Are We Recording?

November 16, 2012
Elissa Lerner

It’s been a big week for Duke – an exciting win over Kentucky in basketball, the launch of select for-credit online courses, even the latest evolution of an invisibility cloak. But for the 1,232 students packed into sold-out Page Auditorium last night, the headlining event was Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The actor, most recently known for Lincoln, Looper, and The Dark Knight Rises, spoke, filmed, interviewed, and entertained for two hours on Thursday evening as part of his six-stop college tour touting his online arts-collective, hitRECord.

To many, hitRECord is a bit of a mystery. Fans of Gordon-Levitt’s may know it has something to do with “art,” but beyond that is unclear. (“I like art, I think?” murmured a student as she entered Page.) Fortunately, Gordon-Levitt knows his project is a bit obscure, and acknowledged as such. “I talk to a lot of people and they say, ‘I know you do this thing, hitRECord, and follow your @hitrecordjoe thing on Twitter, but I don’t really know what it is.’ Is that true for any of you guys?” But as he started to explain the origins, it became clear that hitRECord is best understood when experienced.

Gordon-Levitt in front of screen-shots of the early hitRECord iterations.

After significant growth since its inception in 2004 as Gordon-Levitt’s online journal and creative space, hitRECord is now a production company made up of more than 125,000 users around the world. Joining is no more complicated than registering online; the real work begins when users upload, or “record,” their words, images, music, and video to the site. These records then become fair game for other artists to mix and mash, creating thousands of collaborations around various prompts and themes. Any time a record is used, the original creator gets a credit, and if any project from the site makes money, hitRECord splits the profits equally between the company and contributing artists. Gordon-Levitt maintains an active role on the site as a host, producer, actor, director, and so on, and goes by the handle “RegularJoe.” (The irony, of course, is that Gordon-Levitt is anything but.)

Filming a backdrop of a "wall of cameras."

On stage, the pre-show began with slides prompting the audience to interview one another about experiences on "the road," - whatever it may mean -  and collaborate on the latest hitRECord project about the broad topic. Before Gordon-Levitt came on, the announcer boomed, “At this time, we’d like to remind you to please turn ON all recording devices.” And with that, the entire presentation became enveloped in itself, as Gordon-Levitt emerged wielding a Sony video camera mounted on a monopod. “Are we recording??” he bellowed at the screaming audience. “I want to see a wall of cameras!” Phones and cameras flashed, while he and his crew recorded it right back, simulcasting it on screen. His camera never left his hand while he was on stage.

Over the course of the evening, the actor explained that the footage could be used for hitRECord’s newest project, a half-hour television show that would showcase collaborations from the company. A few of these videos and songs were shared during the performance, while the audience was implored to tweet along, using subject hashtags such as #hitrecordloops or #hitrecordtheroad. “I want to make things, all together,” he said. Gordon-Levitt then invited up audience members who had written notable tweets, and briefly interviewed them, with the live video feed running on screen.

Dancers on screen and stage.

At other points, he solicited the audience to dance to a new music collaboration growing on the site, pulling up standout dancers to be filmed for the video, and invited anyone who wanted to sing to get on stage. (Turns out, Page’s stage can hold nearly half of the auditorium.) And for a brief moment, the show turned a bit serious, with Gordon-Levitt mentioning the one-year anniversary of the eviction of Occupy Wall Street. He lamented his former classmates from Columbia University who had majored in science and engineering and ended up going into finance. "I gotta say, I was like, fuck! Weren't they studying to like, build things? And find cures for diseases and do things?" His disappointment provided a backdrop for a short film using footage from Zucotti Park's final moments, and inspired an unplanned tweet request for the audience.

Whether the art on hitRECord is any good or will stand the test of time is in some ways irrelevant. At any rate, there’s no doubt it’s made in earnest. The more interesting question has to do with perspective: How many of those present watched this show with their eyes, and how many were watching through a camera or on a screen? Gordon-Levitt, and by extension hitRECord, is staggeringly self-aware. But then, so is this generation. Several segments of the performance featured (and rather intentionally so) Gordon-Levitt filming the audience, filming him, filming them. It’s the kind of thing that makes sense for someone who has spent life since childhood in front of and around cameras.

Later, after the show, a few crew members lingered behind Page, quickly smoking a few cigarettes. In a multimedia menagerie like this, a team of reliable editors is key. The hitRECord college tour is traveling with about ten editors, several of whom have worked together for a few years. They, along with Gordon-Levitt, are constantly editing footage from the website and from shows, right up until and even during the performance. Everything is mediated, but not necessarily pre-meditated. Instead, the attempt to constantly capture spontaneity becomes part of the project itself, and any of its iterations down the line. “What he’s doing is completely new,” says one of the editors.

And they’ll do it all again, but differently, tomorrow.