Josh Harris may have been the first internet millionaire in New York. As founder of Jupiter Communications and New York’s first online media portal, Pseudo.com, he rode the web 1.0 dot-com boom to a fortune of $85 million. But as the 1990s ramped up, his view of what the internet would do to us darkened, and he spent his fortune on a series of lurid social experiments aimed to demonstrate what he saw. The biggest was an ambitious millennial happening called Quiet, which Andrew Smith writes about in his new book, Totally Wired.
Where to start?
Seventy-one IPOs in July alone, hundreds over the year. A veteran Silicon Valley investor describes meeting a young entrepreneur who was trying to raise money for a company called Funerals.com with the pitch “We’re going to put the fun back into funerals”; an online venture called Pets.com forgot to wonder how profit would grace a business selling $10 bags of cat litter that cost $20 to deliver—as did the New York-based online grocer Kozmo. com, which also traded on free delivery. More improbably still, a firm called Pixelon threw a $16 million IPO launch party in Las Vegas, with entertainment from The Who, KISS, Tony Bennett, The Offspring and Dixie Chicks, before anyone knew that its CEO Michael Fenne was really a fugitive con artist named David Kim Stanley and that the clients who spied its revolutionary “broadband “system had actually been looking at RealPlayer. Was this more outrageous than a loss-making 2-year-old company called eToys.com being valued by the market at $4.9 billion on sales of just $100 million, when the $4 billion real-world valuation of Toys R Us was based on revenues of $11.5 billion? In 1999 it was impossible to say.
Even before the big money arrived, those closest to Josh Harris felt a change in him. After 18 months of putting together deals no one around him properly understood, carrying the weight of all those people and their constantly heightening expectations, he was spent. Invited to speak at a conference in Japan, he took the former Pseudo artist V. Owen Bush to film his performance, but refused to leave his hotel room for most of the trip; just stayed inside eating room service and pacifying himself with bad Hollywood movies. Bush had never seen anyone shut down so completely.
In New York, Josh started turning up to the office as Luvvy the clown, named for the character Eunice “Lovey” Wentworth Howell from Gilligan’s Island. Tales of him crashing board meetings dressed as Luvvy turn out to be apocryphal (though he did often crash meetings as himself, which could be just as disruptive). Appearances by Luvvy, with its smudged makeup and cheesegrater voice, became common on Pseudo radio and TV shows and at parties where clients were present—and as Josh must have known, were a gift to his critics and doubters. The Pseudo presenter Jess Zaino was the first to encounter her boss’s new alter ego at close quarters, when it turned up on her radio show as a guest and, for 20 of the longest live-streamed minutes in her life, met all attempts at conversation with the exclamation “Boing! Boing!”
As planning for Quiet got under way, two significant outside events occurred. First, the Big Brother TV series hit Dutch screens, its name taken from the same Orwell novel Apple had used to promote its Macintosh computer 15 years earlier. Next, the increasingly autocratic New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, already at odds with his famously untamable citizens over crackdowns on drivers, cyclists, jaywalkers, street vendors, litterbugs, clubbers, drinkers, and almost anything that moved, spoke or looked at him funny, took the next logical step and declared war on the art fold. Word is that he was inspecting a new Emergency Operations Center at the World Trade Center when a reporter asked for his view on the Brooklyn Museum’s Sensation exhibition of works by the so-called Young British Artists, who included Damien Hirst, Tracy Emin, Jake and Dinos Chapman, and Gillian Wearing. Specific to his ire was a painting of a black Virgin Mary by the black Brit painter Chris Ofili, which was carefully decorated with varnished elephant dung and in truth rather respectful and very beautiful. Without seeing the work, Giuliani (like the artist, a Catholic), pronounced it “sick stuff “and threatened to withdraw funding and evict the museum from its century-old home. Polls showed New Yorkers backing the museum two-to-one over the mayor, and Josh was far from alone in being incensed. The ensuing fight would feed Quiet’s intensity.
There are similarities between Big Brother and Quiet, but the dissimilarities are significant. Where Big Brother would be tightly edited, directed, and as stage-managed as The Truman Show, Quiet—at least in theory—would be feral, unedited, and interactive, with each participant given their own Japanese-style sleeping pod, fitted with CCTV camera streamed live to their own channel. The event would last a month in terms of setup and tributary spectacle, with “podwellians” arriving two weeks before New Year’s Eve. Instead of 10 or 15 participants, 60-plus artists would submit to an interrogation and, if accepted, register and move in, joining 30 or so event officials and staff. Podwellians were restricted to the cavernous subbasement and first floor of a former warehouse at 353 Broadway, with offices, exhibitions, and parties based upstairs and two doors north at a building known to staff as the “Luvvyplex.” As usual, the door to the street would be open and the public free to enter, gawp, join in.
Josh canvassed ideas from favorite artist collaborators, including many of his first Pseudo staff, as if reaching for that earlier creative innocence. Jeff Gompertz would design and run the “pod” hotel, V. Owen Bush a banquet hall serving 200 meals a day with his workforce of chefs, waiters, and kitchen staff, while Alex Arcadia designed and built an elaborate “Arcadian temple” at a cost that rose from ten to twenty to thirty-forty-fifty thousand dollars, with live mics and eerie chants—but which no one was allowed to enter.
As discussions continued, plans firmed. The only shower would be housed in a clear geodesic dome located next to the pods and in full view of the banqueting hall, close to actually public toilets and an interrogation room in which podwellians would be grilled to the point of breakdown, both upon entry and at the whim of an Interrogator. There was to be a toxic waste dump, complete with flammable chemicals, and a subbasement nightclub called “Hell,” in addition to the most extreme installation—an operational firing range with an armory of pistols, rifles, and submachine guns. In a nod to the art establishment, Josh also recruited Leo Koenig, the son of a leading German art dealer, to curate a series of more traditional exhibits.
With areas defined by inflatable walls, the stated essence of the experiment was that everything would be public, nothing private, with all life shared, seen, recorded … as if the idea was to test the human organism, version 1.0, to destruction in this new environment. After the Pseudo board refused to fund the event, Josh used his own money, flying into a rage-like mania in which observers describe him peeling hundred-dollar bills from a roll of notes, on the spot, $20 to $30K at a time, for anyone who approached with a half-plausible idea, or sitting at a table distributing checks like free school milk. At one point he paid an angry associate $10,000 to take an installation down and make space for something else. Another participant claims to have taken $20,000 he’d been given to create a life-size chess tournament and blown it on a three-day binge, yet been allowed to stay and work on the event anyway, becoming convinced that Quiet was designed as a tax loss. With New York obsessed by stock prices and material displays of wealth, spending on something so nebulous and conceptual appeared not just eccentric, but perverse. Owen Bush watched and worried about the Fitzcarraldo-like obsession of his friend, “Cos he was really out to lunch, not available to anyone at that point.”
New York magazine came calling and heard: “At Pseudo, I am just building my platform … the idea is to get the machine running well enough so that Pseudo will benefit from my success. I am the product, get it? I don’t want to be Procter & Gamble, I want to be Tide.” Blustery bullshit that betrayed a loss of faith in the new VC-expanded Pseudo, whose value to Josh was now restricted to that old standby, leverage. Yet there was intelligence at work too.
“The ties that bind us are virtual, not nearly so physical as they’ve been in man’s historical past,” he breezed to a TV camera, sounding clear and confident. “As that virtuality becomes increasingly sophisticated, there’ll be a fundamental change in the human condition.”
“At first everybody’s gonna like it, like when the radio came, when the television came—this new human experience … [but] as time goes by, you’ll find yourself in these more constrained, virtual boxes.”
“The nature of the net is that people want their fame on a day-to-day basis, rather than in their lifetime … one day we’re all going to wake up and realize that we’re just … servants. What we’re really trying to do is figure out how to re-weave human relations.”
Warhol was wrong, he declared in another interview—15 minutes of fame in a lifetime will not do. “Our view is that people want 15 minutes of fame every day.” Citizens will be conditioned not just to tolerate surveillance in the future, they will expect and even demand it.
The cogito ergo sum of the 21st century:
I am watched therefore I am.
In Josh’s eyes, Quiet was an analogy for what the internet would become, the net a guide to what we will become. “You ask me, ‘What are people gonna do here?’” he teased one journalist. “We don’t know. That’s the experiment. Don’t bring your money, everything here is free. Except the video that we capture of you … that we own.”
And when a European writer demanded, “Whatever happened to nonconformity?” he grinned: “It went out in the 60s. The next century is about complete conformity. We’re in the business of programming people’s lives.”
There are two versions of Quiet. First is the one offered by Josh and his lieutenants, the edgy extravaganza in which people are thrown together and tested against the mass of others; where drink and drugs and deviant behaviors stack and build until “the bunker” is a fevered hell and civilization frays, falls apart … at which point the authorities intervene and shut the thing down. The moral? Too much freedom brought madness, cruelty, chaos. A dispatch from the front. This is our future.
A good story—but like most good stories, a cover for something else.
So here’s another view.
Far from being unregulated, Quiet was awash with rules—all imposed by the Programmer himself at nightly planning meets with the aim of producing dramatic footage for the film he hoped to make. Fearful of being shut down prematurely, the first 10 days were disciplined, full of calculated Sturm und Drang, mostly failing to cohere or rise above the gratuitously aberrant. The Inside.com journalist Greg Lindsay thought the Quiet experiment “fascinating and noble” and loved the evening banquets, where, “It really felt like this big artistic thing you’d dreamed about when you came to New York, with this feeling that you could discover anybody … that this happening could go anywhere.” He also saw the significance of the fact that, “They could stimulate the lab rats in two directions,” with podwellians being watched, but also able to watch each other, implying the question, “Will this lead to self-policing or anarchy?” An important one for the coming age.
But the moment Josh took Lindsay on a tour of the space, chattering claims for the various installations, the spectacle seemed to deflate and crumple into a yawn of banners and shooting galleries and an awareness of how forced much of it was—how geared to provoking a reaction, any reaction, prior to genuine insight. The contradiction at the heart of “reality” TV, in fact. The screen needs drama: drama distorts truth.
The distinguished New York photojournalist Donna Ferrato couldn’t resist signing up to this alternate world upon reading about it in New York and the Times. After passing the ritual interrogation and receiving her standard-issue grey shirt and orange trousers, she found a pod and settled in, but was surprised at the event’s tameness as compared to the bathhouses and swingers’ clubs, the scenes of New York street life, chemical abandon at Studio 54 and even domestic abuse shelters she’d studied in the past. At the very least, she’d expected something ungoverned, sexy, free. But that wasn’t how it went. “Everyone was very self-conscious, very careful,” she says. “They were like little kids, really—even the performance artists Josh surrounded himself with. They liked to be wild and crazy and funny, but to me a lot of it seemed childish, not sexy or dangerous or challenging in a serious way.”
This reflected Josh. Performance art had been a fashionable form of expression in the 1980s, but had run its course by the late-90s. Ferrato saw that he responded to and admired these edgy people who would do anything; who were so at odds with his own careful, strategized approach to life, but who also often had little to say. In the 80s, the simple act of breaking boundaries had seemed worthwhile, but by 1999—post-web—most obvious boundaries had been broken. With the rest untroubled by a man with a plastic vagina.
As with other inmates, Ferrato did take pleasure in the day-for-night atmosphere; the way the city receded and time fell away as you slipped into this other world, with podwellians allowed to leave but mostly choosing not to—“as though it would break the trance” in the words of one. Some footage shot by an Englishman named James Walsh shows the firing range to be no more than moderately diverting, as a succession of beautiful (mostly female) urbanites step up to shoot guns for the first time, some rattled by the experience, others full of G.I. Jane suck-my-dick spunk. In other words … so what?
Against this, a nighttime tracking shot of the whole three floors is mesmerizing, seeming to go on forever and reveal the sheer scale of the Quiet interior, swathed in twilight and a distant pulse of music, screens flickering everywhere and the day’s detritus settled like dew, as podwellians appear sporadically, naked or in pajamas … the occasional clang or call echoing as through a cavern, but no hint of chaos or aggression.
A camera crew drifts past; the videographer, hired by Josh to capture the proceedings, turns to smile as she coaxes a subject to put his face to the glass dome of the shower and scream. Something womb-like and magical in the atmosphere.
After Christmas, with a week gone and no sign of the Giuliani enforcers, Josh stepped up the pressure. Performances grew more extreme and salacious; relationships intensified as drug consumption ramped and moved into the open. The Pseudo Presenter Jess Zaino had been asked to bring celebrities, but was too caught up in her own show to commit to Quiet. She came, but hated what she found. “It was scary. I remember walking through—I don’t know what I was on, I must have been on something—and seeing people lying in these Japanese hotel pods, then turning around and there was a light over a man playing a theremin, and I was, like, ‘Get me the fuck out of this Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole.’”
At Pseudo, she explains, Josh’s thoughts and ideas had always been mediated by other people. “But here it was like you saw the crazy inner workings, complete. It was out of his brain and actually happening.” She describes one room where a photographer was taking portraits of people on chemical trips. “So you’d have somebody on crack, at the climax, as they were peaking, at the height. You know, heroin, ecstasy—all of it. And he blew the photos up to wall-size, so you would go in and be staring at the huge eyes of this person that was on this intense drug. And it was amazing. Incredible as art. But at Pseudo there were people who had humanity, and here it was like they literally went into the fucking Matrix.”
She stops and shudders.
“I didn’t like it!”
For Zaino, Quiet’s art was about spending the money—such a loaded medium in late-90s New York—in this reckless fashion. But in her instinctive way, she also understood that the event had really come to be about Josh himself.
He instructed his bouncers to rile and reject male visitors, and sex became more overt. Josh had lost none of his instinct for drawing a crowd, and competition for entry was fierce the night Luvvy the clown attempted to coordinate the orgasms of three couples in the nightclub—a Reichian folly that was never likely to gel. With the Pseudo celebrity Tanya Corrin roaming the space in a white gown distributing apples, Josh’s videographer describes capturing this as “the most depressing experience of my life,” at least partly in deference to the fact that (as one female Pseudo presenter delicately put it) “none of the guys could get it up,” the only erect penis-like object belonging to the pair of lesbians taking part. Luvvy had little to say beyond “boing!” and the Londoner James Walsh was struck by how much the jarring alter ego looked and dressed like Josh’s mother Roslyn Harris. “It was a bit Norman Bates, kind of spooky,” he says, even while expressing awe at the way Josh handled Quiet as a whole. “With all that booze and all those drugs around, you’d have expected violence. All those people wanting attention, and no sleep … I’d have lost it. He’s really, really good with people.”
Elsewhere, one of the artists recruited a “porn star” to be “stump-fucked” by the stump-legged performance artist Mangina, and a young couple was planted in one of the pods to have sex, available to view on channel 36, a wheeze that set other couples off and “created a sort of intimacy” in the mind of Josh, who was captivated by the show, claiming afterward, “Now I know how to make a cult.”
Shells on the firing range floor were ankle-deep, and interrogations grew random and brash. Order fell away in the banqueting hall, where performers danced naked on the table, which most guests found irritating more than outrageous. Owen Bush declared, “People don’t know how to deal with free and they can’t handle it … the freeness is turning people into beasts,” while for the performer David Leslie, the point was the intensity itself, the feeling engendered by such rare, socially sanctioned abandon. As the Millennium approached, Josh issued an open invitation to Quiet’s New Year’s Eve party via the New York Post.
In one reality, this end-game push was about Citizens losing control and regressing in an environment with no boundaries; in another there was a much funnier and more compelling show playing out. Lost from official accounts of Quiet is the detail that Josh had recruited subjects on a promise of $100,000 for anyone who could survive to the end of New Year’s Day … meaning any or all of 60 struggling and somewhat desperate artists—including a generous number of performance artists, for whom shamelessness and immunity to attrition were not just matters of pride, they were job descriptions.
So, big surprise: by New Year’s Eve no one had bailed. Society had survived its fortnight of freedom.
And as a reminder, 60 x $100K = $6 million.
Josh also needed a climax for his film and would not be the first storyteller to learn that there are no endings in nature. Unbeknownst to anyone but the Programmer himself, his beautiful Orwellian drama had become an Ealing-esque comedy, spun around a private central dilemma—namely, how the fuck do I get these people out of here in the next 36 hours?
Josh groped for a plan … Josh found a plan. Like the Cat in the Hat, he was going to need help. And his Thing A would be Rudy Giuliani.
So. That evening there was a sumptuous banquet involving two whole roast hogs, but through the fog of drink and drugs and constant prodding, paranoia was setting in. Owen Bush and his girlfriend Gabrielle Latessa, co-creator of the banqueting hall, had a vicious public fight over drug consumption and an alleged affair; Nancy Smith, Josh’s personal quilt-maker, knocked out and came close to killing a woman she suspected of having sex with her husband. A naked play-fight in the shower ran out of control, with spectators gathering and the man involved biting the woman’s ass before accidentally propelling her through the glass shell, sending Josh into a rage that surprised everyone—not least the woman, who was uninjured but contrite. Podwellians noticed Josh behaving eccentrically, chomping his cigar while he paced the length of the pods like a wolf, looking for something that wasn’t there, waiting for something that wasn’t happening … calculating, calculating, calculating. One onlooker recalls thinking he wanted sex, but that wasn’t it.
Josh was agitated.
Only 24 hours to go and no cops. What did a guy have to do to get raided around here?
Lord knows Josh had tried. First, he’d invited a group of downtown politicians in to play Risk, arranging for podwellians to act up and Alfredo Martinez to fire a gun close by, making the wonks jump like mice. But no raid. So he paid the flamboyant fashion designer Maya Hansen somewhere between $20 and $25K, he thought—he wasn’t even counting any more—to create a window display featuring scantily clad women on trapezes, to which he contributed a neon sign flashing “GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS XXX” in the direction of the courthouse, a reference to the mayor’s much-derided campaign to clean up the Times Square area. Josh might as well have stood on the sidewalk with a megaphone and yelled “Come and get me, Rudy!” The scene stopped traffic on Broadway, for fuck’s sake.
But still no raid. It was a disgrace! So …
Couple arrested performing fellatio in the storefront window.
Undercover officers (who might as well carry signs flashing “FUZZ”) show and mingle, one quizzing Nancy Smith on whether they all plan to commit suicide at midnight, while seeming more interested in the issue of whether all this stuff really counts as art, you know, in the Aristotelian sense of the term—and she laughing, “Look, pal, I’m making ten grand a week here—there’s no way I’m gonna commit suicide … “
He goes away.
Josh was Michael Caine at the end of The Italian Job, booty over a cliff at the back of the bus. Arrangements had been made for him to reprise his simultaneous orgasm act at midnight, but better sense prevailed and he simply gathered the Citizens for a photo instead, unable to commit to the moment. Furthermore, after inviting the public to attend, he was now irritated by what one guest describes as their “tittering, voyeuristic presence,” scowling, “I don’t owe these people their New Year’s Eve; they haven’t earned it.” So he locked the gawkers upstairs and projected porn on to the walls.
If Josh had been hoping to spark a riot (“RAID ME!”), he was disappointed. The journalist Greg Lindsay took a couple of friends and remembers a “respectful and well-behaved crowd, who were all excited to be there.” He also remembers a tributary reason for choosing Quiet as a destination that night, this being a thought that, “If anything’s going to happen in New York on New Year’s Eve, with Y2K or terrorism, the best place to be is in a subbasement three floors below the ground.”
Was that a conscious consideration? Seriously?
“It was conscious. I worked at Time Warner at that time and I thought, ‘Shit, most of the American media complex is round here, so it’d be a good place for a suitcase nuke.’ People forget the degree of tension, the apocalyptic feeling that was there even before 9/11.”
Josh gave up. What could he do? He phoned the bloody police himself. Still no raid. More guests arrived. People partied until the drugs wore off and then went to bed in their pods.
When it came, it came with a ferocity that shocked even Quiet’s host. The first anyone knew of one of the biggest raids seen in Manhattan since Prohibition was when the door exploded and officers streamed over the threshold in riot gear, then fanned through the building like stormtroopers, yelling and pointing guns and blinding podwellians with flashlights. Through the cacophony, Citizens heard shocked cries.
“What the fuck?”
“Oh, gross, man.”
“These people are living like pigs!”
Hardly what Josh had bargained for: captains and officers from the local fire department and police force, agents of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, and a rifle-toting SWAT team wading through cartridge casings and chemicals and moldering food, puncturing inflatable walls and watching the façade melt away like the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz …
I’ll get you, my pretty …
One witness describes a FEMA officer saying something to Josh that appeared to leave him shaken. Leo Koenig was woken and forced to trudge around the space cringing explanation. But who could explain? The game had turned serious. Addled and scared, podwellians were pitched into the morning. Some had homes to go to, others not, but a plan was agreed to reconvene at 1 pm. In the meantime many lingered, still in uniform and reluctant to break the trance, not knowing what else to do.
Good news: the Programmer had his operatic ending!
Bad news: his videographer, keen to see in the New Year anywhere other than the bunker, had dismissed her crew and left hours earlier. Seems the Poetic Justice Bureau had been right behind FEMA. Josh had his ending, but not on tape.
Needless to say, at one o’clock the doors remained locked. No Citizen would re-enter and Josh was long gone. Alex Arcadia and Owen Bush stayed on and lived in the building for a while, with Bush hiring a dumpster to remove shells from the firing range, shoveling them up like snow from a path. Gompertz and some of the artists lobbied hard for Josh to make Quiet permanent, turn it into a real-world TV environment, but Josh had had enough, seemed distressed, angry, disdainful of his subjects’ continuing need. For the Programmer, as for most workers and Citizens, there would be a “hangover“ lasting months, although despite my best efforts I can’t find a single person who regrets having taken part.
“It was a genius way of ending the event,” laughs Donna Ferrato, whose favorite photos of the raid are up on her website. “It was high drama, not least for the people who shut it down, who couldn’t believe what they were seeing—who couldn’t believe what had been going on right under their noses. This whole world had been created, without permits or permission.”
A wistful look comes over her when I ask what she liked best.
“I loved living in a world with no secrets and no sense of time, where we were little children, being taken care of. And also watching Josh, who to me was a fascinating creature. You can see him as crazy, but there’s substance to what he does. He’s always testing, seeing how far this will go and that will go, and what kind of reaction he’s going to get. And he always knows what everyone’s little weak spots and flaws are: he’s very perceptive like that. It was a movie set, but with no script, where it was just about being there.”
So the zany installations, the guns and chemicals and temples and games of Risk hadn’t been the point. Quiet had been convoluted by too many ideas: what power it possessed had emerged naturally from the math of connection, the jazz of human relations, with the rest just display, another blowjob in the window. Josh was still finding his métier. All the same, Alanna Heiss of MoMA’s contemporary P.S.1 gallery would ultimately deem Quiet “one of the most extraordinary activities I’ve attended anywhere in the world,” which “should be thought of in the same way as Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball”—one of the most celebrated social events in New York history. She also gave Josh a nickname: “Oz.” The man behind the screen.
Four years before a Harvard undergrad named Mark Zuckerberg chanced on the idea for Facebook, Josh Harris had peered into the future and seen it, tried to anticipate what it would become. Ambitious as Quiet was, it had only hinted at the impact he envisioned. After a brief interval spent licking wounds, the Pseudo founder would return with a new template. And this would be the real thing.
Adapted from Totally Wired: The Rise and Fall of Josh Harris and The First Great Dotcom Swindle by Andrew Smith (published by Grove Atlantic/Black Cat March 2019)
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