We Live in Public

Internet mogul Josh Harris explains his idiosyncratic worldview - 'We’re on the cusp of an evolutionary cycle. The question is will we kill or be killed?'

It’s hard to imagine a less self-effacing interlocutor than internet svengali Josh Harris. ‘I’m probably the most important artist in America right now,’ he says matter-of-factly, a few moments before explaining his ‘knack’ for spotting the next big thing. Self-doubt, you get the feeling, is not defined in his version of Webster’s.

But behind such brash self-confidence is a man who has felt fortune’s slings and arrows more keenly than most. During the heady days of the dotcom bubble the American made – and blew – an $80 million fortune: he now lives in Ethiopia and claims to earn a living playing poker. It’s a long way from Quiet, his millennium eve party which ran for a month in a six-storey New York warehouse and saw willing participants filmed 24/7 as they slept, ate, fought and copulated.

Quiet was Big Brother on a scale Endemol could never have imagined - daring, no holds barred, flying by the seat of its pants. Around this time Harris also turned his apartment - and his life - into an online experiment, installing cameras to record him and girlfriend, Tanya Corrin, for 100 days.

These high-concept viral experiments are the focus of a new documentary, We Live in Public, directed by Ondi Timoner. Previously best known for Dig!, an hilarious if rather lop-sided tale of US rockers Brian Jonestown Massacre, Timoner has created a beguiling portrait of Harris, New York and the early days of the internet.

We Live in Public casts Harris and his travails in a sympathetic light but he clearly has a bone to pick with the director. ‘Let’s start with the things she got wrong,’ are his prefatory remarks when CultureNorthernIreland calls him in London, where he has been promoting the film.

‘Tanya was a fake girlfriend. I cast her in 1995,’ he says, a shard of anger encroaching on his nasal east coast twang. ‘She was a fake, our relationship was a fake. The madness of it all was that she knew.’ But why, if not for love, would Tanya submit to having her every move – literally – streamed live on the net?

Harris’ answer is simple: money. ‘Over the years money did change hands. But we never acknowledged [that the relationship was a fake], that would have ruined the artifice.’ She left, Harris says, when he took her off the pay roll. ‘I didn’t want to pay her any more. End of story.’

Harris’ revelation, if true, is surprising – not only does their relationship (and its meltdown) look shockingly realistic but if it was all a chimera the point of his experiment seems less easy to grasp.

‘What I was doing was a grand piece of conceptual art on the city of New York,’ he announces proudly. ‘The New York Times are still trying to work it out.’ Funnily enough the only New York Times writer to dedicate significant column inches to Harris was Jayson Blair, who left the venerable paper in disgrace after he was found to have fabricated many of his articles.

Perhaps only a bona fide fantasist like Blair could recognise in Harris something of themselves. Harris, however, maintains that what he was creating was a truly conceptual representation of New York. ‘Of course it’s only conceptual art if at some point someone recognises the conceptuality. In the New York arty world when they see me they run,’ he remarks rather cryptically.

It’s difficult to gauge how serious Harris is. Indeed an hour in conversation with him leaves one wondering if anything he does or says is real – or is it all an approximation of reality, what Jean Baudrillard calls ‘hyperreality’.

‘It was real in that I did lose my mind,’ he admits of the period covered by We Live in Public. ‘I lost my fortune. I lost my mind. I was living with a fake girlfriend. I caught the bubble crashing. It wasn’t just any moment in my life, it was the critical moment. It’s what makes it great art – you could watch 100 times and never get bored of it.’

Nowadays Harris divides his time between Ethiopia and Hollywood, where he’s trying to pitch an idea entitled The Wired City. ‘It’s basically a television version of Facebook,’ he says of his latest project, which he explains as a gigantic version of Quiet featuring thousands of people and filmed in Hollywood.

‘Do you want to be in The Wired City?’ he asks your humble correspondent, even offering to fly me to LA for an interview. ‘Though of course if you suck you won’t get a place in the show. But I’ll pay your airfare.’

I’ve not yet chucked in the day job to follow Harris to Hollywood but there’s no denying that he does possess a puissant, if unnerving charisma. Clearly erudite and intelligent, his comments on privacy in the postmodern, internet age are revealing.

‘Orwell was wrong – the government aren’t imposing surveillance, the audience are demanding it. If someone wants to know your business they can pretty easily. From my point of view, privacy isn’t the problem: it’s the loss of self that goes with everyone living theirs lives online.’

In the late 90s Harris was dubbed the ‘Warhol of the Web’, a free spirit with a new vision of art, and society. Somewhat surprisingly he doesn’t see himself as a radical. ‘On a personal level I’m extremely conservative. I probably smoke pot twice a month and that’s about it,’ he comments.

Harris’ vision of himself as the fulcrum around which the contemporary art world turns is not shared by many in London, New York or Paris. Not that he seems too fazed by his lack of critical appreciation. ‘I’m a dead artist. I have a feeling I’m going to get big when I’m dead – like the opposite of Damien Hirst.’

Warming to his morbid theme, Harris reveals that he doesn’t expect to be around too much longer. ‘Will I be here in ten years time? I doubt it. I don’t think I’ve that long left. But I’m wrong sometimes so you never know.’

If time is short, Harris’ plans for his next few years certainly aren’t. ‘I’m in a race to get to Paris. I want to take over the Pompidou centre or someplace similar for a year or so. I want to show people the chicken factory we are entering into. I think we are building an urban cage, they’re gilded but cages none the less.

‘We’re in some sort of evolutionary cycle and we’re literally on the cusp. The question is will we kill or be killed?’

Peter Geoghegan

We Live in Public runs at the Queen's Film Theatre, Belfast from November 20 to 26. For more information check out Culture Live! listings here.