Jonathan Harris and new constellations

Jonathan Harris is an artist and storyteller who works with data, specifically the data we leave behind ourselves on the web. He suggests that people define themselves through gaps – gaps in language, ethnicity, race, wealth, gender/sexuality and religion. He argues that we like our gaps because they let us identify with smaller communities.

The sorts of community behavior we engage in – sharing secrets, photos, talking, gossiping – are now moving online, onto services like Flickr, blogs and so on. Harris studies “the footprints of moments of self expression”, using software that processes large sets of data to reveal footprints.

One project, “We Feel Fine“, searches the Internet for expressions of feeling: “I feel” or “I am feeling”, makes guesses at geographic location and the demographics of the speaker, guesses the weather where the speaker is, and visualizes 20,000 feelings a day. In the main visualization, color shows the mood of the speaker, size shows the size of the utterance. There’s many other ways to visualize, including phrases superimposed over photos, leading to strange and emotional juxtapositions.

This is a form of passive observation, which Harris says is one of his favorite ways of working. A more active form of questioning let to the Yahoo! time capsule, a month-long project in 2006 that invited people around the world to identify photos that expressed specific emotions for them. The resulting images were projected onto a mesa in the American Southwest and beamed into outerspace on a 35 watt laser.

Harris says that this experience got him thinking about stars and stories, the constellations we’d make today if we still looked at the stars as much as he did growing up in Shelburne, VT. His new project, Universe, uses news analysis from Daylife to build constellations from the subjects and ideas that dominate our news. We can pull constellations out of his star-filled skies and cluster them, so we can see what “stars” orbit a person like Bill Clinton or a subject like Afghanistan. He’s releasing it in a few days and it looks very beautiful – something I’m looking forward to playing with.

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