IDFA Expands Its Boundaries With Help From U.S. Visual Artist Jonathan Harris

The documentary festival pays tribute to the ground-breaking ‘internet artist’ with a retrospective and curated Top Ten

IDFA Expands its Boundaries With U.S. Visual Artist Jonathan Harris
Jonathan Harris

AMSTERDAM — Jonathan Harris celebrated his 30th birthday by taking a photograph, writing a story and posting the both online before going to sleep at night. He did this for another 439 days, part of a project simply entitled “Today.”

It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that the experimental artist, now 38, is quite enamored with the concept of ritual, and neither is it shocking to see that his Top Ten list – usually a list of seminal or favored films – contains a book by design theorist Christopher Alexander and the entirety of YouTube (“I’m not a scholar of film history,” Harris notes modestly).

Although it doesn’t fit the obvious model of documentary, Harris’s work sits well with the festival, using the internet as litmus test of human behavior – take, for example, his spectacular 2006 project We Feel Fine, essentially a large database of human feelings, which regularly searches the internet for the words “I feel” and “I am feeling” and adds some 15-20,000 new “feelings” every day. Harris sees the connection too, but claims that documentary “is just an aspect of my work”. “I guess I don’t have any one particular label that I find works well.” he muses. “For me, I’ve just been deeply curious my whole life about why we’re here, who we are, and how we make meaning – all of those questions. And I’ve tried to use all sorts of different tools and technologies over the years to approach those questions from all sorts of different angles. And I think that process will continue.”

Variety spoke to Harris during his visit to IDFA.

Have you had much of a relationship with IDFA prior to this year?

Jonathan Harris: I’ve had work in the DocLab part of IDFA – I think either two or three times over the last six or seven years – and I’ve been here once in person and over that time I’ve developed a nice friendship with Caspar [Sonnen], who’s the DocLab curator and I have seen him in the U.S. a couple of times. So it’s really through him, I would say.

How did you feel when they came to you not only for a retrospective but for the Top Ten?

I was definitely flattered and humbled. I felt that it was their way of reaching into the future and, this being the 30th anniversary of the festival, looking at the ways in which cinema is evolving in this time and wanting to pick someone who had been working in a more experimental way. [Laughs] Well, that’s kind of the story I told myself about why they picked me this year rather than my particular merits, necessarily. More as an archetype, maybe.

How did you put together the retrospective?

We worked on it together. It’s a fairly complete retrospective. It’s not every single work but it’s probably the best example of each phase of my career, I guess you could say. My work has had different formats and mediums over the years and we tried to pick the best example of each of those chapters, and then it ends with a new work, Work in Progress, which is very different from any of the previous ones. It’s a series of rituals that I’ve been working on at my family’s land in Vermont. where I moved back to in early 2016. That one is presented in a little wooden church that we built in the central courtyard of the DocLab venue and the church is filled with a bunch of little surprising elements including a bunch of images from of the films that I’ve been making of the rituals as I’ve been performing them. And those are presented without a lot of explanation.

Is that very representative of the rest of the work?

The bulk of the retrospective is in a more traditional gallery space and that includes nine projects arranged basically in chronological order, starting with sketchbooks that I kept while I was in university and leading up to Network Effect and Data Will Help Us, which are art projects from, like, two years ago but also including Word Count which was the first datavisual project that I made back in 2003, and then We Feel Fine, which is probably the most well-known project I’ve made, which was kind of a search engine for feelings.

Looking back on your work, what kind of evolution do you see there? Or are they just phases?

Definitely an evolution. I grew up in a very idyllic setting on a farm in Vermont, surrounded by nature. I was a very introverted child and I had a lot of health problems as a little kid, so I used art as a way of building a world of my own, but more safe and controllable than the family world around me. So I was making drawings and comic books from a very young age, and then I got into traditional oil paintings of landscapes in high school with a really good teacher. And then in college I started keeping sketch books, travel journals – very elaborate travel journals that were part of the practice of processing life as it was unfolding around me. And then that phase of kind of painting-based work ended very abruptly in 2003.

What happened?

I was robbed at gunpoint while traveling in Central America by five people with a gun to my head and a knife cutting my bag straps away. I got pretty badly hurt and had to go to hospital after the experience. One of the things that was stolen was a sketchbook with about nine months of work in it, and I took it as a sign – a sign telling me to try to use the computer science skills that I had been learning in college as an art medium. Up until that point, the computer programming side of me had been quite separate from the art-making side of me.

How did you start?

The earliest forms that that work took were pretty kind of classic data visualization packs, working with static data sets and adding graphic design principles to them, and then a little bit of interaction design too, to allow people to explore the data sets. Word Count is a kind of a good example of that phase. And then I started working with dynamic data sets – writing computer programs that would gather new data from the internet automatically every few minutes and feed that into the structures that I would create. So there was a tension between the order of the structures and the chaos of the data that was flowing into the structures.

Your more recent work is much more lo-tech. Why is that?

From there I wanted to kind of turn the lens back onto myself, using my own life as the material and the subject. After that … well, there was kind of a gap of upward of five years of feeling a lot of ‘stuckness’ – not making any new work and feeling very unproductive. During that time I did a lot of reading and what you might call exploring the so-called inner worlds. I did some meditation retreats and became interested in the inner world rather than the outer world. Then I tried to revisit the Internet with Network Effect (2015), but that ended up being kind of a critical project – it was about the negative effect that chronic Internet use is having on our psychology. That led me to move back home last year and starting this ritual work. And so that that’s kind of where I’m at now, working working with these rituals and working with our land, trying to transform this farm of ours into a place that can host groups of artists and writers and scholars.