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Interview with Jonathan Harris, Artist, ex-Fabricante

Interview with Jonathan Harris, Artist, ex-Fabricante

Introducing a new feature of blog.Fabrica: Interview section! On top of blogging/reblogging every day, now every two weeks (or so) we will be bringing you our exclusive interviews of people who are, or were once, part of Fabrica.

We premiere this exciting new feature with our friend Jon Harris, creator of the popular 10x10 project, two times winner of the Webby Award, and the designer/programmer of our current Fabrica.it website. Jonathan was at Fabrica from July 2004 and left February 2005, cutting his one-year contract three months short to join a start-up company in New York City. He visited us briefly in May and came back to mensa for a day. From the outside looking in, he considers Fabrica to be "a lot like Walden Pond -- a year in relative isolation to focus on big ideas." Most of us here feel that we're too isolated, but we will probably miss it once we exit. And this is how we were inspired to interview past Fabricanti, to see what happens to people once they leave this pond.

Jonathan's portfolio site is at www.number27.org


b.F: You were recently back to visit Fabrica for a day, how does it feel being back?

JH: Oh, it felt wonderful. Very nostalgic. For all its quirks, Treviso is charming. I spent a sunny evening watching the sky fade over Piazza Signori, sipping some Cabernet Franc. I found it amazingly easy to focus, to regain an objective view on life, even for the two brief days I was there. Some things had been bothering me about work and life back home in New York, and I was suddenly able to see them very clearly, and resolve them in my mind. The whole trip made me feel I was in this secret place that the rest of the world didn't know about, and that I could do my thinking there, beyond distraction. I thought, how wonderful it must have been to have had an entire year in this secret place. But I suppose places rarely retain their hold on us over time. They become flawed, and easily critiqued, so we move on, looking for something better. But that's a cycle that will continue, no matter where we move or what we do, until we learn to be satisfied.

Fabrica itself brought back memories. Walking into the courtyard, beneath the concrete monolith, I experienced the feeling I remembered having each morning when I was at Fabrica -- the feeling of walking into that perfectly austere structure, and somehow wanting to make work that could live up to the building, to that sense of timelessness.

b.F: Looking back, are there anything you wish you could have done more while you were at Fabrica?

JH: I could have spent more time with people. Looking back, that might be my only regret. I was so focused on making work that I often neglected the amazing people surrounding me. I was known for keeping crazy hours at Fabrica -- often arriving on the 6:15AM bus, taking the last bus home, and even once spending the night curled up on the floor of the interactive department, with some pillows and blankets from my flat, in order to finish a project. I probably worked more than the average Fabricanti, but then I probably socialized less than the average Fabricanti. As in all things, balance is best, but I wasn't quite able to find that balance. Sometimes I regret that.

b.F: What do you consider the most valuable experience out of your time at Fabrica?

JH: If I had to define Fabrica with one idea, with one lesson, it would be the idea of universal communication. Big, strong, simple ideas. To me, that's what Fabrica has always been about, since the days of Toscani, to the inception of Colors Magazine, to the monosyllabically titled books, and right through the best projects of the last few years. I would say that this idea of simplicity is the thing that really stuck with me. I really believe in it.

In fact, it was first put to me in a roundabout way by Andy Cameron, my mentor when I was at Fabrica. It was a few weeks into my time there, and I was all wide-eyed and eager. I was telling Andy about all these ideas I had had for projects to make. I talked and I talked, and Andy didn't say much. Finally I asked him what he thought of my ideas. He didn't answer directly, but said, "Jon, when you're thinking of a new idea for a project, ask yourself if it's something the Italian Everyman could know and understand." I asked him what he meant. He said, "Well, you know those old men who stand in Piazza Signori on Sunday afternoons, carrying canes, wearing top hats and three-piece suits? If you went up to one of them, and in your broken Italian, explained to him your idea, would it be something he could understand and appreciate? If so, you have almost certainly found a very good idea. If not, you may wish to find another."

b.F: Your favorite Italian memory:

JH: My final weekend at Fabrica, Vladimir Dubko, Keren Rosen and I rented a car and drove up through the Dolomites into the mountains of Southern Austria. After hours of driving, we found ourselves in a small hillside village, consisting of about eight farmhouses. It was getting late, well past dark, and there was thick snow on the ground. We started knocking on doors, asking the villagers if we could spend the night in one of the houses. Finally one benevolent stranger said yes, and so we stayed with this Austrian family, in a large bedroom above the sheep and goats outside. We woke the next morning and looked outside, to see that the house was situated on the side of a cliff, in this stunning valley, with the rising sun streaming down through it. We then spent the day hiking through the snow, along a riverbed and through pine forests, talking about all sorts of things.

I also have fond memories of spending Sunday afternoons at Lago di Santa Croce, an hour north of Treviso, swimming in its deep cold waters, with snow-capped mountains in the distance overhead, even on the hottest summer days.

And I always smile when I remember one of the Mensa ladies, the one who usually serves the soup. She wears a snood, and glasses that are too large for her face, so they slide down onto the tip of her nose. She pours the soup and her glasses steam up from the heat, so she can no longer look through them. Then, soup bowl in one hand, cheese spoon in the other, she peers up at you and asks, "Formaggio?"

b.F: Tell us a bit about what you're working on right now

JH: Well, I just finished a very large project that I've been working on for more than a year. It's called We Feel Fine, and it collects human feelings from blogs, by searching for the phrases "i feel" and "i am feeling". When it finds such a phrase, it captures the whole sentence, up to the period. Because blogs are often structured in standard ways, the system then tries to identify the age, gender, geographical location and local weather conditions of the person that wrote that sentence. All of this information is saved. The result is a database of nearly 4 million human feelings, increasing by around 20,000 feelings per day. The feelings are then displayed in a series of playful interfaces, and can be asked to self-organize in a variety of ways. We Feel Fine offers answers to questions like "Do men or women feel beautiful more often?", "What is the saddest city in the world?", "Does rainy weather affect how we feel?", and so on.

We Feel Fine was an attempt to coax emotion out of the Internet, which is typically thought to be a cold and sterile medium. I was interested in illustrating the humanity hiding in the Web, and in making something beautiful with it.

My main project now is the start-up company I left Fabrica to co-found over a year ago. It is called Daylife, and will be launching in the next few months. Essentially, we've been building a new kind of online news service that organizes all the world's news in a number of interesting ways. Look for it in the fall.

b.F: In the recent years, we've seen a lot of projects that use harvested Internet data as "paint" -- medium in which the artist manipulates to make their statement -- and yours are certainly one of the more well-known in this genre. Can you discuss some of your approach when starting a new project?

I consider much of my work second-order artwork, in the sense that the materials I use are often harvested from existing sources -- found objects, if you will. When one of my pieces is "finished", that really means that it can begin -- that my role has finished but that the piece can now assume a life of its own, growing and changing within the parameters I have set. In this sense, my role is really to decide what the boundaries should be, and then to wait for chaos to occur within those boundaries.

It is important to me that each of my projects answers some universal question, that it tells me something new about the world. This is a qualitatively different approach from traditional artwork like painting or sculpture, where the piece is a direct result of the artist's world view, and where the piece, once created, never changes to fit the changing world around it. My work is more akin to a science experiment, where I start with an hypothesis, a general idea about the world, and then I write a program that can help prove or disprove my hypothesis, ideally creating some beautiful artifacts along the way.

b.F: Name some of your favorite artists / art movements that you think influence your line of work

JH: My favorite artist is probably the man behind www.realityhacking.com

I also love the architecture of Louis Kahn and Tadao Ando, and certain projects by Diller + Scofidio

I also love the writing and life outlook of the young Bob Dylan, especially as epitomized in his poem, "Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie"

b.F: With more than a million users/viewers on your sites, you've probably made the most popular project at Fabrica to date, do you have any wise words for the in-coming/ current Fabricanti?

JH: My only words of wisdom would be to make the most of your time at Fabrica. For all the griping done by Fabricanti, the truth is that Fabrica is a uniquely special place, and one that probably has no equal in the world. It is an enormous opportunity to spend a year in quiet isolation, to focus on intellectual growth, both by way of work and by way of the extraordinary people you meet. After leaving Fabrica, I have realized how incredibly rare it is to find free time to think and work. Fabrica can offer you this, if you play it right.

The hard reality is that many Fabricanti spend their short year complaining about the gross injustices of the place, or about the oppressive leadership. Certainly there are things that could improve, but that is true with anything in life, and on balance, Fabrica really is an amazing place. That said, its best components are only revealed to people who take initiative and motivate themselves. Many people seem to arrive to Fabrica with the idea that great projects will just fall into their laps -- that being accepted to Fabrica was all that needed to happen and that the rest will happen magically. Being accepted to Fabrica is just the admission ticket to the big dance -- you still have to dance.

I would also urge Fabricanti to work on their own projects, either alone or with friends, outside the context of "Fabrica" projects. Fabrica projects are notoriously plagued by delays and cancellations, leading to a lot of disappointment from people who stake too much in them. I always found it better to make my own work, even if that meant sneaking it in at times. As my sister says: "Don't ask for permission; Beg for forgiveness". In the end, if the work is good enough, Fabrica will congratulate you. And if you're really lucky, they'll ask you back to do interviews! :)

Originally from
ReBlogged by ann p on Jun 15, 2006 at 02:32 PM Posted by ann p on Jun 15, 2006 at 02:32 PM


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