‘People Really Like It, They Just Don’t Tell Their Friends’

Meet the creator of an interactive documentary on the lives of nine women who make lesbian porn.

‘People Really Like It, They Just Don’t Tell Their Friends’

From We Feel Fine – a project that used an algorithm to track emotions expressed on the Internet – to I Want You to Want Me – an interactive installation about online dating that was commissioned by the MoMA for Valentine’s Day in 2008 – the focus of Jonathan Harris’ work has long examined how technology can be used to highlight humanity. Harris’ latest project, I Love Your Work, is an interactive documentary on the lives of nine women who make lesbian porn. Over a ten-day period in 2010, Harris, who is the founder of the social storytelling platform Cowbird, spent 24 hours with each of the women, documenting their daily lives of taxi rides, walks, dinners, dates and on set performances. He published the footage on an interactive website, and sells ten tickets a day for people to watch it.

Shortly after Harris launched I Love Your Work, I spoke with him about interactive storytelling, what people share on the Internet, and porn.

I Love Your Work seems rather different from your other projects. How does it fit in with the rest of your work?

I think I have always been drawn to strange subcultures or strange aspects of the world that people don’t see. I did a project with the whale hunt in 2007, and that’s a very polarizing topic. You know, most people have very strong feelings about it but know very little about it, actually. And then I did a project in Bhutan which is another very remote and really hard to get place. This project is remote in a different way. It’s in New York City, which is easy to get to, but the people in the project are very remote from most people’s friends and experience of life. I was just interested in seeing what life was like for them.

Was it very different from other people’s lives?

I think the lesson I keep coming back to in all of these project is that people have a lot in common with each other, and our experience of life is very very similar. There is a lot of common ground, no matter what the superficial details of your life may be. And so the phrase lesbian porn star sounds very salacious, but when you actually get to see the world that they inhabit from the inside, it’s very ordinary. It looks a lot like your life and my life. It’s grocery shopping and subways and checking email and going on dates, except they also have some time when they are performing nude in front of the camera. But that’s really a small percentage of the overall thing. And so some of the women were incredibly funny and smart and cool, and totally the types that I would want to hang out with normally.

So it wasn’t so different, working with porn stars?

I often design projects that I feel will make me grow as a person, and this project was certainly like that. I grew up in a pretty conservative way. My family is pretty conservative. I went to conservative schools, and I was taught to think about sex in a certain way — that it’s something you do but you don’t talk about it, you don’t even talk about it with the person you’re doing it with.

I think and talk very differently about sex now after spending ten days with these women, for whom sex is so normalized. Somehow it feels more highly evolved than the rest of society. Maybe twenty years from now everyone is going to be really open about sex, and in that sense the porn actresses are a little like trailblazers.

Was it hard to convince the women to be part of this project?

Initially, they all said no when I first proposed the project, and that was very discouraging. And then I convinced one of them to say yes. She was the most famous of the girls and has a big cult following in the porn world. She is known for doing really intense BDSM [bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism] scenes, that’s her niche. And when she agreed to do it everybody else agreed to do it, because they admired her so much.

You had never met the women before the shooting. How did that affect your work?

Starting each day with a person you have never met before and following her around was a very jarring experience. It was ten straight days and exactly 24 hours spent with each woman. Every morning at 10:10 a.m. the woman I was following would walk with me to a predefined meeting point, and she would do a hand-off, and then I would start following the next woman. What was jarring was that after spending 24 hours with someone, you actually get really close to them. You learn how they move, how they speak, what their rhythm is, what they are comfortable with and how to be with the camera around them. Then once you reach that level of confidence, intimacy and balance you suddenly have to start from scratch for somebody totally new. That process was hard, and I handled it just by being very quiet and soft, and respectful. I tried to adapt to them as opposed to having them adapt to me.

What was your criterion for editing?

The concept was always to select ten seconds of continuous footage every five minutes. Ten second clips is what porn sites used for free previews that they would offer before asking for credit card information, and I thought it would be interesting to use that format to make teasers for the everyday lives of people, like abstracts of everyday life. It would just be 10 straight seconds and they would represent that period of five minutes in real world time. That’s how the editing worked. It wasn’t edited in the way that most movies are, with intention to manipulate the viewer or to go through some kind of journey. It was a very neutral editing style to get brief windows into the actual life of different people.

Why didn’t you simply edit the footage and publish it as one video, or perhaps ten?

Personally, I find videos really boring on their own. I never feel like watching a video — I’d rather go outside, walk around and talk to people. Video making has become so coded. Everyone is using the same software. They all use Final Cut Pro, they all use the same 5D camera and edit in the same way. There’s a certain set of formal qualities that have emerged around what makes a good video: it has to be a certain time length and viewed within a certain interface. Anything that starts enlarging people’s conceptions about how interactive storytelling can work is good. I am more interested in building different types of environments that may incorporate videos, but also other outlets too.

How has I Love Your Work been received?

I’ve noticed that a lot of the people who usually write about my projects have been totally silent on this one, and I think it’s because it’s about porn. It made me realize that when people choose to share content it’s not so much about what they are sharing but more about how their image will be changed by sharing it. The type of content that people tend to share it’s stuff that makes them come across as being a happy, joyful persons and they tend not to share sad, shocking or provocative things. We’ve been noticing it on Cowbird too. Stories that get shared are life affirming and beautiful and not sad and sentimental generally, even if people love the sentimental ones they don’t share them. I think porn takes that a whole step further. But people really, really like it, they just don’t tell their friends.