Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Ondi Timoner: We Live In Public

At a time when, however deliberately or consciously, we live our lives in public online, access to our privacy is the new currency of value. Just because you can keep track of your friends via Facebook, post and tag photos on MySpace, and spew out your every waking thought on Twitter - all easily and for free - it's easy to assume it's a good thing. Josh Harris is a man who made a similar assumption.

Described as "the greatest Internet pioneer you've never heard of," Harris carved a high profile career out of being an instinctive World Wide Web visionary. Before the web was very worldly or wide, he founded Jupiter Research, a company which sold technology trend and impact information to corporations that barely understood what a website was. Harris then rolled the fortune he made there into, a New York based Internet TV station that went live when most of America was still on dial up.

Serving as both business manager and creative director at Pseudo, which webcast multiple channels of original content, Harris reinvented himself in the frame of a digital performance artist during his tenure at the too-far-ahead of its time company. As the millennium loomed, Harris was forced out of Pseudo, and he subsequently invested a large amount of his considerable fortune ($80 million at its peak) in a series of two very controversial digital media social experiments.

The first was called Quiet, though it was anything but. For the project which was intended to mark the turn of the millennium, Harris built an ambitious - and expensive - fully wired environment, which housed 100 guests / experiment subjects 24/7 for a period of 30 days. The claustrophobic underground bunker featured pod bunks for sleeping, communal toilet and bathing facilities, a dining area, and a poorly insulated gun range where residents could blow off steam. There was also an onsite interrogation room.

Potential residents had to sell their pixilated souls in order to gain entry to Quiet. There was an intense intake program that involved an intrusive questionnaire, those that passed this initial test had to agree to subject themselves to random interrogations, among other dehumanizing things. All activity in the bunker was caught on camera and microphone, and relayed for the entertainment of Quiet's residents to their in-Pod TVs. Privacy was non-existent, and individuals were reduced to being "channels" for the entertainment of others - suffice to say the sate-or-the art society Harris had created was far from utopian.

For his next experiment / performance art piece Josh took things a step further, and took on the roles of both puppet and puppet master. He installed 30 motion-controlled surveillance cameras and 66 high sensitivity microphones in a New York loft, and moved in with his new girlfriend, Tanya Corrin (who had previously worked with Harris as a presenter at Pseudo). The pair were the first couple to broadcast their everyday home lives live on the Internet, and viewers could post their comments in real time via the project's associated chat rooms. The stunt garnered much mainstream attention, and fed Harris' growing need for 15 minutes of fame - per day. But as life in public unfolded, and not in the way either of them had planned, Harris and Corrin realized a little too late that perhaps the most valuable thing online might be privacy. It's a lesson we all may want to take note of.

To this end, renowned film director Ondi Timoner set about assembling and editing footage she'd shot of Harris over a 10-year period. The resulting film, We Live In Public, which Timoner describes as "a cautionary tale," is both thought provoking and shocking, having a profound effect on all who open themselves up to it. The documentary won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2009, making Timoner, whose previous film Dig! was also a winner at the festival (in 2004), the only director ever to be given the honor twice.

I caught up with Timoner ahead of We Live In Public's March 1st DVD and VOD release.

Read my interview with Ondi Timoner at to get an exclusive retrospective tour of the Quiet bunker, and an insight into the mind of its maniacal master.

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