[1 March 2010]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
We Live in Public lives in public. Again. Sort of. As Ondi Timoner’s movie reveals—repeatedly, if erratically—it’s not exactly clear what it means to “live” or to do so “in public.” The newest version of such living is the documentary’s screening on 1 March in multiple cities simultaneously, to be discussed afterward by various gatherings connected via internet video streaming. All this to publicize the DVD release and availability by digital download, and to continue to press the questions raised by the experiment that provides its title.
This experiment, originally performed some 10 years ago, simultaneously assumed and challenged the idea that now grounds so much reality TV, that people want to act out in front of other people. This idea has any number of starting points, at least one noted at the start of Timoner’s movie: “You became gods, you became titans, because you knew how to set up a modem,” says Jason Calacanis of the dotcom era. He sits in an office with a small stone Buddha on his desk, the calm before the scene cuts to a version of his memory: footage of wild parties, beautiful young people dancing and drinking, cavorting their underwear, and playing with technologies. Captioned “internet mogul” in the documentary, Calacanis sounds surprised and even a little appalled by the arbitrariness of his tech-success. While you’re watching a young man with his head inside what looks an electronic-performative box, mirrored and neoned, Calacanis adds, “And Josh Harris was, like, the most unique character of that whole period.”
Harris is described by captioning in this 1990s footage as “party thrower,” and too often as well, “the Warhol of the Web.” As head of the Jupiter Group, he brought together supermodels and nerds, celebrities and wannabes, sex and technology. Timoner narrates that Harris invited her to record his activities beginning in 1994, when he was starting up his company, Pseudo. “What I found there,” she says, “blew my mind.” What she found there, essentially, was the first internet television network. Harris was finding ways to use the then-new communications system to give users the chance not only to “broadcast themselves,” but also to view and talk about themselves at the same time. Years before YouTube and Facebook and MySpace, he saw and exploited the net’s possibilities of self-expression, self-transformation, and self-creation, its capacity for surveillance and behavior modification, data-mining and marketing. “It was just he most ingenious idea ever,” gushes Calacanis, “because people were hearing him say what they were saying in the chatrooms.”
The concept took off, fast, in part because it was so easy to promote. And this premise, that being promotable helps to define a concepts worth (or at least prolong its life) comes up repeatedly in the film you’re watching, a film that its own promotional campaign reminds you, was “10 years in the making.” Harris has his own ideas about how promotion eats itself: “When the press called around,” he submits, “I was the smartest guy in town and the reporters knew it.” As the face of something like the future, Harris became a “regular” on CNN, the New York Times, and USA Today, as well as 60 Minutes, during which interview he announced that Pseudo would overtake CBS, being a more efficient system of televising and advertising. Timoner’s film includes here some ominous synthy music and slow-motion close-ups of CBS reporter Bob Simon, underlining Harris’ profound insight. According to MySpace founder Brett Brewer, he “was really ahead of the curve,” in that he saw Pseudo as a way to track consumers as well as attract them. “We’re in the business of programming people’s lives,” Harris tells Simon (in 1994). The reporter stops him, declaring such a statement “scary.” As Harris sees it, his scheme is only what the networks already do, but better defined, better managed, and more plainly declared.
Using Harris as an exceedingly self-aware emblem of the concept he named “Living in Public,” the documentary features brief snippets of his own life (growing up in a family with two brothers and three sisters, he notes, “There’s no privacy in that kind of environment”) as well as the drama of his difficult relationship with his mother (when she was on her death bed, he sent her a video letter that includes the line, “See you on the other side”; his brother describes the piece as “cold”). “I was bred by her,” Harris remembers, under a sentimental piano track, “to sit n front of a TV set for hours on end, and that’s how I’ve been trained.” Moreover, he says, “My emotionality is not derived from other humans but rather from Gilligan.”
Indeed, the film argues that his childhood obsession with Gilligan’s Island leads eventually to his adult understanding of “the human condition” and his “experiment” with Quiet. In 1999, using the millions he made during the dotcom boom, Harris built an underground facility (the Bunker) to house “citizens” for a month: they lived in pods, were provided food and distractions, primarily, lots of TV (constant video access to everything going on in Quiet, from eating, sleeping, and showering to practice on the shooting range and sex). Harris suggests that residents will be natural -selecting, because, as “You get new and more interesting people in, you need the racks, so you kick ‘em out.” Pod designer Jeff Gompertz observes, “It was partially an event, partially a party, and partially a social experiment.” To provide what Harris calls “Stasi-type intelligence” on residents, activities include interrogation, where methods are harsh. “Interrogation artist” Ashkan Sahihi works with CIA psychiatrist Harold Kaufman to come up with provocative questions and apparently revealing results.
Harris’ sense of Quiet’s “fascist” parameters seems self-fulfilling. As potential citizens were “clamoring to get in,” they also submitted all rules of this “uber-documented experience.” (Timoner was one of these citizens.) As the experiment produced tears and trauma, it also confirmed what Harris long suspected, that consumers today are thinking quite beyond Warhol’s initial observation. “Humans,” he says, “want 15 minutes of fame every day.” As participants describe their alienation, trepidation, and moral concerns about what performance artist Missy Galore terms “a surveillance police state,” the film reveals that the police and fire department finally shut down the experiment. And Harris feels confirmed in his worldview.
In order to pursue the proto-reality-TV experiment, and in another way, Harris devises a new concept, that he and his new girlfriend Tanya Corrin will live together “in public.” That is, they live in an apartment outfitted with cameras and interact with viewers online. This portion of the film recalls a Real World breakdown episode, or maybe a Survivor finale, when participants describe their feelings—their fears, suspicions, reflections, and especially their ongoing efforts to decipher their own and other’s behaviors.
As Corrin and Harris’ relationship essentially melts down in public, they come away with what seem very different views of what happens. The film allows that their interactions with their “followers,” the viewers who commented and advised them during the action, shaped their choices and their self-images. The question of who’s responsible for what—who’s living and who’s watching, as if these might be separate activities—must remain undecided. By experiment’s end, Harris is calling Corrin a “pseudo girlfriend,” someone he “cast for,” while she insists they were genuinely in love, and that his language now is only to “protect [his] heart” (this assumes he has one, of course). The documentary suggests that both saw reflections of themselves in the other, as happens in most relationships, but that these reflections were complicated (warped, refracted, changed, reframed) by the addition of consumers.
As fascinating as its subject may be, We Live in Public is at times glib and redundant, and its argument concerning the effects of surveillance—whether equipped with interactive aspects or not—are not news. Yet, this familiarity is apt, too, for a project so caught up in its own circle of consumption and regurgitation.