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Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Chat Live With Cuban (or Afghanis, or Iranians) in Shared Studios' Portal at Proxy SF

Posted By on Tue, Sep 8, 2015 at 1:00 PM

The portal at Yale University - SHARED STUDIOS
  • Shared Studios
  • The portal at Yale University

No matter how accustomed we’ve become to living our entire lives on the internet, the fascination with speaking to another person across the world never wears off. (Unless you had some deep psychological scars from Chatroulette, that is.)

Shared_Studios has set up a “portal” at Hayes Valley’s Proxy for speaking to people in Honduras, Afghanistan, Cuba, Mexico, or Iran. (It sounds like an inter-dimensional gate until you remember that once upon a time, companies like Yahoo and Excite were referred to as “web portals.”) You book a 20-minute segment, and the organizers are gunning hard for academic and musical exchanges. A gold-painted shipping container lined with industrial carpeting, Shared_Studios’ portal is a spartan set: a desk and chair, and a microphone for speaking to your interlocutor in real time. You’re face to face in the dark, mediated only by the screen, and no matter how blasé you might be about telecommunications generally, the portal’s intimacy is striking.

click to enlarge AMAR C. BAKSHI AND ELIZABETH BICK
  • Amar C. Bakshi and Elizabeth Bick

I spoke to a 23-year-old woman in Havana, a graphic design student named Nancy. In theory, everyone who participates either speaks English or is accompanied by a translator, but she was alone and her English was about as good as my Spanish — which is to say, mediocre at best. (Because you book your slot in advance, it is possible to have a translator in, say, Pashtun.) Nancy and I talked over each other a bit, switching languages at times, but it was fun, a reminder of how exciting AOL chat rooms were in 1996, or what things were like in 2003 at the dawn of Skype. It’s even better knowing you’re speaking with someone in a country with a repressive government that’s not always keen on the free flow of information.

I was completely up front about the fact that I’m a journalist and I’d be writing about my encounter, and Nancy seemed cool with that. I must admit I was a bit chagrined when, expecting her to be full of curiosity about America after the recent thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations, she seemed nonplussed over the visible changes to her city — and casually mentioned she was going to Toronto in October. Chalk that up to my own unexamined First World privilege, I guess, but we had a few laughs talking about our dogs, our jobs, and where we would go in each other’s country if we could.

The 20 minutes were up quickly, and then it was time to say, “Ciao.” Although it was much more of a novelty than any kind of serious cultural exchange, I’d do it again (especially if I got the chance to talk to someone in Herat, Afghanistan.) And if nothing else, my yearning to visit Cuba has gone from a bucket list smolder to a white-hot supernova of desire.

Shared_Studios’ #SFPortal, through Oct. 31, at PROXY SF, 432 Octavia.

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About The Author

Peter Lawrence Kane

Bio:
Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly's Arts Editor. He has lived in San Francisco since 2008 and is two-thirds the way toward his goal of visiting all 59 national parks.

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