One of the biggest and most beautiful internet videos is Where the Hell is Matt Harding? It first appeared on youtube in 2005 and became a “feel good” classic of the genre.
Now Matt Harding has come back with a powerful sequel dated 2008 that is making the internet rounds all over again. There’s a different theme song, different locales and most importantly, he’s accompanied by jubilant crowds of goofy people. If you sample some of the gushing comments on vimeo we can see the effect that this video has on people, and the recurring confession that the video inspires tears of joy.
- Karina says: “This made me smile so much and for some reason cry a little… Well done… I wish I had the courage to do something like that”
Drew says: “I’m supposed to be a 40-yr-old tough guy, but this vid just really got me, and I started smiling and crying (for good reasons) all of a sudden. Very powerful.”
- Beth says: “Felt like the world came together, for a minute. Who cares about differences! Felt a like I was dancing with everyone in the video and loving every minute of it! The Choreographed Indian shoot- lovely! Thanks Matt!!”
- Jen says: “I still have goosebumps and tears of joy streaming down my face. What an amazing piece of work this is. To imagine all of the fantastic people you met, places you’ve seen and all of the joyous dancing you’ve done~ is something I cannot do. Thank you for bringing this to light…I love your jig and I’m so happy you were able to do something as grand, yet simple as this…peace, joy and hugs to you. still weeping joyously:)”
In this age of malaise, of apocalyptic visions of terrorism and climate change, Matt Harding has stumbled onto something singular in the medium of the moment: to inspire people with hope that feels visceral and genuine. In an internet defined by simulacra and irony, Matt Harding succeeds in delivering joy and hope.
In a July 9 article for The New York Times, Charles McGrath wrote: “In many ways ‘Dancing’ is an almost perfect piece of Internet art: it’s short, pleasingly weird and so minimal in its content that it’s open to a multitude of interpretations. It could be a little commercial for one-world feel-goodism. It could be an allegory of American foreign policy: a bumptious foreigner turning up all over the world and answering just to his own inner music. Or it could be about nothing at all — just a guy dancing.”
It is paradoxical, but in spite of the diversity of filming locations, Harding’s video makes all the world essentially the same, happy place: a stage for his goofy jig. Harding’s video flattens the world and makes it plastic– its diversity is not cultural or political but purely aesthetic or visual. It’s as if the world were just a set of picturesque backdrops, rather than a network of places inhabited by different people with different languages and cultures. Nothing divides us, we’re all the same happy people everywhere, we just wanna dance! In this regard, Harding’s video is a kind of popular, web-video reinvention of Edward Steichen’s famous exhibition of photographs and subsequent book called The Family of Man from the 1950’s. In this collective, photographic experiment, Steichen proposed the universalist notion that we’re all the same because of certain, repeated emotional motifs or experiences regardless of our cultural or geographical background.
The Matt Harding videos are also a metaphor for the kind of self-expression that the internet is best at engendering: recycling, repeating, recreating and speaking back. Harding’s videos represent the conceit that the world is entirely within reach, knowable and representable. Through the internet, you can be whatever you want wherever you want. You are ‘free’ to roam. You have unlimited connectivity with other people and places. Whether or not these are real things, or worthwhile conceits, is besides the point. I’m arguing that Matt Harding is a metaphor of how some of us view the digital age.
Harding’s videos are multilayered. There are three planes and scripts superimposed upon one another: the background (tourist landmark or vista), Matt himself dancing, and the foreground explanatory caption that names the location where Matt is dancing. The background images are the beautiful landmarks that people might normally frame in a touristy photography. Harding’s dance in front of these landmarks puts an ironic, human signature on them, a grafitti that makes them intimate in unexpected ways. What is majestic, different, exotic, sublime or beautiful is accented with college dorm goofiness. We all know someone like Matt. Or all of us were like Matt once. And some of us are still Matt inside. In seeing him in front of the Taj Majal or an exotic mural, our happiness for Matt nurtures something inside of ourselves. And underlying it all, the music, which in the case of this latest film, carries the lyrics of the poem “Stream of Life” by Rabindranath Tagore: “The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures…”
Matt Harding teaches us that dancing is a universal language. His first video is not as good as the second in my opinion because it does not capture the communal nature of dance. The thrill of the second video is seeing people join in with so much gusto. And so it has been since time immemorial… whenever there has been dance and celebration, people have done it together.
There’s so much to look at in Matt Harding’s newest video. It rewards repeated viewings. There’s the man in the orange boots, the bearded Frenchman, the Soweto girls, the goofball in the orange shirt and blue shorts…