In 2005, Matt Harding posted a video on the internet. It’s a compilation of clips of him dancing – badly – in locations around the world. It was his video postcard of an extended walkabout, a vacation that began in 2003 when he quit his job and started following his Aussie friends on their global peregrinations. It was colorful, charming and became very popular very quickly.
A second video followed in 2006 and it was, in the best possible way, more of the same. In beautiful and remote parts of the globe, Matt dances like an idiot, occasionally watched by bewildered onlookers. The first two share the same musical DNA – the first is set to Deep Forest’s “Sweet Lullaby”, and the second to a remixed track built around “Rorogwela”, the Solomons Island lullaby Deep Forest (illegally) sampled for their hit track. The 2006 video was even more popular and landed Matt a sponsorship from Stride Gum, which allowed him to continue his global travels.
Something very interesting happened to Harding between his video in 2006 and his subsequent one in 2008. We see the change about 50 seconds into his third video. It begins as the others have, with Matt dancing alone in front of scenery that is beautiful, stark or strange. And then the frame fills mobs of people who join him, also dancing like idiots. Matt goes from dancing around the world from dancing with the world.
Where the Hell is Matt, 2008
I’ve met Matt a few times, but I don’t know him well enough to make a broad, sweeping statement about his evolution as a human being. Still, I’m going to argue that sometime between 2006 and 2008, he grew up. In the 2005 and 2006 videos, he’s travelling around the world to places he’d always wanted to see, asking his traveling companions or bystanders to hold the camera. For the 2008 video, he’s travelling with Melissa Nixon, his girlfriend (now partner/wife/coparent), and they’re very consciously making a viral video. Reading Matt’s book about the experience, he and Melissa argued about the significance and ethics of the project throughout, making the decision to start inviting people from the background into the frame, and finding ways to appropriately thank people for being part of the video.
One of the ways Matt took on responsibility in the 2008 video is in how he constructed the soundtrack. The first two videos used an unlicensed – and very controversial – piece of music as their background. For the 2008 video, he commissioned an original piece of music, “Praan”, using the text from Rabindranath Tagore’s The Stream of Life. More impressively to me, he took on the controversy over Deep Forest’s use of a Solomon Islands lullaby and took on a set of trips and investigations to find the descendents of Afunakwa, the woman who sang the original song. I’ve written about Harding’s quest here, providing some context for his search for Afunakwa’s family, and I was deeply thrilled to see his post last year that he’d located Afunakwa’s descendents and set up a fund that will make it possible for them to go to school, thanks to Matt’s largesse.
I heard Matt speak at TED in 2009, and it was clear that something still wasn’t quite working for him with the dancing videos. Performing a goofy dance in front of people who’ve got rich and sophisticated dance traditions is a bit like backpacking around the world while eating only McDonalds. At TED, Matt told us that his next video would feature dances from around the world, and he proceeded to try and teach us the short snippet of Indian dance that graces the third video. It didn’t work very well – the TED crowd was insufficiently graceful or silly to pull the moment off – and I found myself wondering whether Matt’s effort to turn a silly project into a genuine attempt at connection would fall short.
It didn’t. Matt’s fourth video was released today, and it’s beautiful.
It starts with Matt taking dancing lessons: in the streets of Kigali and Seville, in a ballet studio in Syria and a gym in Pennsylvania, in a marble hall in Pyongyang. As the music builds, Matt is dancing, with professionals and amateurs, performing gestures that are a mix of local traditions and global styles. The crowds get larger, and dozens, sometimes hundreds of dancers reach out from one side of the frame from one corner of the world, to a group of dancers, apparently responding, in another corner. It’s a little like Kultiman’s beautiful THRU YOU, but this time the participants know they’re part of the larger whole, here to dance with Matt and to dance with the rest of the world.
Matt’s first two videos made me smile – his next two have made me smile and made me weep. The moments that get me are small ones, like the cut, in his 2008 video, between dancing with a happy group in Israel and a small group of children in Palestine. This time, he dances with four beautiful women in a Damascus ballet studio. Their faces are blurred out, for their safety, a gesture that’s both practical and deeply poetic. Matt dances with a regally poised woman in Pyongyang, surrounded by a crowd of men in sharp suits and women in elegant gowns. The video doesn’t engage in the awkward, empty shots of North Korea that portray the nation as a vast Potemkin village – it takes the radical step of showing North Koreans as fellow humans, smiling and laughing at Matt’s awkward pass de deux.
He still dances badly, but now Matt’s got the world as a dance teacher.
I used Matt’s story as a way to close a talk I gave at ROFLCon in 2010, urging the audience to find ways to use the internet to connect with other corners of the world, not simply to laugh at them. There’s nothing inherent in the internet that guarantees that we will use it to connect with people from other languages, cultures and nations. But there’s no doubt the internet makes it easier to connect for those who choose to do so. Matt and Melissa’s latest work is tribute to the power of the internet to widen, not narrow, our world if we’re willing to jump into the frame and dance.
A quick postscript: I know there are valid critiques of Matt’s project, based on the carbon footprint impact of flying around the world to dance with people; about the economic, class and racial privilege that let him make a fool out of himself in the first videos, and allows him to amplify other people’s cultures in this video. And you could certainly point out that Matt’s art is now his business, and that corporate sponsors have made it possible for this video to take place. My guess is that Matt would own up to much of that criticism. But I should also point out that he’s using the video as a fundraiser for seven of the organizations who helped him dance, in Afghanistan, Rwanda, Iraq, Haiti, Thailand, Syria, and with a truly special dance company in Oakland, California. If you found the videos moving, please consider supporting those organizations.