catching up on projects for 2012

At the beginning of the year I promised myself that I’d complete a personal project a month. And I only managed to get four of them done before it all tailed off.

So it’s August and I’ve clearly got some catching up to do.

And I’ll make a start in the next day or so.

 

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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 #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.

short interviews with friends #2: leticia credidio


Leticia Credidio
is an artist and illustrator I’ve had the pleasure of working with in the day job and for personal projects. She works for record labels, charities and more, and has exhibited her artwork internationally. She tells me here about deadlines, her sense of creative satisfaction and the risks of creating edible artwork.

How do you go about generating ideas for your artwork? Do you have a philosophy that you follow, or is it more random than that?

I heard once that creativity doesn’t come from intelligence. It is very true as most of my ideas come from random places and observations. Nature, children, languages and architectural/construction materials are my main sources of inspiration. My projects are generated for the purpose of passing a message or telling a story.

The last big piece I saw was your Sweet Furniture installation (video above) for the Taste Festival Berlin. Can you talk us through what it was, and was it a lot of work to go from original idea to execution?

When the curators of Direktorenhaus asked me if I could supply a project for the Taste Festival I tried to explain my idea over the phone but they could not understand. I said that I was going to reproduce my dream of having a house full of sweets.

I shipped 32 kilos of assorted liquorice and Haribo bears to Berlin and produced part of the furniture live at the festival opening. It was great, and fun to be there to hear that most people get very excited to imagine that it is actually possible to enjoy the sweets even without eating them. The sweets become furniture, made permanent and water-resistant. I couldn’t complete the installation at the opening as people and the media had many questions, shared their stories and ate the sweets. I found it very funny that the “material” I had left to prepare one of the chairs was eaten.

What’s your favourite piece you’ve done? Are you working on anything at the moment?

For a while my favourite pieces were the ones I developed without a proper brief. But now thinking, I reckon they were the ones done without a briefing at all. Maybe because I’ve been seen it every day, but I quite like my the Blap Boom skateboard, it’s few years old now.

I’m working on a commission given by a New Yorker-Italian artist to design his book. It includes his beautiful etchings which illustrate a very interesting novel. It’ll be printed and produced in Rome over the next few weeks. All future chapters are going to be separate books so it’ll be an ongoing project for at least another year.

Is there any difference in your approach when you’re commissioned to do something, as opposed to doing something completely of your own initiation?

I can only work if I have a deadline on my neck. Even if it’s a self-initiated, I have to restrict time for it. The creative approach is mainly the same. The only difference is, if it’s a commission, I would involve the client as maximum as I can.

Is there someone you follow for inspiration/are there people you know/do you proactively send your work out to people in some way?

I’ve been lucky enough to meet most of my favourite designers. The best thing is that the most inspiring designers I know are extremely successful, run big design agencies but are humble and constantly admire other’s people work. They give me confidence so I carry on. I get my inspiration mainly from art and music. I’d love to meet Yayoi Kusama, Riusuke Fukahori and Yoko Ono. I wish I had met Roy Lichtenstein and Clarice Lispector.

I think people would be interested in how something gets produced, and then finds life out in a gallery or event or wherever.

Normally the ideas are born through a commission request. If I’m given just a theme, I use the opportunity to produce something that I’ve never done before or to use a material that isn’t familiar to me. This can very stressful but the result is somehow always rewarding. It can look quite silly to try to deliver something, most of times, on tight deadlines, using bonkers materials and processes but it does work.

At least I constantly have the sense of achievement – and that’s what matters to me. If people connect with my work and like it, is even better.

short interviews with friends #1: ted hunt

Ted 1

[Photo of Ted courtesy of good for nothing.]

So here’s my first short interview with a friend, as part of April’s personal project.

Ted Hunt runs this is helpful, which in his words is a ‘creative strategy focused digital, marketing and engagement consultancy’. He also creates regular personal projects, ranging from playful web apps like Wisdom Tooth and Now & Then to micro-art exhibitions and new essay formats. I first met Ted in person when he was in charge of social and emerging media for innocent, and we were both presenting at an IAB event. Our paths crossed again in the good for nothing hacking-for-good community. We’ve stayed in touch and I regularly bother him for his opinion on my own personal projects and many other things. Lately, he’s also been one of my beard inspirations. Thanks, Ted!

What is this is helpful, and how did it come about?

this is helpful was born from my desire to move into consultancy, but having a severe dislike for the title/term ‘consultant’. I wanted to strip it back to something more meaningful and timeless, and figured there has always been a need to helpfulness, and helpful people, even before the whole consultancy phenomena. So that was going to be ‘my thing’.

On top of that I realised the people I’ve worked with in the past and would want to work with again/recommend to others are always the most helpful ones. They don’t look at projects and see potential for money, awards, personal kudos, or networking opportunities, they just try and help out and add some value. So I figured that would be a good strategy for my venture into independent business, if I go home at night and have been helpful in the day the rest (hopefully) will look after itself.

Do clients still think of you as ‘Ted who used to do social for innocent’? …and is that a good/bad thing?

Less so now. I try to play it down, rather than up, as much as I can these days. People like to know other people’s story and innocent is a good story so it was a good association in that regard. In other regards it can lead to some distinct pigeonholing which isn’t so good. A lot of businesses would love to harness the ‘innocent effect’ so can be a good door opener.

You also do a lot of personal projects (or contributions as you call them)…why? Do you have a particular favourite?

I think I got started with them while being involved with good for nothing. I started to re-address the way I worked on personal stuff, mainly doing shorter, sharper projects. Most of them were done in a day in reality. The I saw Stef give a talk at another good for nothing-esque thing called ‘find better problems’ where he talked about his own website being a long list of personal projects, some worked, some didn’t, some became businesses. So the next day I replaced my old website with a list of personal projects, and kept trying to build them up whenever I had an idea for one.

I’m not sure I have a particular favourite. The most recent one, attending a Wayne McGregor dance workshop, was one of the most enlightening, as it was the further stretch outside of my comfort zone. And I suppose a big part of the reason I do the projects is to get enlightened about stuff I otherwise wouldn’t have.

It seems like your personal projects fall into a few different categories: the playful ones, the craft ones, and the ones that set out to fix a problem or improve things. Do you see them that way, as separate types of activity? or is there some kind of interconnectedness?

I don’t set out to have any rhyme or reason to them to be honest, they’re pretty much all ideas that come into my head that I then set out to make tangible in some kind of way. The ‘tangibleness’ is probably the key thing really, I used to have ideas and do nothing about them whatsoever, which never got me anywhere. So committed myself to actually realising some of them about a year ago. I suppose they all help to solve a problem, even if that problem is just how I personally understand something. There’s a huge amount of interconnectedness in all of them, but that’s probably only apparent in the wires in my head most of the time. The Pilgrim’s Way one for example was about concentrating on something that’s normally mundane (walking), this led to more thinking on the theme of concentration, which I’m now drawing upon for a bit of client work I’m doing at the minute.

Lastly, as a one-man lean/agile consultancy, you’ve probably got quite a unique perspective on brands and business in general. what’s the biggest thing that businesses could be doing better? is it even possible to generalise?

Probably to start solving the right problems/better problems rather than the most urgent ones, or the ones that will return the quickest immediate results. And to get their heads around the E. F. Schumacher thing of “Infinite growth of material consumption in a finite world is an impossibility.” But that’s a boat with a bloody big hole in it that we’re all in together, and we will all need to start doing better at.