One of my great laments about the world is the need for connection. It goes like this: "We are closer together than before, yet further away than we've ever been." In other words, the technology we are tethered to allows us to regularly reach out to our nearest and dearest … but we rarely do. Why? Is it the pace of modern life? Have we taken each other for granted? Or is it simply about survival, a ruthless focus, an exclusion of everything but the here, now and new? Picture that random Facebook comment you get from the friend you've been trying to ring for weeks. An 'interaction', in social marketers' parlance, is the weakest of connections.
Paul Miller, senior editor at The Verge and a prominent technology journalist, recently returned to the internet after going "offline" for one year to see if he could find "a better Paul". And did he succeed? No. He realised that his inability to deal with his priorities and nurture relationships was his fault and not the internet's. He celebrated the fact that he could once again Skype his five-year-old niece Keziah, who feared she had been forgotten about, and then summarised our ambiguous relationship with the online world: "I'd read enough blog posts and magazine articles and books about how the internet makes us lonely, or stupid, or lonely and stupid, that I'd begun to believe them. I wanted to figure out what the internet was 'doing to me', so I could fight back. But the internet isn't an individual pursuit, it's something we do with each other. The internet is where people are."
So just how intimate with one another can we really be when we are separated by an interface? One man who has pondered this question more than any other is Jonathan Harris, an artist and storyteller whose projects attempt to bring us that little bit closer together, and to our own emotions, through digital media and the internet. His greatest hits include: We Feel Fine, a real-time visualisation of more than 12 million human emotions shared online; Ballons of Bhutan, a series of portraits that form a survey of "Gross National Happiness" in the last Himalayan kingdom; and Cowbird, a contemplative public library of human experience through narrated image.
His latest project is his most challenging to date – for us, that is. I Love Your Work is a documentary series of revealing film portraits of nine women working in and around the lesbian porn industry in New York. That's right, porn. Is there a more socially taboo yet highly popular source of pleasure in society?
Harris spent 10 days following each woman around for 24 hours, spending the night at her apartment and switching to the next woman the following morning at 10:10am. He took short, 10-second video clips every five minutes, filming whatever was happening. The clips provide "fractured windows into the realities of those who produce fantasies."
The concept is a clever one and is inspired by the porn industry, repeatedly a testing ground for new technology (web cams, online, chat, social networks, 3D worlds). The 10-second clips follow the time format traditionally used by sites that offer free teasers enticing viewers to pay to see more. But in contrast to the ubiquity of material available online, Harris has chosen to limit access to the 2,202 10-second clips (around six hours of footage) that comprise this interactive project. Only 10 viewers will be able to view each day, and tickets cost $10 each (£6.45), roughly the price of a cinema ticket in the US (10 per cent of which will be donated to the Sex Workers Project). The idea is not to get off and get lost, rather to stay, share time with these women and gradually open up to their world.
So is it actually porn? That is a matter of opinion (and to a certain extent, chance). The word "pornography" is derived from the Greek "porni" (“prostitute”) and "graphein" ( “to write”), and was originally defined as any work of art or literature depicting the life of a prostitute. Tenuous. Then, the Oxford English Dictionary defines pornography as: "The explicit description or exhibition of sexual subjects or activity in literature, painting, films, etc, in a manner intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic feelings; printed or visual material containing this."
Admittedly there are explicit moments scattered throughout this project – NSFW, as they say – but so what if they stimulate you? I would argue that any gratification is secondary to the insight gained into the industry and the film's unconventional stars.
Browse by 24-hour timelines, or dive into tapestry of scenes, and you will stumble upon countless moments of candour, as well as a few curious observations: Dylan (on day three) excitedly putting up "a smoke signal" on Twitter about feeling melancholy, to which four people quickly reply, only to then dismiss this as a weaker form of human connection; Ela (on Day six) bragging about her huge foot following and how "being the subject of my own desire happens to arouse other people"; Luna (on day nine) introducing us to webcam client "Sneazy Lover" and his odd fetishes, and gorging on late-night pizza as she shares her wish to leave something behind that outlasts her – "if not kids, then art", specifically her writing, which we hear at a reading that evening.
There are those who vilify this industry, making a direct link to the objectification of women and the demeaning attitude of certain people (usually men) to towards their partners (typically women). Columnists denounce the commodification of what should be a meaningful and intimate act between two people, one that is increasingly portrayed as forceful and mechanical. In response liberals, supporters and, one assumes, happy customers, stand up for their right to pleasure and fear a future of desensitised co-habitation in an Orwellian straightjacket, a world where arousal is only ever virtual. Harris does not engage in a moral debate or pronounce judgement on the lives of these women. And why should he? He is there to reflect reality and there seems to be a real sense of job satisfaction among this confident cast.
I Love Your Work is raw, provocative and forces us to confront a hidden world that, whether we like to admit it or not, sparks a primal urge in society. Behind the taboo and titillation of Harris' latest work are real people living their lives on their own terms – without fear, embracing their sexuality – and that is a beautiful thing. It warrants our attention. It proves that, although life is best experienced face to face, within arm's reach, there are interesting characters all around us and technology can help us to get to know them, if only for a day.