We Live in Public

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley

"We Live in Public," Film Still, 2008.

"We Live in Public," Film Still, 2008.

Josh Harris welcomed the new millennium from the basement of a New York bunker. He was surrounded by a posse of jumpsuit-clad creatives, and, at one point, all of them watched as a naked man whipped a barely dressed woman around underneath a running shower head. The scene made about as much physical sense as Bernini’s The Rape of Prosperina—the bodies twisted perpetually but never quite met in the way you’d expect them to. Harris and his companions watched the crude assault as though it were on television.

One of the first entrepreneurs to channel the potential of internet TV, Harris used a significant portion of his dot-com  fortune to build the bunker, which he called Capsule Hotel and filled with over 100 mini living pods, a shooting gallery, interrogation room, banquet hall, bar, and obscene number of cameras and video monitors. By the time New Years’ Eve arrived, 150 people had lived in the Hotel for nearly a month.

Residents (including Alanna Heiss, P.S.1’s haughtily fearless matron) submitted to constant surveillance and interrogation in exchange for admittance. Not only were members of the panoptical community watched, but they could watch one another by tuning in to any channel on any of the readily-available monitors.

"We Live in Public," Film Still, 2008.

“Everything is free except the video we capture of you. That, we own,” says Harris in We Live in Public, an unpretentiously efficient documentary released on DVD this week. It’s a telling quote because it suggests that the opposite of free is not costliness but being owned, and it pushes Harris’ experiment out of the realm of asset-swapping and into soul-selling.

Directed by Ondi Timoner, We Live in Public follows Harris through the birth of his dot-com fortune and his subsequent series of ahead-of-their-time media experiments. Harris plays villain and hero, acting as a self-appointed artist-prophet who exploits people’s penchant for attention and thus exposes a future in which “we’re going to increasingly have our lives exposed in very personal and intimate ways and we’ll want it to happen.” Chuck Klosterman would almost certainly call Harris “advanced.

Not long after Quiet, the 24/7 bunker surveillance venture, was shut down by the NYPD  in early January, 2000, Harris invited his girlfriend Tanya to move in with him. Together, they went public. They installed nearly thirty web cameras in their home, including one in the toilet, and streamed their whole life onto the web. When they fought, they would run immediately to their computers, to see which of them had the allegiance of chat room regulars.

It ended badly, of course. After the dot-com crash, in which Harris’ fortune all but disappeared, Harris ended his relationship with Tanya (later he would call her a “pseudo-girlfriend,” though she claims they loved each other) and pulled the plug on public living.

As the rest of the world caught on to online chatting and video streams, Harris pulled away, initially living on a rural apple farm and later disappearing to Ethiopia to evade creditors.

Gustavo Artigas, "Vote for Demolition," 2009. Courtesy LAX Art.

Gustavo Artigas, "Vote for Demolition," 2009. Courtesy LAX Art.

Exposure doesn’t mean what it used to mean. Now the well-trafficked terrain of mainstream websites and reality TV, it often seems contrived and redundant when it appears in art. Many of the best artist-driven social experiments I’ve encountered this year refuse to invaded peoples’ privacy and, as a result, they seem perfunctory, even impersonal.

In Vote for Demolition, artist Gustavo Artigas invited people to vote for which over-priced, over-sized Los Angeles’ building most deserved the wrecking ball. The voting booths at LAX Art were perfectly spaced, giving voters plenty of room to deliberate, and Artigas asked for no personal information. The “surveillance” in John Baldessari’s recent exhibition is carefully unobtrusive–a camera watches you watching art, and, while art-viewing may be a genuinely intimate experience, it’s one that tends to play out in public anyway. Baldessari’s experiment feels more like documentation than invasion. Its aloofness makes the loneliness of experience painfully evident; no live streams or chat rooms can combat the fact that, most of the time, we navigate the world alone with our bodies. But maybe that’s okay.

When Harris moved to his apple farm, an interviewer asked him, “Are you a lonely man?”

He responded, “The implication when you say ‘am I a lonely man,’ is that it’s worse than being together. It’s just a different state of being, and one I’m quite comfortable with.”