London Film Festival Review: We Live In Public

By Nick Deigman on 1 Oct 2009

We Live In Public

There are three things that may never cease to fascinate me: the early 90s (because it was so recent, and is considered by the generation who shape our conscious to be irrelevant in comparison to their “special” generation of the 60s, and yet it was so vibrant and culturally rich); the internet (because nobody is capable of predicting where it will go… it is like a wild frontier, but every time someone thinks they have discovered California a whole new plain appears before them); and finally men (and I use that word to denote a member of my species, not necessarily my gender) who seem to have it all, but then manage to throw it all away.

If you feel like you are interested in any or all of the above, then you really need to see Ondi Timoner’s ‘We Live In Public’. The film charts the rise and fall of one of the most iconic ‘dot com kids’ of the early 90s. Josh Harris discovered the Internet while Tim Berners-Lee was still perfecting HTML at MIT (I cant be bothered to explain any of that last sentence; just open another tab in Wikipedia and come back when you’re ready) He knew there was money to be made, and he had the seemingly uninspiring idea of creating a research company that prospective internet start-up companies could pay for data. It really was a genius idea: nobody had a clue how to quantify the internet, so Harris paid a rag-tag bunch of mathematicians and statisticians to come up with some positive projections for potential revenue on the internet. Harris was an overnight success, and used his newfound wealth to start up the first ever Internet television station, Pseudo.com.

The Pseudo.com studio in Manhattan came to resemble Andy Warhol’s Factory, and it wasn’t long before comparisons were being made. Pseudo was a hit, and Harris became a very young, very wayward, multi-millionaire. He began hosting huge parties with supermodels, bands, films, and limitless amounts of drugs and alcohol. This was a computer analyst geek-turned-millionaire who created the coolest scene in downtown New York since the punk scene of the late 70s. He used the parties as a way of finding new creative talent for the wacky shows that aired on Pseudo, and the station went from strength to strength.

This is where things get really interesting. Harris had had a difficult childhood; somewhere between his estranged father and alcoholic mother, Harris was left to bring himself up using the television as a surrogate parent. He grew up to be a detached and troubled young man. Having reached the pinnacle of success – by the mid-nineties Harris was worth $80 million – his mental state began to unravel, and he spent more and more time hiding behind his ‘clown’ alter ego, Luvvy. The investors of Pseudo.com began to distance themselves from Harris, and eventually he left the station, claiming that it had only ever been an “art experiment” and he wanted to move onto something new.

That “something new” turned out to be perhaps the coolest, most unbelievable social experiment in history, ‘Quiet’. Harris sank millions of dollars into the creation of an underground community in a basement in New York. He invited famous artists to build an odd, futuristic church, a firing range with a breath-taking arsenal of weapons, a huge dining room, a bar, a performance space, a transparent tent for showering, and a ‘pod hotel’ of individual pods for the inhabitants of the community to live in. Oh, one more thing… he also set up hundreds of live-feed cameras to record every movement in the building, and hooked them all up to a 75-channel private TV controller so that everybody in the community could watch everybody else on their personal computer screens in their pods! So you could be sitting in your pod and decide to sit up and watch the guy four pods down sleeping, or watch a couple having sex in the shower, or a guy taking a shit in the open-plan toilets.

The experiment opened in late 1999, and was an instant success. The Dandy Warhols came down to check it out, the creative director of MoMA had to beg for a pod, and an entire community of the quirkiest, most hedonistic New York artists moved in for the month-long experiment. The footage of ‘Quiet’ is enough to recommend this documentary on it’s own… it really does have to be seen to be believed. It is like a cross between ‘Das Experiment’ and ‘Fear and loathing in Las Vegas’. There is sex, drugs and rock and roll in unprecedented measures, not to mention drunken naked women firing automatic weapons! There is a compulsory interrogation room, and Harris reserved the right to create any rules he saw fit to make: he could tell people what pod to sleep in, when they could eat, etc.

In the end, in the early hours of the morning of January 1st 2000, the NYPD were alerted that a millennium cult had gathered in an underground basement for a mass suicide. Imagine being the first officer to arrive down in that basement: hundreds of artists, either naked or dressed in matching grey and red ‘Quiet’ uniforms, drinking, shooting up heroin, watching each other on banks of monitors, sitting in a futuristic church listening to their ‘leader’ (Harris) delivering a millennium mass, and running around with loaded automatic weapons!

And all this was organized by one of the richest men on Wall Street at the time!

I will resist the temptation to transcribe the whole film for you; but suffice to say this is a man you really need to get to know, and the only way you can do that is by watching this film.

The filmmaker, Ondi Timoner, was an inhabitant of ‘Quiet’ and became a lifelong friend of Harris’ (if Harris is capable of keeping a friend for life). The film was ten years in the making and charts his rise to success, through the ‘Quiet’ years and goes on to explore his disastrous attempts to stream his life, 24-hours a day, on a website… an experiment that only served to further dilapidate his frail mental state.

Timoner is the perfect person to explore Harris. She clearly cares about him – she respects everything he has done and sympathises with his difficult past – but she is not blind to his mistakes and is willing to admit that he is a flawed and difficult human being. Timoner also seems to have inherited Harris’ philosophical and artistic approach to the Internet, and the way it will affect human society. She is therefore able to explain just how ahead- of-his-time Harris really was. ‘Quiet’ is, in itself, a perfect representation of the Facebook/smart phone generation: we all sit around in our defined spaces (our ‘walls’ or ‘pods’ depending on your choice of nomenclature) staring at each other but never really connecting.

In the end, you probably wont understand Harris any better at the end of this film; but at least the filmmaker hasn’t tried to force some balanced, insincere closed ending onto it. This is a fairly simple exploration of a fascinating and complicated man. Timoner may not have unravelled the mysteries, but she has certainly captured the fascination and awe that so many people felt for Josh Harris… “the greatest Internet pioneer you’ve never heard of.”

★★★★

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