Biography

Jonathan J. Harris is an artist and technologist.

Origins

Jonathan Jennings Harris was born in Burlington, Vermont on August 27, 1979. In his early years, his great interest was in comic books and other forms of art-making.

He attended St. Bernard’s School in New York City, then Deerfield Academy in Western Massachusetts, and then studied computer science at Princeton University and interactive art in Italy at Fabrica.

Drawings, 1998

After focusing on drawing, painting, and keeping elaborate sketchbooks for many years, he was robbed at gunpoint in 2003 while traveling in Central America — prompting a shift away from physicality towards computer programming.

Data

We Feel Fine, 2005

His early data visualization projects (such as Wordcount, 10x10, We Feel Fine, and I Want You To Want Me) helped to establish that burgeoning field.

The projects explored the ways in which the human species was evolving into a single planetary “meta-organism,” which could be probed and represented through the troves of Internet data that it was producing.

These projects resonated with the zeitgeist of their moment, leading to five Webby Awards, two TED talks, a book with Simon & Schuster, an exhibition at Le Centre Pompidou, and the acquisition of two works by The Museum of Modern Art in New York. The World Economic Forum named him a “Young Global Leader,” and AIGA named We Feel Fine one of the most influential design projects of the last century.

Documentary

In 2007, Jonathan made a shift back to the physical world through a series of experimental documentary projects that helped to establish the field of “interactive storytelling.”

These projects (such as The Whale Hunt, Balloons of Bhutan, and I Love Your Work) explored the ambiguous relationship between humans and technology. In these projects, Jonathan designed “algorithms” for himself to follow while “collecting data” in the physical world, in much the same way that his computer programs would collect data online.

These projects were featured at Sundance, Tribeca, and other film festivals, and later had a full retrospective at the 2017 IDFA festival in Amsterdam, where he was invited to be the guest of honor, writing the essay, Powers of Ten.

Today, 2009

In 2009, Jonathan began to document his own life experience more directly, through a practice of taking a photograph and writing a short story each day, and posting them online each night before going to sleep. He called this daily ritual Today, and continued it for 440 days. His friend, Scott Thrift, made a short film describing the project.

Cowbird, 2012

Today evolved into Cowbird, a free (and ad-free) storytelling platform for anyone to use, providing a more contemplative alternative to existing social media environments.

Cowbird was a kind of “Wikipedia for human experience,” amassing nearly 100,000 stories from 15,000 authors from 185 countries — leading TIME Magazine to name the project one of the 50 best websites of 2012.

Dilemmas

As our collective relationship with the Internet began to change from one of utopian possibility to one of attention economies, fake news, filter bubbles, and widespread screen addiction, Jonathan decided to close Cowbird after five years of operation, leaving it online as an historical archive. He further explored these dynamics in a 2012 essay called Modern Medicine, comparing software to a new kind of drug.

This dawning ambivalence around the medium that he had been using for more than a decade produced a difficult period of creative block, which he described in his 2014 illustrated essay, Navigating Stuckness.

In 2015, he collaborated with Greg Hochmuth to create Network Effect, which explored the psychological effects of widespread Internet use on humanity. The project employed the aesthetics of data visualization to question the ultimate utility of data — and to gesture at what might lie beyond it. The project received the 2016 Infinity Award in New Media from the International Center of Photography. He also explored the limitations of data in 2013’s Data Will Help Us, which was commissioned by The New York Times.

For the rest of 2015, he and Greg created proposals for technology projects with Netflix, Google, Twitter, and the Irish band U2, respectively — all of which fell through for one reason or another. These rejections helped to shape his decision to leave New York and return to his family’s ancestral land in the small town of Shelburne, Vermont.

Life Art

On March 5, 2016, Jonathan returned to High Acres Farm — where his mother died the very day he moved home, after a long illness. Around that time, he began to practice what he came to think of as “Life Art” — seeing an actual life situation as the frame for the work, and working with tools, materials, stories, and dilemmas that exist in that frame of experience, as a way of evolving the world.

This new orientation led to a range of projects very different from his earlier work with the Internet — he hosted community gatherings to ponder the future of his family’s land; he oversaw the renovation of his ancestral home and its transformation into a space to share with others; he designed and decorated a home of his own; he created symbols and websites for local nonprofits to help their efforts evolve; he experimented with social practices for cultivating new forms of presence; he helped his friends to clarify and manifest various projects of their own.

In 2018, he released A Silent Place — a sparse meditation on one of the earliest human art forms, based on a series of pictographic rock drawings created in the Utah desert.

Primarily, he spent the six years from 2015–2021 carrying out a series of “rituals” at High Acres Farm. These twenty-one rituals were a way of working with the energies of the place: transforming its shadowy patterns so as to prepare his land (and himself) for the best possible future.

In Fragments, 2021

The resulting project, In Fragments, premiered in late 2021 at High Acres Farm, for an intimate audience of around 100 family members and friends.

With its broader public release in early 2022, Jonathan hopes it can serve as a powerful example of “Life Art” — inspiring others to find their own forms of practice as well.

Also see: In Fragments biography »