‘Big Brother’ keeps getting bigger—or at least more marketable. This sadistic Dutch TV show began in September, when eight ordinary people locked themselves into a one-story house for a hundred days with limited supplies, no outside contact, and relentless surveillance cameras tracking them. (The American equivalent, ‘Survivor,’ is slated for summer.) One by one, the subjects have been getting picked off as they duke it out for a final prize, awarded on New Year’s Eve: The last person left in the compound pockets over a hundred grand. Holland is transfixed by what has become an examination of humans as lab rats.
Similar mischief has begun here in Manhattan. New-media impresario Josh Harris is conducting a mad social science experiment of his own, a millennial event of Orwellian proportions, literally, that plans to balance out the fascist protocols with a generous pleasure component. “This will be the most important millennial experience in the most important city in the world,” says Harris with characteristic hyperbole. “The 1984 worldview is in the works. 2000 is a nice marker. Before Big Brother and After Big Brother. Man is the evolutionary king of the jungle, but there’s something else happening. You can call it the Machine Age, you can call it the next coming of Christ. [Mankind] is going to be marginalized.”
Harris’s objective is to enable a giant collective of underground artists to examine the state of things at this ostensibly crucial moment in human evolution, and wrap the whole exhibit in a 10-day sleep-over party, all expenses paid for selected participants. What Harris actually has in the works is hard to describe: It’s the Warhol factory, The Real World run amok, Burning Man for the hopelessly urban, group therapy in a moment of existential crisis. But if it goes as planned, it could be quite memorable. Harris, the founder of online programming network Pseudo and before that Jupiter Communications, has made a reputation for himself as Silicon Alley’s most enthusiastic party planner. He staunchly distinguishes this particular event—called “Quiet”—as “a happening.” “The millennium doesn’t crop up that often. I’m taking the Risky Business approach: ‘Sometimes you just got to say, ‘What the fuck.’ ”
Harris is, conservatively speaking, loaded, and with a bit of Tom Cruise sangfroid, he is pouring “in the mid hundreds of thousands—if all goes well” of his own money into the bash. He has taken over five floors of two cavernous textile buildings of downtown Manhattan, and in every corner, amid the rubble and plywood planks of his romper room in progress, there are spiky-haired hipsters, many of them imported from the European underground by the event’s curator, Leo Koenig. The art crowd is madly cobbling together this expansive millennial complex, which is supposed to be completed in the next week so that 80 chosen “citizens” can move in among the dozens of installations, most of which serve some particular function within this experimental civilization. And the ceremonies will begin.
Although most of the specifics of the event are still vague—and last week the headquarters still looked a gutted sweatshop—Harris is keeping cool: “I think I’m timing it just right. I want a sense of urgency,” he says. The most bizarre thing is, Santa and his elves might pull it off. With a pleasant amount of haphazard jerry-rigging, the installations are beginning to take shape: an altar for the temple, a Japanese garden, a banquet hall, a steam room, a game room, a lounge with performance stage, a workshop, a dance floor.
The strangest installation is a shooting gallery with heavy artillery and blanks. The artist responsible, Alfredo Martinez, secured a film permit to keep City Hall out of his hair. “It’ll be very well controlled—the participants are all artists, they’re all puffballs, and the security guys are ex-SEALs who do one-handed push-ups on their fingertips,” says Martinez.
The most elaborate and expensive component of the project is a hive of 80 Japanese-style sleeping pods, called the Capsule Hotel. Each pod is four feet by eight feet and wired with a camera, a monitor, and a microphone, networked together so that the citizens can spy on and speak to one another using live video feed. This is where Big Brother comes in. The team of planners—about 20, but growing steadily—will send e-mail invites to selected members of the Downtown art scene and Silicon Alley. The chosen, as Harris sees it, will abandon all their holiday plans and come down to the headquarters, where they will undergo a two-hour psychological interrogation. (Harris and crew will use the profiles to perform “social experiments” on the citizens.) They’ll be given a uniform (orange Dickies and a gray T-shirt with silk-screened emblems) and checked into the millennial complex, where they will be fed and entertained for the next 10 days or more.
“We’re going to run it like an intelligence agency, a cross between the CIA and the KGB,” Harris says. “We’re using a combination of psychological profiling, measuring the strength of a person’s ego, and rigorous surveillance tactics.” The idea is to control behavior among citizens by creating a climate of fear, within a climate of acceptance and pleasure—so you have, simultaneously, absolute freedom of expression, and absolute lack of privacy. Mutiny seems inevitable; those who behave badly will be kicked out, and those who leave the complex will not be allowed to return. “The people that end up there are what matter. Everything is a distillation process. You’ve got to fight it out with hundreds of people to be part of the final core citizens: We all made it. We all got to New York City. We’re all in the center of the world already, then in the center of the world we got into the center of the world.”
Harris and his open checkbook do seem to have gathered a sort of cult appeal. “He’s the Michael Jackson of Silicon Alley; what he’s doing here is creating a Neverland,” says David Leslie, performance art curator at P.S. 122. “This is outrageous, more expansive and ambitious than anything I’ve been involved in. It is a great gift to the city and artists he’s pulled together.”
Even prominent Soho gallerist Jeffrey Deitch is a convert: “With this kind of project there’s really no definition of what constitutes pulling it off and what’s not pulling it off, and that’s what’s interesting. Josh is creating something, he’s got fresh energy. There is bound to be art in this show I find dismissible, there will be things that offend me. But there will be extraordinary things in this show that you couldn’t find anywhere else.” (Outsiders will be able to view the show—though they will be required to don white zip-up zoot suits for their visit.)
Sure, the whole project is an exercise in megalomania (“My main competitor in town is Puffy,” says Harris), but it may be the perfect embodiment of the state of things right now: Here’s a guy who has made a huge amount of money off a company that is considered by some to have an amateurish product. Somehow he’s pulling it off. And here we are, like it or not, in a culture of reckless gluttony where people are starting up companies without any clue of how to generate a spreadsheet. But there’s an electric feeling of privilege and pride. The hope is that, like the chaos of the new-media industry itself, there’s a method to Harris’s madness—and that his experiment with human lab rats can somehow explain it.