Jonathan Harris : We feel fine

October 20, 2007

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I’ve always been fascinated with story-telling and so I really enjoyed Jonathan Harris’ session. Harris is an artist who designs systems to “explore and explain the human world” by “combining elements of computer science, anthropology, visual art and storytelling”. If you check out his website, you can take a look at some of the fascinating projects that he has undertaken.

He talked about various story-telling platforms and showed some pages from his sketchbooks. They were filled with colourful sketches that gave real insights into a moment or a mood and there was a certain ephemeral beauty about them. That said, we were told that there is the odd pasted dead insect. Eww.

The second project, The Whale Hunt, documented the 9 days he spent in Alaska participating in a traditional whale hunt. He took photos roughly every 5 minutes and the rate of photography increased with the adrenaline levels. It was a departure from most stories in that there was no “omniscient narrator”. So while there was 1 meta-story, it was possible to recombine the photos in meaningful ways to capture different sub-stories. Fascinating!

His third featured project is We Feel Fine. The system searches all the newly posted blog entries for occurrences of the phrases “I feel” and “I am feeling”. When it finds such a phrase, it records the full sentence, up to the period, and identifies the “feeling” expressed in that sentence (e.g. sad, happy, depressed, etc.). This is saved together with demographic data about the blogger and along with a photo, if there is one. The result is literally millions of captured human emotions and wonderful montages of moments in time. The project makes me think about Found Magazine and the PostSecret blog. Nothing more than glimpses of the transient moments that define life but absolutely wonderful!

At the end of his presentation, he did an awesome experiment where he showed pictures from the “we feel fine” website and invited people to stand up and react to the photo. Comments like “I’m sitting next to my dad and I love him” and “I didn’t know how lonely I felt until I wasn’t lonely anymore” really made me feel like I was part of a common humanity and it was wonderful. It would have been amazing to be there in the audience.

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