Update: The Richmond portal has moved to Brookland Park on Richmond's North Side at 2829 North Ave.
The Richmond Portal will at this location until June 30.
The goal of the project is to move around to various Richmond neighborhoods. Check their website for posted hours.
Original story Feb. 9, 2019:
A gold shipping container that offers a portal to other worlds appeared in Monroe Park recently.
Step in one day and chat with Mexico City.
Another day, go face to face with Stockholm.
The next day, the portal opens to Afghanistan.
The portal arrived in Richmond courtesy of Andy Stefanovich, who also brought the first TEDxRVA conference to town in 2012.
The former owner of Play, Stefanovich and his partners now work with clients on imaginative ideas. He encountered the Portals Project while attending a TED conference in Vancouver a few years ago.
“Immediately, I knew we had to bring this to Richmond,” Stefanovich said.
He felt compelled “to bring inspiration to our community, inspiration from around the world. Richmond has great things going on. We can also export Richmond. Let’s make the buzz right here.”
A student stepped inside the portal on the way to class at nearby Virginia Commonwealth University. She came out into the sunshine a few minutes later. “That was amazing!” she shouted.
The Portal Project started in Brooklyn in 2014 as Shared Studios, a for-profit company that connected a gallery in New York to people in Tehran, Iran, through a shared video feed.
The project has now grown to 40 portals all over the world. There are portals in places such as Berlin; Kanpur, India; San Juan, Puerto Rico; Oakland, Calif.; Milwaukee, Wis.; and Tempe, Ariz.
And now, Richmond is the 41st portal.
The one here is 8 feet by 8 feet by 20 feet and is wheelchair-accessible. Inside, gray carpet covers every surface except the “facing wall,” which is a floor-to-ceiling bidirectional video screen.
On a recent day at the portal, a woman wearing a big, black parka with a furry hood appeared on the screen via a live link to Stockholm.
It was Sanaz Habibi, standing in a portal, just like the Richmond one, with gray carpet, a chair and a space heater.
“It’s 6:30 p.m. in Stockholm. And 7 degrees,” she said.
“Do you have Valentine’s Day in Sweden?” somebody in the Richmond portal asked.
“It’s getting bigger,” Habibi said. “We’re very influenced by American culture. We started having Black Friday sales.” She paused for a moment, moving side to side for warmth. “I hope you’re influenced by Swedish culture, too.”
“We have IKEA!” one of the Richmond portal visitors exclaimed.
Habibi, curator of the Stockholm portal, went on to discuss living in Sweden. She talked about her Iranian background, how she grew up in Sweden and what it was like to feel like an immigrant on the outside, but to be Swedish on the inside.
“We’re very direct, but polite. We don’t like boasting. Everybody’s supposed to be equal in Sweden,” she said.
“I gotta go to class. Bye!” a Richmond student said and popped off. More visitors filed in and started up a new conversation.
The Richmond portal is free and open to the public 10 to 15 hours per week. It is staffed when open and locked up at night.
A schedule is posted on the Richmond portal website with weekly hours and upcoming chats with cities and countries.
On a recent Friday night, organizers said 60 to 70 VCU students visited the portal even as temperatures plunged into the teens.
“It was First Friday. Some kids were going back to their dorm and dragging their friends out, saying, ‘You’ve got to see this,’ ” Stefanovich said. He said the Richmond portal has seen families, professors, students and the homeless seeking warmth.
“They got to visit with someone from Mexico City,” Stefanovich said, referring to the homeless men who experienced the portal.
Karen Manning is the curator for the Richmond portal. She is setting up some special programming, such as connecting multilingual students from the Oakland portal with high school students in the Richmond portal.
“The kids in Oakland come from over 30 countries and speak over 30 languages,” she said. “They’ll get to practice their English with Richmond teenagers.”
In March, Quill Theatre will be doing a performance of “Jack & the Beanstalk” inside the portal for Milwaukee and Oakland.
There will be discussions with Berlin and Kigali, Rwanda, where citizens can talk about what monuments in their cities mean to them.
Manning is also planning a class with Mexico City where visitors on both sides of the portal can draw from a live model.
Organizers describe the portal experience as similar to running into someone on the street and stopping to have a deep, unexpected conversation.
The experience is different from Skype or Chatroulette, Stefanovich said, because it’s intentional. It is a full body-to-body experience. You’re in a blank space where you come face to face with a stranger from another country or city, and the whole point is to connect.
The Richmond portal will be in the city for a year.
Stefanovich expects it will move to different locations after April 30. He hopes to move it to places such as Gilpin Court and Richmond’s North Side and South Side.
With enough funding, he hopes that the Richmond Portal can stay in Richmond indefinitely, like the one that’s been in Mexico City for four years.
“It opens our aperture to different people and different lives,” Stefanovich said.