Sizing up history is a tricky business: You can generally recognize that something is significant long before you can really say why or how. So it is with the Internet and its many pioneers. So it is with Josh Harris.
Harris, something of a dotcom-era CEO prototype, is the subject of We Live in Public, a documentary directed by Ondi Timoner that doesn’t bother much with the sticky business of proper historical context. The film assumes we don’t know who Harris is, then assures us of his greatness as an Internet visionary—his Pseudo.com was a full-fledged network meant to rival the Big Three television networks, even at a time when most people experienced the Internet through the torture of dial-up (unsurprisingly, Pseudo.com failed in a pre-broadband world, but not before Harris sold it for something in the neighborhood of $80 million). But for both Timoner and her subject, Harris’s real significance is as an artist. Harris, in fact, refers to himself with apparent seriousness as “the first great artist of the 21st century,” and comparisons to Warhol abound (though they appear to have originated mostly with Harris himself). One of the questions the film raises but never satisfactorily answers is whether Harris’s work—which concerned the intersection of technology and human relationships, including with oneself—amounts to true art and insight, the meaningless hobbies of a very rich man, or something in between.
The viewer’s opinion of Harris’s work will likely depend on the level of sympathy for the sort of half-daring, half-indulgent art projects that sometimes seem indigenous to the New York City art scene. Harris’s most Infamous project, “Quiet: We Live in Public,” was an ambitious experiment in communal living involving around 100 voluntary subjects who took up residence in a bunker-like building in lower Manhattan in the late 1990’s. The bunker was outfitted with cameras that not only recorded but broadcast, on live internal monitors, the participants’ every move—in bed, in the shower, on the toilet, everywhere. As a resident, you knew you were being watched no matter where you were or what you were doing. You also knew you could flip through the channels on your own personal monitor and watch everyone else.
“Quiet” was either the most ambitious and interesting privately financed social experiment in recent memory, or the sick, explicitly fascist power trip of a wealthy, casually cruel man: it’s quite open to debate. But if you consider intent and vision important components of art—in other words, if you believe that artists must begin with some idea of what they’ll explore and where it might lead—Harris begins to resemble more of a bully than an artist. At best you might call him a social scientist with a lack of training and rigor: the effect this sort of living has on its participants—anguish, emotional chaos, a disassociation from self—couldn’t have been that hard to predict. Harris is eager to claim his artistic accomplishments, but never explains exactly what he thinks his projects demonstrate aside from the venality of humankind, something which, incidentally, has been taken more or less for granted since the dawn of time. Timoner seems convinced of Harris’s insights, stating on the film’s official Web site that “Harris proved how willingly we trade our privacy for the connection and recognition we all crave.” But what seems most in evidence here is Harris’s need for connection and recognition.
If Harris’s qualifications as an artist are in question, so too is the film’s objectivity as a document. Timoner, we learn very late and in a very off-handed way, has (according to the press used at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize in U.S. Documentary) “chronicled Harris for a decade,” including being on hand for the “Quiet” project. Obviously, her involvement doesn’t preclude her from making a film about Harris, but fuller disclosure would help us understand that we’re getting here is not necessarily an objective work.
Repeatedly details are glossed over or skipped altogether. For instance, we learn about Harris’s alter ego, a clown named Luvvy (named after Thurston Howell’s wife in Gilligan’s Island, something of an obsession for Harris). Harris would, during his Pseudo.com years, dress as Luvvy often enough that at least one investor was openly troubled. But what does this mean? Did he turn up at board meetings dressed as Luvvy? Was he walking the streets in smeared face paint and clown shoes? More importantly, did he acknowledge the strangeness of it all, or was he truly lost in the character? These are important questions, because the answers help us understand whether the Luvvy persona was true madness, or an affectation. When we see the magazine feature that includes full-page photos of Harris dressed at Luvvy, and notice that the article trumpets his cracked genius, we begin to get the feeling that perhaps Harris understands how valuable the appearance of eccentricity can be to one’s legend. Timoner either fails to consider the possibility that Harris has consciously invented himself, or intentionally limits our understanding of Luvvy to further her own conception of him.
Perhaps the label that best suits Harris is neither “artist” nor “social scientist” nor the intentionally vague “futurist.” What Harris truly excels at is selling his ideas, which is to say selling himself, or some concocted version of himself: the word for that is “entrepreneur.” We Live in Public’s great weakness is its heavy reliance on Harris’s explanations of his own psychology. He recites the predictable facts of his troubled childhood—an absent father, a distant mother who drank, illnesses that forced him to the sidelines and encouraged his love of television—with what seems like practiced aplomb. It’s all a tidy package, but it often feels rehearsed and a little too easy.
Harris’s last (which is to say his second) art project was similar to “Quiet:” He outfitted his own apartment with video cameras that streamed his every move onto Weliveinpublic.com. He then endeavored to live there with his girlfriend, Tanya, and they interacted with viewers via the site’s chat feature. That the relationship failed was, again, unsurprising. After Tanya left, Harris fell into a depression and soon disappeared. He spent several years running an apple farm, and is now, we’re told, living in Ethiopia as CEO of something called the African Entertainment Network. Whether the artistic impulse has abandoned Harris, or whether his latest endeavor will ultimately prove to have been great art all along, remains to be seen.
Near the end of We Live in Public, cameras follow Harris as he pitches an executive at MySpace.com on a new idea for the Web site. Intercut with the scene is another executive confessing that he’s never heard of Harris. It’s meant to be a summary of the film’s point: Harris was so far ahead of his time that he’s forgotten even by the industry he foresaw. But after an hour-plus of wondering whether Harris is a visionary or a salesman, a genius or a buffoon, sympathy lies—as hard as this is to believe—more with the MySpace executive than with Harris. It seems perfectly understandable that he doesn’t know who Harris is, because we don’t either.
We Live in Public is never a dull film, but Timoner fails to answer the questions she raises: Is Harris an artist exploring the nature of community, aloneness, connection, and the definition of the individual in the high tech age? Or is he a damaged, self-absorbed man driven by his own obsessions and limitations, finding meaning, if he finds it at all, only incidentally? Is there even a difference? It may be unfair to take Timoner to task for leaving these questions unanswered. It may be that it’s far too soon to know.