Jonathan Harris: We Feel Fine

Jonathan Harris is an Brooklyn-based artist and storyteller who explores the human world in extremely innovative and highly technical ways. He has made projects about human emotion, human desire, modern mythology, science, news, and language, and created the world’s largest time capsule. He studied computer science at Princeton University, and was awarded a 2004 Fabrica fellowship. Harris’ work has been featured by CNN, BBC, and Wired among others. His work has also been exhibited at Le Centre Pompidou (Paris), and soon at an upcoming exhibit at MoMA (New York).  Behance caught up with Jonathan to discuss his approach to making bold ideas happen.

Even the most complicated of Jonathan’s projects start with simple questions. As he explains, “Most of my ideas begin with really basic questions I ask myself about the world, and then I begin the process of attempting to find answers to those questions, often using large sets of online data. This involves searching for what I call the right ‘lens.’

Lenses are linguistic or behavioral observations that can be used to whittle down overwhelming amounts of data to just the meaningful stuff. In the case of my We Feel Fine project, the lenses were the phrases ‘i feel’ and ‘i am feeling.’

Once I’ve found a good lens, I try to invent a graphical framework that echos the type of content being represented (in We Feel Fine, that’s anthropomorphic dots that exhibit traits like curiosity, nomadism, fear, and groupthink, in Universe, that’s stars and constellations in a night sky).  Beyond that, I try to keep things simple and playful.”In the modern world of connectivity, there is debate as to whether constant connection inhibits or supports creativity. Jonathan is careful not to subject himself to constant communication.

He elaborates, “…I do most of my thinking away from a computer, on paper, and then only hit the computer when I know pretty much exactly what I’m going to build. I find it hard to be creative behind a screen. I don’t carry a smartphone, so I can seek shelter in the electronic unavailability of the physical world.”

The creative community is plagued with a lack of accountability and ideas are all too often lost as a result. To stay accountable, Jonathan latches on to the simple premise of every project. As he explains, “I try to make sure that the projects I pursue are founded on really simple, universal ideas. I like to be able to describe each project in a single short sentence. This way, things stay pure and interesting, so I make fewer false starts. As Frank Lloyd Wright said, in defense of thinking things through ahead of time: ‘You can use a sledgehammer on the construction site, or an eraser in the studio.’”

I try to make sure that the projects I pursue are founded on really simple, universal ideas.

Jonathan feels fortunate to have found some great collaborators, and also finds the natural world as his greatest source of inspiration. “I collaborate often with Sep Kamvar. We made We Feel Fine and Lovelines together, and are working on a new piece about online dating now. We have a high level of respect for each other, and often hone each other’s ideas. But my basic inspiration comes from the real world — observing strangers, watching life happen. That kind of thing.”

Jonathan has defied conventional wisdom by pursuing bold ideas early in his life without much institutional credibility. In his own words, “I think you can learn a lot on your own, provided you work hard. I’ve never been a believer in b’putting in your time’ with a big company.”

Jonathan’s many projects are grounded with a simple mission. He explains, “I’m mainly interested in helping to increase empathy in the world through storytelling. My idea of storytelling is unconventional though – instead of telling my own stories, I’m interested in building tools and platforms that can amplify many other peoples’ stories, serving to make evident the common ground shared between humans.”

And Jonathan’s simple advice for the broader creative professional community: “Work on universal ideas, executed simply and playfully.”

More insights on: Disconnecting, Innovation
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