Before Facebook, Google and “Big Brother,” there was Josh Harris.
The internet entrepreneur who amassed a net worth of $80 million dollars in the late ‘90s and lost it all has always been a few steps ahead. He started internet research firm Jupiter Communications in 1986 and founded audio and video webcasting site Pseudo in 1994, far predating YouTube.
In December 1999 he opened the art installation “Quiet: We Live in Public,” an underground bunker where over 100 participants lived for free under 24-hour surveillance, until the city shut him down on New Year’s Day.
Harris turned the cameras on himself later that year, when he wired his entire apartment and streamed a year of his life with his girlfriend, whom he claims he “cast” for the project, online, resulting in the dissolution of his relationship and his own psychic breakdown.
Since then, Harris has bounced around, living in Ethiopia, Los Angeles and on an apple orchard upstate, and he’s presently in Lordville, New York, at work on his latest art project. Harris debuted “Net Band Command” as part of “A Quiet Summer,” an ongoing exhibition featuring work by participants in the 1999 “Quiet” installation, curated by downtown gallerist Amy Li. The long-term performance piece is Harris’ prediction of the mental effects of total media immersion; he hopes to find participants to live in a “human chicken factory” to demonstrate what will happen when our lives are completely programmed, not unlike his projects of 15 years ago, which now seem spookily prescient.
“The idea is to sort of induce a very high-quality psychic fracture before it happens in the mainstream,” Harris said. “So that when you walk in on day one, you’re a centered, unique human individual, and 30 days later when you walk out, you’re hive-minded.”
We spoke with three artists participating in “A Quiet Summer” about the 1999 experiment.
Internet entrepreneur, conceptual artist and subject of the 2009 documentary “We Live in Public,” directed by Ondi Timoner
Harris became enmeshed in the downtown art scene and threw parties throughout the city, uniting the art and tech worlds. In December of 1999, he opened “Quiet: We Live in Public,” an underground capsule hotel where over 100 participants lived under 24-hour surveillance. The experience was captured on film by director Ondi Timoner, whose footage resulted in the 2009 documentary, “We Live in Public.”
Participant in “Quiet: We Live in Public”
Ferrato’s photographs from the installation were shown to the public for the first time as part of “A Quiet Summer.” For over 30 years, she has documented domestic abuse, resulting in a lifetime of activism. Also a street photographer, Ferrato photographs all over downtown Manhattan, especially her neighborhood of Tribeca.
Artist involved in “Quiet: We Live in Public”
Longtime friend of Josh Harris
Throughout the 1990s, Martinez collaborated with Harris on large-scale installations, including “Quiet: We Live in Public,” for which he assembled an artillery range in the underground bunker. In 2002, Martinez was arrested for forging Jean-Michel Basquiat prints, and served time in a Brooklyn prison. His prints depicting the machine guns used as part of the 1999 project will show as part of “A Quiet Summer.”
I had the dough and that was critical, but there had been a crew of us doing this kind of installation for 10 years. Mostly from Williamsburg. That whole scene in Williamsburg I’d been corralling and working with in Manhattan since 1994. Between all of us we probably each had at least 30 big time installations under our belt. More with some of these cats. So once I had the space, and we kind of had the concept down and it was made clear that money was no object, which was very important. It’s not so much that money was no object, it was that I wasn’t going to get in the way of their vision. In order to get the best work that’s what you gotta do, and I got the best work.
By August of 1999 [Josh] was like, ‘we gotta do something big for the millennium.’ There was a lot of paranoia in the air that was kind of misplaced. Even if people didn’t believe all the conspiracy theories it kind of seeped into the atmosphere, even if you didn’t believe it. So we had like a little bullshit session, me, and the other artists and Josh, and he thought, why don’t we play on something that’s more of a cult than a company, and we thought, why not a millennium cult?
I read about them in the paper. They were getting a lot of press back in 1999 and Josh was really titillating the media back then with these crazy stories about this other world he was going to create, which would be very much like “1984,” “Animal Farm.” It would be like Big Brother was watching and everybody would be tested, you know, to see how they would survive in a place where there were no rules, there was no information.
We were pretty much guided by whatever we saw on our monitor and we would be controlled by it. It just sounded like a fantastic mind experiment. And I wanted to be one of them. I wanted to be a guinea pig.
It was several floors of space in lower Manhattan, and like the way a cult was, one artist did where everyone would sleep, one artist did the church where everyone assembled, where we had ceremonies for the group, and an artist did where everyone ate.
I did the firing range.
Another artist did a place where if you wanted to become part of the group and sleep in one of the pods, you had to go through interrogation.
Me and the guy who did the interrogation, we set up a system where, while people were being interrogated, I would be [in the nearby firing range] firing a machine gun while they were being interrogated…we tried to freak people out as much as possible.
The beauty and the freedom of art is I hired this guy [who appears in “We Live in Public”] who worked for the CIA as a professional interrogator…We did it professionally. We went for blood. Usually you go to an artsy-fartsy interrogation room and they’re screwing around with you.
Everybody goes to art openings and all that and they feel comfortable and safe but you went in to this thing, and we were gonna zonk ya. And everybody who was doing it knew it. I guess if you think about it this was hardcore art.
Each of the bunks, where we slept, we each had a TV set that was wired to be able to watch each other in our pods doing anything…The whole premise was outrageous that we would all live together, sleeping together, showering. The toilets were in public. I mean, basically you had to submit to a somewhat higher authority’s will.
It was like being on a film set. Even though, although no one had any roles or scripts. It was all very spontaneous…there were usually between 60 to 75 people running around, and during the day we would allow outsiders to come in and see how we were living and talk to people. We were like animals in a zoo.
I didn’t really know the people who slept near me. I really didn’t try to get to know people. It was a lot to keep my mind together to figure out what was going on.
I didn’t sleep in the pods. I was too worried about somebody futzing with all the guns so I just slept in the vault where I kept all the guns.
There was a sign on the wall that basically said that if you come through here you will be videotaped, so you are giving up your rights to us. And I was shooting stills. For me it was like winning the jackpot to be able to take any pictures I wanted and not have to get releases. I was still a little bit shy. It was a great feeling of true liberty to just be able to walk around and take pictures.
You could say the same thing of Facebook or Google or Pinterest or Instagram. It’s free service. Big data, we own it. We were just saying it out loud. That’s the whole trick. You stay it before it happens and no one seems to believe you and they’re not interested. Until now, 15 years later, and you realize this isn’t free. When I was looking to rent that car 30 days ago, who knew that ad would be haunting me for 30 days after?