The Future Is Now: Jon Morris of NOWHERE On How Their Technological Innovation Will Shake Up The Art and Tech Scenes
By Fotis Georgiadis
Casting is everything. Choose collaborators wisely. Team dynamics can make or break a project. Learn to predict what social dynamics will work. If everyone is having fun the project has a much higher potential for success.
As a part of our series about cutting edge technological breakthroughs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jon Morris.
Jon Morris is an Athlete turned Actor turned Artist turned Creative Director turned CEO. From Le Louvre to Lady Gaga, from Cirque Du Soleil to the Metropolitan Opera, his work has been praised by NY Times, Rolling Stone, VICE, Wired…. Highlight works include; NOWHERE, reimagining online gathering; Reflecting the Stars, recreating the night sky in the Hudson River; Choreographing Nine Inch Nails Festival Tour; The Wedge, legendary slide/aerial-performance-center at Burning Man.
He has been a Thomas J. Watson Fellow, Kinnernet-Europe Experience Director, LaMaMa ETC Artist in residence, Watermill Center Fellow, Tennessee Williams Fellow, NCAA Postgraduate Scholar, 6-time All-American Springboard Diver, and holds a B.A. from the University of the South, Sewanee. Jon has taught master classes at Harvard, Columbia, NYU, and more.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I grew up watching my dad, a Baptist Minister, officiate weddings and funerals and I found myself studying the rooms of these big-moment, existential spaces from a very young age. As a teenager, I played all the sports and also performed theatre. I was always in love with the electricity of a live audience and the awe of sacred gathering.
In college I was fortunate enough to study acting at the Michael Howard Studios in NYC for a summer between my Junior and Senior year. While there I saw a new show at the Daryl Roth Theatre called Villa Villa by De La Guarda, a company from Argentina, that changed my life. I watched the walls come to life with actors who were athletes of emotion, literally flying through the air. They weren’t reciting Shakespeare or Williams; they were smashing into walls, ripping through the ceiling, kissing strangers, stomping in infectious rhythms, and creating powerful images of human connection. I was finally witnessing the theater written about by Antonin Artaud, which had seemed impossible up to this point. By the end of the performance my heart was racing from dancing, my body tingling with inspiration, and I was sopping wet, as it rained in the theatre at the end of the performance. THIS was theatre. This was something new. This was uncategorizable. And this was the confluence of everything I loved: athletics, acting and sacred experience.
This awakened a desire to create experiences that were of this magnitude. Little did I know at that time that this spark would become a career that would take me around the world and back again. All the way back to the very same Daryl Roth Theatre performing in the original NYC cast of Fuerzabruta, the sequel to Villa Villa which I performed over 1200 times around the world. Experiencing this kind of show, both as an audience member and performer, still inspires me to bring people together, to create visceral transformative experiences. And with the creation of Nowhere, I’m at the intersection of everything I’ve learned, and everything that drives me. Only now, at scale; where anyone in the world can have access to transformative experience. It’s very exciting!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Honestly there are too many to count!! But I’ll tell you about one of my very early installations that I still find myself thinking about.
I was riding my bike through the city on the West Side and I noticed the old pylons and piers in the Hudson. They made me think of my own childhood on the piers I grew up with in Kentucky. We’d hang out all night stargazing. And then it really hit me; the lack of stars in the NYC sky.
I feel like when we can’t see the stars, we really lose access to something important. Like we forget that we’re one of billions. We start believing we’re the Gods and that we’re in control. And I wondered if cities were losing civility and humans losing their humility because we’re losing touch with the reality of Nature, quite literally living in a kind of darkness. I fear that without this kind of connection, it becomes easier for decisions to be made based on profit and greed — when you don’t have this outside perspective — that there’s something greater than yourself out there. It’s easier to overlook a higher purpose maybe.
So I thought, I wanna put stars on these pylons. And that was the beginning of our piece Reflecting The Stars. So I started the process of figuring out how to do it. The technology I wanted didn’t exist so we had to make it. It took 2.5 years to engineer our waterproof, wirelessly controlled, solar powered LEDs that became our stars. And I got a crew and we swam in the Hudson and affixed our tech to the pylons. From the pier, you could hit buttons and light up constellations, and we made an interactive website where people could buy and dedicate stars to loved ones. So it was a far reaching project with a very big lift, that was about pollution, revitalizing the spirit, our humanity, our connection to nature and to each other.
Can you tell us about the cutting edge technological breakthroughs that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?
Well, speaking of Reflecting The Stars, 10 years later, we’re in the same boat. The technology we wanted didn’t exist so we set out to make it. At the beginning of the pandemic, we looked around and saw that there was no great way to share collective experiences online which feel rewarding and leave us feeling more connected to our fellow humans. We’re utilizing the same techniques that we would to deepen and excite gathering in the real world and applying them to online gathering. We believe in the power of people being present and believe there is so much untapped potential to create this on the internet.
NOWHERE is a human-centric metaverse, combining video, gaming, and social interaction. So, imagine 3D zoom, with full social agency and spatial audio, in a stunning virtual landscape. That means no more breakout rooms, just move away from the group in order to have your aside. No more zoom fatigue. Interacting in NOWHERE mimics the way humans interact in real life. Our players report that much to their surprise, time flies when in NOWHERE. This means dramatically better social experiences to have with anyone in the world with a computer.
How do you think this might change the world?
We expect NOWHERE to enhance human communication and elevate respect and empathy by bringing all kinds of people together to share unique and sublime experiences. Among other things, we hope political divides will yield to human connectedness as we discover new ways to share space online.
Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?
There will be all kinds of people that will utilize NOWHERE. We must be vigilant to design for inclusion and to design versatile features for moderation so hosts can create exciting and safe, healthy experiences for their guests.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?
Before the pandemic, The Windmill Factory was in collaboration with Eli Pariser (The Filter Bubble) to help create the first annual festival for the “New_Public” movement, an invite-only conference confronting the health of our digital public spaces. How do we create safer online spaces? How do we create online spaces that are beneficial to our growth rather than to our detriment? This is what we had been researching for several months, until we suddenly found ourselves in lockdown and all our work came to a halt.
My birthday was the first event we canceled in preparation for the lockdown we feared was right around the corner. Like many people, I attempted to move my gathering online. I held my party in Virbella, an avatar based virtual university I’d stumbled upon in my research. Me and 20 or so of my friends jumped online and putted around the cartoon university campus, shared prank power-point presentations in the auditorium and tried our hand at some team building activities which were built into the program. Virbella used spatial audio which meant we could have more intimate conversations if we wanted to, while still remaining in earshot and sight of the group. But most people wouldn’t stay on for long. The avatars hid so much of our meaning, so much intention, that conversation was actually exhausting. You don’t realize how much of our communication and the way we understand each other is actually nonverbal, until you take away our bodies, faces and presence.
This moment stayed with me as my work and projects all went on ice. I thought, why hasn’t a rad virtual space WITH HUMANS, not avatars, been made yet?!
What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?
More great partnerships with organizations, businesses, artists and performers of all shapes and sizes. We’ve set the stage, the rest is up to the people. People make the place.
What have you been doing to publicize this idea? Have you been using any innovative marketing strategies?
We hosted the first ever festival entirely inside a web based spatial video platform. NOWHERE Fest was packed with incredible talks, panels, and performances celebrating phenomenal pandemic innovations over the past year featuring NIVA (National Independent Venue Association), Recharge Rooms, a discussion with Scott Simon & Robert Siegel (NPR), a concert by Andrew McMahon, roaming magicians, open mics, and socializing everywhere in between. Attendees could fluidly pop in and out of talks and directly engage the speakers and performers. In addition to our own festival, we’ve hosted several other larger events like Coin Desk’s Consensus, Institute For The Future’s 10 Year Forecast Summit, and APAP, to name a few.
We’re also releasing private accounts of the product strategically to select creators and clients in a Premiere Partners Program, which one can apply to on our website.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There have been so many over the years. My father, who worked tirelessly as a sharecropper’s son to become a PhD in Religious Studies and professor at Berea College. My mother, for supporting everything I did (almost), no matter how weird. My brother, for tolerating my persistent nagging to play with me. David Landon, Max Obermiller, and Sewanee for teaching me how to think. My wife, whose taste is impeccable and who keeps me honest in my creations. Esther Perel, for telling me to grow up and marry my wife. The Windmill Factory community, our Brooklyn family, who are always there for me no matter how bizarre the idea, from giant yoga ball pits to projecting on Con Edison steam in Times Square. My co-founder at The Windmill Factory, Ana Constantino, who always believes there’s a way. Adam Berenzweig, who collaborates generously from Reflecting The Stars to crafting the first demo of NOWHERE. Maxx Berkowitz for dreaming big and trusting adventure. Jay Benach for writing our first check. Evan Frohlich our head of engineering and our phenomenal NOWHERE team, whose dedication to building this dream inspires me daily. And so many more.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
As I have become more successful, the projects have become more ambitious and the reach is growing. I believe so deeply in the power of art to transform, the power of sublime connection to heal. That has always been my mission. And I think NOWHERE is actually the culmination of all my best work. I can see how the last 15 years have led me to want to bring the experiences I make to the entire world in the digital space.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Sometimes the way out is not through. I learn a version of this everyday. It’s ok to flip the table and start from scratch.
- Failing is a gift. Failing is a necessary path to success. If you’re not failing, then you’re not risking enough.
- Engineers are extraordinary artists. A truly great engineer is among the great artists of our time.
- Plan more. Build less. Measure twice, cut once.
- Casting is everything. Choose collaborators wisely. Team dynamics can make or break a project. Learn to predict what social dynamics will work. If everyone is having fun the project has a much higher potential for success.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Imagine if there were a great commons on the internet, like Central Park, where everyone could intermingle and be exposed to every walk of life. So much about growth is just being exposed to differences. Imagine if we could beat the algorithms that are keeping us in silos and discover more.
Now = separation state. Future = virtual humanity. That’s NOWHERE.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
In a thick French accent, “You are sooo boring. Do you live far from here? Go home immediately.”
I had just graduated with honors and awards from The University of The South, Sewanee. I was a cocky American kid embarking on a prestigious Watson Fellowship, to study my proposed dream, Athletics to Acting in Movement Theatre. My first stop was a clown school in the North of London called L’Ecole Philippe Gualier, led by an extraordinary clown of the same name and I was in for a surprise. I had always been a star on the stages where I’d performed, and I admit, I believed this would always be true. Until I jumped on Gualier’s stage and quickly learned I was wrong. Gaulier is brutally honest. If you are not delighting the audience within seconds of taking the stage, you are removed.
This level of direct honesty and accountability is a rarity in theatre training, where most performers are coddled and praised for mediocrity and false charm. He doesn’t let you get away with anything less than spectacular. Many call him mean, inconsiderate, harsh; those who have trained with him even cringe when you say his name. He taught me some necessary humility. He taught me to listen more than act. He taught me to always look for the game, that it was on me to discover how to play it, and he taught me how to fail without complaining or quitting. I learned the resilience necessary to be the kind of risk-taking creator I ultimately became. He broke me and I’m still grateful today.
Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
The future of the internet is NOWHERE.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Yes. @picturejonmorris www.linkedin.com/in/jonlmorris @urnowhere @windmillfactory
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.