Capioca interviews Leila Johnston, the founder of Hack Circus, a magazine, podcast and quarterly live show exploring ideas from the fringes of art and science. Leila also writes for technology and art publications.
Can you tell us a bit about your background?
My background is in generating independent media and entertainment. I have had commercial journalism and creative jobs – I’ve written for BBC comedy and Radio 4 and I was even deputy editor of a national countryside magazine for a year… and I still write for people like WIRED UK and Creative Review. But I’ve always returned to making and publishing my own stuff in my own way. Sometimes the things I do get picked up and adapted. I used to make a lot of comedy websites, and one was successful enough that I was approached by a publisher to turn it into a book. I have since had two more humour books published, but I much prefer the vibrancy of communicating in real life and prefer to create live talks, podcasts and shows. My academic background is in art history and critical theory, and in the practical world I’m interested in creating and subverting with tech. I’ve done a few residencies at arts institutions to develop my ideas around art and creative technology, and a huge amount of thinking about art and philosophy and how it connects to entertainment.
What is the purpose of Hack Circus? Has this changed since you launched?
I don’t like unquestioned conventions but I see them a lot where they certainly shouldn’t exist, and I see them excluding people and methods. There are a number of issues with conferencing and even art/thinking events. Despite everything, they remain profoundly exclusive. You see the same ten white guys at absolutely everything. And that’s not all: you see the same humour, the same ‘in crowd’ language, the same goals, the same barriers – everything designed to sustain a closed community. Before I started HC, I went to a lot of awful things; I felt shouted down in offices and overlooked for opportunities. But I have a great contacts list, and I just knew I could do a better job of all this, and give some really bloody great people a mouthpiece.
The shows actually began as relatively straightforward launch events for the mags, but they have become something else. I had no idea how enthusiastically people would rise to the challenge of putting these shows on with me. They have become a new kind of ‘conference’ – a reality-bending blend of entertainment and misdirection. But not everyone can get to the live shows; so the purpose of the magazine now is to physically represent HC to the world. Magazines I just love; I feel I understand them, they are always little manifestos for something.
Both the mag and the show are experiments in experience design in the real world and represent a sort of political independence in an age of extreme media control and ‘sharing’. I want to create a dark and mysterious little place, an updated magic show or a circus for the 21st century. There are artists, musicians and hackers working on wonderful things, and there are people with the most extraordinary collections of skills, but they are rarely brought together under one roof with a single unifying theme and single-minded direction – certainly not without the compromises implicit in productions by big corporations. In short, I want people to see that things don’t ‘have’ to be done in a certain way. You don’t have to create a commercial product; you don’t have to be a marketer or a business expert; you don’t need to hire a team; you don’t have to start with a fortune in investment; you don’t have to rehearse 50 times before trying your stuff out. You can do things you don’t know how to – the world will not end. I want Hack Circus to be the example that proves the naysayers wrong.
Does ‘experiments in experience design in the real world’ mean ‘experimenting with imaginary concepts through doing performance art in real life’?
Partly. It also means creating real world interventions that interact with real humans in the physical space, like a physical magazine instead of a digital one and is deliberately open-ended because I’m keen to see what else we can do. Hack Circus shows invite professionals to play along in a real world context – scientists and artists and actors and musicians collaborate to create a new kind of show that’s neither ‘immersive theatre’ (like Punch Drunk) nor a TED conference that’s all about heroes. We’re all in it together.
What are the challenges in trying to set up an idea like this and how have you overcome them?
There are a lot of ways to answer this, so I’m going to talk about the landscape of this as a business.
The way I do everything, I think, is to try first and think later. I can’t analyse and plan and speculate ahead of time; I am very physical and practical in a way – I need to get in there and feel my way through things. That’s been the challenge and the strength of all my stuff, probably. I never worry about the future, I just get stuck in. So I launched a magazine assuming subs would soon pay, not thinking about audience development or advertising until a good four issues in! But what we have now, despite everything, is a product, a community, and something of an ethos.
With business you need a goal, but it is an effort to remember that the goal and the business model don’t have to be dictated by ‘start-ups’ – even if you are working in some way with technology. Everyone interested in tech is living in the shadow of the cult of start-ups at the moment, and I think people put too much stock in two conventional metrics of success: longevity and financial power. When someone tells us about their new project, we don’t listen to the ideas, consider its impact on real humans, or think about its relevance to us in the world, we think (often not consciously): “How long will this thing be able to last and how much is it worth?” We are impressed by distribution and accolade from above, which is why we are far too impressed by those granted voice from mass publishing outlets. We are even impressed by proximity to cathedrals of wealth. We make entirely materialistic judgements about non-material issues.
I try to work independently in the arts and the media, but there is a real question about how independent you can be if you take money from government funding bodies via residencies, conferences, or anything else, which of course we all do. Not so long ago, the arts world was seen as the key to social change, a world working outside the lines, offering a new perspective on the powers of exploitative wealth. It’s not like that anymore.
Our association of financial power with creative success is deeply culturally programmed, but not natural or necessary. The idea is actually absurd, applied to creativity; it’s a ridiculous post-Thatcherite entrepreneur notion, like the ‘teach kids to code’ movement, generally well-intentioned but on some level also geared at turning everyone into servants of big society. And the predominance of digital is a big part of the problem now, too. Online creativity was briefly a safe house of independence and free thinking, but it certainly isn’t anymore! Digital making has almost entirely been turned over to money in this era of internet ‘get rich quick’; online space is all for sale, all homogenised, we all work for Google now.
So: the wrongheaded way people think about money is a challenge. I have even found myself thinking it myself, “If only we could get funding…” but I don’t know how that sentence ends! It’s not immediately clear to me how a huge dump of money would make our stuff better. (Of course, a small amount would help us to secure things.) But I think the reason Hack Circus is successful is precisely because we don’t think about money. We think about making a great show, in print and in real life.
Unlike a number of modern service jobs, entertainment has the potential to reward everyone. Performers and writers get a lot out of it, work together, feed their ideas and work into their paying jobs, residencies and other projects. More to the point, the blind quest for cash holds people back dramatically. Business needs to make money because business costs money – it’s such a trap! I have seen far too many businesses and agencies fail over the last few years because the pursuit of money in the innovative arts and creative tech worlds is too difficult, but everyone has it in their head that they need to be spending. So what if you make it a rule not to spend, not to worry about money? Well, in my experience, money is turning up just as readily as it ever was when we were worried about it.
I currently pay for the magazine out of my own pocket, and we just about make the print run back through subscriptions and ad sales. A modest life in one of the best value cities in the UK (Sheffield) means my expenses are covered by freelance writing gigs.
Do you think the need for print will continue?
I did an interview for the Guardian last year where I explained that ‘digital has created a new outsider’. Virtual media used to just be the nerdy domain but very quickly it has become quaint to make a point of reading off paper. I think the need for designed objects will continue, and I think the need for printed stuff that serves a very different role to websites will continue. The audience won’t be vast but it will be far more invested in the produced object. People do seem to love to read. I don’t have a kindle or an eReader, and yes, I’m in the industry, but I’ve always read a good handful of magazines every month, and that hasn’t changed. I’m not particularly ‘nerdy’ or digitally-minded, and I’m fairly old, but I can’t believe it’s just me.
What are the top ideas you have covered so far?
I am very taken with the notion that, statistically, we almost certainly do not exist. This is the kind of thing I love featuring in HC: twisted logic that somehow rings true – you can’t look directly at it. The sci-fi author and HC regular Chris Farnell wrote a great piece about how to tell whether you are real or whether you’re just part of a computer simulation hooked up to a brain in a jar somewhere. He brought the brain and the jar along to the show and gave his talk in a lab coat. I was heckling along until I realised his parents were in the audience, but it was great.
Similarly, we ran an extract from a book about artificial intelligence which explored the dark side of A.I. – it’s a theme a lot of people are talking about at the moment, especially since that awful film Ex Machina. But our piece looked at things like the ‘Paperclip A.I’. The idea goes that an infinitely helpful sentient machine programmed to make paperclips might take its instruction to the logical extreme, and ultimately convert all the matter in the universe into paperclips, including you, me, and planet Earth.
I love the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEMT) and support pretty much all of their ideas. Their slogan is ‘live long and die out’ and they make an excellent case for the deliberate obsolescence of the human race. We interviewed them in the Life issue. In the same issue, we featured a design for a roller coaster that can kill you. The ‘Euthanasia Coaster’ is a bold and beautiful thing that clearly comes from an extremely dark place. It is a real honour to be able to give these things the time of day.
An example of a Hack Circus: Starship Hack Circus was a show held in late 2014 at the White Building in East London. A group of artists, writers, performers and experts in their field sent 50 people into space to investigate an alien signal.
Who are the most inspiring people you have met along the way and why?
I have been lucky to meet many amazing people over the past couple of years, so I’ll just pick two. Sinead McDonald is involved in most of the shows and has an incredible creative mind; she’s a visual artist and concocts wonderfully dark and witty machines for our shows (and her own practice). She’s made things like time machines and radio receivers for space signals, and when she stands there bullshitting a group of men it’s a sight to behold. She’s always flies over from Dublin to take part and she’s been a bit of a muse to me really, a touchpoint that has helped me to develop HC over the last year.
I have to mention LJ Rich, with whom I’m collaborating on the next show. She’s a tech presenter on the BBC but she’s also an amazing composer and creative audio hacker. She experiences the world uniquely as a synaesthetic with perfect pitch, and since we’ve been writing songs together and coming up with completely demented concepts for the next show, her talents have really blown my mind. I’ve never met anyone with so much energy.
If you weren’t doing Hack Circus, what would you be doing?
I’ve been lucky enough to have a go at most of the things I think I’m capable of in terms of communication-related creativity over the last 15 years, but the thing that always comes up when times are tough is the idea of jacking it all in and getting a little farm. I used to edit a magazine about the countryside and coo over pictures of fields and chickens all day, and now that I actually have a sheepdog and live near the country, it’s always there at the end of the road, a recurring fantasy that feels tantalisingly possible.
Would you like to add anything else?
Thanks, the next show is called Underworlds. It’s a musical Journey to the Centre of the Earth, one-night-only on Monday March 23rd, in the basement of the Star of Kings bar in London’s Kings Cross. We may be releasing some of the songs ahead of time. There will be expert talks woven in. It is, so far, extremely silly, and I can’t see it settling down anytime soon. We are having a huge amount of fun making it and I think that’s going to come across. I’m so excited about the album being finished and available for people to buy, too.
Capioca spoke to Leila as part of a series on Nerd Nite London speakers.
(Photo credit: Nozomi Matsuyama)