Artist Jonathan Harris studies how Internet relationships speak volumes about our offline lives. In an interview with DigitalJournal.com, Harris explains why his projects on Internet dating and blogged confessions expose people for who they really are.
Digital Journal — How would you visually interpret thousands of online dating profiles on a simple touch screen? What happens when you turn current events into a constellation of words? How can an artist bring real-life social interaction into fascinating online interfaces?
Jonathan Harris can answer these questions. A computer scientist and artist in Brooklyn, Harris, 28, is winning acclaim for illustrating human-to-human interaction through computer programs both functional and beautiful. He has primarily brought his artwork to the Internet — his project Universe transforms news events into constellations of words, easily grouped by searchable terms. As Harris describes it: “Universe is a system that supports the exploration of personal mythology, allowing each of us to find our own constellations, based on our own interests and curiosities.”
One of his most well-known projects is We Feel Fine, a program scouring the Net’s millions of blogs to pull phrases including the words “I feel” and “I am feeling.” The database contains millions of “feelings,” while also attaching demographic info such as age, gender and location (blogs generally include these details outright). The interface sorts the feelings into particles indicating the nature of the emotion inside — angry, sad, happy, etc. — and they careen across the screen wildly until a user inputs a request to organize the emotions into a certain sequence. Harris told DigitalJournal.com he plans on making a book based on We Feel Fine, due for release in 2009.
Harris, a Princeton University computer science grad, likes focusing on the Net for these interface-heavy projects. The Net, he says, is a “treasure trove of human expression” and his work seeks to creatively organize the many relationships we cultivate online.
Case in point is his installation I Want You To Want Me — a complex program collects freely available text from online dating profiles on popular free dating sites (such as PlentyofFish.com, Craigslist) and seeks to chronicle “the world’s long-term relationship with romance, across all ages, genders, and sexualities, gathering new data from a variety of online dating sites every few hour.” Phrases are taken from dating profiles, generally out of context, in order to provide a snapshot glimpse into people’s lives.
-Courtesy Jonathan Harris
A visitor to MOMA interacts with the I Want You To Want Me exhibit by Jonathan Harris. It displays online dating profile info in pink (female) or blue (male) balloons.
Harris says the data is displayed as balloons on a touch screen in an installation presented at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City until May 12. When you touch a certain balloon on the hanging 56-inch screen, details from a dating profile appears. Pink balloons are female users, blue balloons are male. The work offers five “movements,” so you can see introductory info in Who I Am or learn more about what people hope to gain from online dating in What I Want. The screen displays 500 profiles at a time, constantly refreshing from the data it collects from one million dating profiles.
What did Harris learn about online relations with I Want You To Want Me? “All people are looking for the same sort of things, like honesty and compassion,” he says. “I think online dating gets stigmatized as a sexual deviance for weirdos or freaks, but it’s not like that at all. These are people just looking for their soul mate.”
As his site explains, the online-dating project is meant to teach us about what we want in relationships:
[It] aims to be a mirror, in which people see reflections of themselves as they glimpse the lives of others.
Artistic voyeurism also spices his most recent work, a live art event called the Polaroid Project. Harris and two photographers were given 150 Polaroid exposures, a bag of tools and two hours to assemble 150 photos into a mosaic that tells some kind of story. Check out the final result to see how body parts blend together and identities dissolve into a mash-up of cut Polaroid pics.
Harris enjoys working on his schedule and crafting his ideas with as much freedom as possible. “There’s no gatekeeper in what I do,” he says. “I can put up ideas without the approval of editor or gallery. If the ideas are good, they flourish. It’s a very fair and meritocratic system.”
The Polaroid Project is an example of how he wants to stretch his range. He plans on working more in the offline world. One secretive project involves travelling to various countries to document “individual experiences.” That’s all Harris wants to say until the idea is underway.
He’s already left us with enough tools and thoughtful projects to keep us occupied online. Whether you want to explore today’s zeitgeist with Universe or take society’s emotional temperature with We Feel Fine, Harris’s work should resonate with anyone curious how offline affairs can translate into bold artistic visions on the Web.