In preparation for Random String Symposium kicking off THIS FRIDAY at Warwick Arts Centre, we spoke to Leila Johnston, digital artist and creator of Hack Circus, about the need for invention, theatre companies embracing technology and honesty vs shininess.


In your work, what most excites you about creatively exploring and playing with the possibilities / practicalities of technology?

Technology is very structural. Both my degrees focussed on structuralism – in poetry and the visual arts – I’ve been fascinated by the relationship between the pipes and the things that move through them for a long time. But tech is structural because it is commercial; its shape has to do with its function – everything is contrived for a purpose. When something has an obvious constraint like this, it’s tremendously creatively inspiring. When the conceptual constraint is commercial, it lights up my individualism. And when the limit concerns a technology’s very anticipated purpose – that is, the reason for its existence is built into its destiny from conception – the temptation for subversive mischief is overwhelming.

Creativity and play come from the invitation implied by a constraint. I like putting things out of context, and the stronger the constraint, the greater the potential for play.


Lots of your work seems to involve ‘defunct’ technologies (like BBC Basic and old cash registers). Isn’t working with tech about shiny new toys?

I’ve done some projects that involve old tech and I always like to see it around, but what I’m mostly interested in is finding something that’s true to me, and worth saying. The BBC Basic stuff was a way for me to reconnect with my first experience of computing as something you could be in charge of, and the tills were a call-back to my childhood living in the shadow the IBM plant in Strathclyde. So a big part of that has been about trying to find a joyful way of making sense of my own childhood and genesis story, which was really complicated and weird.

Tech’s shininess is of course the thing I am least attracted to. I sometimes think there must be something wrong with me – consumer tech is just so staggeringly popular… I just don’t get it. And that causes me all kinds of problems, because if I say the word ‘technology’ in relation to my work, people assume I’m making apps for smartphones. I can’t even get a number up on my phone without accidentally calling it.

Cfdga7FWIAAZ71YBut most people are owned by money, and commercial companies are geared towards making things that are cool, more magical, more inexplicable to the average person. The more impossible the object seems, the more people will spend on it. Technology as a broad notion is very useful – it’s the blocks in ballet pointe shoes, the scaffolding for roofing a house, the machine that sews blankets – but shininess has nothing to do with technology and everything do with misdirection and influence. It is literally a gloss to make us starry eyed. Now, tin hats off, it’s not a conspiracy (probably!) but when you think about it, it behaves exactly like one, so what’s the difference?

Meanwhile, technology which looks like what it is is extremely interesting and is the root to individual power. Code looks like what it does, especially when you get down to switches and binary, or knitting patterns, which is more or less the same thing. It’s honest. There is an aesthetic level which has an honesty of expression and I’ve become very interested in that lately. A computer’s honesty, for example, might be its circuit board. A screen’s honesty might be its pixel. There is honesty in the flashing lights and the sounds the machinery is making. The less of a ‘magic mirror’ the machinery is, the more I feel drawn to it.

But you might well say noticing and becoming inspired by these things isn’t working with technology at all.


For those who haven’t read it or visited, tell us a bit more about Hack Circus. How did it begin? What are its aims? And how should people get involved if they wish to?

Hack Circus is a creative collective I started in 2013 to produce ideas around ‘fantasy technology and everyday magic’. Since we launched, we have produced 10 issues of a quarterly magazine and produced a string of sell-out shows in London, Sheffield and Brighton which blend performance and talks in a storyworld concept. We haven’t had any budget or funding for anything.

6295155138_efb814eb0b_mWe have sent an audience into space (and left them there), taken them into the bottom of ‘London’s least-known underground volcano’ and forced them to sing their way out as it erupted, resolved Artificial Intelligence, tried out a real time machine, discovered that reality is an illusion, and much more.

The events were launch parties for the magazine, and they kind of got out of hand. I’d put on a lot of weird events before I even started Hack Circus, so I should have been prepared for how addictive and exhausting they are, really.

I have always made magazines and comics, and after moving to Sheffield I decided it was time to go for it with a ‘proper magazine’ (I am quite precious about people calling it a ‘zine’, because it costs me a fortune!) I hadn’t seen anything on the market for something that expressed quite the attitude I wanted: something that could look warmly and playfully at dark, fascinating themes and showcase speculative design or philosophical thinking from non-cool, non-hip, but extremely interesting thinkers from all over. It’s been called “The New Scientist crossed with the Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy” and “Make magazine meets the Fortean Times”, which makes me very proud as that’s exactly how I feel about it, too.

People ask ‘where do you find the contributors?’ but you have to understand this has been my life; these have been the people – or kinds of people – I’ve mixed with or sought out for over a decade. I feel like I’m shining a light around a dark room and finding new corners, and every so often someone is standing there and turns their torch on too, and it’s the most exciting moment ever. I take a lot of the same people with me on every journey, but I always collect new ones en route, too. Just like life!

LeilaFutrsmallIts goals have always been to share the voices of lesser-known individuals and communities, to try to redress some of the worst atrocities of conferences and event programming, to innovate on the medium of sci/tech/art events and of magazines (I hate doing the same thing twice), to do things in the real world rather than the ‘magic mirror’ world of shiny tech, to evidence the emotional power of entertainment, to do what no one else is doing, to push people out of their comfort zones and break down barriers and expectations, and to play with ideas around what is real and what’s fantastical.

We have had a good amount of national and blogger coverage and the contributors and I have had a number of opportunities because of it. It is probably the most important thing I have ever done, but according to the magazine sales most people don’t agree about its value – so, barring a miracle, it will be closing after edition 12 this autumn/winter. I know there are people who want me to keep going or think I should try harder, but I think until you’ve attempted something like this, on your own, with no money, it’s very hard to imagine the position I am in at the moment. Saying that, I do have some ideas for how it might continue, and am thrashing these out at the moment.


In your work, particularly with Hack Circus, you put emphasis upon the need for invention. Why do you feel that invention has such importance, and would you say it is less/more/as important for creativity as it is for technology?

Perhaps by invention I mean, making something out of nothing, which is something I, and all the Hack Circus contributors, do every issue and every show. Making something out of nothing is also a way to describe inspiring the imagination in an audience. Perhaps the best ‘invention’ we had in the time travel show was the meditation on our future selves, led by Tania Ahsan. The room were completely silent with their eyes closed, and some were even moved to tears.

It’s also about empowerment. People who can come up with their own solutions are really powering up their status as autonomous individuals.

Obviously there are some great technical ‘inventions’, creative solutions to problems which have made people’s lived immeasurably better. I don’t have those kinds of skills though; I certainly don’t have that degree of social awareness. For me, worrying about the mechanics of technology gets in the way of invention, to be honest. The most important moment for invention happens in the head. You might decide to implement a technical idea after that, or just draw a picture of it, or write a story about it. As long as you bring it into the world in some way, that’s the main thing. I’ve wasted far too much of my life trying to build things when I should have been telling people about them instead, and got into a terrible mess.


Theatre and Dance companies, such as Rambert, seem to be investing a lot more into advancing their work digitally and technologically. Why do you think this is and is it a useful or necessary step forward for live performance?

This is happening because there is now funding available for digital experimentation that didn’t used to exist. However you cut it, this funding is available purely because technological products and services have the potential to make astronomical amounts of money in a very short time. The jury is very much out on the benefits of digital on the arts. It’s certainly not a necessary step, in the sense of improving what are already perfect, tried and tested art forms.

Screen-Shot-2016-02-25-at-19.33.51-300x258It might be a useful move, though, if it empowers artists (e.g. dancers) to become knowledgeable about technology and develop their own work using these new skills. One reason this would be good is because it would abolish the current assumption that technologists are mysterious geniuses with secret magic powers, who will arrive from the sky in a golden throne and solve all our problems. The very best result of my residency at Rambert was seeing the dancers take my kit home and send me videos they’d made with it. I will never be a dancer, but they’re already creative technologists. We are swimming against the tide in our resistance to our technological overlords, but we need to be very, very careful we’re cherry picking what we want to enhance the best of the performance arts, and not simply giving in to a new boss.

We are some way off, still. Technology is still a special effects thing, or entertainment. The dancers at Rambert talked to me about projection in music videos, or creating a dance that looked like a computer virus. All interesting stuff, but just because it’s technology doesn’t mean you have to start in a different place you would normally. They wanted to make tech the subject, but I felt it was malignant. I wanted the dancers to stick with what they knew, not be overwhelmed by the sales pitch of ‘innovation’ – make tech fit with you! You were here first. Dance was here first.


Do you have any projects coming up you wish to tell us about?

I’m speaking at the Dublin maker event next month, which is always a highlight of my year. It’s the best maker event I’ve been to and the people are lovely. I’m working and consulting with the Site Gallery in Sheffield over the summer on various projects. They are huge fans of HC and want to harness some aspects of it for their organisation, which is very heartening, as I love what they do. I’ve just put in a Wellcome Trust bid with them for a major ‘performance conference’ I’d like to do with them, this winter. It would be a game changer for Sheffield if it happens but I know not to count any chickens…

I’ve been asked to create something for the 90 Years of Rambert exhibition at the Lowry coming up this autumn. It will be an LED screen-based thing, based on some of the work I did there and include some new stuff.  I’m also doing a residency in Finland in September, and speaking at the New Scientist Live the same month. A couple of other talks as well. And I need to get the last two issues of Hack Circus out at some point!