Sunday, April 12, 2009

We Live in Public

Last weekend I saw the documentary We Live in Public as it closed the New Directors/New Films Festival at MOMA. Directed by Ondi Timoner, this Sundance prizewinner looks at the enigmatic Josh Harris (above), who made his name in the Nineties with, threw wild parties, showed up here and there as a, performance artist named Luvvy, and then, around the turn-of-the-millennium, experimented with putting others and himself under round-the-clock online scrutiny. After living his life "in public" for a spell, he seemed to drop off the proverbial radar, but now, with the release of We Live in Public, he clearly seems to be angling for a comeback of some sort.

Watching the documentary, you might get the impression that Harris was uniquely innovative in devising a kind of Internet alternative to television in the Nineties (when the technology was hardly competitive) and in creating events that suggest that surveillance is more and more part of the fabric of human existence. But the reality is that Harris was not unique in doing such things. Yet, although (or perhaps because) clarity doesn't seem to be his strong point, he apparently pitched himself sufficiently well to make a fortune as part of the mania and use the money to stage some remarkable events before losing much of the remainder when the bubble burst.

During the Q&A, which was attended by a number of Harris's former associates, I wondered if anyone would confront him about being a kind of a charlatan. But, to my surprise, those who spoke seemed to treasure their memories of Pseudo—even though Harris himself has come to say that Pseudo was a fake company. Likening himself to Jayson Blair, he's written that "I now acknowledge that Pseudo Programs, Inc., a New York City based Internet television network founded in 1994 and sold from bankruptcy in 2000 was the linchpin of a long form piece of conceptual art. Pseudo burned over $25 million in private and institutional capital over a span of seven years. Pseudo was a fake company."

Puzzling over the Pseudo phenomenon, I guess I shouldn't be surprised that someone such as Harris can build and maintain a following. Some people—a select minority of people in his circle—simply seem to relish the good and/or weird times Harris provided them while the money held out. Others are pretty sore, as some commenters here suggest in response to Harris's confession of fakery.

Back in June, the very first commenter asked how Harris's business is "indistinguishable from fraud." The second commenter wrote "I'm going to start conning elderly people out of their pensions and retirement monies and calling it "Performance Art." The third wrote "I've long felt the stock market is primarily a amusement park ride where people purchase a short time of feeling like they are participating in their economic fate." And so forth.

Another commenter from June 2008:
What the hell made this a 'fake' company? Sure, you can do an IPO with your 'art project' buddies as a lark using all made-up plans and products... but once you are incorporated and you've got a whole bunch of products and people are buying them and investing in you... you have a REAL company, at least by the standards by which we (as nations) define such corporate entities. Even if it started as a fraud, even if it continues to be fraudulent - it's not FAKE! This guy sounds like a douche. Enron and Worldcom aren't considered 'fake' companies just because they were cooking the books and selling stock based on stuff they didn't have. They're just fraudulent companies, and now they're companies that don't exist anymore. Don't see how this is ANY different.
By the end of the year, of course, Bernie Madoff was arrested. And Harris was revving up for his comeback attempt.

Photo: David Marc Fischer

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