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The Portal has revealed the best of mankind What if our worst instincts are actually our best?


May 15, 2024   4 mins

This, as some will say, is why we can’t have nice things. The Lithuanian artist Benediktas Gylys has set up an installation that creates a “portal” between a street in Dublin and one in Manhattan. A giant sculpture containing an eight-foot-wide circular screen has been erected on a busy thoroughfare at the heart of each of those towns.

The screens show a livestreamed video, 24/7, of what’s going on at the other end. You walk down a drizzly Dublin street in the afternoon and there, shimmering ahead of you on the pavement, is an eight-foot slice of New York in the morning sun. You can wave through this portal to a stranger, going about his or her day, 3,000 miles away. And he or she can wave back.

Imagine the possibilities. A kiss across the ocean. A connection between the new world and the old one. Think of it as a Colm TĂłibĂ­n novel without all the boring old words. There’d be curiosity and laughter, glinting interactions between strangers amid the play of happenstance and the quotidian events of an ordinary day. We’d all revel in new possibilities of human connection.

Except, no, that wasn’t what happened; or, at least, it wasn’t all of what happened. “Portal to hell,” was what the New York Post called it: “Live Dublin-NYC video art installation already bringing out the worst in people with lewd displays.” It reported with a mixture of feigned dismay and barely repressed glee that “middle-finger exchanges and other lewd gestures are a common means of communication on both sides of the portal”.

The portal had only been open for a few hours when the Gardai had to forcibly remove a young woman who was “grinding her bum” on the screen on the Irish end of the connection. Drunken Dubliners have taken to waving swastikas or images of the burning towers of the World Trade Center at their American counterparts. In response, an American TikTokker flashed her breasts, claiming she wanted to show Dubliners her “two New York home-grown potatoes”.

Those of us for whom capitalising the word “Portal” immediately conjures the brilliant videogame about a laboratory experiment run by an insane computer will have sniffed trouble from the off. Likewise, those of us who have ever found ourselves in Dublin at pub kicking-out time. But even those who don’t have either of those reference points should have been able to see it coming. 

For isn’t the fate of the portals just a microcosm of the internet itself? The wired world seemed to promise a new era of global human connection, that would allow us to share the fruits of our knowledge, expand our communities, banish misunderstanding and widen our spheres of empathy. Instead, we turned 90% of it over to showing each-other our furry bits and used the rest of it to insult people we’d never even met, ambush innocent passers-by with Goatse or blue waffle, and ensure that death threats, rape threats and the music of Rick Astley spread at scale. And, yes, share a few cute pictures of cats. Thank heavens, at least, for those. Humanity is a many-splendoured thing.

“Isn’t the fate of the portals just a microcosm of the internet itself?”

These portals, on the other hand, can’t in any obvious way be used to siphon our personal information into the pockets of Mark Zuckerberg, derail democracy, hound people to death or reshape the world irrevocably in the interests of soulless capital. They can be regarded as a more benign and lower-stakes metonym for what the internet gave us; and, accordingly, the behaviours they brought out aren’t really going to do much harm.  

One can disapprove of much of the rowdiness — nobody’s going to defend the trolls waving swastikas — but doesn’t something in you respond, sneakingly, with a little leap of old-world pride that, home-grown potatoes aside, Dubliners are apparently proving so much ruder than New Yorkers? Here is a response that would be recognisable to Chaucer, Rabelais or the traditions of Commedia dell’Arte.

It is also a teachable moment. Whenever we are tempted to imagine that some technological gizmo will transform human behaviour and usher in a new Age of Aquarius, we are brought rapidly down to earth. Technologies don’t change human behaviour: they simply amplify it. Pace the New York Post, “bringing out the worst in people” is just what technologies are going to do. We’re all still apes, with ape brains and ape instincts. When we see someone peering at us, our instincts may tell us to smile and wave — but more often, as with chimpanzees at the zoo, they tell us to fling something at the bars. 

We’d like to see the whole world as one big family, but Dunbar’s Number — saying we’re not neurologically equipped to handle a personal network of more than 150 people — means we struggle a little with the principle. We look through a magic portal, see some wazzock in cycle shorts in Manhattan, and instead of greeting him as a brother in humanity, there’s some part of us that thinks: “That’s a stranger, and a foreigner, and therefore funny, and what’s more he can’t get me from there: I should pull down my trousers and wave my bum at him.”

Here, then, is (mostly) amiable misrule. It’s lols. It’s craic. It manifests the unruliness, the corporeality, the boisterousness that’s the best of us as well as the most annoying of us. It’s just that boisterousness that derails utopian projects and reminds the self-serious and vainglorious that they belong in the mud with the rest of us. So here’s to grindy-bum girl.


Sam Leith is literary editor of The Spectator. His forthcoming book, The Haunted Wood: A History of Childhood Reading, is out in September.
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Jason Smith
Jason Smith
9 days ago

It does warm the cockles of your heart and reminds me of that imbecile David Blaine, locked without food in a transparent box on the south bank of the River Thames for 44 days. Almost immediately some lads set up a barbeque beneath him.

Richard Maycock
Richard Maycock
9 days ago

Dublin linked to New York? Why not link two small towns or even villages. I think the interaction might be far more interesting and certainly more civil.

Nathan Sapio
Nathan Sapio
9 days ago

That would be the artful thing to do. Unfortunately the “artist” is just an attention seeking designer

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
10 days ago

There is just something about this that brings a smile to my face.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
10 days ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

Agreed.

David Morley
David Morley
9 days ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

Agreed – it’s both appealing and funny. And perhaps busts some of our human pretentiousness.

David Morley
David Morley
9 days ago

A lot of fuss was made recently about the filming of British girls on a night out. Indeed I think the police were after the person doing the filming. It wasn’t quite clear why. These portals could do exactly the same thing, but without anyone actively filming. Will they be closed down if the image of people they give is not one we like?

Gregory Toews
Gregory Toews
9 days ago

“We’re all still apes”. If only we were.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
9 days ago
Reply to  Gregory Toews

Tell us what you know about apes that induces such longing in you.

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
9 days ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

You get to ride around on one of those little tricycles, plus all the bananas you can eat! And when you wear a badly-fitting suit, people think it’s adorable instead of dĂ©classĂ©.

James Anthony Seyforth
James Anthony Seyforth
9 days ago

Haha, I love it, it’s honest humanity and it’s communication regardless… The fact it’s temporarily closed shows we are completely under someone’s control. Completely lacking any freedom of expression in public spaces as some blobby Nobby decides how to limit all the fun.

https://youtu.be/CR5yo9FwZO0?si=-6PkMj7PFsoguiwn

They will censor bad behaviour Apparently, I feel very sorry for our stupid civilisation: https://www.iflscience.com/portal-between-new-york-and-dublin-closed-after-a-week-due-to-inappropriate-behavior-74201

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
9 days ago

I’m surprised the Left hasn’t done this with Gaza. The problem might be that they just can’t achieve anything technical. Though their facilitators in the State can, or at least have the funds to assist them.

Terry M
Terry M
9 days ago

Dubliners are apparently proving so much ruder than New Yorkers? 
Recall that it is still the afternoon in NYC when Dubliners are already on their third pint. Of course, when viewed simultaneously Dubliners will appear ruder. Prob no one is watching from Dublin at 23:30 in NYC since it’s 4:30 in the emeral isle, and few in NYC are playing to an empty screen.
I’d put NYers rudity against anyone. See: Trump, Donald.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
9 days ago

I’m just happy to read a piece that doesn’t include Orange Man bad.

Rick Lawrence
Rick Lawrence
9 days ago

Brilliant piece of writing

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
9 days ago

This has to be the funniest article I’ve ever read here. As a cynical person with a rather dim view of human collective behavior, I’m not the least bit surprised by this. It’s about exactly what I would expect in most respects. There is, however, one inconsistency that I feel obliged to expand upon.

One would think that the more questionable behavior and displays on the part of the Dubliners might challenge the usual stereotypes about Americans. Let me assure you that this isn’t the case. I suspect the reason Dubliners won the lowest common denominator award is because Americans are already rude to each other. Most urbanites probably give and receive multiple middle fingers on their daily commute to people. Why bother with another. Further, we’re a low trust society so most everybody we don’t know personally may as well be a stranger or a foreigner. In that context, a portal to some foreign city is a bit of a shrug. New Yorkers already see plenty of foreigners daily. One can easily find just about any ethnicity or nationality in New York, including Ireland, by just walking a few blocks or taking the subway.

I suspect there’s an ignorance factor as well. Americans simply don’t know enough about Ireland to come up with an insult quite so vicious and personal as waving photos of 9/11. I’m more knowledgeable than most and I certainly wouldn’t, though I’d have a good idea where to look. I could probably dig through Ireland’s fraught history of conflict with England to find some similarly personal insult that Dubliners would recognize, but that’s quite a bit of effort, while pretty much everyone knows of 9/11 since, as a hegemon, America’s primary exports are media, culture (such as it is), and politics.

Then again perhaps it’s simply a consequence of living in a more dangerous environment and internalizing the precautionary principle. I’m sure plenty of Americans would love to wave swastikas around but most don’t. Displays like that attract conflict and violence, and America is a violent place. Waving swastikas on a New York street would likely start a loud confrontation which might escalate into violence. Lord knows the mask mandates precipitated quite a few of these. For that very reason, the act of waving a swastika would almost certainly lead to a less than pleasant encounter with the NYPD. No, it isn’t technically illegal, but the police know the same thing I do, that a dude waving swastikas on a busy street is going to start a fight sooner or later, which might involve someone carrying firearms, and shootouts on the street are not something the cops want to deal with. They’d order the guy to stop, and if he argued, they’d haul him in for resisting or some such and let him go a few hours later, and that would be the end of it unless the guy tried to sue the department, which would be stupid because most courts are already overburdened with too many cases and won’t entertain anything so petty. Cities will of course bend over backwards to accommodate organized protests over various issues, complete with whatever controversial symbols one wants so long as they have advance notice to assign more police to prevent escalations.

The few people brave enough to display things like swastikas on their homes, yards, vehicles, clothing, or directly on their person in a passive way are basically daring anyone to challenge them, often including the police. Most look, act, and most likely are, more dangerous than the average person and not someone to confront lightly. They are most likely more experienced with and skilled in fisticuffs and violence, and since this is America, they are very likely armed. Growing up, we learn that these are people to avoid. Case in point, I one day happened to see a large black man on a motorcycle with a confederate flag symbol proudly displayed across most of the back of his jacket. Realizing the irony, I considered photographing this individual, but upon taking a second look, I noticed the man was quite large and muscled and I then noticed the pistol on his right hip. I decided against the photo.

There you have it. Upon closer examination, there are perfectly logical explanations for the discrepancies in behavior. Like many if not most other Americans, I couldn’t resist such an obvious opportunity to bash my own country or at least the parts of it I don’t particularly like. I couldn’t let the notion that Dubliners are more rude and vicious than New Yorkers stand unchallenged.

David Harris
David Harris
7 days ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

“Americans simply don’t know enough about Ireland to come up with an insult quite so vicious and personal as waving photos of 9/11. ”
Hi Steve, I think you’ll find the New Yorker flashing her ‘potatoes’ probably knows her Irish history and so does that job quite well…

Liam F
Liam F
9 days ago

Umm, just wondering…did grindy-bum girl have a nice arse? (Just asking for a friend,obvs)

Michael Clarke
Michael Clarke
9 days ago

Move the portal to the St Stephen’s Green area. I hope it becomes a permanent feature of the city and that there are portals with other cities also.

R Wright
R Wright
9 days ago

Anyone who still recalls the shenanigans surrounding Shia LaBoeuf’s He Will Not Divide Us piece in 2016 will not be surprised by this outcome. HWNDU created one of the greatest pieces of street art of the last decade.

Kathleen Lowrey
Kathleen Lowrey
7 days ago

nothing to add except that this made me think “Bum and Chips” in Robin the Caveman’s voice and now I am happy. Up the Portal!

David Harris
David Harris
7 days ago

Someone should build a mobile Portal so that we can insult any passing protest march.I’d start with Saturday afternoons in Central London…

chris savory
chris savory
6 days ago

Thanks for such a superbly written article. Sam really interesting and made my wife and I laugh out loud as well. Congratulations!

jim peden
jim peden
6 days ago

Brilliant stuff!
The anonymity of social media summed up in one sentence: “That’s a stranger, and a foreigner, and therefore funny, and what’s more he can’t get me from there …”
We have drones and we know where you are.

Kirk Susong
Kirk Susong
6 days ago

I love discussions about theology where no one seems to be aware that they are talking about theology.

Russell Sharpe
Russell Sharpe
9 days ago

“nobody’s going to defend the trolls waving swastikas”
I don’t see why not. There are plenty of apologists for trolls dressed in keffiyehs and waving Palestine flags, which is much the same thing.

glyn harries
glyn harries
9 days ago
Reply to  Russell Sharpe

oh dear. as if we can’t walk and talk and condemn swastika wavers as much as Hamas apologists