Creator of N.Y.-Dublin video ‘portal’ won’t let a few bad actors crush his dreams of connecting humanity

As It Happens5:51Creator of N.Y.-Dublin video ‘portal’ says we can, in fact, have nice things

For a moment last week, Benediktas Gylys worried that his dream of connecting the world through art was slipping through his fingers.

Gylys is a Lithuanian-born artist whose dream is to build a series of public video links — known as portals — between cities all over the planet. 

His current installation features two large, circular screens, with live, soundless video feeds connecting Manhattan, just outside the Flatiron Building, to O’Connell Street, a bustling thoroughfare in Ireland’s capital city.

But when his New York City-Dublin portal was temporarily shut down because of lewd and mean-spirited behaviour, he worried the bad press would derail his vision. 

“I was concerned that our partners might get too worried about having their own sculptures in their own cities,” Gylys told As It Happens guest host Peter Armstrong.

“This is my life’s mission, my dream, to build more sculptures in all countries around the world so that we could all meet as humankind together and recognize that we are all inseparably connected, flying on this tiny spaceship called Earth.”

Two old men stand in the streets in front of a large circle with a screen that reads "Portal is asleep. Be back soon." The men are holding hand-drawn cardboard signs. One reads "RUDE AND GROSS AND PROUDOFIT" and the other says "Let New Yorkers Be A-HOLES!" Both signs are signed "@OLDJewishMen."
Two men stand outside the portal in Manhattan while it was offline. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

But now that the New York-Dublin portal is back up and running with limited hours and new security features, Gylys is determined not to let a few negative incidents sour what he says has been an overwhelmingly positive experiment.

“[Of the] thousands and thousands of people who came to see the portal, only a handful of people misbehaved,” he said.

“We see lots of joy, we see lots of smiles, we see marriage proposals, we see new friendships being made. But we also see some attention-seeking self-centrism. And I think it’s just us humans doing very human things, with lots of light, and then some darkness.”

Up, then down, then up again

The New York-Dublin portal, created by Gylys and his team of collaborators, first opened on May 8, in partnership with the Dublin City Council and Manhattan business group Flatiron NoMad Partnership.

“People say, oh, I have, I have my apps, I have my FaceTime to do that. But portals are not about, like, meeting your friends,” Gylys said. 

“They are about meeting and recognizing people outside of our social bubbles, outside of our social media feeds — people whom otherwise we would never meet in our lifetime.”

Huge crowds gathered to wave, smile, take selfies, hold up signs, dance and make art.

But there were also reports of people flashing middle fingers, breasts and bare buttocks. And, according to the Guardian, a New Yorker was seen holding up an image of a potato, in reference to the Great Famine in Ireland, and a Dubliner flashed an image of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York City.

As a result, the portal was taken offline last week, and reopened Sunday with shorter hours, and new proximity sensors that will blur the feed if people get too close and try to obstruct the camera.

The idea, Gylys says, is to discourage people from getting in close and filling the screen with negative images. 

A man leaps in a dramatic dance movement in front of a large circular screen in the street showing a live feed of a group of dancers all dressed in bright orange.
Dancers perform on both sides of the portal. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

In Manhattan last week, people visiting the portal seemed unbothered by the hullabaloo. 

“No one is getting hurt. It’s fine. It’s all peace,” said Joe Perez, a 46-year-old Manhattan resident who held up his pit bull Virgil for the Dublin crowd to see. “A middle finger doesn’t hurt me.”

The art project is set to remain up and running until the fall. 

From depression to interconnectedness

Gylys says he came up with the idea for the portals after a period of depression in 2016, followed by a powerful epiphany. 

“I sincerely admitted that I know nothing about reality, and that led me to an experience where I felt connected to all living beings on Earth,” he said.

“It was extremely difficult to continue watching the news for me and to see the constant sense of conflict and separation. And there was something deep inside of me that really wanted to communicate the message of oneness.”

A man in black stands waving in front of a large metal circle with a screen showing a few people standing outside in the street.
Benediktas Gylys is seen in front of his portal in Vilnius, Lithuania, waving to the Polish city of Lublin. (Janis Laizans/Reuters)

He and his team opened the first portal in 2021 linking Lublin, Poland, to Vilnius, Lithuania.

“We did not experience any incidences or like red flags from our operation of two years. And I think that’s one of the reasons why we were a bit unprepared,” he said. “Now we are learning.”

He’s currently working to install a portal in Brazil, he said, and plans to keep going from there.

“The greatest thing is just to be close to the portal and see multiple smiles and happiness all around. Sometimes you see the grumpy people who look like they have never waved to anyone in their lifetime, they just open up with a beautiful smile and start waving to a stranger on the other side of the portal,” he said.

“Some people say that my portal does not work because it can’t teleport humans. And my answer is that, yes, it can’t teleport humans, but it might teleport humanity to a new state of being.”

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