‘Did you see anyone you knew?’: An Irish emigrant peers into the New York-Dublin portal

The greatest illusion of this public art project persuades us that we can be in two places at once

Portal with Dublin from New York side. Photograph: Michael Fitzpatrick

Standing in New York at 5pm last Friday, I gazed upon my birthplace, the place I still call home, and the city that constantly beckons to me. I felt displaced, a stranger in both lands. I had my feet on the ground and yet I also felt galaxies above the stars.

The portal, a public art project by Lithuanian artist Benediktas Gylys, is a piece of technology bridging the 3,000 miles between New York and Dublin. It is a digital pool teaming with unpredictable humans, glowing on a piazza in the Flatiron district. It’s round, like a porthole on a ship or a cupola on a space station. We can’t see ourselves in the way you can on Zoom and we can’t talk to each other, either. All this distance and silence gives us two-legged creatures something to fret about.

Viewing Dublin via social media for more than a decade – and the homesickness that comes with that – sometimes makes me feel like I am an astronaut stranded on a space station unable to get home. I reappear for visits after long stretches away but my time is always limited and I must fly away to my “other” home. This portal was the most visceral manifestation of me as I am now, a US citizen, formerly a legal alien, orbiting both helplessly and strategically between these two homes.

Under the red glow of Dublin’s traffic lights, the dozen or so people on either side were as multicultural there as they were here. A young man at the front of the North Earl Street cosmonauts wrote his Instagram handle on his iPhone and held it up for us to see, a nod to the death of random analogue encounters. A girl in a baseball cap swigged a bottle of Fanta – at least I think it was Fanta – and gave us the thumbs up. An Asian man made the “heart” sign with his palms, and he held it for the longest time.


Hours after I stood on that Manhattan street looking into the portal’s light, friends and family members asked: “Did you see anyone you knew?” That’s such an Irish question but an understandable one too. Because, yes, I was looking for someone I knew. I had not arranged a “meet-and-greet” with anyone at the intersection of North Earl Street and Broadway. After all, I can do that on Zoom. But I was dying to see a familiar face pop into view. For a split second, I even said to myself: “That looks like ...” But it wasn’t.

So here we were, curious aliens in a digital cage with beams instead of bars, smiling, gawping, mugging and, according to some reports, mooning. I felt self-conscious without my words. I gave a tentative wave. A giddy American woman gave the Dublin crew the peace sign. “They did it back,” she said, as if they were in a zoo. It was a tender encounter: two space stations passing silently through different time zones, making an effort to notice each other for a change, if only for a few minutes, feeling silly, vulnerable, awkward and alive.

The portal’s greatest illusion is to trick us into believing that we can be in two places at once, and allowing us to forget about our distance and our differences. A double-decker bus rolled by. I felt a surge of nostalgia for the shadowy figure I imagined I could see inside with their head leaning against the window, sleepy, on their way home from an early dinner with friends, in time to watch some telly with Fig Rolls and a cup of tea. Maybe it was me on that bus. Was I the figure that I couldn’t see?

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