We Live in Public: Who’s in Charge of ‘It’?

Lately this blog serves as a place for me to start some sort of articulation of ideas about art/ media projects…specifically ones that connect to larger themes I am exploring about digital art practices and pedagogy. I’m interested in how people are using technology, how they are producing things that say something about our relationships with technology. I am of the mind that we can learn from artists….that artists can reveal things that others can not see or perhaps do not realize in the same way. Within my own work I am critical of technology, yet I intentionally use the technology…hopefully addressing tensions that exist…a desire to be both with and without it and our inevitable dependency on “it”…the struggle for a harmonious relationship with “it”. I think we have to be careful of “it”…we need to be in charge of our own filters. As McLuhan stated in 1969, we need to recognize that technology is in fact an extension of the human body, an extension of ourselves. We need to see ourselves in the technology….but I’d rather we be in charge of how we go about seeing our reflection, rather than “it” being the one in charge.

I saw We Live in Public a couple of weeks ago and although I immediately knew it was a film relevant to my conceptual meanderings on this blog, I chose to let it stew in my brain for awhile before commenting. I’m still unsure what to think….so I guess I’ll just use this post to think out loud/ in public about some things….
The documentary film about Josh Harris (internet pioneer, digital Warhol, master manipulator, etc.) and Quiet, a Big Brother/ Truman Show-esque social participatory art project that occurred in New York during the advent of the millennium, is definitely a cautionary tale about the power of the internet and self-surveillance. But after watching Josh Harris, the subject of the film, speak in Q&A with the director Ondi Timoner following the premiere and in related press interviews…I am more inclined to think that it is not only a cautionary tale about technology but of people in charge of technology, specifically those who are unaware of themselves and resistant to ethics and basic morals. I think you have to watch the film to understand where I am going with this….

And from watching the body language in the interviews with Josh Harris and Ondi Timoner the director, I can’t help but wonder if she is the real genius. Timoner has created a compelling film about a man who is disturbed yet brilliant, crazy enough to believe and do things that no one else could. In the end, I find myself more interested in his lack of emotional willingness to connect to others and his pursuit of “deconstructing the self” (a quote from Harris himself). It’s as if she is “one up on him”…Yes, he foresaw the future of the internet and society’s desire for “15 minutes of fame a day” via Facebook and MySpace…but rather than find an opportunity to instigate dialogue and/ or teach a lesson, he instead now wants to build a wired city in Los Angeles and take over the media to make millions, denying any social responsibility and taking the role of the puppeteer up above.

On the other hand, what he did with technology in the 1990s was revolutionary, a democratization of a television-run culture. But art? I know the title of artist is being stretched and expanded more and more these days but even if he were to be defined as an artist….is that necessarily a good thing? How are we to understand an “artist” with a vision but without a conscience? In one of the interviews, Harris speaks of himself as now leaning towards being a mad scientist / artist….does this mastermind remind anyone else of Hitler?

Therapy sessions never hurt anyone, just sayin’…

Finally (maybe), what most disturbs me is the sense that “this” (apocalyptic self-surveillance society) is where “it” (the technology) is going and that the “world will self-destruct” (another quote by Harris) so let’s just go with it. Technological determinism/ singularity and all that jazz… But in We Live in Public, what is revealed is that technology doesn’t overpower humanity on its own, it needs human hands. Regardless of what I think, it is in your best interests, as well as the interests of your fellow human beings, to watch this film.



Filed under with/in process

7 responses to “We Live in Public: Who’s in Charge of ‘It’?

  1. Gerry Libertelli

    I think you are seeing Josh’s vision wrong. I think Josh is saying that “we” (the unsuspecting, now kind of suspecting public) are on a collision course with this future. We can’t help ourselves and our basic egotistical and unrefined TV-fostered personalities will always be compelled to abuse this type of thing. Yet we continue to build more and more interactive ways to express ourselves. This contradiction. This consistent contradiction is the reason we are doomed to this future.

    We were brought into this world by lazy parents who used Television as a babysitter, and now we are all going to pay for a generation of kids who have no concept of reality. Kids, adults, who eventually use this passive medium, becoming active medium, to further subject themselves to the same abuse they have been subjected to their entire lives.

  2. I’m really glad you commented on my post, and with a very articulate summary of Josh’s vision. I agree….that this was his vision. I’m pretty sure that if I had written my response soon after watching the film that it would have been closer to what you wrote. I thank you for expanding on what I didn’t articulate very well…the purpose of his work. However, I had time to become over -nalytical perhaps….taking my response in a different direction….while wanting to instigate dialogue and debate at the same time.

    You see…I understand the concepts and I think Quiet was an extremely powerful ‘production’ when it took place in 1999. It was an amazing prediction of what the internet has become. I think I just question the “artist’s” intention of the work (the same way that I might critique Warhol). I highlight the word “artist” because this aligns with other ideas I have been contemplating about the role of the artist in today’s digital culture. I wonder if we now need to consider ethics and moral responsibility in a completely different way than artists ever did before. I don’t think it’s the Josh Harris of 1999/2000 that I am critiquing here, but rather the Josh Harris of 2010 who is building The Wired City because he sees it as the inevitable next step…Can this be referred to as “art” though?….this is what I am wondering. Where is the line drawn and why wouldn’t reality tv be considered “art”? OK…now I’m just playing devil’s advocate to see if I can encourage anyone else to enter this conversation 🙂

    I worry that the “artist” today might need to not only create works that ask good questions, provoke thought and present visions….I worry that today’s artists might need to point towards possible answers…perhaps not through the work itself but through the dialogue that surrounds it…

  3. Hey Heidi. I’ve been reading your blog and I wonder, do you remember that opening that I went to with you and Chris? It was quite a few years ago. The one where they had the cowboy hat guy with no pants walking around. That was awesome. Remember?

  4. I do….that was ages ago! I remember it was at the Belkin Gallery on the UBC campus….and looked at the fascination with homoerotic photos from the past. I can’t remember the artists… It sure was something 😉

  5. Ya know Heidi? I thought about your reply and I have to say that I agree with you now. The idea that Artists can now ply their trade with things beyond paint, and paper, and even music, begs the idea that we MUST consider ethical intent when considering Art.

    In this way I think I see your point about Josh Harris. While we are all amazed by art projects that prove something or create real change; we also do not want to be held to the whims of some boyish fantasy. Some mental child, masquerading as an artist who holds us all hostage in his beliefs and fairly misguided methods.

    In other words, it is very easy to make sense of something AFTER you do it. It isn’t so easy when you go into it with less than honorable intent.

  6. I was happy to see you revisiting this conversation! I meant to reply here sooner but, well…it’s crazy how quickly we are transported to and from information on the web these days…and how soon we forget what we were just about to do 🙂

  7. Pingback: Reflecting on ‘We Live in Public’ | Foundations in Digital Concepts [Digital Arts & Design 1]

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