Connecting people around the world

Shared_Studios powers Twitter’s #Tweetups – a global network of 40 Portals from Jerusalem to Delhi.

A wide view of the Portal and people at Safra Square in Jerusalem. (photo credit: Courtesy)
A wide view of the Portal and people at Safra Square in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In August, in the middle of the night, a long truck maneuvered, and a crane gently deposited, a large gold-painted “box” on the ground at the western edge of Safra Square in Jerusalem, parallel to the light train rails.
For the next 10 days, residents and tourists and those who came for meetings at the Jerusalem City Hall stared and wondered – and increasingly participated in a beautiful global experiment. #Tweetups, hosted by the news and social media platform, Twitter, are powered by Shared_Studios, a multidisciplinary art, design and technology collective which has created a global network of Portals – interconnected, gold shipping containers.
They are placed all over the world, and when you enter one you feel like you are in the same room as someone in an identical shipping container somewhere else on earth. Unlike traditional video-conferencing software and set-ups, these spaces offer full-body experiences in which participants make eye contact and move around digital-physical environments as if in the same space.
The difference is palpable and impactful. The Portal activation in Safra Square was enabled thanks to the early support of the director of the Culture Administration, Ariela Rajwan, and her production team at the Jerusalem Municipality.
Shared_Studios’ partnership with Twitter enabled over 18,500 immersive video conversations to take place over 10 days among more than 40 public locations around the world – from Tokyo to Jerusalem to New York City’s Grand Central Station to rural Bangladesh.
This was Twitter’s first consumer experiential activation on a global scale, which encourages free exchanges between people from all walks of life to encounter one another as human beings and discuss what’s happening in their lives – through their own experience, and not “pre-filtered views” via the lenses of their local TV channels, or Al Jazeera, or the BBC or CNN.
#Tweetups resulted in thousands of magic moments and special human connections including shared meals between distant locations around the world, musical collaborations and impromptu dance-offs, K-Pop and Bollywood fan encounters with stars, and ordinary people everywhere coming together to engage in conversation with participants in distant and very different parts of the world. In Jerusalem and Delhi, visitors discussed traditions of marriage in their different cultures, and much more.
Shared_Studios (with its main office at New Lab in Brooklyn) is the brainchild of Amar Bakshi, the founder and creative director whose grandparents and parents migrated to the US from India.
A former Washington Post reporter, CNN editor, special assistant to the US ambassador to the United Nations and artist by avocation, Amar now focuses on how to integrate technology into environments and across pronounced distance to create new forms of digital-physical public spaces that challenge and subvert existing norms. In particular, he works to connect members of diverse communities who would likely not otherwise meet, in intimate environments to create their own experiences. He and co-founder Michelle Moghtader created the global public art initiative, Portals, in 2014. The first Portal conversation took place between the Lu Magnus gallery in New York City and the Sazamanab Center for Contemporary Art in Tehran.
Since that event, Amar and the growing team at Shared_Studios – with their Curator network expanding around the world – have created over 50 Portals in gold shipping containers, inflatables, buses, rooms, and screens to create uniquely engaging experiences.
The partnership between Shared_Studios and Twitter actually began life due to a chance meeting between Andy Isaacson, Shared_Studios adviser on special projects and brand partnerships, and Nola Weinstein, global head of culture, engagement and experiential marketing at Twitter. They met at a Shabbat dinner in Manhattan last fall organized by the Charles & Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation for alumni of their REALITY journeys. From Andy and Nola’s encounter hatched this global happening last month, which included Safra Square in Jerusalem.
This hatching was fitting as it is also the Schusterman Foundation that sponsors the cultural Mekudeshet Festival of Jerusalem, which enabled the Portal to come to Israel for the first time in 2017. This was the first Portal I helped bring in-country.
Each of the Portals are curated by dynamic local curators who make authentic connection possible by providing conversation prompts, programming expertise and live language interpretation. The Jerusalem curators were particularly chosen by the producer for the Jerusalem Municipality, Uri Glicksberg, for their bubbly personalities, their abilities to speak excellent Hebrew, English and Arabic, as well as their enthusiasm for the Shared_Studios mission!
One of the excellent and multi-talented curators with whom I spent hours through the 10 days was Or Bogin, a law and international relations student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who completed his army service working for Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) – a unit in the Defense Ministry that engages in coordinating civilian issues between the government of Israel, the IDF, international organizations, diplomats, and the Palestinian Authority.
He reflected on some of his own experience with the Portal:
“We had a number of memorable times in the Jerusalem Portal. While connected to New York we met a movie producer, whose attitude for life reached out through the screen. We had a dance party with two lovely young women who were very excited to meet “hot” French guys for the first time. I believe they were a good example of the love we Israelis have for dancing. Personally, I played my hang drum a number of times in the Portal, and I will never forget the two beautiful creative women in the London Portal who were dancing to my music.
“The Portal is interesting and amazing not only because it connects us to people from around the globe. It also connects us to people from our own community. During the 10 days we were operating the Portal, all kind of types of people came into the Portal. We had religious and secular Jews, Muslims, Christians, Arabs from different areas, gays, foreigners, old and young, everyone in between. It wasn’t unusual at all to have them together inside, and we had people from all of these groups coming back to the Portal again and again, often on a daily basis.”
In an aftermath summary of this global event, CEO of Shared_Studios Luke Baker – who had an emotional reunion with his own Australian family between the New York City Portal and the Melbourne one – told me, “Jerusalem was one of the most engaged sites, and was frequently mentioned by other sites as one of the most rewarding to connect to, for the level of energy and enthusiasm from the public, and the diversity of participants: Arabs and Jews, tourists and locals, musicians and businessmen. In terms of visitors per connected hour, Jerusalem was in the top five locations worldwide, higher than Melbourne, London, New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.” I smiled. It was tikkun olam – repairing the world.
Twitter and Shared_Studios share a commitment to fostering meaningful, healthy conversations across distance and difference, and they are keen to see where that shared vision takes them. Meanwhile, Shared_Studios is constantly building new Shared_Spaces in partnership with cities, schools, universities, companies and other organizations to help drive the authentic exchange of ideas and perspectives across global communities, in a way that’s never before been possible.
As their network grows, so do the possibilities for connection, and Shared_Studios’ goal is to be in 100 countries by 2022, becoming a fixture across city centers, schools, companies, museums, villages and beyond. And the good news as this article goes to press is that the Jerusalem Municipality, as well as Tel Aviv, Netanya, Hadera, Holon and towns across the West Bank are all having further discussions for bringing back or bringing to, for the first time, a Portal into their communities. You can check in any time at the Shared_Studios website for its current Portal list, to see when a portal will next be in your area. I, for one, cannot wait.