short interviews with friends #3: leila johnston

Leila Johnston is one of the co-presenters of the Shift Run Stop podcast, and a comedy writer, author, journalist, hacker, inventor and speaker to boot. I caught up with her last week to hear about making things fast, her collaborators and the dangers of becoming a new media butler. 

Writing, podcasting, hacking/making, talks. What’s the order of priority or preference for you?

I’d like to be much more of a maker, and that’s my goal for 2013. I’d say talks and broadcasting (podcasting) are the same thing to me, and writing’s just talks with the sound off. It’s all hacking, in the sense that I never want to do the expected thing in the expected way – in general, in life, I’m constantly trying to surprise myself because I get bored or don’t understand the convention. Which is why I end up doing a lot of comedy/humour things as well – because I am delighted by the most unexpected things and don’t like to see how things are going to turn out.

Broadcasting is part of the construction of yourself as a persona whereas hacking is about inherent ideas, not the hacker. It can be very seductive though, listening to the sound of your own voice, and it’s never quite clear if people are responding to you or your ideas… so broadcast is something I absolutely adore but also treat with suspicion because it is not necessarily authentic, informative or honest. Hacking (as I use the term at least) is an honest deconstruction and intelligent repurposing. Don’t get me wrong though, I have no interest in usefulness.

How did Shift Run Stop come about? And how do you go about choosing your guests?

I recommend the interview Roo and I recently did for Resonance FM’s Little Atoms on this very subject! We choose the guests by how much we like and want to meet them. I am always keen to get women in, because we are under-represented and I enjoy talking to other women. We absolutely have to like our guests and we’re not doing free PR. For those two reasons, we don’t do requests.

Roo got in touch with me after seeing me talk about my second book at Interesting in 2009. He saw some common ground between us, had heard another podcast I’d tried to make around that time, and wanted to work on one with me. I knew Roo’s name too, as we mixed in similar circles, but had never met. He worked at BBC TV Centre at the time, and we had a meeting in the Blue Peter garden, which was very exciting for me – especially as we met the new Blue Peter dog! We had lots of ideas at the beginning and it took a few episodes for it to find its feet, but I always wanted there to be a guest to hang the show off, and as the episodes have snowballed various in-jokes and common themes have crystalised. Hopefully it all makes listeners feel like they’re part of something with an identity.

One of the bigger projects you’ve been involved in recently was Happenstance, a project that saw you and five other technologists take up residency at three galleries/organisations across the UK. Tell us a bit about the project, what you made and what you got up to?

I applied for this residency last spring because I have an academic background in art and one of my roles at Made by Many was finding interesting new tech for the ‘labs’ side of the agency. In reality, I was desperate to get out of London and away from the agency world. The project was great fun. The whole thing was very experimental, which suited me enormously – the idea was to place people who know about tech into an arts institution to see what happens. I felt like no one could believe I knew enough about tech, and I wasn’t sure I did either. The whole thing was a bit Legally Blonde.

I was paired with someone I’d barely met (luckily we got on!) and we were quickly welcomed into the ‘family’ of this small gallery in Sheffield (physically small but with a major international footprint). James and I helped them improve their processes a bit on a day-to-day level and involved the gallery in the broader tech community of Sheffield but we also introduced a few bits of kit to show them what artists are using, what’s possible, and what might kick off other ideas. We got to speak at TEDx and Future Everything, which was really cool, and I did a lot of arduino hacking for the first time as well as playing with Kinect and bits of electronics.We had loads of ideas and bits of equipment, but the one that really caught the gallery’s imagination was the internet enabled thermal printer kits we ordered in Go Free Range. We hacked them a bit and one is still being used as a digital guestbook on the gallery reception. The other was involved in an exhibition by Bill Drummond (from the KLF).

The ongoing impact has been really interesting – most of the six residents are still in touch with each other and are great friends. We have all continued to work with the institutions and have wonderfully strong bonds with them. I think the best thing to come out of it has been the power of trust. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done and I bought a house in Sheffield and settled here permanently.

The best places to read about this and see pics are happenstanceproject.com and http://happenstancesheffield.tumblr.com/.

I meant to ask you about the non-London thing…because so many people I know who work in what gets loosely labelled ‘the creative industries’ seem to flock to the capital in a pretty unquestioning way. Why are you so keen to stay away?

There is a cult surrounding the place that is so comprehensively reinforced by everything in the South East that it’s very difficult for anyone inside the M25 to even begin to conceive of any other kind of life. I feel the world would be better if people questioned what’s influencing them. I could ask why everyone in London is deliberately staying away from Sheffield.

It’s true that I spent most of the time I was there trying to get out. I never wanted to work in London, it was never part of my plan. It just wasn’t really on my radar. I’m a simple person. I grew up in quiet suburban towns in the midlands and north; things happening in London weren’t relevant. I didn’t know anyone there, I never went there. It didn’t really feature at all in my picture of the world.

So I arrived, trying to make things and trying to convert my enthusiasm into something the community might engage with, but it turns out everything in London is about service – and everyone is continually worried about money. Worried about money, brilliantly, that they wouldn’t need if they didn’t feel they had to stay there.  I didn’t want to be a techno-butler, I wanted to be in control of my own life. For me, excitement is generated from within and pours outward, and I find London’s set-up very oppressive and very hostile. No one has time for anyone; creative excitement is sapped away. The idea of travelling for three hours and still being in the same city, for example, is just a bit too Dark City to me. When people do have time for each other the feeling is either Blitz spirit – we’re all in this uncomfortable situation together, or non-committal – the rich can afford not to really care.

People talk about loving London. I can’t see why they would lie, but it also suggests their experience of life is totally different to mine, like they see in a different colour spectrum to me. I generally don’t love manmade constructions, and I can’t find much to celebrate in the cathedral of capitalism that London has become. I have lived in a lot of places, and the capital is by far the least creative in its spirit, and the place where the energy, motivations and core beliefs are least aligned to mine. Someone once said it costs money to just sit down in London. I never had much money growing up, and the expectation of wealth feels like a constant affront.

There’s also the pressure to participate, continually, and to compromise. One becomes a package, aware of the enormous inconvenience of hoisting your body around. I have many great friends in London and am very interested in their work, however I just can’t spend that much time travelling. I can’t spend so much time with strangers. I can only do a few good hours work a day. It is, in fact, possible to have a good social life, meet wonderful people, have fantastic nights in and out, and make great things without paying £800 a month in rent for a shared flat and £3K a year on travel. But luckily for the rest of the country, Londoners will never quite believe that. I own my home outright in Sheffield. I work as little as possible. I walk my dog in the fields near my house. I have no ambitions at all, and I feel like I’m living my life.

Which project so far do you feel happiest with/most challenged by? Why?

I guess Shift Run Stop is one of my favourite things I’ve done, partly because we never ever compromised on anything, and we were determined that it always had to be fun. There was a big ‘learning’ there, really. Technology allows people work up their passions into shareable media very quickly and easily, and commercial criteria don’t get a look-in.It amuses me when I seem to get offered work based on these fun hobby projects, because interviewing someone as part of an agency re-brand, for example, is utterly different in almost every way to interviewing someone for a geeky comedy podcast. I also loved making my online PDF magazine “For people who’ve got something a bit wrong with them” All The Rage, and my newspaper Hackers!, and my end of the world event, The Event. Why must I choose a favourite?

The biggest challenges have usually been when the projects have involved shoehorning my ideas into stakeholder work, and I’ve become a bit of a new media butler. I worked at an agency in London for a year, managing an expensive external redesign of most of their website, and none of the things I worked on ever saw the light of day. The site still looks exactly the same today as it did two years ago. Bit disheartening, but you know, thanks for the pay cheques.

One of my fave things of yours is the Making Things Fast talk (above), about keeping momentum behind your ideas and making them happen. I guess one of the questions I have is, what do you learn from each thing as a result? Is it about having lots of practice at making things?

I never really know what people are talking about by ‘learnings’, but ‘making things fast’ is very simply just a habit I advocate, and a philosophy to help people who are stuck in a creative rut. I sort of preach it from the extreme end of things: I feel the pressure of mortality very strongly, do everything quickly, and still manage to make a living, so I know it’s possible.

But I realised I was talking to a lot of people who are genuinely unhappy with their processes, crippled by insecurities about what they’re working on and sometimes rather self-hating for this shameful procrastination they feel is built into their personality. People do like to punish themselves for not getting things done, especially in London. As much as I realise I’m advocating the benefits of completing stuff, and therefore part of the problem, I really just want people to stop hating themselves. If that means abandoning things that aren’t going to happen, or realising you don’t actually want to make that kind of thing at the moment and can just let it go, then so be it.

You’re right it’s about practice, too. As one would practice an instrument, one can practice and improvise making things, as a regular habit and without any pressure, simply because it is enjoyable. People are overwhelmed by the enormity of bringing huge pieces of work into the world. Let’s make rubbish small ones, and be bad at it, is what I say. No one will judge, and it will make us all immediately happier. makingthingsfast.com btw.

What’s coming up soon that people should look out for?

I’m in a constant state of almost collaborating on something with my friend the musician and inventor Sarah Angliss, and that might happen later this year. All being well, my new book, written in collaboration with my friend Tim Warriner, should be out this Christmas. It’s called The Inner Head, and is a spoof New Age guidebook. It makes us laugh, anyway. I’m making an emotional kitchen with long-time collaborator Duncan Gough for the Dublin Maker faire in the summer. Everything I’m doing will be in my monthly newsletter and linked from my website. I do a couple of talks most months, too.

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One thought on “short interviews with friends #3: leila johnston

  1. Pingback: things i’ve learned from short interviews with friends | james hogwood's blog

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