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Without meeting him, you'd think Jonathan Harris was born coding—his web projects
are beguilingly simple, both in their design and concept. For instance, "We Feel
Fine," a 2006 effort, aggregates people's feelings from what they post in their blogs,
displaying them as tiny bubbles that can be investigated and ordered around based
on their temper. But the 28-year-old, who grew up painting and sketching, didn't
even create a webpage until a 1999 computer course at Princeton; his work is formulated
offline and only when it's fully thought out does he begin to code. Between
projects he abandons computer use entirely. Last year, with "Universe," he set out to
create a new mythology of the skies by projecting our stories, based on a global network
of news items, into a new set of constellations.He transcended his own style
with "The Whale Hunt." Instead of mining data from the Internet he traveled to
Barrow,Alaska to participate in the fishing traditions of the Inupiat Eskimos. The
resulting nine days, captured via continuous photography and viewable in all manner
of layers—by characters who were involved, or events that occurred, for
example—is an exceedingly elegant version of the standard narrative slideshow.
When we found him,Harris was working on a new piece for the MoMA show,
"Design and the Elastic Mind" (from Feb. 24 to May 12).He's collaborating with
Sepandar Kamvar, who helped with "We Feel Fine," on a commission on internet
dating called "I Want You To Want Me."
On elegant coding: "It's like working with anything—paints, wood, or being a car
mechanic.You have to develop a love for your materials. [Then] you develop an
intimate sense for what is possible [and] start thinking in that language—Oh, of
course a brush stroke can work in this way. It's the same with the code.You have this
feeling of how things work, how motion works, how time works, how interactions
work. There are all these things that come with time. I look at a lot of my early work
now and it seems incredibly primitive and really crude, largely because I was trying
to learn the materials.Now it's second nature.When I lie in bed at night falling
asleep, I can see exactly how something is going to behave on screen and how it's
going to be controlled. It's just a matter of executing."