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Someone to Watch Over Me: An Interview with Ondi Timoner

Director Ondi Timoner talks to PopMatters about her new film, We Live in Public, and what one-time media mogul Joshua Harris' story reveals about our current obsession with social media and its potential consequences.

We Live in Public

Director: Ondi Timoner
Cast: Josh Harris, Jon Harris, Tom Harris, David Amron, Alex Arcadia, Zero Boy
Rated: PG
Studio: Interloper Films
Year: 2009
US date: 2009-09-24 (Limited Release)

A bunker deep beneath New York City. A self-contained world financed by a newly minted millionaire who may be a visionary, a madman, or both. Dozens of inhabitants, living under constant surveillance, on film while they’re sleeping, showering, having sex or squeezing off a few rounds in the eerily well-equipped firing range.

Director Ondi Timoner's (DiG!) latest award-winning documentary, We Live in Public, revisits this singular environment, which was arranged and overseen by one-time media mogul Joshua Harris. But with thousands of hours of footage on her subject (a man once known as “The Warhol of the Web”) to sift through, and seemingly no thread to bind them all into a narrative, We Live in Public almost didn’t get made -- until one night, everything fell into place for Timoner.

“When I saw Facebook status updates in 2007, that’s when I was motivated to finish the film, because up until then, I didn’t see a context for the bunker that would apply to all of our lives,” Timoner says. “I felt like I was back in the bunker again. Even though I was comfortable and at home at the time ... people were acting similarly to the way they had acted in the bunker, with this desperation to be noted or to connect or to somehow have their lives matter...” Through the compelling, if frequently unsympathetic, figure of Joshua Harris, Timoner weaves a deft, powerful, and often unnerving history of the modern social media revolution, exploring not only how we got where we are, but what it may ultimately cost us.

Joshua Harris was a pioneer of streaming video on the web, broadcasting not just web-based shows but whole channels of media before the technology had caught up with his vision for what the Internet would become. But Harris didn’t just want to be an entrepreneur. Unsatisfied with merely being the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, he wanted to be the first great artist of the 21st century. To him, this meant using his then vast personal fortune to finance projects exploring the way the Internet would transform human interaction.

To Harris, the best way to explore that was to organize a massive underground bunker, where participants would live for a month under constant surveillance. Uniforms were handed out, interrogations were performed, and cameras and sleeping pods were installed throughout a space that became equal parts sensory deprivation chamber and prison, home, and gallery for the dozens of creative types that Harris recruited for his project. Timoner was among these figures, one of many living in a space replete with all-you-can-eat breakfast cereal, open bars, firing ranges and Orwellian interrogation rooms. But the more things change, Timoner found as she assembled and edited We Live In Public, the more they stay the same.

What happened in the bunker -- breakdowns, fights, public sex, and intimate taped confessions, all too often punctuated by the troubling ring of gunshots -- is obviously not what’s happening on Twitter or Foursquare right now. But the spirit, as Timoner points out, is very much the same. The unheard of interconnectedness of the digital age has also served to make us that much more dependent on others. We’ve become desperate not only to know that other people are out there, but also that they know we are out there too. “In the bunker, everyone traded in their privacy, traded in their freedom even, for uniforms, to be interrogated, to shower in public, the whole bit, to be where it mattered at that crucial moment in history where the millennium was turning,” Timoner points out. “And you can see how they paid the price, even in a short thirty-day experiment.”

While updating your status on Twitter doesn’t have the same sense of profound imprisonment as the projects that Timoner explores in her film, the principles are closer than we might like to admit. After all, something that looks crazy when a hundred artists and hipsters in a Manhattan basement are doing it doesn’t feel nearly so insane once you and everyone you know get used to doing it everyday. “I don’t think we feel it quite as acutely now. When we accept the terms and conditions of a site like Facebook, we don’t feel like we’re trading anything in, but we are.” It’s a point driven home brilliantly at one point in We Live In Public, when one participant asks another, very casually, “Well, do you want to go get interrogated?” as if putting yourself on display at your most intimate is a perfectly normal thing to do with one’s evening.

Later in the film, in the midst of another experiment/project that finds Harris and his girlfriend fighting bitterly in their apartment (an argument that is broadcast live to thousands of onlookers), one gets a sense of how ahead of his time the man really was. After all, it has taken most of us another decade to start scrapping with our significant others on the Internet, in front of friends, God and everyone else. What Harris did was bring a phenomenon to its logical conclusion ten years before it even existed -- a feat that is, in final analysis, as impressive as it is ugly, especially considering that the latter project led to a severe mental breakdown for Harris. But with streaming video and social networking so thoroughly intertwined into most of our lives, it is a peculiar sort of ugliness, one that’s hideous not because it is abnormal, but because it already seems familiar, already passé.

But as sad as it may be that we’ve finally caught up with the obviously troubled Harris, it’s not unexpected. As We Live In Public demonstrates in shocking relief, the growing importance of social media in most people’s everyday lives is a recent phenomenon, but one that has its roots in our most basic feelings, a particularly effective way of addressing an age-old human drive. The need to feel welcome, to be wanted, to belong, to know that someone cares is the product that Harris explored as art, and that Facebook has expertly commoditized. “One thing that I think that everyone, everyone, everyone feels at some point in their lives if not most of the time is that they don’t want to be alone,” says Timoner. “We want to be alone sometimes in our physical lives, but we don’t want to be alone, unconnected, unloved for long periods of time. And the Internet gives us this ability to never feel alone.”

By providing an unmatched avenue for the social drive, social media technology encourages its expression exponentially. The ability to be constantly connected makes it easier for us to feel lonely, amping up the drive to be known by others just as being known comes to matter less and less. Being known by our friends is no longer enough -- we need to be known, or at least known of, by strangers on Chatroulette and Twitter as well. “The Internet has come along and given us this 24/7 opportunity to connect or, as Josh Harris would say ... to be famous,” says Timoner. But Harris and his raison d’etre don’t exist in a vacuum. They are, rather, products of their environment, and also of ours. “The media certainly has propagated the idea that fame is a cure all, and that somehow by being famous you will never be alone,” says Timoner. “We will always be surrounded. Our lives will matter, and everything will be fun and everything will be great.”

In the end, this may be what We Live In Public speaks to -- the danger of becoming too connected, of completely erasing the line between a private life and a public one. “He was raised on technology, his whole life is a show, those people in the bunker signed on for that experience, and as far as he was concerned, they were just pawns in this game he was playing, in this show he was putting on,” Timoner says of Harris, whose story she describes as “a walking cautionary tale.” But focusing on Harris does Timoner’s excellent work here a disservice. As intriguing a figure as Joshua Harris is, and as apt an avatar as he is for the story, We Live in Public is ultimately not about Harris, or any of the people dragged into his initial experiments at the turn of the millennium. It is instead about a world he helped to create, a world he saw before perhaps anyone else. As Timoner puts it, it is “about us, ten years later.”

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