Caged King: Josh Harris and Ondi Timoner’s We Live In Public

Ondi Timoner, director of We Live In Public, a documentary that details the rise and fall of Internet Guru Josh Harris, started her film by saying that one of the most influential pioneers of the Internet world was someone we had never heard of. This was probably true for many in the audience at the films’ screening and many social network users Facebook and MySpace, but I had heard of Josh Harris. We Live In Public

CEO and founder of Mahalo, a “human-powered search engine,” Jason Calacanis had worked with Harris when he first started Jupiter.com and Pseudo.com. When Calacanis was building Mahalo, he was visiting the Mansueto Ventures where I worked as a production assistant in 2007. That was the first time I heard Harris’ name in discussion.

That was the techie understanding I had of Josh Harris. On the artist’s side, in 1999 I was a part of Harris’ pseudo.com when Robert Galinsky invited me and a few other poets onto his podcast show to read our work. Podcast? I had never heard of it before. I was like, “so it’s radio but it’s on computers?” Of course I had forgotten about the show until recently, mostly because I was so young and inebriated at the time but also because it hadn’t made such a huge impact on my personal life, not in the same way Harris’ next project had an impact on artist’s lives in “Quiet: We Live In Public”

We Live in Public Film Still

I have many interests and concerns, but I don’t generally become fascinated with people or subjects unless they have touched my own circle of existence. In May 2009 a friend of mine, who was involved in the project Quiet, told me about the film and also told me a few interesting stories about Harris and his interactions with mutual friends of ours. The stories formed my fascination. I saw the trailer and watched it over and over and couldn’t wait to see the film. I became fascinated. I went to the screening of We Live In Public at IFC, followed by a brief Q&A with Harris and Timoner.

The opening of the film shows a side of Harris that only his family knew about, the resentful son who sends a video of his final goodbye to his mother before she dies. We are told that Harris’ relationship with his mother affected him greatly throughout his life. In a time when mothers were thought to be the ones to turn to, Harris’ mother was accused of neglecting him and leaving him to “fend for himself.” He sought the comfort he wanted through television. Television was his introduction to media and the Internet was his introduction to millions.

Changing the channel we see Harris, no longer a misunderstood child, but a pioneer at the head of this revolutionary advance in technology called the Internet. He fielded the knowledge of mathematicians and computer science nerds to come up with Jupiter.com, a tool for the financial market and wall-street traders. When Harris made Jupiter.com public, he made millions and took that money to create Pseudo.com

Pseudo.com was made by and for the hip and fashionable techie. By 1997, a rising number of teenagers were becoming familiarized with the Internet and Pseudo.com gave them an interactive forum. Harris threw parties that gathered his staff of cool tech kids and artists who were the first Podcast DJs of Pseudo.com.

Now we see Harris the hip, cool party thrower and socialite, mixing with artists and celebrities. It seemed that being well liked for his tech-smarts was wearing thin for Harris, so he let out an alter-ego, Luvvy. Luvvy was a frightening clown character that Harris created, based on his mother and the character Mrs. Lovey Howell played by Natalie Schafer on Gilligan’s Island. (Oh yeah, forgot to mention that Harris’ favorite show and childhood obsession was Gilligan’s Island and that he thought of Sherwood Schwartz as the greatest artist of all time.) At this point Pseudo.com couldn’t deal with being associated with such a lunatic, and Harris had bigger ideas anyway. Harris moved onto his next plan; to sell his share of Pseudo.com and throw the biggest party of the century, “Quiet: We Live in Public.”

We Live In Public film still 2

Now enter Harris the philanthropist of artists and essentially God-like person. It was at this time that Harris was introduced to Ondi Timoner, a filmmaker who was known for her ability to capture strong film verite. Harris invited Timoner to film Quiet and make a movie from the experience.

Harris gathered his famous artist friends and gave them money to build an underground bunker that housed 100 artists in a terrarium that featured a monitor in each pod. The channels on the monitor allowed them to watch other people in the space eating, sleeping, fucking, shitting, etc. There was a see through shower, public toilets, a dining area that seated 100, a free bar, a shooting range (with no security measures), a confession room that would use interrogation tactics that the CIA and Gestapo used on prisoners and thousands of cameras. Sans the neo-fascist activities with guns and interrogation, the experiment could have gone over well and inspired Harris to created something like Facebook.

Harris was not looking to lure in 100 artists to have a fun time and explore technology for the sake of inspiration. He even said in the film that he figured many would end up in Bellevue after this and was searching for ways to “break” the artists who lived there. Why would Harris want to cause mental anguish for all of these “friends” of his? One can only surmise it had something to do with his inability to be an artist himself. Harris didn’t create so much as control situations and people in Quiet. He was the puppet master who sat behind the curtain smirking as he watched his toys tearing each other to shreds.

On New Year’s eve, Josh and the other residents sat drinking champagne, wearing orange jumpsuits and watched a man and woman violently fuck in the see-through shower. On New Year’s day Quiet was shut down by the NYPD. And Harris walked away from the experience unharmed and excited to move onto his next role, the subject.

In Harris’ next project, weliveinpublic.com, he had 32 cameras set up in his apartment. The cameras moved as the subject moved. He convinced his girlfriend to move in with him and be part of this experiment and she agreed. For the first month online viewers saw a warm and euphoric side of Harris and his girlfriend, they were elated. In the months to follow, the situation rapidly deteriorated as the dot.com bubble burst and Harris went bankrupt. As the project was no longer working for Harris, he decided to abandon the girlfriend and the project and move onto his next great idea.

Owning an apple orchard! Yes, since Harris could no longer tolerate people, he decided to be the lord of apple trees. Harris had lost touch with Timoner since after Quiet, mainly because he didn’t like what he saw in her footage and stole her master copies and fled. After Timoner won Sundance in 2004 for her documentary Dig!, Harris contacted her about finishing his film. At first she said “no.” After some negotiations and Harris agreeing to give her complete creative control of the project she agreed, but only if she could shoot Harris riding a tractor. Harris sat atop the tractor, cigar in mouth, shooting rifles at abandoned trailers, lord of his domain.

Eventually, apples weren’t exciting anymore and in 2006 Harris set out to pick up where he had left off in the world of social networking. Unfortunately, this plan didn’t work very well. Harris had spent so much time living in an experiment and then sitting in an apple tree out in bum-fuck that CEOs of Facebook and MySpace didn’t know who he was or what to make of the ideas he wanted them to finance. Harris had an idea to create a forum where people could share video content and communicate with each other by web-cam. The CEOs said no thanks and Harris was left with no money and creditors after him. So, again he fled. This time to Ethiopia where he could live like a king and on the budget of a basketball coach for wayward teens. He contacted Timoner and she and her assistant interviewed Harris again. This time Harris looked thin, frightened, nervous. When asked about his debts to creditors and to American Express, he said, “let them try to find me, I’m in Ethiopia.” Timoner was his ticket back to the states now and she knew it.

At the close of the film, an Ethiopian artist presents paintings he was commissioned by Harris to do. They bear a theme of Gilligan’s Island in them. The audience laughs and I remember a friend who sold Harris a few paintings that he never received payment for. That friend looks back at that time as being wild and wonderful fun and doesn’t dwell on the fact that Harris robbed him.

At the film’s Q&A, Ondi and Josh came to the stage and I could see that Harris was trying to show confidence. He looked confused and frightened, like the awkward child we saw earlier in the film. We, like his mother, did not love him the way he wanted to be loved. The Q&A was innocent and didn’t touch on anything thought provoking, so I left early.

Later that week I contacted Nico Haupt, who was seen in We Live In Public, in the confession room being brainwashed and mentally tortured, through Facebook. Haupt is now relishing the idea that he is a celebrity as Harris and the other 100 artists that are featured in this film. Timoner is more interested in making films and touching upon issues that truly make a difference in our world. For her, the catalyst for making this film came when she saw the connection between Quiet and Facebook. The status updates and information we put out there can be viewed by millions of people and while we might think nothing of updating a status message, fans or friends will read the message and comment and suddenly we are connected.

Harris said that people want to be famous all of the time, not just 15 minutes. That may have been true for Harris who could not exist in a relationship if it wasn’t mediated through technology, but not true for everyone and not true for this author. Big Brother may be watching but that doesn’t mean we all have to pose for him.

Steve CannonTribes