10 Questions with Jonathan Harris
I can’t tell you how excited am I to give you this (email) interview I held with Jonathan Harris, the artist behind such great recent projects as Yahoo! Time Capsule, We Feel Fine, Loveliness and Phylotaxis (to name but a few – you can see them all on his website). As you’ll read below, not only is he a briliant artist, he is the nicest pesron as well.
First, thanks ever so much for taking the time for this interview. I am a big fan of your works. They are remarkable in their humanistic quest, unfussy liveliness and playful autonomy and itâ€™s a great honour to have you here at No Manâ€™s Blog
Thanks for saying so.
There are oh so many things I wish to ask youâ€¦ I donâ€™t know where to start, reallyâ€¦. What drew you initially to producing art for the Web? When and how did you start?
For much of my childhood I kept detailed sketchbooks, filled with drawings, watercolors, pasted ticket stubs, dead insects, and other remnants of my life. I painted large oil canvases too. I then studied computer science at Princeton University, and learned about algorithmic processes and objective thought. These new ways of thinking created a rift inside me, and I sought a way to bridge the gap through my work. It was at Fabrica (www.fabrica.it), where I received a one-year fellowship in 2004, that I began to use the Internet as a means for studying humans. Most of my work since then has been in that realm.
Digital media provides a new means of aesthetic expression, and the web allows for this activity to occur interdependently within old and new networks. What media and arts do you see your work in relation to? What or who influence your works?
I am interested in universal and simple ideas, executed playfully. My ideas are often influenced by my travels, and by observations I make and questions I ask about the world. Iâ€™m much more interested in the real world than I am in the Internet world, as such. I just see the Internet as a wonderful point of convergence where a large number of humans can come together and share ideas. When this happens, footprints are left behind, and I am interested in studying those footprints to find out about people.
When I did a bit of research for this interview I came across some typology of web-art, like cybernetic art, software art and algorithmic art â€“ is that how you describe your works? What are you trying to accomplish as a web artist?
I donâ€™t know much about those monikers. Iâ€™m interested in illuminating hidden aspects of reality, to help people better understand their world.
It seems to me that you stand at the crossing of a practice (programming) and an artistic quest, mostly humanist. How would you describe your main concerns as an artist-programmer?
I believe that we live in an amazing world, full of color, common experiences, and emotional extremes. I also believe that few people realize this. People have a hard time seeing how amazing the world is, so they seek solace in TV, magazines, and other portraits of lives that seem more vivid than their own. People also have a hard time seeing how similar we all are, and this false sense of polarity is to blame for a lot of the misunderstanding experienced between different races and cultures. Iâ€™m interested in making work that can illustrate the common ground between humans, and that can portray some of the amazing qualities of life, to help people feel better about themselves and their place in this world.
Can you tell us a bit about your process â€“ just a bit of the ways your projects come to life. Do you start your process analytically, with sketches on paper or wireframes, or are your main initial concepts likely to come in a flash of inspiration? Do you work alone or supervise team of designers / IA / programmers etc?
Most of my projects begin with a simple question that I ask myself about the world, and the project then generally emerges as a response to that question. Personally, I find it difficult to hold strong opinions about the world, because I can always see the many sides to every story. The world is so complicated, and it is often difficult to know who is right and who is wrong. As a response to this stigma, many of my projects seek to answer these questions for me, by polling the world to find consensus.
Other online artists seem to have elaborate experimental prototyping processes, but this is not something I do. My ideas start in my head, develop on paper in my sketchbook until they are quite fully formed. I only sit down at a computer once I know exactly what it is I intend to build. Very little creativity happens for me behind a computer. I simply see the computer as a tool for enacting ideas that already exist in my mind.
The Time Capsule – your recent project for Yahoo! Can you tell us a little about the evolution of the project? As far as I know, apart from justcurio.us, itâ€™s the first time that your project is based on users (active) participation or User Generated Content (how very web 2.0â€¦.) For me it is very similar to We Feel Fine in its aim to capture human experience and emotions â€“ the only difference is that in WFF participants are unaware and passive while in the Time Capsule they are active contributors and the whole work is built around that.
Thatâ€™s an accurate assessment. I also see these two projects as being very similar, in the way that you stated. I would suggest, however, that the passive observation practiced by We Feel Fine yields more candid, honest findings than the active participation of the Time Capsule. When people know theyâ€™re being interviewed, it necessarily colors the way they respond. However, when people are just living life, theyâ€™re just living life, and you canâ€™t fake that. This is part of what makes We Feel Fine compelling.
As for the Time Capsule, Yahoo! was interested in taking a fingerprint of the world in 2006. I immediately jumped at the opportunity, for its scale, simplicity, and universality, and because the idea of fingerprinting humanity is of great interest to me, as mentioned earlier.
What really fascinates me as a social psychologist about the Time Capsule is the ways in which it captures the interplay between the social and the personal, between the culture and the individual. For example, one can look at LOVE beyond the individual footprints and immediately see our shared understanding, or the cultural representations of LOVE â€“ motherly love, romantic love, pet love, etc. Was that part of the plan?
The plan was to make the ten themes (Love, Faith, Anger, Sorrow, etc.) and the ten questions (What do you love? What do you believe in? etc.) as open-ended as possible, so that all types of responses would stream in, and so that the contents of the time capsule, collectively, would start to illuminate the full perimeter of the human experience.
It seems like you enjoy exploring and bridging (or erasing) some commonly perceived dichotomies like love and hate, individual and the social, science and culture. Can you tell us more about that?
I am interested in extremes, how they differ, how they relate, and where they start to overlap. As I mentioned earlier, I find it very difficult to form concrete opinions about the world, because I always see many sides to every story. In this way, when there is hate, I know love is not far behind (and vice versa). When there is an individual acting alone, there is a society being affected. When there is a society acting as one, many individuals are affected by those actions. So itâ€™s all connected, and the best way to illustrate this connectedness is to show that the extremes are connected. If the extremes are connected, then so, too, is everything in between.
Now that the Time Capsule is live, whatâ€™s next for you?
These days, I am primarily working on Daylife (www.daylife.com) a global news service that will help people explore all types of news in amazing new ways.
And finally, where do you see yourself in 10 years from now? Where do you see the web 10 years from now?
I donâ€™t like to make claims about the future. I try to stay curious and open about the world (and about myself), and to keep asking questions. Itâ€™s always more interesting that way.