Interview: Jonathan Harris
Interview: Jonathan Harris
An interactive online experience documents the daily lives of the women who make lesbian porn
We first spoke with artist Jonathan Harris six years ago and gained some insight into his process and work at the time. Since, Harris has continued to create extremely involved and engaging work, exploring the human condition through a technological lens, often expressed in complex interactive online experiences. From tracking how people are feeling across the world wide web to documenting a whale hunt in Alaska, Harris has a unique vision and an innate ability to tell stories within complex sets of data or fringe communities. Through this lens he forms cohesive human stories expressed in interactive digital portraiture.
In his latest project "I Love Your Work," Harris spent 10 days with nine different women, all of them lesbian pornography actresses. While the expectation might be racy, behind-the-scenes clips dodging fluffers and confused production assistants, Harris's work offers an extremely intimate portrait of these individuals as they go about their day-to-day. With 10-second clips shot every five minutes, the resulting patchwork videos create nine different stories that are, at times, very mundane but also completely and utterly addictive. Purchasing a ticket gets you 24 hours of access to the site (the time limit enhancing the feeling of secrecy) and once you begin, you may want to watch all six and a half hours of footage in one sitting.
Harris's execution of the interactive experience is also spot on. The site can be browsed in two formats; each letting you scroll through any day, time or subject so you can jump in and out of moments—moving seamlessly through these women's lives. We caught up with the artist to discuss the story behind the project and the greater implications modern pornography has for our society and sexuality.
Tell us about your project, how did it come to be?
I basically got introduced to Jincey Lumpkin, the woman who is producing and directing the porn series all these women were performing in. I thought what she was doing was really interesting. At the time she was a lawyer and was contemplating quitting being a lawyer to pursue a career in lesbian porn. She had dreams of becoming the Hugh Hefner of the lesbian porn world but she was just starting out and didn't really have any following, but she was wildly ambitious and I just thought it was a really interesting moment in her life. I thought porn as a topic was really interesting because it is something that most guys watch and a lot of women watch—but very few people admit that they watch. It's also played this really interesting role in the internet's history as this staging ground for new technologies before they enter the mainstream. So I met with Jincey and we got along really well and I pitched her the idea of using these brief 10-second videos to document the everyday lives of people who make porn.
Why 10 seconds?
The 10 second clip format came from the history of porn sites which used to give these free 10 second teasers as an enticement for people to pay to see more. Now that internet bandwidth is more generous I think the teasers are now around 30 seconds but historically they were always 10 seconds and, as far as I know, that was a time format that wasn't really used for anything else. So this 10 second format was something that a lot of people would have seen but would have seen in private and therefore it was weirdly familiar and secret at the same time.
What happened next?
Jincey liked the idea and I started talking about finding a date on the calendar where we could actually make this happen and that took about a year until she was filming a series and I was free and could come to New York. Then we had to convince the women to agree to participate, so it was a pretty long and drawn-out process from the initial meeting to when the footage was shot.
How long were you filming these women's lives for?
It was 10 days and I was filming whenever they were awake for those 10 days. I followed around a different woman each day, spent the night at their apartment and then switched to the next person at 10:10AM the next morning so the project is all 10s. 10-second video clips, 10 days, switching from one person to the next at 10:10AM and on the website it is limited to 10 viewers a day and tickets to see it cost $10 dollars, which all came from the initial format of that 10-second clip.
How long were the intervals between the 10-second clips?
Every five minutes, I shot a 10-second clip and I actually shot more than 10 seconds of footage some of the time. I would usually shoot 12-14 seconds to have a little buffer and then sometimes I shot more like two minutes if they were having a really interesting conversation and then when I was doing the edit I would just take out the most interesting or sensible continuous 10 seconds of time from that period.
What did you learn spending all this time with the porn actresses?
I learned about how normal sex and sexuality can be; that is doesn't have to be this shameful, guilt-ridden, stigmatized thing that we do in the dark and don't talk about otherwise—which is more or less how I was brought up to think about sex—and spending the 10 days with these women made me feel much more fluid and comfortable talking about my own sexuality. I feel like I have evolved through doing this project, but as I look around at the rest of our society, I see a lot of people still feeling a lot of guilt and shame around their own sexual desires and sexuality. I think that is something we need to evolve out of as a culture. And I think in this way people that work in porn and these women I was spending time with, they had a kind of prophetic quality to them in that sense. I think that they are already there and everybody else needs to catch up with them.
Do you think porn, especially with the rise of access through the internet, has already changed or shaped the way our society view sexuality?
I think it definitely has. I think it has had really complex effects on how people view sex and in a lot of different ways. This would include a lot of young men having very unrealistic expectations about what sexual encounters with women are going to be like. This comes from seeing these really fetishized, dramatized versions of sex since they were 14 years old—but they haven't actually experienced much of the stuff for themselves. So when they actually find themselves in these situations, they end up wanting things or expecting things that maybe two consenting adults don't necessarily want with each other. I think for a lot of people sex becomes this way of trying to recreate images that already exist in your head instead of participating in a naturally evolving situation between two people.
So I think that's a negative effect porn has had, it's made us all slaves to the images that we've been conditioned to see. On the other hand, I think the fluidity with which a lot of people experience internet porn now—you have maybe porn open in one browser tab and you have your gmail in another and your twitter in another—I think it's made sexuality a more fluid part of life, not something that needs to be done in secret, but something that is more a part of how we think of ourselves. In that sense it's good in the way it's made porn a more integral part of our lives. There is a kind of danger too, sometimes when things become to common or accepted they lose something along the way. They lose a kind of secret special quality—this is a hard point to communicate—but I think some of what gives something it's energy has to do with the fact that it feels fringe, secret or illicit and when that thing becomes too bright, sunny or cheerful it can loses a bit of the thing that gave it energy in the first place.
How is the experience designed, what can people expect from a viewing experience?
People are surprised. People hear the phrase "lesbian porn" and it's one of those salacious phrases and they have certain expectations and images in their mind. But when you actually start experiencing the project, it's a lot different. And what it is, is an incredibly raw and intimate portrait of the everyday lives of nine different women who happen to make porn, but there is actually a relatively small amount of porn and sex in the project. More than those two things it's about how everyday life works for these nine different human beings. There is this kind of very strange feeling you get from watching it because it doesn't have the feeling of reality TV—which we are so accustomed to now but which is edited for a certain effect—it feels much more like Cinema Verité, where you're just seeing exactly what happened with no editorial oversight.
The edit is extremely neutral because it is entirely determined by the time constraints so you have these clips every five minutes so they just move ahead, plodding along through six and a half hours and you get lulled into this rhythm of skipping ahead five minutes in time in a glimpse. This kind of carries you along through the ups and downs in the day in the life of nine different women. That's a very strange thing to experience. A lot of people express this mixture of boredom and fascination when they're watching this project because many of the moments are really boring but there is always the chance the next moment will be something really provocative.
Images courtesy of Jonathan Harris