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We Stood on Both Sides of the New York–Dublin Portal and It Was Glorious

May 22, 2024 5:00 AM

We Stood on Both Sides of the New York–Dublin Portal and It Was Glorious

Hundreds of people and two WIRED reporters gathered at the Portal, which is open again after being closed due to “inappropriate behavior.”

Crowd of people looking at the Dublin portal

Photograph: David Gilbert

The video portal connecting New York to Dublin has reopened, after bad behavior on both sides forced it to close for four days.

The Portal, which initially opened on May 8 to tens of thousands of visitors, was intended to be a “bridge that unifies and an invitation to rise above prejudices and disagreements,” according to its organizers.

But like everything involving technology these days, almost immediately things went to shit. Irish Portal users played New York crowds footage from 9/11 on their phones, New Yorkers waved potatoes in response. People did drugs, other people decided to expose themselves. Inevitably, the whole thing got shut down on May 14.

Two WIRED reporters went to the freshly reopened Portal on Tuesday—David Gilbert in Dublin, Amanda Hoover in New York. Instead of seeing each other over Zoom, they waved at each other silently across a different, giant screen that beamed them across the Atlantic. Here’s what they saw:

David: When I arrived at the Dublin Portal just before 2 pm local time, it reminded me of the initial days of the project, when it seemed like it was living up to its promise and bringing a tiny piece of joy to this otherwise miserable world. Dozens of locals and tourists were scrambling to get in front of the camera and wave at random people over 3,000 miles away. While some people were looking for their family and friends on the other side of the video portal, the vast majority of people didn’t know anyone on the other end of this giant, silent, video call. But it didn’t matter. People waved, smiled, and danced, just trying to grab the attention of New Yorkers on their way to work. So I sat down and waited to see if Dubliners were going to live up to their prior reputation.

Amanda: I got to the Portal in Manhattan’s Flatiron District a little before 11 am New York time, and found that there’s now a fence keeping people several feet away from it (but the same isn’t happening in Dublin). This is part of the new security the organizers have implemented: If someone steps on the Portal or blocks the camera, the livestream will blur for both sides, organizers say. For the next hour, a steady stream of people stopped by the Portal, with usually about 30 there at any time. They waved, they smiled, they danced YMCA and the Macarena on both sides. People brought dogs, and a group of preschoolers in a line walked by and waved.

David: Dublin’s Portal, located facing Dublin’s main thoroughfare, O’Connell Street and the historic General Post Office building, has one permanent observer—James Joyce. A statue of Ireland’s most celebrated writer and author of the archetypal Dublin novel, Ulysses, stands just meters from the video screen. But rather than reciting Joyce, it was a 20th-century American rapper that particularly inspired one Portal visitor. A woman dressed head-to-toe in white danced silently before the screen for a few minutes, before turning around and singing: “You better lose yourself in the music, the moment, you own it, you better never let it go. You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow. This opportunity comes once in a lifetime.” Joyce and Eminem may not seem like natural bedfellows, but in Dublin and in front of the Portal, it seemed oddly fitting to lose oneself in the moment.

Amanda: While we couldn’t hear the Eminem lyrics on the New York side of the Portal, the crowd enjoyed watching the woman’s energy and dance moves. Even without sound, people were able to convey emotion, and all eyes were on the silent performance broadcast from Dublin.

David: The police in Ireland did finally move on the Eminem tribute act, but one of the “Dublin Portal Ambassadors” —who told me clearly that they were not security—felt that the woman was doing no harm. Though the ambassador, who refused to give his name, added that the night before, things did get a bit more rowdy after 6 pm, with some groups on pub crawls around the city briefly disrupting other people’s interactions before things quickly returned to normal. As part of the measures introduced for the Portal’s reopening, opening hours have been limited to 6 am until 4 pm ET (11 am to 9 pm Dublin time).

The Portals stand 3.4 meters tall and weigh “multiple tons,” the organizers say, but they won’t give details about the camera and screen technology being used, adding: “It's like the paint used to paint a painting—we want the audience to focus on the result.”

Amanda: Those working on the New York side handed out signs that read “I ‘heart’ Dublin” and “I ‘shamrock’ Dublin” for people to hold up, artificially ramping up the perceived goodwill between the two cities. One of the people working told me he hasn’t seen issues since it reopened—it’s been nothing but love and good vibes.

David: Most people who spoke to me in Dublin didn’t think that the Portal being shut down was necessarily a negative reflection on Dubliners or New Yorkers, and that people should not jump to conclusions based on the actions of just a couple of people. “For one individual person to sum up a whole nation is kind of excessive, and people have their problems, so I tend not to judge,” says Maurice (he refused to provide a last name.) Benediktas Gylys, the artist behind the Portal initiative, believes there is another explanation for why Portals in Poland and Lithuania have operated for three years without issue. “The new locations have 10 times more footfall and thousands of people approaching them, and also Lithuania and Poland have spent half a century inside of a prison called the Soviet Union—that is mostly why the culture is a bit more calm compared to Ireland and the US.”

Amanda: The Portal’s draw is somewhat surprising, given that video chatting is not a new technology. Chatting with strangers around the world was popularized in the 2000s by Omegle and Chatroulette. And now, there’s no need to shuttle to midtown Manhattan or central Dublin to wave to a relative or friend across the Atlantic—it’s achieved easily over FaceTime or Zoom. The videofeed in the Portal is pretty clear and doesn’t lag, but most of us can get that from home at this point. But as I searched for David in the crowd of faces on the screen, something did feel different—there’s a sense of wonder and joy that people clearly feel in finding someone they know in this public sphere, almost like running into a friend in public from some 3,000 miles away.

David: Even though I knew Amanda was going there specifically to see me through the Portal, when she did finally appear onscreen I felt like part of the crowd, like I belonged. I found myself waving like a fool, while simultaneously sending Amanda a message on Slack to tell her that I see her. The Portal’s mysterious powers were clearly working on me.

The Portal also has the potential to make new connections in real life. While waving at his brother in New York, a man in Dublin noticed a woman waving back at him from New York. Looking around he saw the woman’s friend behind him. On both sides of the Atlantic, the brothers and the friends began chatting, laughing, and promising to stay in touch. After the friends left, and as the brothers signed off with a wave, they promised to meet up at the Portal again later in the day.

Amanda: The Portal attracted New Yorkers and tourists alike. Madison Reiger, 28, and Lauren Levitt, 23, told me they came by on their lunch break from their office nearby. They threw up heart hands together, matching gestures from the other side. They said they found it a great way to connect with people from far away and enjoyed the positivity of the crowd.

David: Of the hundreds of people who showed up at the Portal during the hours I was there, many of them were Americans on vacation in Ireland, maybe eager to see that everything back home was OK. Kiino Villand, a photographer from Los Angeles, was in Dublin to visit his daughter. He felt that the experience was much greater than just seeing a video of someone in New York. “Even though this is virtual, there is a tactile in-person experience that you have,” Villain said. “I like the size of it, and the way it’s shaped as a circle, as if we were going to go through the Portal.”

Amanda: There was something very sweet and wholesome about the gathering. Ali Zaib, 22, traveled from the New Jersey suburbs to see the Portal for a second time and got lucky Tuesday, as it was closed last week. Zaib stayed for more than a half hour, enamored by the Portal and waving to the people on the other side and hoisting one of the provided signs showing love to Dublin. “It is so cool, I wish we could have more in another part of New York,” Zaib tells me, to connect the city with other parts of the world.

More Portals are exactly the plan. “For us the main goal is to have as many Portals open around the world as possible,” Gylys says. ”The biggest misunderstanding about Portals is that they are about connecting two cities. They are not. Portals are a network of sculptures that connect to each other via a feed that is constantly rotating between different large and small cities of planet Earth.”

Gylys revealed that later this summer, if they are not shut down again, the New York and Dublin Portals will switch their feed to connect with Vilnius in Lithuania and Lublin in Poland. While the locations in New York and Dublin are now operating restricted opening hours as a result of the “inappropriate behavior,” the other two Portals operate 24/7.

Amanda: Based on Tuesday’s crowd in New York, there may be an appetite for more Portals in the city. And if people stay on their best behavior, the Portals might just be a wholesome way for people to connect.

David Gilbert is a reporter at WIRED who is covering disinformation and online extremism, and how these two online trends will impact people's lives across the globe, with a special focus on the 2024 US presidential election. Prior to WIRED, he worked at VICE News. He lives in Ireland.
Reporter

Amanda Hoover is a general assignment staff writer at WIRED. She previously wrote tech features for Morning Brew and covered New Jersey state government for The Star-Ledger. She was born in Philadelphia, lives in New York, and is a graduate of Northeastern University.
Staff Writer

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