Ten years in the making and culled from 5000 hours of footage, WE LIVE IN PUBLIC reveals the effect the web is having on our society, as seen through the eyes of the greatest Internet pioneer you ve never heard of, artist, futurist and visionary Josh Harris. Award-winning director Ondi Timoner (DIG! which also won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize in 2004 making Timoner the only director to win that prestigious award twice) documented his tumultuous life for more than a decade to create a riveting, cautionary tale of what to expect as the virtual world inevitably takes control of our lives. Harris, often called the Warhol of the Web, founded Pseudo.com, the first Internet television network during the infamous dot-com boom of the 1990s. He also curated and funded the ground breaking project, Quiet, in an underground bunker in NYC where over 100 people lived together on camera for 30 days at the turn of the millennium. With Quiet, Harris proved how we willingly trade our privacy for the connection and recognition we all deeply desire, but with every technological advancement such as MySpace, Facebook and Twitter, becomes more elusive. Through his experiments, including a six-month stint living with his girlfriend under 24-hour electronic surveillance which led to his mental collapse, Harris demonstrated the price we pay for living in public.
I'd never heard of Josh Harris, who is billed in WE LIVE IN PUBLIC as the greatest Internet pioneer you've never heard of, I can be excused for thinking Harris was the fictional hero of a pseudo-documentary, until the film quickly and obviously became authentic. It's not often you see a doc that's been filmed over a period of 15 years. Harris was involved in the early days of Prodigy, back in the CompuServe era, and in 1993 founded Pseudo.com, which forecast audio and video Webcasting, YouTube, Hulu and countless other streamers. He was, to put it kindly, ahead of his time. In 1993, 300-baud modems were commonplace, and 1200 was fast. Harris was a myopic visionary, a man who saw the future more vividly than his own life. He was a prototype nerd, a lonely kid who raised himself while planted in front of an old black-and-white TV set, using "Gilligan's Island" as a virtual family to supplement his own remote mother. In the 1990s, he became one of the early dot.com millionaires, a celebrity in New York, where he threw lavish parties intended not so much for the famous as to attract brilliant and artistic kids to work for him. Pseudo.com is remembered from that time as Nerd Heaven, with good pay, perks, free creature comforts -- demanding only your body and soul. He sold Pseudo for something like $80 million, and that was the end of his good timing. The filmmaker Ondi Timoner had already started to document Harris' life, and was on the scene when he began a notorious project named Quiet. Try to imagine this: About 100 of the best and brightest he could find agreed to live 24 hours a day in a cavernous space below street level. They would be under video surveillance every moment. Their lives would be streamed on the Web. They shared dining and recreational facilities and even a shooting range. They were given state-of-the-art computers. They lived in cubicles with the square footage of perhaps six coffins. These were stacked atop each other like sleeping pods in a Japanese airport. And this was to be the future, in which we would all live virtually on the Internet. The recent film SURROGATES perhaps owes something to Harris. Remarkably, no murders claimed any of Quiet's eager volunteers; whether any births resulted is not reported. The fire department closed him down in the first days of 2000, but Harris, not missing a beat, moved with his girlfriend into an apartment where every single room was Webcast 24 hours a day -- every meal, every bowel movement, every sexual event, everything, including their (inevitable) ugly breakup. "She was only a pseudo girlfriend," he explained later. But did she know that? By then, Harris had spent most of his $80 million and become disillusioned with living in public. He bought an upstate New York apple farm, and Timoner followed him there to find him having returned to the earth. His friends lost touch. He became forgotten as quickly as he became famous. I wonder, and the film doesn't tell us, what he thinks of YouTube. At the end of the film, he's living in Africa. He did, however, fly to Sundance 2009, where WE LIVE IN PUBLIC won the Grand Jury Prize for best documentary. Sundance has become a place where the visitors can barely tear their eyes from texting, surfing, e-mailing or tweeting to actually watch at a movie. What did he make of this? Harris saw it coming in the days when a Tandy 100 transmitted text much more slowly than I could read. This is a remarkable film about a strange and prophetic man. What does it tell us? Did living a virtual life destroy him? When Harris had a nervous breakdown after the WE LIVE IN PUBLIC Web experiment collapsed, was the experiment responsible? Remember Jenny Ringley? She was the pioneer of Webcams. From April 1996 until 2003, she lived her life online, getting, it was said, tens of mi --Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
The filmmaker Ondi Timoner seems destined to have made this documentary, about the profligate and elusive Internet pioneer Josh Harris, because, as her film reveals, she was a participant in some of its most dramatic events. Harris, who was a lonely child obsessed with Gilligan s Island, understood the Web s transformative promise as early as 1980, and, in the nineties, founded Pseudo.com, a New York-based blend of streaming video and original content, for which he hired a horde of downtown artists and turned them loose in an environment that one observer likens to Andy Warhol s Factory. The film s turning point comes when he tries to realize his plans for interactive virtual reality in a basement commune which he compares to a concentration camp where volunteers would move in and sign themselves over, allowing their every move, including bed and bath activities, to be recorded. Timoner was there, and is captured in Harris s disturbing yet fascinating archival footage. He took the notion a step farther in his next venture, as he wired his home with cameras and mikes, locked himself in with his girlfriend, and interacted online with viewers, who quickly moved from being spectators to being participants in the couple s life. Harris, in Timoner s privileged view, is graced and cursed with a visionary strangeness; artist, con artist, and businessman; genius, clown, and control freak he nonetheless brought forth dark wonders, which the director thankfully rescues from oblivion. --Richard Brody, The New Yorker
Flickr and Facebook have nothing on the social networking experiments of pioneering Internet guru Josh Harris, whose ingenious and unsettling exploits fall under documentarian Ondi Timoner's penetrating gaze in WE LIVE IN PUBLIC. Like Timoner's DIG! this astounding new docu burrows into the thin and darkly funny spaces between artistry and vanity, isolation and community, collaboration and exploitation, sanity and madness. Although the Warhol-esque Harris may put off some viewers infuriated (or intimidated) by his immodest brilliance and borderline sadism, others will be turned on by a provocative pic that deserves an audience as expansive as MySpace. Timoner, a bright young docu talent, seems to share the obsessive artistic methods of her eccentric subjects, including the dueling pop icons of DIG! & WE LIVE IN PUBLIC, edited for maximum pulse-quickening by Timoner and Josh Altman, is culled from thousands of hours of footage collected over a decade. Some of this material was originally captured by Harris, a compulsive videographer who suffered a nervous breakdown at the tail end of his own wired "Truman Show" -- the 24-hour-a-day multicam Internet broadcast of his stormy relationship with live-in g.f. Tanya Corrin. PUBLIC also makes extensive, bone-chilling use of Harris' other major work: the late-1999 New York underground hotel-cum-performance space that, complete with surveillance cameras, interrogation rooms and live gun range, he operated under the name "Quiet." Officials shut it down in the first hours of the new millennium. Timoner's portrait of the visionary Harris grounds his main theme -- that humanity will soon become a race of gadget-obsessed, agoraphobic zombies -- in the artist's own lonely, TV-saturated '60s childhood. But the viewer's sympathy for Harris often is strained by his use of friends as virtual-reality guinea pigs. Some will feel that just desserts have come to the control-freak streaming-video innovator who squandered an $80 million fortune on bacchanalian "aphrodisiac parties" and ill-advised business decisions as the dotcom bubble burst. (Harris, aside from venturing to Sundance, has been in semi-seclusion for the better part of a decade.) An intensely immersive, even draining film, WE LIVE IN PUBLIC which doubles as a short history of the Internet, is technically tops on every level -- including its volume. Much of the film is set to an ear-splitting cacophony of moody pop-rock, as befits a character as loud and abrasive as Harris. Pic's end credits find Harris thanking fellow art-pranksters Marcel Duchamp and Ray Johnson, who might well have appreciated his prescient vision of the virtual world run amok. --Rob Nelson, Variety