things i’ve learned from short interviews with friends

So it’s been a crazy month at work, and the first in which I’ll fail to get a new project off the ground or completed. Which, naturally, means I’ll have to complete two projects in June in order to stay on course.

But more important than that, I really, really enjoyed April’s project, a series of short interviews with friends. It made me think about a lot of things, but I haven’t really articulated that to myself in any concrete way yet. So what did I learn from this thing?

1. Get away from everything.

Something that emerged as an unexpected theme was the importance of being ‘away’ in some form. Mainly from the city, and so in this case mainly from London. Leila isn’t so much anti-London as she is incredibly passionate about the creative energy you can feel in Sheffield. Leticia is an Italian-Japanese-Brazilian who gets away a lot and shows her work internationally. Even though she didn’t really commit to this in so many words, it feels like something similar for Vic. Dan‘s moved down to Bath for space, nature and family. Hell, even Ted lives on a house-boat, living off-grid as much as he can.

Sometimes it’s about being free of this London gravity, and sometimes it’s just about having a different perspective on it. I can definitely identify with the oppressive quality Leila talks about. It’s so true that people are used to thinking of London as the epicentre of All Interesting Things, when looking or living a bit further afield would change our perspectives for the better.

2. Challenging is the best form of control.

Everyone I spoke to has some kind of challenge to some kind of status quo. Whether it’s Dan’s hacking-prototyping network taking on the big problems or Vic’s take on a style magazine’s tightly defined idea of ‘beauty’.

3. But also challenge yourself.

I know it’s kind of a cliche. But the real act of pushing yourself to do something new is hard, so it doesn’t happen that often. I can’t imagine many other friends doing what Ted did and seeing what they could learn from interpretive dance. And equally, taking on a big, wide open initiative like Happenstance must have been pretty scary in a way for Leila.

4. I’m really lucky to count these people as friends.

I started thinking about how I haven’t really ‘worked’ with most of these people. I may have been on a hack weekend, or we may have been in the same office near to each other, or our paths may have crossed some other way. But in most cases it’s been by some kind of extended coincidence that I started talking to them in the first place. The odds are so high that I wouldn’t have even met them in the first place. So I feel really lucky to have met them, and lucky to count them as friends.

5. So I might keep doing this.

I had a lot of fun interviewing Ted, Leila, Leticia, Vic and Dan. And there are plenty of other people I find interesting. Maybe the format would change a bit. Maybe it would stay the same. But I’m thinking about what I could learn from talking to other friends in a similar way.

short interviews with friends #5: dan burgess

Very much enjoying being back on a bike in London

Dan Burgess is one of the founding members of Swarm, a small but highly networked collaborative partnership that sets out to find solutions to big social and environmental problems. He’s also a former DJ with Sancho Panza, ex-Naked thinker, and now one of the brains behind the Nesta-backed, hacking-with-purpose community Good for Nothing. He blogs at hi-tech/hi-nature.

Hi-tech/hi-nature: explain!

It’s an inquiry really. A question. Or maybe a mantra, or an idea how to live perhaps. Or a dream state, an approach to life that I imagine to be deeply lovely. A response to my deep fear of runaway climate change on a globalised planet where society is addicted to material growth and completely disconnected from the natural world and the biosphere that supports us all.

I could go on, but I might write a book. Now there’s an idea? Actually this is making me work this through, so thanks James!

Practically for me hi-nature is time spent in wild places, running, walking and quite often now just sitting alone. It’s where I find perspective, creativity and will often get the clarity I struggle with in the day to day hustle of modern life. In short I get inspiration, and an inner or spiritual capacity to cope with the challenges of living in the 21st century.

And so, hi-tech. Well aside from the parallels and patterns I see in living systems and web systems and networks, technology isn’t going anywhere.

So for me this is a nod and salute to the possibilities of personal and social technologies, the ability to connect with folk far and wide and to share, support, love, learn, discover, re-imagine and do together, and to help us individually to develop, grow, express and sustain ourselves. The network effect and connection possibilities is really it for me.

So hi-tech/hi-nature is in this sweet spot of deep connection to the natural world all around us, an awareness, respect and consciousness of all life integrated, balanced and in hybrid with the connectivity, creativity and goodness of human networks and social technologies….

I need a one liner….can you help?

You’re involved with Swarm, Good for Nothing, and you also have your own personal undertakings (a pretty big one a while back was moving your entire family to Costa Rica for a year!). Can you explain what they all are? and do these represent three distinct sides to your life…or are they connected in some way?

Funnily enough I’m reading a book at the moment called The Three Marriages by David Whyte which explores an idea that humans are programmed to pursue three relationships: one as in classic marriage to another human, the second marriage is our work/vocation and the third marriage is to our own self, our inner journey or personal mission.

Classically we spread ourselves thinly across all of them and end up ruining or abandoning at least one of them, which in turn leads to all kinds of pain and anguish.

The Three Marriages is more about how we need all of them to exist harmoniously together and to integrate them into each other.

I’ve been seeking more integration in my ‘marriages’ for some time.

Costa Rica in 2011 for 10 months living in a treehouse by the Pacific with my young family was a big part of trying to reconnect, regroup and integrate as a family after years of me becoming frazzled and distant through becoming too immersed in my work ‘marriage’ which was making me very unhappy and consequently my family too.

Good for Nothing is an experiment into what more meaningful work might feel like and continues to evolve, we’re about to step it up a gear as we seek to kickstart another 15 cities across the UK. We will be announcing a program to do that very soon, and we’ve got chapters starting to hatch in Europe and beyond. The magic of Good for Nothing is the nothing, that there is no money involved, taking money out of the mix creates an amazing purity of creative response and human energy – but that makes bringing up 3 kids tricky!

We’ve just started a new venture called Swarm. Working with collaborations of individuals and organisations across lots of sectors and prototyping solutions to big systemic issues, with a view to turning them into funded ventures, new forms of social business. Solving real problems and building sustainable business models. So that’s all starting to kick off.

You spent a few days living by yourself in the woods recently. Did you see that thing about the North Pond Hermit? His apparent motivation for living 27 years in the wild was simply that he wanted to be alone.

I totally get the solitude bit. I crave it. I think humans need it, contemplation time. But it’s been pretty much eroded out of ‘developed world’ way of life.

I’ve embarked on a outdoors environmental educators course this year called ‘Call of the Wild’ at Schumacher college in Devon. So through a series of weekends over the year I will be camping out on Dartmoor, exploring a deeper connection with the wild and developing more practical skills to work with people outside. My aim is to try and eradicate spending my time in dull meeting rooms, sitting around a table, listening to abstract discussion and political posturing.

Instead I want to walk, explore and create with people outside, work through issues and plans and ideas and challenges while sitting in a wood or along a river, or a park. I think we open up more outside, we become more like who we really are, we see differently, we notice more and feel much better, sharper, connected through it. And the connection is what I’m really interested in.

GFN is hack-minded, and over the past few years we’ve seen things like Sugru and Tech Will Save Us spring up, all with an intention to improve/alter our relationship with products, technology, society etc. What do you think it is about hacks and hackers that make them some kind of vehicle or agent of change?

Participation and experimentation I think are the main reasons that make hacks feel like change is possible. You can imagine something different and try and make it. Which in most other systemised or commercialised parts of life you can’t. Power and legislation doesn’t do participation or experimentation. It does control. The spirit of hack is I think participate and experiment.

Music’s a massive part of who you are, from Sancho Panza back in the day to bossing the decks at GFN. Does it play some kind of complementary role to what we’ve talked about?

I love music. I grew up with the acid house movement in the late 80s, and I was a drummer since my teens. I spent the first 10 years of my working life DJing most weekends. I was/am fascinated by electronic music, individuals hacking tunes together, ripping loops and samples and making something new and awesome which could move a room full of strangers in a beautiful way.

I love how music opens you up, moves you. My music tastes are much more diverse these days, but I think humans are creatures of music, we love it. So music should feature more widely in daily life I reckon.

A party in a forest, with a lovely chunky sound system and some lasers, that’s about perfect 😉

short interviews with friends #4: victoria hannan

victoriahannan02
[Credit: Victoria Hannan for the 1010 project.]


Victoria Hannan is a London-based Australian writer and photographer. I was lucky enough to work with her for a while, and I’m always deeply jealous of the amazing photo essays she creates. She told me about her approach, her inspirations and some of her favourite work.

Writing or photography?

They play such different yet necessary roles in my life that I’m not sure I could choose. I’d go mad without both of them but hungry without one of them. Also, I don’t think writers can ever really give up because thinking is also writing in a way. Don’t you think?

When I write my personal work it can be really hard to know if something’s good and to know when to stop. I can labour over a single sentence for years and edit and edit and edit. Even after I’ve published a blog post, I’ll go back and make small changes. It can feel like there’s no end point because my deadlines are self imposed.

I find photography easier than writing for that exact reason. I think because I shoot on film I have such a limited amount of time to get it right that I don’t worry about it as much. If I get the shot, I get it. If I don’t, there’s nothing I can do about it. It’s a quick creative release that I can judge the quality of as soon as I see it.

How do you approach your photography? Is there some kind of consistent philosophy and/or set-up that you stick to, or is it less organised that? I ask because (as a total layperson) I always think your stuff, even the style-oriented work, has a kind of democratic feel to it?

The only thing that’s really organised is the street style. That comes with a very particular brief of how the photo should be shot, the age, sex and style of who should be shot, of what’s considered “beautiful” for that particular magazine. I think the most interesting thing about it is that I have to take this very particular, stylised idea of beauty and then find it in the real world. And that’s what interests me the most: the real world, real life.

I like democratic as a description because I like to think that everyone, everything has the potential to be beautiful. Real life is beautiful. And I think that’s the only philosophy I stick to. That a carpark can be beautiful, that a taxi driver can be beautiful, that a fence, a dead mouse, a fat man on a boat. All of it in context, or even out of context, has a real world magic that I’m drawn to.

What’s your favourite personal project you’ve done? And why?

1010project.com is important to me because it was the first one I did and it made me realise how easy it is to do your own work. I had an idea and then I just made it (with a little help from some friends). It cost about £100 and had more press and views than a lot of the advertising work I’ve done. After that, I didn’t really have any excuses not to follow through on an idea.

I’m also really proud of justheresfine.com and anextraday.com because of how terrifying I used to find approaching strangers.

Which individual artist/photographer/writer or group of artists/photographers/writer do you admire? Is there something about them that influences your work?

There are too many to list and I discover more every day.

I finished Leanne Shapton‘s Swimming Studies on a plane last night and wept silently next to a girl writing out maths equations on a napkin. I felt so understood while reading that book and I was devastated it was over. Now I can’t stop thinking about it. I also recently met a photographer called Anthony Gerace whose studio portraits are really incredible. Both of them made me want to get to work.

I’m also really lucky to be surrounded by talented people. I’ve somehow amassed a group of friends who do extraordinary things which inspires me to try harder so they still want to be friends with me.

You’re from Australia, based in London, and you travel a lot. Is there any sense in which ‘wandering’ influences your creative work?

Only in that being somewhere different heightens my senses. When I’m somewhere familiar, I’ll stop looking for a photo or a story and every day life will take over. Being in a new place forces me to really see the world again.