Josh Harris: Madcap Visionary
We Live In Public is the story of Josh Harris, a man who came to New York City in 1984 with $900 in his pocket. By the turn of the millenium, he would be worth $90 million.
Josh was one of the few people who saw the instant potential of the internet. It was clear to him that the majority of entertainment would move from television to the internet, & quickly. He also believed that people would readily give up pieces of personal information (as we’ve seen with Facebook & Myspace), & trade privacy for fame.
“Andy Warhol said that, in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. But I think he misunderstood what was happening. I think what people are demanding is 15 minutes of fame every day. & mark my words, they will get it. That’s where we’re heading, whether we like it or not.”
— Josh Harris
His first project was Jupiter Communications, a statistical analysis company which crunched numbers about how people would use the web. Cheques started to roll in. Everyone wanted to know how they could align their businesses with the internet. Before long, Jupiter went public, & Josh was a millionaire.
He created the first online chat rooms, then sold them to Prodigy for millions of dollars. From there, he started Pseudo.com, the very first web TV company. Based at 600 Broadway, on the corner of Houston & Broadway in Soho, they had the 3rd, 4th, 5th & 6th floors (approximately 40,000 sq ft) with which they could do anything they wanted… & they did.
Pseudo broadcast more than 50 shows a week, with channels like 88 Hip Hop & Cherrybomb (for sassy girls). The hosts of the shows were fresh, talented & enthusiastic, & even though web TV was chronically slow at the time–broadband was still years away–there was a real feeling that this would work. Investors flocked to Pseudo to sink in their money. Josh knew how to sell.
By 1999, Josh was bored with Pseudo. He left with his share of the company & decided to perform a social experiment the likes of which had never been seen before.
Quiet: We Live In Public was research in living under surveillance. He employed a team of artists from all over the world to construct an underground bunker which would hold over 100 inhabitants for a month.
“We’re building a capsule hotel to find out what the internet is going to look like when it takes over,” he said.
Everything was free: free food, free drink, free machine guns to fire off at will in the in-house shooting range. The catch? The participants had to wear a uniform, give over their social security number & answer a 323 question survey in intimate detail. They would also be filmed, every moment of every day.
When word got out, people lined up in droves to be part of the madness. The capsule hotel was quickly filled to capacity, littered with artists, weirdos & strange geniuses, including Alana Heiss, director of PS1/MOMA.
Once you entered Quiet: We Live In Public, you weren’t allowed to leave. Everyone slept in a bunk bed which had a camera pointed inward, connected to a television. You could switch between channels & see the other people in the beds around you. The party raged for a month, & was busted by the NYPD on January 1, 2000. The project cost Josh a couple of million dollars.
His next project was We Live In Public, & it was much smaller in scale–at least by way of number of participants. It was just him & his girlfriend, Tanya Corrin, who had previously been a presenter on Pseudo. This time, he wired his apartment at the back of 600 Broadway with dozens of motion-sensitive cameras & hyper-responsive microphones, so that everything which went on in the apartment would be retained on film. There were even infra-red cameras in the toilet–nowhere was safe.
They were to live in public for 100 days.
A live, 24/7 stream of the apartment was broadcast online, accompanied by chat. Thousands of viewers would tune in every day to watch their relationship unfold. The press coverage was massive & the first month was giddy. Josh & Tanya were in love & openly affectionate. Would they be the first couple to conceive on camera?
Though it started out as what Josh called “a Kodak moment on steroids”, the pressure of living in public quickly turned things sour. The constant feedback from the viewers started to alter the way the couple related to one another, & arguments became more about “winning” in front of an audience than actually listening to one another.
One day, after a disagreement, Tanya told Josh to sleep on the couch. One of her fans eventually broke rank & told Josh that the viewers had encouraged her to do that–it was completely out of character for her at the time–& that they wanted her to kick him out of the apartment. They just wanted to watch Tanya.
While this was going on, the dot-com bubble was bursting. Josh could only sit & watch as his wealth disappeared. While other dot-com millionaires were able to suffer privately, behind closed doors, Josh didn’t have that luxury. Helpless to do anything about it, everything he had worked so hard for began to vanish.
Josh & Tanya broke up, she left, & he started to lose it.
Living in public wasn’t fun anymore. The viewers became part of his consciousness. In an interview with Errol Morris, he said, “They’re taking little pieces of you continuously. The collection of them is greater than little me. I’m just a product–a product to be harvested. They’re harvesting my psyche in order to feed themselves. …I just don’t want to give them anything more. They’ll kill me. They’ll take something from me that I can’t replace.”
When the 100 day period was over, Josh sold the apartment & left New York City. He moved upstate, bought an apple farm, & spent five years doing what he described as a “media detox”. He spent some time in Madrid, some time in Hollywood, & some time in Ethiopia coaching a boy’s basketball team. The film has an uncertain ending, & urges us to wonder, is this the last we’ll see of Josh Harris?
I found the film so compelling that I went back & watched it a second time… then a third, & then a fourth. What was it about the documentary that drew me in so deeply? I think it’s the combination of art & commerce, the rapidly unravelling portrait of a man who was so obsessed with being in the public eye that it was his undoing.
His incredible success at making money out of art once had him branded as “the Warhol of web TV”. When told this, Josh laughed, “I’m Andy Warhol’s wet dream.”
In 2000, Josh Harris was the king of New York. These days he’s living in a studio in Brooklyn, working on his next great project.
How do I know?
Because last week, he welcomed me into his apartment, & we shared a bottle of wine.
The day before Thanksgiving, Molly Crabapple & I hailed a cab on East 7th Street in Manhattan, & crossed the Williamsburg Bridge as the day turned to night.
We soon found ourselves standing in front of an immense brown building. The double doors, entirely covered in graffiti, almost concealed the number we were looking for. Unlabelled buzzers were placed haphazardly, at odd angles, on either side of the doorway. There was a Sneaker Pimps sticker on one door–very 90’s. This must be it. We pressed one buzzer, then another, then another, but there was no response.
I called the number in my phone.
“Hello, this is Josh.”
“Hey, it’s Gala. We’re downstairs, let us in!”
“Okay, I’m coming down now!”
A few moments later, the doors swing open with gusto & there is Josh, illuminated by the flickering fluorescent lights above him. He’s wearing a flannel shirt over a t-shirt, & he smiles widely at us. “Come in! I’m on the top floor so… it’s a bit of a walk.”
Molly & I are not wearing the right footwear for a vigorous stair-climb. By the time we get to the 7th floor, I’m totally winded & thinking about how I need to get back to the gym. Panting, I laugh, & Josh says, “I used to be breathless when I got up here too–these days I don’t even notice it.”
He ushers us into his space. He has the entire floor. His kitchen area is enormous, with a speed bag bolted to one wall.
The kitchen & living area is completely spartan–there is no furniture in the room & no art on the walls, with the exception of a large sheet of paper covered in handwritten scrawls. As he points us towards the studio, I catch the first line out of the corner of my eye:
I am the captain of my own ship. Everyone is a captain of their ship.
I ask him how long he’s been back in the city. He has been here, in this apartment, since April.
His studio is clearly the room he occupies most. It has a fabulous view of Manhattan, which is now lit up & twinkling, & the walls are covered in enormous canvases. They’ve all been prepped with blackboard paint & then drawn on in chalk. Everything hanging up is part of a series called Meet The Singularities, which he recently completed. In a later email, he says he is done with canvas for at least two years.
The three of us sit down at a wobbly brown table & I present a bottle of wine, something he had requested I bring when we first made contact. Josh has only one mug, & explains that this is how he lives–he has one plate, one knife, one fork, etc. He rinses out some paper coffee cups for us, & I pour everyone a drink.
When you meet someone new, you never quite know how it will go. Contrary to my expectations, there is very little awkwardness & practically no small-talk. Before I can even set up my camera, Josh is away, riffing on every subject imaginable, & it’s totally compelling.
One of the first things he mentions is the film. The film, of course, is We Live In Public, which he has issues with. He says the filmmaker, Ondi, got it totally wrong when portraying the relationship between him & his mother.
“They interviewed my brother,” he says. “Brothers never really know that kind of thing. She should have interviewed my sisters.”
How about that scene where he’s shaking Tanya & she gets scared & runs away, throwing a frying pan at him as she goes?
“She was doing that exact same motion to me earlier in the day–but that’s left out of the story, so you never get the context. I am totally against hitting women. I would never hit a woman–once you start, it’s a slippery slope.”
He mentions in passing that Tanya had gotten physical with him in the past, which I almost chalk up to him being defensive, & nearly dismiss. But then, that weekend, I find this old blog entry of hers (see the second to last paragraph).
I tell him, “Maybe you should wear a t-shirt which says, Common Misconceptions About Me & just outline it all on there.” He laughs, & says he doesn’t want to be defined by his past. “I don’t want that old stuff to be who I am anymore.”
Josh is hard to interview, which is both a blessing & a curse. A blessing because it makes for amazing, stimulating conversation; a curse because it makes chopping up the video footage I’ve captured an almost impossible task. The fact that he doesn’t speak in soundbites makes me like him more. We have a great conversation–we talk for three hours without so much as a pause for breath–but he doesn’t really answer questions.
Mostly, he tells stories. All kinds of stories. We discuss The Truman Show & how Josh is fascinated by the relationship between Truman & his fake wife. We talk about his big idea, The Wired City, which it turns out is really a means to an end, his primary goal being the construction of the Human Chicken Factory in the Pompidou in Paris.
The Wired City is the idea he’s been pitching around for the last year or so. Think of it like The Truman Show, but with complete awareness. Every portion of your life would be sponsored–for example, Crest might sponsor you to brush your teeth on camera every morning–& you’d be sharing these experiences with other people on screen engaging in the same activity. While you brush your teeth, you can see the people you want to see, whether friends, celebrities or just people of interest, doing the same thing.
As you participate in these pursuits–whether brushing your teeth, eating a sandwich or sleeping–you gain points, which would be calculated by your influence, or the number of eyeballs you can capture. The next big step would be to build a soundstage in Hollywood, fly out the most influential people, & give them top billing. They’d then be living their lives on a bigger scale. These people would be “purebred internet pop stars”, he says.
The Wired City is a great name for it. That’s exactly what it would be.
I asked him whether he had a conflict of ethics, encouraging people to do something–sharing their life in such intimate detail–when that same process essentially drove him over the edge.
The concept of privacy, he says, is over, & points to the latest madness with the TSA as a prime example. “It’s like death; the stages of death. The acceptance stage… I’m past the acceptance stage.” He believes The Wired City should go ahead because, he says, it’s going to happen anyway. But the reason why he thinks he should be the person in charge is that he knows where the lines are.
“The nice thing about me is that I know where the lines are right now. I’ve been over the line. It happened in Operator 11“–his most recent project–“I was able to know how to structure rules & do the best you can to protect people. Better me than the random guy.”
He said that after a screening of the film in Missouri, in which some of his ideas for The Wired City are outlined, a 14 year old girl approached him & said, simply, “Don’t do it, man!” Josh says that had him spun for a while, that it still spins him. Ultimately though, this is his work.
“I try not to judge myself morally–I had a fake girlfriend! I had a fake company! I mean, I called it Pseudo!”
Building a Human Chicken Factory is his ultimate goal. The Wired City, he says, is just a means to that end.
The Human Chicken Factory, he explains, would be built to scale, & the installation would be shown for about a year. He envisions it in the Pompidou Centre, or maybe the Tate in London. As for what would happen inside, Josh isn’t entirely clear. All he will say is, “When you go in, you’re one thing, & when you come out, you’re something else.”
“It will provide the human race with perspective of what we’re heading into,” he continues. “What’s happening is the factories are becoming more efficient, so if we get a 15 year lead with the prototype model, at least before we walk in & they lock the door behind us, we know what we’re heading into.”
He takes a drink & says, “That’s what my work is about–everything else is a means to that end. Everything you see in the movie, The Wired City, the paintings, my current state of existence… That’s really all I do. Nothing more, nothing less. If you think of me that way, I make a lot of sense.”
Josh looks good; healthy. He’s 50 but you wouldn’t know it. His eyes are bright blue & they’re sparkling, mischievous. He’s one of very few people I’ve met that will maintain near-constant eye contact with you when they’re speaking.
Though some might get the impression from We Live In Public that his past escapades have left Josh Harris a broken man, this is clearly untrue. He is working, thinking, doing Josh.
“I live like a monk,” he tells us, & I believe him. I mention that he seems to be living pretty well for a monk, & make a sweeping gesture. He smiles & says, “I have good friends.”
Listening to Josh speak is an interesting experience. His ideas are big, risky, ambitious, & as I’m listening to him I notice my brain throwing up instant resistance. “That’s CRAZY!”, it screams. But the more that I just listen, the more I think it’ll work.
As the days tick by after meeting him, still thinking about what he’s said, I find myself coming up with additional ways it could work. People & things that could help. Ideas which could bring The Wired City to fruition faster.
His dystopian vision of the future disturbs & intrigues me equally. Even though I don’t necessarily think the direction he wants to push is “good”, & even though I am someone for whom personal rights & privacy are very important, I find myself actually wanting The Wired City to go forward. I want it to succeed. I am curious. I want to see it.
Perhaps Josh’s eerie old prediction–“Orwell was wrong; the government doesn’t impose Big Brother. Audiences demand it”–is right. As much as I may like to think I’m above it, I am part of that audience, like Romans in the Colosseum, baying for blood. We all are.
I describe my emotional polarity to my friend Simon. He says, “Yeah. That’s charisma alright. Ability to persuade you of something even over & above your own value judgments.”
Our conversation runs the gamut, from elucidations on the singularity to multiple mentions of Tanya Corrin. He never refers to Tanya by her name, only as “the fake girlfriend”. Josh maintains that they were never a real couple–that he cast her for the part, years ago, & that he has film to prove it.
He tells me he doesn’t own a television; that to him, it is like heroin. He mentions that he is obsessed with being in what he calls “the groove”–that moment where everything works, you know you’re exactly where you’re meant to be & you hit that sweet spot. He says that it seems like he & his friends are constantly chasing that groove. I tell him there was a book written on that very subject: Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He writes down the word “FLOW” & draws a box around it, & promises to check it out. He also gives me a kind of homework: asking me to read two books & present him with what I think at a later date.
When my FlipCam finally beeps & stops recording–after a solid hour of footage–he says, “Oh, thank God!” & laughs.
Josh is clearly someone who enjoys other people’s company & is an accomplished conversationalist. I’d heard that he was an introvert but this is clearly untrue–he holds court for hours, chattering happily away.
He’s certainly extremely intelligent. He can run cognitive rings around me, which is something I haven’t experienced in a long time, & which is a feeling I both relish & loathe simultaneously. The things he says are sometimes so baffling that I feel like I am thinking in slow motion. I completely lost my line of questioning. I don’t think I asked him a single prepared question.
To say I was unnerved by him is the understatement of the year.
As we talk, Molly sits to one side, just off-camera, sketching a portrait of Josh on a piece of paper. When she presents it to him, he is almost struck silent with awe. Later, in an email, he says, “Your drawing is magic, which in my mind is the first important indicator for art.”
When we leave, Molly texts to ask how I enjoyed myself. I tell her I had a fantastic evening, but that I feel very dumb & also quite sane all at the same time. “I can definitely see that feeling!”, she replies.
I’m so glad I was able to meet Josh. He is, without a doubt, one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever encountered. All the same, I’m not sure how I feel about the things he wants to achieve in our lifetime–& the mark he may leave on the future.
The more I think about it, the less I am sure that my sense of unease has anything to do with Josh himself. Maybe it is more that I don’t like what he reflects back at me about our future, about the reality of society, & about myself.
Josh would love your support in his bid for the role of Director of the MIT Media Lab! You can nominate him here–I have already done it, but the more people that can get behind him, the better. To fill in the form accurately, his email is [email protected], his number is 310.801.2294, & you can use this article on galadarling.com as the link! Thank you so much for your help!