Portal: The Letters – Peer Reviews

Review One - Mika Conradie

I asked the bot: what are you?
The bot responded with a link to a Youtube video of two bots trying to convince each other that they are not bots, in a “You’re a bot” “No, you’re a bot” back and forth.

Portal: The Letters mounts a compendium of exit strategies that all operate at the bodily level. In these video tutorials and interviews unruly bodies (ref: Roxane Gay’s Hunger, 2017) are the site of trauma and simultaneously the site/cite and substrate of escape. The portal is the body, the body is the portal:
- The use of Astral projection to transcend the effects of gravity on the body.
- Changing ones facial features to become imperceptible or to transform into multitudes at once.

Is Adrienne Rich correct to say that Marie Curie died “denying/ her wounds came from the same source as her power”? Let’s flip this: does power come from the same source as the wound? And if it does, what do we do with the dangerous double bind this puts us under?

We are presented with manuals on how to leave, and on what staying means. Risk runs through all of these tutorials. The risk of becoming “unthethered” from our physical bodies and the physical world in which they operate during an astral projection, for instance. In another video, a team of portal hunters go looking for a wormhole but are not willing to take the risk of what is on the other side. They decide to send a three legged dog instead. The dog, unaware of these designs, is tasked with sniffing out the portal. Tasked with locating the source of his potential death, the potential source of his incoming wounds…or the source of his and his team’s salvation. Through the site there is constant oscillation between leaving and staying, grounding and transcending, taking risk and deferring risk. Through these contradictions the project captures the conditions under which we are constantly placed – how are we to not only navigate but survive a world in which our bodies are curtailed, hemmed in, externally defined, appropriated? How to do so when we are living under structures that have worked for centuries to evolve to the point of normative imperceptibility – in other words structures (familial, financial, class, white supremacy) that are designed to make us gaslight ourselves? What are we willing to risk when we are always at risk?

Review Two (anonymous)

As an archive and the information contained inside, Portal: The Letters is a fascinating and somewhat mad experience. The documentation of work from various sources, the quirky style, and the sheer madness of it all is engaging and invites the reader to dig deeper. There is clearly a strong world created, and the inclusion of submitted letters and interviews all lends to creating a rich heterocosm.

The bot however, which is framed as integral to the piece, only once responded to me with something that did not ask me to leave the archive. The initial response, stating that it was not able to address that yet and sending me away, was amusing. However, after several attempts to access the archive I became frustrated and spent some time on the chatbot site that I had been directed to. This inaccessibility of the archive made me question where I was supposed to go and how I was supposed to engage with the site. Eventually I found my way to the archive and enjoyed my time there.

Even though we are invited to be patient with the bot, the simple and deeply reductive engagement it offered meant that the piece fell flat. The archive, interesting and funny, was readily available for my perusal, but I had no way of finding my way there.

The focus on the bot, which is established in the introduction, as a machine that is a librarian is fascinating. Allowing machines to access and store and guide our access to knowledge is dangerous, easy and something separate from the human mind. This as a core concept is useful and worth exploring, but it is not fully realised yet.