The New Narrative
As a child, Jonathan Harris would gaze into the night sky from a perch somewhere on his family farm in Vermont and absorb a spectacle unfamiliar to those of us living in major urban areas around the world. “I would often look up into the dark sky and see the three-starred belt of Orion, The Hunter,” he tells an audience at a TED conference in 2007. “As an adult I've been more aware of the great Greek myths playing out in the sky overhead every night.... It caused me to wonder if we could make new constellations today, what would those look like – what would those be? If we could make new pictures in the sky, what would we draw? What are the great stories of today?"
As a prodigious diarist, Harris fostered an interest in narrative, sign, and symbol that eventually lead him to combine his background in computer programming with a life-long passion for the arts. The result is a novel approach to web development that utilizes dynamic, intuitive systems that reveal the connections we have with one another and the world around us. One example is the site Universe. At first, Universe can leave the user overwhelmed by the wealth of information and the many avenues available to access that information. However, the confusion soon passes as our intuition guides us on a path of discovery that leads us to connect the major, world events that shape our lives. The shifting points of light and dancing lines that serve as the main interface for the website are meant to generate the same mystery as the stars they represent. They act as sources of inspiration and springboards into new conduits of thought.
Opposed to the utilitarian, corpse-like sites that are all too common to us, Jonathan Harris seeks to create a website with a pulse: a living, breathing organism that grows with every stroke of every key, whose heartbeat is the collective frequency of human life, the very thing that spawned it into existence. During a conference in the UK, Harris talks about the organism that is the Internet: "The web is often considered to be quite a cold, inhuman place and I noticed a while ago, a few years ago, that it was actually not a cold, inhuman place; that it was just teeming with humanity; that all that data was just representative of the actions of people." This simple, yet crucial observation has eluded designers and users of the internet for decades. Despite the universality of the Internet and the important role it plays in our everyday lives, our concept of it is regretfully materialistic and short-sighted, allowing its true potential to escape us.
The Internet is a living, growing entity that feeds off our desire to connect with the world around us. Harris’s artwork taps into this phenomena – the story unfolding behind the scenes, the veritable white noise of human emotion and desire – and makes it visible, giving it a presence and weight that has been lacking. “People have been leaving behind footprints: footprints that tell stories of their moment of self-expression,” Harris says. “What I do is I write programs that study very large sets of these footprints and try to draw conclusions about the people who left them.”
Harris used these footprints as the basis for We Feel Fine, a site that acts as a barometer of human emotion on the internet. We Feel Fine harvests instances of the word “feel” in its various tenses from blogs all over the Internet, updating the site every few minutes to provide a snapshot of how people feel at that moment across the globe. The most compelling feature of the site is the interface Harris has constructed to represent these feelings, portraying them as kinetic particles of light and color that bounce chaotically on the screen or gravitate toward the cursor as if they were driven by some sort of innate attraction or desire to communicate.
The work is reflective of the artist’s interest in the narrative and its many reiterations. In Harris’s cosmology, the narrative is king; it is the kernel of power that is the origin of our histories, philosophies, and endless preoccupations. Harris sees our personal stories as a key feature in creating connections between people, filling the gaps that separate us from one another. “I think that people have a lot in common,” he says. “People are very similar. I also think we have trouble seeing that. As I look around the world I see a lot of gaps . . . and we define ourselves by our gaps.” In recent years the media has published stories that frame the Internet as an obstacle catering to partisan politics that separates us from our neighbors. Harris’s work tells us we are integrated, connected, and participating in something revelatory.
In the creation of these online art pieces Harris taps a vast lexicon of symbolic information that effects us everyday without our realization. In 2006 Harris worked with Yahoo to create the Yahoo Time Capsule, a project designed to create a “portrait of the world” by requesting contributions from internet users utilizing the same intuitive design concepts expressed in We Feel Fine and Universe. The Time Capsule was marked by a capstone moment when the contents of the capsule were projected on the canyon walls of the Jemez Pueblo near Alburquerquee, New Mexico and transmitted in binary with a 35 watt laser into the sky for three consecutive nights. Harris comments on the symbols that occurred with regular frequency amongst the sentiments that were expressed in the capsule: "as I looked at this more and more and saw these images go across the rocks I realized I was seeing the same archetypal events being repeated again and again."
Harris later used these archetypal concepts in a project documenting an Inupiat whale hunt in Barrow, Alaska. The Whale Hunt takes allegorical information such as character, setting, subject, and the emotional weight of a series of photographs taken at least once every five minutes. It uses these concepts to extract a seemingly infinite number of short stories from a much larger narrative. A similar relationship exists between our narrative and the history of the human species or the story of planet Earth. Our story is one of many, all of which weave together and intertwine to form a sort of cosmic tapestry. This is what Harris is ultimately telling us. We all have a story to tell and all of our stories are connected. In Harris's eyes, the Internet is a testament to that fact. It's not a barrier to be overcome or a cold lifeless tool, but rather evidence of our interconnectedness.
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