Crossing The Rubicon:

A Brief History of Transatlantic Wormholes Bridging Time, Space and Cultures

Atoll Blog article uploaded 01st June 2024 discusses crossing a line in virtual time travel. It charts the historical precedent behind and current cultural challenges now in instigating and policing a specific live-streamed transatlantic portal set between worlds to people-watch one another’s street life.

The recent installation of a new and virtual transatlantic cable of sorts is now linking the mutual street life of New York and Dublin. Known as The Portal [1] (or The New York–Dublin Portal), this is the latest exploration in a series of almost spacetime continuum dimensions, being created by Lithuanian artist Benediktas Gylys. Here, in his so-called “portal #3”, he offers people-watchers from two opposite Atlantic cultures, chance to interact with each other via unfiltered, real time video livestream. His latest iteration is set apart by five hours and over three thousand miles, with his satellite-linked portals respectively located in the Manhattan Flatiron District and aside Dublin’s great O’Connell Street.

Such public appetite for rapid transatlantic communication is not new and has been steadily growing over the centuries: Indeed, back in the mid 1800’s, with a British Empire still upwardly global, a young but burgeoning US economy was increasingly looking to market itself to a greater Europe. This desire came both despite and because of the protracted ending of an Atlantic slave trade. Sadly, even after the United States had abolished it themselves from 1808, an illicit trade continued well into the 1870s and after the end of the American Civil War. A quarter of all Africans enslaved were transported across the Atlantic after abolishment alone. That the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland also chose to remain officially neutral throughout that Civil War was also to its national shame. This was inextricably linked to limiting supplies of cotton imports during that war, which contributed in part at least to the resultant Lancashire Cotton Famine. This was not a united tale of morality on either side of the Atlantic during that era.

Around that same time, a million Irish people were also shamefully starving to death in the parallel social crisis of the Great Famine caused by a potato crop blight – and all this whilst huge quantities of food exports were reportedly still being exported from an Ireland still yet politically unified with Great Britain. Ultimately, a huge diaspora of Irish people were soon to realise their only hope lay in a mass migration: And so it was between 1820 and 1860, that 2 million Irish emigrated outwards to the United States alone, with 75% of this number arriving after the Famine. 

As backdrop to such seismic upheaval, an industrial revolution was powering ahead as the driver despite any moral concerns. A key part of this, the emerging importance of the steam engine was eventually to bring about the inter-continental linking of global centres via rapidly expanding rail networks. The world’s first-ever passenger railway had been test piloted in 1825 in England as part of the Stockton & Darlington Railway. That precedent was literally soon railroaded across the whole nation and throughout a world ever-hungry for advancement. The first passenger and freight line in the U.S itself was the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad established within 2-years of that first inception, whereas in Ireland, it was the Dublin and Kingstown Railway opened later in 1834.

The need for rapid communications literally along similar lines, also drove the breakthrough of another advanced technology when Samuel Morse developed and patented the recording electric telegraph in 1837. Using his invented binary Morse Code, he tapped out it’s first ever message sent in 1844, asking: “What hath God wrought?” to mark the inaugural telegraph line linking Baltimore and Washington. His words were a translation taken from the Book of Numbers, the culmination of the story of Israel’s great exodus and covenant made with God. The prophecy marked the opening of a whole new Pandora’s Box. So began the slow but steady trajectory towards gaining ultimate but hypothetical ‘superluminal’ communication.

In the short term, the first great leap of faith in Morse’s innovation was to come in a transatlantic link proposed by US Entrepreneur Cyrus Field by 1854. For this to be realised, it would require the hugely ambitious laying of a telegraph cable twenty times longer than anything that had ever existed previously, and across a wide and deep ocean. So it was that on July 13th, 1866, and as a third attempt at a permanent link, the SS Great Eastern [2] (Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s great iron sail-powered, paddle wheel and screw-propelled steamship) set sail from Valentia Island off the southwest coast of Kerry to lay a telegraph cable behind her as she steamed slowly west. Her landfall at Heart’s Content in Newfoundland and Labrador later that month, was to establish a permanent, physical communication link across the Atlantic. In one fell swoop, it also altered for all time, the personal, commercial and political relations between America, and Europe.

Within 10-years of that iconic cable being laid, the (still disputed) invention of a first telephone had already been patented by Alexander Graham Bell. But by 1901 the first ‘wireless telegraphy’ was also born, when Guglielmo Marconi heard a faint Morse code for the letter “s” transmitted across the Atlantic ether through invisible radio waves. Ultimately though, the first official transatlantic phone call itself was only possible by 1927. That first call (between the President of America’s AT&T company and the head of the British General Post Office). This was again transmitted through radio waves. The physical cable was becoming redundant.

Meanwhile, another visionary communication concept called the telectroscope [3] was also being explored in parallel – albeit theoretically. Here was the first ever described model of a televisual or videophone system of ‘distant seeing’. Its concept was covered by the New York Times in an 1898 article, where they described it as “a scheme for the transmission of colored rays”. Such experiments also fascinated Mark Twain, who wrote a fictional account of this research but called his own device a ‘telectrophonoscope’. Whatever the name, here was a device that is arguably the earliest version of our smart phone prototype – our hand-held and everyday ‘stargate’ to help us bridge cultures, time and distance.

Into the modern era, the term ‘telectroscope’ has resurfaced from time to time: Indeed, it was the actual name of a modern art installation constructed by artist Paul St George with Artichoke [4] in 2008. Like counterpart The Portal today, this also provided a transatlantic video link – but this time between London and New York, and via a theoretical undersea connection. In reality of course, it simply comprised just two remote video cameras, linked by a VPN connection to provide the effect of a virtual Atlantic ‘tunnel’.

Earlier still, was an 1995 art installation actually called The Tunnel Under the Atlantic [5]. This version was a VR, generated real-time graphics, video and audio online communication with interactive music described as a “televirtual event”. It was created by Maurice Benayoun, with soundtrack composition by Martin Matalonto, to seemingly connect the Pompidou center in Paris physically with the Museum of Contemporary Art of Montréal via yet another transatlantic wormhole.

Mark Twain famously also wrote: “There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope”. And so it is here in 2024 with The Portal – In the latest version of a strikingly similar concept of a ‘mental kaleidoscope’ as now being reinvented by Benediktas Gylys and his non-profit Foundation. He has established The Portal as the latest in a series of his ‘Technology Art Sculptures’. These are part of a network of similar installations, since built around the world that he calls his “bridge to a united planet”. The version linking New York and Dublin has actually been designed by Vilnius Gediminas Technical University [6]. It has also been described as being a virtual ‘wheel of time’, in homage to a recurring cultural concepts drawn from many world religions and philosophies – as well as reportedly the high fantasy world of author Robert Jordan and his Prime Video series of the same name. “Portals are an invitation to meet people above borders and differences and to experience our world as it really is—united and one” has explained Gylys.

Sadly, evidence of a truly united coming together has been lacking in part at least so far: Following The Portal’s first opening on May 8, it had already been closed by Dublin City Council within 6 days because of lewd and inappropriate public behaviour – largely (although not exclusively) originating from the Irish capital side. Some elements of an over-enthusiastic and misguided public had begun to try and outdo one another in creating sensationalist video-bites live on social media like Tik-Tok. This began with simple mooning and then flashing, but quickly grew to others grinding themselves onto the screen itself, and even simulating illicit drug-taking. One Dublin participant then shamefully shared a picture of the 9/11 twin tower attack to horrified onlookers from both sides. That proved a tipping point.

Such a fall in public morals appears quite commonplace these days sadly whenever mass social media becomes involved. But further to this, and even more alarming, in 2023 the Institute for Strategic Dialogue [7] (ISD) has also reported an increasing mis- and disinformation ecosystem within Ireland being co-opted by far-right actors who, after the Covid pandemic, had turned conspiracy attentions towards dark matters. Against this backdrop of rising radicalisation and polarisation, and linked to a surge in xenophobic and anti-democratic movements across Western countries, ISD attempts to counter this and provide insight into all insidious attempts of manipulation and intimidation that look to power a global movement.

Not all has been bad news of course, as The Portal as antidote has also been the site of many uplifting and impromptu transatlantic interactions, reunions between old friends and even a live-streamed marriage proposal. In addition, according to founder Gylys, upwards of 500 million people had already visited the web version of The Portal within the first five days of it going live online. Happily by 26th May, The Portal was finally re-opened after Dublin City Council had made certain unspecified changes, whilst Portal organizers also implementing their own “proximity-based solution”, which essentially meant adding physical barriers and spacing decals – meaning that whenever any critical line was crossed again, The Portal instantly blurred the view for both sides.

Transporting oneself back forty years to the streets of the relatively more innocent New York of the 1980’s, the urbanist and analyst William Hollingsworth (Holly) Whyte had first described his home city’s public realm as being a “river of life” with people-watching its principle activity. He went on to publish the findings of his visionary Street Life Project [8] in a book and accompanying film called ‘The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces’, made in conjunction with the Municipal Art Society of New York. Using hidden film camera and written research, pedestrian behaviour and city dynamics were recorded and interpreted by Whyte. His seminal study of human behaviour also informed his 6-volume Plan for New York City, and has remains a notable advocate to this day for using more bottom-up community approaches to public place-making and cultural engagement.

But in terms of assimilating interactive arts concepts like The Portal today, cities like Dublin arguably have much further to travel culturally than the melting pot that is New York, with its long-standing public history of engaged public art. One has only to look at the embedded tradition of notable non-profit organisations like Creative Time, [9] The High Line, [10] The Hudson River Project [11] and Public Art Trust [12] to realise this. But, whether the heavily arts-marketed ‘United Colours of Benediktas’ as seen through the digital ‘all seeing eye’ of The Portal, or as a throwback to the past, and the more innocent times of Holly Whyte’s Cine-filmed ‘rivers’ of street life, the advocation for any bottoms-up approach to a democratically engaged and animated urban realm is fraught with danger. Such live streamed people-watching could of course prove to be the prelude to yet more negative sociopathy made through The Portal or similar installations that follow. This would be what the likes of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue must keep an ever-vigilant watch on. But like Pandora’s box already opened to unleash its collective evils, one must retain hope for the light at the end of the tunnel: Hope in the innate humanity of the majority of world citizens to overcome the almost unregulated dark viral cultures that seem to be growing exponentially around us – be they social media offence, AI and bot-led conspiracy, misinformation or fake news. Our optimism need not be driven by Divine inspiration or political or tech giant intervention either. Simply our universal coveting of the timelessness and human power of kindness, love and empathy.

But in doing so, we must remain vigilent to stop such innocent hope ending up another pipe dream.


Categories: Writing

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