Renaissance Man for the Information Age
Jonathan Harris has been exploring the limitless and worldly ether of image and text in his online art projects for some time now. In a mix of science and culture, the ex-Fabrica wunderkind has engineered a set of web applications that not only deliver simple and elegant interfaces but process information rationally and–perhaps more importantly–present it accessibly. Thanks to his latest online and interactive work, Phylotaxis, Harris’ tech-notoriety has come to full fruition and the attention of NY Arts Magazine. Here, the artist answers questions about his past and future projects and a selection of queries from his popular, anonymous question and answer system, justcurio.us.
Drew Frist: When did you begin to use the web as a medium for your science-cum-cultural-cum-art projects?
Jonathan Harris: I began as an oil and watercolor painter. I kept obsessively detailed sketchbooks filled with drawings, writings, pasted ticket stubs, dead insects and any other remnants of my life that would allow themselves to be drawn, taped or glued to a page. About five years ago, I began to grow frustrated using mediums with such illustrious histories. I knew my oils could never rival Hopper’s and my watercolors could never match Homer’s. Around this time I developed an interest in computer science and the Internet, which seemed like a fresh medium with little artistic history. I liked the way the Internet was always changing and how its vastness was actually composed of the many individual actions of many individual humans. This struck me as a lovely tension.
DF: Do you think that your projects are the inevitable, almost evolutionary, fusion of science, culture and the arts?
JH: No. My projects are responses to questions I ask myself about the world. I make computer programs to look at large sets of data and discover things about the world that are invisible to the naked human brain. By analyzing the words, pictures and behaviors we leave behind on the Internet, we can learn a lot about ourselves.
DF: Your most notable projects are 10×10, WordCount, and Phylotaxis. Tell me about how you came up with the design for your most recent, Phylotaxis.
JH: Phylotaxis, commissioned by New York’s Seed Magazine, is a self-updating zeitgeist of science news, presented in a liquid-like interface, the structure of which is based on the Fibonacci sequence, one of nature’s most elegant. The structure of the piece varies between a strict square grid, representing the rational thinking of science, and a chaotic volatile swarm, representing the amorphous unpredictability of culture. Halfway between extremes, the Phylotaxis shape emerges representing the balance between science and culture in contemporary society.
DF: There’s definitely an organizational and hierarchic nature inherent in your works. How can a computer prioritize and organize that which is amorphous or chaotic, like the news?
JH: I believe strongly in simplicity. Much of my work involves the distillation of complex and sometimes chaotic information into simple visual forms. I perceive an obsession with lists and ranking in American culture. Glance at any newsstand and you will see magazine covers plastered with numeric promises–"10 Hottest Celebrities," "20 Best Workouts," "100 Best Movies." I believe lists help us to better understand a complicated world. Things we can reduce to a list suddenly feel manageable and under control. My work makes use of lists and zeitgeists to help people better understand our world.
DF: What are the problems that face a developer that focuses on interactive design?
JH: There are three main challenges I see. I try to make projects that satisfy each of them:
1) A universally understandable core idea
2) A simple execution
3) An element of play, nostalgia, beauty or all three
DF: Which project do you use the most out of the three projects mentioned above? Which project do others use the most?
JH: The project of mine that I use most often is justcurio.us, an anonymous question and answer system with one rule: to ask a question you must first answer someone else’s question. I use justcurio.us several times a day. 10×10 is the most visited of my projects, receiving 5,000 — 9,000 unique visitors per day.
DF: Are there any projects in development?
JH: Yes, several. My next project explores human feelings on a global scale. Another involves a whale hunt in far northwest Alaska.
Harris’ answers to five questions taken directly from the pages of his Q&A project justcurio.us:
Does everything happen for a reason?
JH: Well, that depends on whether you consider the algorithm to be a reason. Generally, I find Stephen Wolfram’s ideas compelling. I believe in one future, predetermined by some equation that was written a long time ago, but which is still being acted out today. I don’t find this depressing, however. I also don’t believe in choice as such, which I also don’t find depressing. If time is linear and there is only one future, then choice is just what happens. Choice is a human construct, fashioned to make life appear more interesting. This doesn’t make life any less interesting. We still don’t know what will happen next, and we have to act. Therefore, we can think of our actions as "choices," but they are really just actions. Choice implies there was another possibility. But if time is linear and there is only one future, then there can never be another possibility. So we are all living inside the algorithm, and I don’t think that changes a thing, unless, of course, we can discover the algorithm. Then things get tricky.
Why does everyone take the Internet so seriously? Is it the anonymity or the misinformation?
JH: It is the fear of permanence and the lack of anonymity. People take seriously things that cannot be undone. People like to have an out. When your footprints are being tracked, you are careful where to step. Standing on a street corner or hiking in the forest, words are cheap and generally harmless. On the Internet, things can be hard to get rid of, so we are careful what we say.
Is design an art?
JH: Design is a craft that can be applied to art. Art can be well designed or poorly designed. Art means different things to different people. To me, art is more about ideas and less about aesthetics. For certain artworks, like Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings, aesthetics happen to be the main idea. For certain designs, like Tibor Kalman’s wordless COLORS magazine #13, the ideas are so strong as to become art. It is a crooked line, drawn by the shaky, subjective hand of opinion. Like anything, there is good art and bad art. But unlike many things, art’s qualities are difficult to assess objectively, as they rely on taste and viewpoint. But design done well, applied to strong ideas, can be art.
This site/project is dead/dying. Do you agree?
JH: It is as alive as ever. justcurio.us is a lot like the human world. On various days at various times it is filled with all manner of people. There are the intellectuals, asking terribly serious questions and fashioning sweeping cultural generalizations in response. There are the good Samaritans, earnestly answering questions, no matter how ironic. There are the vandals, polluting the site with spam. There are the graffiti artists, crafting useless but beautiful entries out of ASCII characters. There are the sex-crazed teens, writing vulgar propositions, and the xenophobes, racists and bigots, striving to offend. There are the sanitation officers, moderating spam, trying to keep things clean. And then there are the fatalists, lamenting the death of justcurio.us. All these people continue to coexist, and the place keeps thriving, through all its crises, spells of inaction, passionate debates and genuinely helpful exchanges. I had no idea what to expect when I created this project, and I have been touched and delighted by the course it has taken.
How many people does it take…?
JH: Two. One to create, another with whom to share.
justcurio.us – http://www.justcurio.us/
Phylotaxis – http://www.phylotaxis.com/
10×10 – http://www.tenbyten.org/
WordCount – http://www.wordcount.org/
Harris’ web site & online portfolio- http://www.number27.org/