world are housed in re-purposed gold shipping containers. They’re equipped with audio and full-body video technology that makes it seem as if participants are standing in the room together. Berlin, Honduras, Havana, Mexico City, Nairobi, New York, Myanmar and Jordan are among the locales where Shared_Studios has installed its portals.

Portals are normally set up for months-long stretches – one in Afghanistan has been up for nearly two years. In other iterations, the project has paired community organizers, art galleries and museums, and set up in public spaces.

“We have artist collaborations, people literally playing music between locations, dance performances – but 99 percent of them are just conversations,” said Farrace.

Shared_Studios linked Milwaukee and Newark, N.J. for a more specific cultural exchange this summer, in the Portals Project’s first domestic pairing.

“They’re having conversations about social justice, police-community relations,” Farrace said.

In that case, the Justice Collaboratory at Yale Law School and Yale’s ISPS Center for the Study of Inequality are studying the kinds of conversations the portals have sparked. It’s an experiment in a new kind of social research and polling.

“It’s kind of an alternative to asking someone directly their feelings about, say, police,” Farrace explained.

Ideas Fest participants can book a Portals Project session for Thursday at

Activities & Events

PHOTOS: Sardy House Christmas tree lighting

The annual Sardy House Christmas tree lighting was held on a snowy Sunday, Dec. 3. Locals and visitors alike drank hot chocolate and ate cookies as they awaited the holiday tradition.

See more