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2009 film festival: 'We Live in Public'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 18 2009 - We live in the information age, as the cliche goes, or even in the too much information age, keeping in mind that the word has come to mean not only simple facts (as in "useful information") as well as random data as every kind. "We Live In Public"  throws a lot of information - in both senses - at the viewer over the course of 90 minutes; and I suspect that the sheer overload of content is one of the points that director Ondi Timoner is trying to illustrate in her cautionary/celebratory tale of the internet boom of the late '90s.

Timoner's subject is Josh Harris, a pioneering web entrepreneur who's been called the "Warhol of the Web," yet rarely gets mentioned alongside the likes of Steve Case or Jeff Bezos when the story of the Internet is told. A socially awkward and somewhat compulsive figure, Harris' ambitious projects and rapid burn-out run parallel to the boom and bust history of '90s technology, played out online via webcam. After making a name for himself in programming, Harris hooked up with the early online dial-up service Prodigy providing chat room service (Kids, ask your parents) before launching Pseudo.com, one of the earlier TV/multimedia sites. Investors went crazy, money flowed like tap water and Harris took advantage of overnight success to align himself with the underground New York art scene.

Harris' grandest project was "Quiet," in which 100 artists, eccentrics and people-of-relatively-few-commitments-and-an-exhibitionist-bent lived on camera in a crowded underground facility for 30 days. ("We live in public" was the project's motto). Imagine "Big Brother" produced at an East Village punk club, take away any sense of order or responsibility, and you'll get a sense of what it was like. Whether seen as a work of art or a social experiment, it was - perhaps intentionally - pure chaos, but Harris, who seems to have a personality disorder or two, thrived on it. Or went mad from it. He followed "Quiet" with a slightly less ambitious exercise, living under constant online surveillance with his girlfriend. Somewhere along the way, he fell apart, went into seclusion and resurfaced - about six years later - developing a start-up media project in Ethiopia.

There's a train-wreck quality to Harris' story, and an obsessive side to his personality that keeps the viewer at bay. No stranger to filming eccentric, obsessive subjects (she previously made "Dig!," the story of a rivalry between two alternative rock bands), Timoner gets as close as possible, but she's also done her homework and presents a clear picture of the art and business worlds that Harris sought to combine. It's a perversely interesting story, yet there's something just a little seamy and disturbing at work in the film at the same time. It's high-tech business porn, a microcosm of the excess that created the dot.com implosion 10 years ago. Watching Harris' breakdown and the implosion of his net/art dreams is at times disturbingly voyeuristic. And that's probably the point.