Film review: We Live in Public
By Guy Sangster Adams
“Andy Warhol was wrong, his view was that people wanted 15 minutes of fame in their lifetime, our view is that people want 15 minutes of fame everyday,” proclaims Josh Harris, the subject of Ondi Timoner’s fascinating, absorbing, and unsettling film, which won the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at this year’s Sundance Film Festival (a prize she also won in 2004 for Dig!, making her the only director in the festival’s history to win the award twice). In the midst of the current cultural dominance of social networking and video sharing websites, interactive talent contests and reality television programming Harris’s proclamation seems an apposite statement of fact. But the fact that he first said it in 1999 imbues his words with the prescience about the internet and the media for which he has been renowned, despite being, as the caption at the beginning of We Live in Public states, “the greatest internet pioneer you’ve never heard of.”
Harris founded the highly regarded internet consulting firm Jupiter Communications in 1986 and then in 1993 founded pseudo.com, the first internet ‘television station’, and to the incredulity of terrestrial broadcasters predicted a time when people would watch their favourite programmes online. Increasingly through the 1990s Harris moved away from the conservatism of the business world to explore the ways in which new media could and would shape society and fundamentally alter social interaction. His increasingly avant garde, experimental, and conceptual programming and events lead New York magazine to dub him “the Warhol of the Web” and reached their infamous, and highly influential apogee with Quiet: We Live in Public and weliveinpublic.com.
Quiet, which lasted for the duration of December 1999, involved 100 people living in a ‘pod hotel’ in the basement of a disused textile factory in New York, in which all notions and structures of personal privacy were removed. Each pod was equipped with its own video camera and monitor so that everyone could watch everyone else constantly, the only shower was in a transparent, geodesic dome in the middle of the living space, the toilet walls were taken down, and a neon sign constantly reminded the participants ‘we live in public.’ Fittingly, since it pre-empted the cultural shifts of the following decade, it was closed down by the New York Police department on 1st January 2000. They were concerned that it was in reality the headquarters of a cult; for recreation there was a firing range and an extensive armoury of automatic weapons – something which Big Brother has yet to try! But by the time of its closure the behaviour of the participants had become increasingly aggressive and erratic and despite the constant interaction with others many spoke of feeling acute loneliness.
Following Quiet, for six months in 2000 Harris moved into a flat with his new girlfriend Tanya Corrin which was equipped with motion and sound sensitive cameras covering every conceivable angle – including one in the toilet bowl – so that every part of their life together and every bodily function was under constant surveillance and broadcast on a 24 hour live web feed, with viewers also able to interact with the pair via internet chat rooms. The experiment began with Harris stating that viewers would ultimately watch the couple conceiving their first child live, but ended with Corrin walking out and Harris suffering a metal breakdown.
What Harris was discovering ten years ago, increasingly holds true today, as more and more people trade privacy for intimacy with virtual friends, and the desire for recognition and celebrity are seen as the gateways both to happiness and to feeling loved, and CCTV surveillance is seen as the key way to create a better society. Both Harris’s projects provide, as does Timoner’s film, a tragic indictment of the price that can be paid for the ever increasing ways in which we live in public. As Harris warns, underscoring this cautionary tale, “The more you know about each other, the more lonely you become.”