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We Live In Public We Live In Public
IF THIS ARTICLE HAS A STRUCTURING ABSENCE, JOSH HARRIS IS ITS NAME. THE WARHOLIAN FIGURE BEHIND PSEUDO.COM, A WEBSITE THAT, IN ITS DAY, WEBCAST SHOWS ABOUT EVERYTHING FROM DEVIANT SEX TO MODERN ART BEFORE GOING BANKRUPT WHEN THE DOT-COM BUBBLE BURST (HARRIS LATER CLAIMED, IN A LETTER TO THE NEW YORK TIMES, THAT PSEUDO HAD BEEN “A FAKE COMPANY”, “AN ELABORATE PIECE OF PERFORMANCE ART”), WAS MEANT TO BE INTERVIEWED FOR THIS ARTICLE. BUT HARRIS IS NOT, AS IT TURNS OUT, A PARTICULARLY EASY MAN TO GET HOLD OF. INDEED, AS ANYONE WHO HAS SEEN THE FILM, WE LIVE IN PUBLIC, WILL ATTEST, HARRIS IS NOT AN EASY MAN, PERIOD.

Ondi Timoner’s award-winning documentary, which screened at the Sydney Film Festival in June and at the Melbourne International Film Festival in July, charts a decade in Harris’ life and work. And while Timoner is quick to point out that the film is less a portrait of Harris than an investigation of the potentially dehumanising impact of the internet on society, the image of the mercurial visionary/madman at its centre, while at times affectionate, is not always a flattering one.

When I call Timoner at her Los Angeles home, where she is packing in preparation for an intercontinental trip that will see her visit Europe and, for the second time in three months, Australia, she is quick to confirm the impression. “You’re calling me on a bad day in terms of my relationship with Josh”, she tells me. “I’m really frustrated with him right now.”

Timoner’s frustration with her subject has a lot in common with mine. Timoner, who looks a bit like Joan Allen crossed with a rock star (which for the filmmaker behind DiG!, the award-winning documentary about the neo-psychedelic bands The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols, probably shouldn’t come as a surprise) is frustrated about Harris’ constant refusals to be interviewed. Especially when getting the word out about the film is so important to its success or failure.

After the film screened at Sundance earlier this year, where it was awarded the Grand Jury Prize for US Documentary, Timoner says the question of distribution began to rear its ugly head. “It has been a real struggle to put this movie out in the right way—to put this movie out, period. Because of the current state of the economy, finding the resources has been a miracle.”

The centrepieces of Timoner’s film are two art projects spearheaded by Harris at the turn of the century: Quiet, which saw 100 artists live together for 30 days in an underground bunker wired with webcams, and We Live in Public, which saw Harris and his girlfriend wire their own home in the same way. The idea was to show the extent to which the internet would allow people their promised 15 minutes and the lengths they would then go to get it. Things went, in no uncertain terms, to shit.

The bunker turned into The Lord of the Flies and the New York City police were called in, Harris’ girlfriend left him alone in the fishbowl, traffic to the site went to hell, he went bust, and then experienced an almost inevitable nervous breakdown. While the point of both projects, to some extent, was to warn us about the path the internet was taking us down, the personal toll it took on Harris was something not even he had foreseen. “The whole cautionary tale aspect of Josh is something that I very much was inspired by in terms of making this film”, Timoner tells me. “I think there’s a price you pay for being a visionary or a genius or whatever you want to call it.”

Not that Timoner herself necessarily buys into Harris’ Orwellian view of the future and the role that the communications technologies will play in it. “Josh had a very dark and controlling, mad-scientist approach”, she says, “where he drives everyone over the edge a little bit, himself included…But that is not all that the internet is. I think it’s the most important tool we’ll have access to in our lifetime. It’s a really exciting time to be alive because of it. But as much as it allows us to self-organise and cut out the middle man—which really scares the shit out of our distributors, by the way—it does have the potential to be dangerous…The more connections we make outwards, the less we’re making inwards, with our families, with our friends, physically. And we’re doing that. We’re making that happen.”

Mostly, though, Timoner sees the internet and other interactive technologies as good things. In Sydney for the film’s Australian premier in June, she also attended the X|Media|Lab Serious Games conference, with Harris in tow, to discuss the impact of video games and other interactive technologies upon cinema (and, she makes perfectly clear, vice versa).

The meeting of cinema and video games might mean, for some, rich media and cross-platform projects like Chris Marker’s Immemory and Peter Greenaway’s The Tulse Luper Suitcases, respectively. For others it might mean films like Gus Van Sant’s Elephant and Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run which borrow the visual language and narrative structure of video games while remaining essentially cinematic works.

For her part, Timoner is interested in the way that the two forms, while maintaining their integrity in the face of hybridity, can engage in a conversation with one another. This is a conversation, she says, that stems from the work but takes place around it. Ideally, it will eventually branch out, moving beyond it and taking on a life of its own. “What you can do is create all sorts of elements around your film that people can engage with once it’s over”, she says. “That’s a kind of interaction, too.” For example, to coincide with the documentary which deals with climate change and economics (she is also working on a narrative biopic about the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, in which Eliza Dushku will star) a Los Angeles-based company is designing an educational video game that will deal with many of the film’s themes. Timoner predicts “Kids aren’t going to be able to learn in a traditional education system for very much longer”. “It’s going to have to be interactive. It’s going to have to be fun, it’s going to have to be fast, and it’s going to have to be engaging.”

Inevitably, Ondi Timoner sees the interaction between cinema and video games, in whatever form it takes, as a way of getting people to think, and it is the impulse to do so that is ultimately at the heart of all her work. “I make films to inspire people to take action, whatever form that action make take”, she says. “To be conscious, to really go forth and do something with their lives, to create.” And this, of course, is ultimately political. “Next thing you know, people are walking around and living their lives”, Timoner says, “and they’re more apt to think critically about what they’re encountering, how they’re acting, all of that…That’s why I originally started making films; every film of mine has been about getting people to do that.…They’ve also been about groups and group dynamics, and about what people will give up to belong and make their lives matter. To some extent”, she says, “We Live in Public is about what we’ll give up for the attention and recognition that we feel when we go online. Obviously, it can be very exciting. Josh’s story is a warning shot.”


Director and producer for Interloper Films (Los Angeles), Ondi Timoner was a speaker at the X|Media|Lab Serious Games Conference, June 12-14; www.xmedialab.com

RealTime issue #92 Aug-Sept 2009 pg. 33

© Oscar Michaels; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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