Are we really ready for The Portal's 'pure window' into different cultures?

The NYC-Dublin Portal is deeper than it seems.

Rossilynne Skena Culgan
Things to Do Editor
The Portal
Photograph: By Rossilynne Skena Culgan for Time Out

"Let Me Tell You" is a series of columns from our expert editors about NYC living, including the best things to do, where to eat and drink, and what to see at the theater. They publish each Tuesday so you’re hearing from us each week. Last time, Things to Do Editor Rossilynne Skena Culgan highlighted ways to find some peace at free meditative experiences in NYC.

In 2024, we're more connected than ever. Thanks to FaceTime, WhatsApp, Twitch, Facebook Live and Zoom, we can communicate with people around the world anytime at the click of a button. That's why I was a little skeptical when I heard about The Portal, a new livestream art project connecting New York's Flatiron District and Dublin's city center.

How would this be any different than watching a live video of an influencer streaming their walk around Ireland, I wondered? Would busy New Yorkers actually pause to wave at strangers from across the globe? Would I really feel a sense of connection or would the experience feel voyeuristic? 

It was harder than I expected to find the answers to those questions. I tried to visit The Portal twice last week, but each time, it was closed. That's because the installation had to shut down after some naughty behavior. Apparently people in Dublin were seen flashing swastikas, mooning the camera and showing images of the Twin Towers in flames, according to the New York Post. And our side of the pond wasn't without blame either, with one woman flashing the camera and another person seeming to reference the Irish Potato Famine, per Rolling Stone. Not cool, guys.

People gather in front of The Portal.
Photograph: By Rossilynne Skena Culgan for Time Out

Now, The Portal has reopened with new precautions in place. Most notably, it's only open from 6am–3pm NYC time (that's 11am–8pm in Dublin). A black fence now surrounds the artwork, keeping people farther away from its lens. Plus, there's a large pink sticker on the ground showing people where to stand to be seen. If you stand up against the fence, a Portal staffer will encourage you to move back so you can actually be seen on the livestream. Finally, if all of that fails and someone gets close to the lens, a sensor will automatically blur all footage until the person moves away.

It's not exactly the completely open, 24/7 initiative that the artist Benediktas Gylys intended. By chance, I met the 34-year-old Lithuanian artist while visiting The Portal on Monday—the first day I finally found it open. 

Standing in front of his multimedia sculpture in a plain black T-shirt, black pants and sneakers, Gylys expained what first inspired The Portal.   

I really wanted to bring more peace, unity, and shifts of consciousness of humankind.

"I felt really depressed for a long time trying to understand what is the purpose of my life, and I came up with this idea to develop Portals just because I really wanted to bring more peace, unity, and shifts of consciousness of humankind just a little bit. So that my life could be more meaningful and would allow me to forget about myself and focus on something that is bigger than me," he told Time Out New York.

Given that heartening goal, I had to ask how he felt when the issues cropped up, forcing him to change the design. Gylys describes himself as a witness who's not here to tell people what to do with his artwork. But in a world where followers are seen as currency and views offer cultural clout, he doesn't seem surprised by the bad apples.   

People gather in front of The Portal.
Photograph: By Rossilynne Skena Culgan for Time Out

"It shows our current state of humanity," he says. "Lots of life, lots of joy, lots of laughter, and we have a handful of people from thousands of people, maybe like 10 or 15 people, who were very self-centered and trying to change the narrative."

But the situation did give him pause. 

"I was also worried that it might interfere with my dream of having Portals in all countries around the world," he said, adding that the team's "subtle changes" are helping to keep the dream alive. "We still want to make sure that it's a pure window into different cultures. So the question is probably to all of us humans: Are we ready to have this pure window together? Maybe it's not the time. Maybe 20 years will be the right time to have it. So we are making subtle changes. Trying not not to stop the concept of the pure window, trying to find the sweet spot where it's working."

So the question is probably to all of us humans: Are we ready to have this pure window together?

This summer, he intends to connect The Portals in Dublin and New York with other Portals around the world in Lithuania, Poland, and Brazil. Then, he'll continue building Portals in as many cities as possible. 

That all begs the question that Gylys himself posed: Are we ready for this "pure window" to other cultures? My visit to The Portal gave me hope that we are. 

I watched as 24-or-so New Yorkers did the wave, pumped their fists, danced, snapped photos and excitedly cheered in front of the screen. One couple kissed, and a man in workout gear coordinated a group session of jumping jacks. A young woman held up her wiry brown dog for the screen. An older man rolled up on his scooter. Some people challenged strangers in Dublin to games of Rock, Paper, Scissors. Some people held their fingers up in peace signs; others made heart signs with their hands. 

One man repeatedly said in awe, "Wow! They're in Dublin!? They can see us and we can see them?!" Someone else commented that the "technology's not impressive. It's just a cool art thing." Another person called it "amazing." I overheard someone else comment that, "It’s very cool. It’s like you’re interacting with people."

People gather in front of The Portal.
Photograph: By Rossilynne Skena Culgan for Time Out

Ultimately, I spotted a lot of smiles on a Monday afternoon in Manhattan—and that's something worth appreciating. 

Due to privacy laws, The Portal doesn't collect or save the videos; the footage disappears immediately, minimizing the voyeuristic element I worried about. There's no selfie mode, which takes away some of the narcissism of social media; you'll only see video from the other city, not video of yourself. As for my question about how this would feel compared to watching an influencer walk around Ireland, I immediately noticed how different this was. It felt authentic in a way that social media does not. Though some people clearly sought out The Portal, many others stumbled upon it. Much to my surprise, I did experience moments of joy. It's hard not to when doing jumping jacks and watching a low-stakes Rock, Paper, Scissors match. 

There's something magical in glimpsing someone across the world as you both go about your normal lives—commuting to work, picking up groceries, racing to catch a bus. Life, it seems, looks so different and yet so similar despite the miles between us. Gylys' artwork truly offers a "pure window" to other cultures, and it's up to us to keep that window clean.

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