Long before the NYC-Dublin Portal, this groundbreaking artwork connected Montreal and Paris

Long before the NYC-Dublin Portal, this groundbreaking artwork connected Montreal and Paris

It’s been just over a week since its launch and the portal between New York City and Dublin has already caused major ripples in the fabric of our space and time.  

The public art installation by Lithuanian artist Benediktas Gylys connecting the two cities with street-level video screens has gone hyper viral, grabbing headlines around the globe, while becoming one of the internet’s favourite memes du jour. It’s hosted performances, reunions, a transatlantic marriage proposal and thousands upon thousands of friendly exchanges — as well as some unfriendly or overly friendly ones, too. As of this writing, the artwork has been temporarily shut down for repeated instances of inappropriate behavior.

But did you know that nearly three decades before this attention-getting intercontinental spectacle (or the artist’s version in Poland and Lithuania before it), a groundbreaking work of interactive art similarly joined viewers on either side of the pond with a real-time connection between Montreal and Paris? Yes, back before FaceTime, Zoom calls and video chats made the technology feel commonplace, in the early days of the internet, there was The Tunnel Under the Atlantic.

A concrete tunnel comes out of the floor with an image on the end of it on a screen. People gather around to look through to Paris.
The Tunnel Under the Atlantic from the Montreal side in 1995 at the Musée d’art contemporain. (Image courtesy of Maurice Benayoun)

It began as part of the 1995 International Symposium on Electronic Art. Pioneering French new media artist Maurice Benayoun was invited to make a virtual reality experience that would connect his home base in Paris to Montreal, where the symposium would be held. He remembers telling ISEA producer Michael Century, “It’s a bit far away. Maybe we should just dig a tunnel.” 

And that’s exactly what his artwork would do.

For six days in September 1995, crowds gathered before the two monumental tunnel shafts emerging from the lobby floor of Montreal’s Musée d’art contemporain and a lower-level gallery at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Both sides watched the tunnel’s giant screen as, using a joystick to navigate the game-like experience, they dug in hopes of reaching the other party somewhere in the middle. A live audio stream from the farside of the tunnel was spatialized within each room to guide their efforts like a compass.

“The tunnel was something metaphoric,” Benayoun says, from his home in Paris. Its visitors didn’t dig through thousands of kilometres of earth to find each other; rather, they dug through culture. The tunnel’s virtual walls were made of paintings, maps and artifacts sourced from the Canadian Museum of Civilization and France’s Réunion des Musées Nationaux — as well as more quotidian ephemera, like labels from wine and cheese — to represent the cultural heritage of both nations.

“I was interested in the idea of culture as an obstacle,” the artist says. The work suggested that culture, though a bedrock of identity, was also a barrier that needed to be broken through for communication.

On the Saturday evening, after five days of digging, the two groups finally found each other in virtual space, opening a live video link between the cities. “Emotionally speaking,” Benayoun says, “[the moment] was so strong. People had spent hours. They came sometimes two days, three days, four days. They came again and again to be there.”

So what was the first greeting the transatlantic tunnellers shared? “I can see you,” the artist recalls. “You’re dressed in red with a white collar.” There was no grand message. Simply: I exist, you exist and we are sharing this experience.

Abstract images showing colours and people and geometric shapes from insdie the art illustration The Tunnel Under The Atlantic
Images from inside The Tunnel Under The Atlantic in 1995 between Paris and Montreal. (Images courtesy of Maurice Benayoun)

The artwork anticipated the idea, Benayoun says, that people will use communication channels not to transmit or convey messages, but to be in touch. “In a way, all the apparatus was a pretext to meet people, even if we have nothing to tell them … [Communication] will become the way to exist at world scale.”

The New York-Dublin Portal reminds the artist of another influential and historic work of media art. Way back in 1980, Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz’s A Hole In Space transformed street-level windows at New York’s Lincoln Center and a Los Angeles department store into the displays for a life-size audiovisual link between the cities. 

While the idea behind Portal may not be new, neither is the desire for connection these artworks address. 

The Tunnel Under the Atlantic is not about the Atlantic, it’s not about tunnelling,” Benayoun says. “It’s about meeting and the importance of being in touch … Just to be there and to be there together with other people, suddenly you feel differently. Your neighbours are no longer the people you meet on the street — they are the people you meet in the tunnel.”

A long grey tunnel comes out of the floor in the middle of an art gallery. People look in the end.
The Tunnel Under the Atlantic in 1995 in Montreal’s Musée d’art contemporain. (Image courtesy of Maurice Benayoun)

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