On Jonathan Harris and the Digressica Project

O hai. Happy New Year.


I don’t really know where to start. It would be ridiculous to comment on the fact that I haven’t blogged here since almost a year ago. Ridiculous and unnecessary. I may do better in 2012. Let’s see. I have a good feeling about this year.

I wanted to write about Jonathan Harris, one of my favourite artists. He calls himself a storyteller, but the New York Times calls him “a renaissance man for the information age”. I think they’re probably both right.

You might have seen some of his work without realising it. His We Feel Fine project (co-created with Sep Kamvar) is maybe his best known work. You should take a look – it really is incredible, and a lot of fun to play with. The website is an exploration of human emotion, a database of millions of feelings and micro-stories pulled from the internet every few minutes – statements beginning ‘I feel’ or ‘I am feeling’ – published on millions of blogs, message boards and social media feeds all over the world. We Feel Fine identifies the emotion expressed in each sentence, as well as the age, location and gender of its author. Based on that information it extrapolates other data, such as the weather at the time the emotion was expressed. The playful, colourful interface lets you interact with the stories and understand the data in meaningful ways.

It’s basically brilliant.

Even better and more impressive – I think, anyway, in terms of ingenuity and user experience – is The Whale Hunt, another storytelling experiment that documents Jonathan’s experience with an ancient tradition in the Inupiat Eskimo community of Barrow, Alaska through a constant sequence of photographs taken at five-minute intervals over a seven-day period. The result is what he calls a “photographic heartbeat”, where at moments of adrenaline as many as 37 photographs were taken every five minutes, so that the rate of images increases to mimic the quickening of his own heart in those moments. Like most of his projects, The Whale Hunt is about data collection and interpretation. You can see the images in a linear fashion or apply filters to isolate sub-stories within the larger narrative. Jonathan describes The Whale Hunt as “a choose-your-own adventure book crossed with a data visualisation project crossed with a slideshow”.

It’s basically brilliant.

But one of my favourite Jonathan Harris projects might be the simplest one, called Today. When he turned 30, Jonathan began the ritual of taking one photo every day and posting it online with a short story. He continued for 440 days, ending up with a kind of tapestry-like portrait of his life at age 30. He describes the project as a “crutch for memory”.

I’ve had a few friends who have embarked on this sort of project and I’ve always found it a rather lovely idea. My friend Brusca took a photo on his iPhone every day for a year, embracing the Chase Jarvis philosophy that “the best camera is the one that’s with you”. I loved it – it’s nice having these little window insights into a friend’s life, just tiny snapshots of his day.

When I saw the short film Jonathan and his friend Scott Thrift made after the Today project ended, I just found it really moving. I love the simplicity of the idea, and the way that each image by itself is just an image, but put together and watched in a linear way, you get this kind of understanding of a person and their life. A shallow understanding, of course – it’s a bit like sneaking a peek at their family’s home movies. You’re never going to get the full story, but you do get an overall picture and a sense of forward movement, even though they’re just still frames – a microsecond out of a whole day.

Anyway, I loved it so much that I’m unashamedly ripping off the idea. I’d like to make a video of my own at the end of the year. I guess I’ll see how I go.

If you’d like to follow the unimaginatively titled Digressica Project, you’re very welcome to. I’m mostly doing it for my own satisfaction, really – a sort of experiment in memory – and maybe for my family and friends who might be interested. Maybe you’d like to do something similar yourself. Tell me if you do; I would love to come and nose into your world.

I won’t link to every photo on here because that would be absurd, but I might try to choose one every week. The one at the top of this post was taken at twilight at Currimundi Beach on New Year’s Day. Here’s one from today.


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One response to “On Jonathan Harris and the Digressica Project

  1. good stuff!
    thanks for sharing :)

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