There is a new movement called “slow web”. This proposes something similar to slow food, i.e. the wish to use the web in a slow way, savor it, as with food. It shows none other than a young veteran leader in the interactive documentary field: Jonathan Harris.
Harris presenting at Online Screening (IDFA Doclab 2013)
I will talk in this post about a session called: Slow food, slow web, in which, during the celebration of the IDFA DOCLAB Festival, Jonathan Harris enlightened us with his amazing creations. And after all, he won the IDFA Doclab Storytelling Award.
In this succulent session, Harris talks about some of his most famous projects, such as We Feel Fine, Cowbird, Today and I love your work.
We feel fine
The first case is perhaps the most interesting because it is a project that aims to measure human emotions with a complex and dynamic database system that gave more than one headache to its two creators. To produce this project, Harris collaborated with another artist, in this case Sep Kamvar. They also have collaborated together in the project I Want You To Want Me.
Kamvar and Harris conceived this project in 2005, some years before displaying data became fashionable. Although I have reservations about whether it can be considered interactive documentary or not, it does show the potential hidden in this new form. In addition, the project is a beautiful example of a clean interface and usability. The project is mandatory viewing in this area. Another interesting aspect – because in some ways the project can also be considered a transmedia pioneer – is that Harris and Kanwar later published a book on statistics about sensations and human feelings. This is key in many fields, such as the present one: the ability to move and affect people emotionally. This book is available online and shows how feelings like “happiness” or “fear” predominate in different hemispheres of the brain, etc.
The Whale Hunt
The Whale Hunt is a criticism of whale hunting but from a fragmented interface, a beautiful example of the synchronized arrangement of elements calculated on the screen. The proposed positioning of tiny fragmented frames to the end is a trend that we will continue to see in the work of this extraordinary artist who is only 34 years old.
Main interface of the project The Whale Hunt
Harris states that in the project Cowbird he was trying to make a social network with a strong evolutionary continuity in relation to emotions. And somehow he has succeeded, because although the database engine and the traffic are not equivalent to Facebook, it’s amazing what he has achieved working alone and without financial support or means.
Harris profile (Cowbird project)
This project is what captivated me most. He explains that for a few years all he lived for was his frenzied work, obsessed to the point that he hardly slept or ate and lost many friends. Until, after living in Brooklyn for a while, when he turned 30 he changed his personal landscape completely and moved to a secluded cabin in Oregon, then to Mexico, Vermont and Northern Island where he started Missing Pieces, publishing a picture every day for 440 days, which in some way helped him find the center that he had lost and connect. His goal was then to live a human life without much work.
The Missing Pieces project is the result of an obsession with memory, not to forget or be forgotten leaving a mark in our brief and fleeting stay on the Earth. According to Harris, we are living in an environment where everything is so fragmented and fast that we do not have time to connect all the pieces, all the stories around us. This period of isolation helped him to reconnect these missing pieces, and understand the projects as part of his personal development and growth. Personally this was one of the ideas that I liked most: his thoughts revolved around the fact that when we find something that does not fit in our life, something we don’t want to face, then we must come up with a project to transcend this problem and help us to grow and mature as a person. And he has done so in a way that has found the “what” and subtle key concept around the idea that we often do not see, know or imagine the shape of a specific project.
I love your work
This work is more like a film and is dedicated to the work and private life of differently shaped women engaged in lesbian porn. The work shows again the metaphor of fragmented pictures from ten stories that unfold in chronological time lines, each of a different length, and which portray the lives of the ten protagonists of the story.
Timelines (I love your work project)
If there is something that blocks life, we should start a project that attempts to overcome this limit. Then we discover how the shadow lurks in the subconscious of the pure creation, the idea that the creation itself allows a double life: the everyday magical parallel dimension where you can express and transcend everything and the limited turbid unspoken elements of the everyday.
It is the same case in this project: because he lived in Vermont, where at that time sex was something that had to be avoided and not talk about, something dark, he developed a project to overcome this limitation, and consider this issue openly.
In addition, the exhibition reversed the nature of having sex online: the ease and immediacy to download content. And, with this, he somehow created a new business model on the Web. We are used to everything being free on the Internet, but when a person is already recognized in their field, then they can do these things. The viewing of the project is limited every day to ten people who have previously made a reservation online and have paid the modest price of ten dollars. When the project was launched, it has a waiting list of about two months. Today it is easy to buy a ticket. Harris said that since he has released the project, only a few people have seen it due to this limitation on its exhibition; however, out of the 600 people who have seen it, they spent an average of 3 to 6 hours, which is an enormous statistical time spent on a project.
Here I think there is another factor to consider: exclusivity. When something is free, we tend to think that it is because it is not worth paying for, but if we pay every day and the selected users are “the chosen 10” that makes people believe that they are special shelling out for the privilege of enjoying each story. We should also mention that the project is based on the number ten: ten stories, ten hours, ten dollars, ten main characters, etc.
Harris also commented that the viewing of the documentary is quite unsatisfying, but this, he says, is part of life itself, you never know what you will find: at every moment life can surprise you and offer twists. This is the real magic of it.
A final reflection:
Harris believes the projects are like medicine for the soul and help us to be better people. For him, there were three key factors that have led to this explosion in storytelling: the rise of science, the decline of religion and the explosion of personal testimonies (stories).
As language evolves so fast we can get caught up on the technical issues beyond thinking and wondering why we actually use this language and saying exactly why.
To sum up, the mixture between interactive storytelling and food degustation was simply perfect, and all the public there enjoyed a beautiful night in the most impressive city of Europe, Amsterdam. Next year I will get back to you with more posts from the IDFA Festival…
Dr. Arnau Gifreu
Researcher, lecturer and producer