[30 August 2009]
Unlike the claims made by interviewees in many documentaries about a single, allegedly fascinating personality, there is one particularly grandiose one spouted off early in Ondi Timoner’s rough-cut but fascinating We Live in Public that actually seems to be true. Speaking of online media entrepreneur Josh Harris, one person refers to him as “the greatest Internet pioneer you’ve never heard of.” While the film that follows does a crack job of making this case, it doesn’t much bother trying to convince viewers that they’ve necessarily missed out on anything by this omission.
Harris made himself millions by founding and selling a couple brilliantly-conceived businesses right at the dawn of the Internet, and went on to sell his soul for a shot at fame—before claiming that it was all just “performance art.” One business, Jupiter Communications, made him wealthy simply by collecting and selling online market research to people before most anybody else thought of it. His next venture, Pseudo, was even more forward-thinking. Never mind that it was the mid-1990s and online video involving watching a few seconds of movement on a tiny RealPlayer screen, in between long bouts of herky-jerky movement and flashing “Buffering” signs. Harris set up the first online television network, with channels on multiple subjects (hip-hop, art), all swaddled in a glittery blanket of Silicon Alley cool. Blinded by the light (and the sneaking possibility that nobody was really watching), investors snapped up the stock and Harris rode off with yet more millions.
Which is where Timoner’s film gets interesting. Flush with bubble money, in 1999 Harris dumped $2 million of it into building a multi-level underground stage for an art project of heretofore unseen scope. Called “Quiet: We Live in Public,” it was a giant stage completely wired for video and sound, where a hundred people would live in total surveillance. There was free food at a long banquet table, a bar with free drinks, a clear-sided public shower stall, long rows of cubicle-hotel sleeping racks, a heavily-stocked firing range, and (just for kicks) Stasi-like interrogation sessions. Most importantly, though: everything wasn’t just being recorded on film, all the participants could watch themselves and each other while it unfolded. It was an exhibitionist’s wet dream.
Harris would later try to claim in a 2008 communiqué that Pseudo (a hot-air enterprise which burned through millions before getting sucked down the sinkhole of the dot.com crash) was “a fake company” and just “the linchpin of a long form piece of conceptual art,” not a critical misreading of the public’s online desires. “We Live in Public,” however, certainly fulfilled the definition of conceptual art (that, or a very expensive game of rats-in-a-cage, played by a cold-hearted sociopath who just wanted to turn humans into his own personal TV actors).
The astounding footage that Timoner—who was one of Harris’ willing internees—includes makes the whole thing look like the Stanford Prison Experiment spliced with some hellish eternal loft party, all booze, tears, glitter, and mind games. Packed with free-loading performance artists, rave kids, and the whole orbit of hangers-on spun off from the decade’s IPO-flush party scene (and shut down by the NYPD on January 1, 2000), the whole thing seems the perfect capper to a particularly narcissistic period in the history of a famously self-obsessed city.
And that was before Harris launched his next project: wiring every nook and cranny of the apartment he shared with his girlfriend, Tanya Corrin, for online broadcast. While his exhibitionist bunker show presaged reality TV with the kind of visionary brio that made him so wealthy (Survivor and Big Brother premiered just months later in the summer of 2000), it was this next phase that truly managed to predict just where society was going.
It’s definitely disturbing to watch the scene Timoner includes where Harris and Corrin have a blow-out fight and then split off to their respective corners to check what people are saying in the online chat rooms. But one would be hard-pressed to say how different this scene is from a very common one from 2009: a couple sitting together in a restaurant and not talking, just plicking away at their respective PDAs.
It wasn’t for nothing that Harris was referred to as the “Warhol of the Web.” Self-indulgent or not, the creepily self-referential and airless digitized worlds he created were like flares being sent up from the not-so-distant past, lighting up the path that was taking us toward the anti-private, everybody’s-a-star world of today.
We Live in Public is nowhere near the film it could be. Although there’s a light dusting of criticism here and there, Timoner’s relationship with Harris (the two have been working on the film since 1999) seems too intertwined for her work to truly open the book on a man whose badly-timed brilliance seems almost matched by his eerie, clinically detached voyeurism and bratty quest for fame at all costs.
But then, most people who worked with Warhol seemed to take his similarly alien quietude in stride, as well. Of course, Warhol at least occasionally bothered to tell his painted or filmed subjects that they were fabulous, Harris (currently flogging another venture in look-at-me! Entertainment hucksterism, Wired City) just seems to be looking for the next IPO.