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21 June 2015

Invisible limits and forbidden behaviours

Being part of our international collaboration projects can have a profound effect on participants. Leila Johnston reflects on how Global FutrLab shifted her view of the world - and herself.

The smaller the world, the less legitimate its definitions. For such a little place, the UK has a lot of big talk about innovation and culture. It’s rational to assume our elected handful of cultural influencers must be the best, to fall in with the idea that there are an acceptable, quotable few for some good (if forgotten) reason. In fact, it’s almost impossible not to accept apparent importance on good faith. Those without much power or influence literally can’t afford to question the system.

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Leila on stage at FutureEverything

But you don’t have to go far to realise what a nonsense it is. In February this year, with my project ‘Hack Circus’, I was one of the successful applicants for the ‘Global Futr Labs’ programme pilot.  There are some really good posts already on here from the other participants so I won’t repeat the details, but it kicked off some fundamental changes for me. I went to Manchester, and the world turned up.

The ‘Global Futr Labs’ were a sort of package of hot-housed opportunities laid out for us in a banquet – one foot in the global scene, one in Manchester itself and a third foot (maybe a kangaroo-like tail-as-foot) in the future of our own work. We were treated to a walking tour of Manchester, some workshopping of ideas around the critical urban environment, and an opportunity to methodically analyse our processes and present our work at the FutureEverything festival.  

Manox Media

Leila in the FutrLab

There was, to my inexperienced British eyes, genuine innovation in the stuff my new colleagues were doing – these creative entrepreneurs from around the world were not ‘disrupting’ in the school rebellion sense we gleefully embrace in this country, they were almost doing the opposite: equalising. They were a voice of sense, determined to use their tools to calmly resolve the chaos they’d grown up with, through bootstrapped ingenuity and bloody hard work. I realised with a jolt: disruption is a glamorous and foreign thing to many in the UK, a shorthand for ‘authentic’, and just as distant. In post-revolutionary Indonesia or the Ukraine, a hackspace is a critical centre for development and education, a spark that might reignite an economy or at least charge a community with hope. In the UK, hackspaces are (to some extent) a place for the privileged to indulge hobbies and just like 19th century hobby farms, perhaps they are an expression of our craving for the more meaningful life of an exotic ‘profonde’.

And there was another kind of constructive caetextia, one which led me to Berlin this month. We can only get a sense of something from a distance – and we can only show others who we truly are when we place ourselves in total contrast to something. It’s like wearing red in a red house all your life, then suddenly finding yourself in front of a green wall. 

Leila Johnston

Leila in Berlin

So it was that I found myself heading to Berlin the other week to lead an ‘intervention day’ at the ‘School of Magic, Machines and Make-Believe’, an annual summer school run by Rachel Uwa. A group of students from around the world, many simultaneously managing professional art and design careers, were taking the summer out to improve their technical and creative skills and try to build some new stuff. 

I invited them to think about the city as a place of invisible limits and forbidden behaviours, and things developed from there. Some of us ventured outside, carrying heavy sandwich boards through the scorching heat, and offering strangers tours of everything from the police station to a local Lidl. Rachel and I stood in front of a shop window where dust-covered builders could be seen mid-renovation, and handed out tickets to passers-by to ‘watch the men for one minute’. 

Leila Johnston

Tattoos in the park

Some teams thought about influencing routes and trails of breadcrumbs. They followed unwitting pedestrians over bridges, trailing a chalk on a stick. Others stayed behind and considered fantastical scenes beneath the street, so that we might mount projectors onto CCTV cameras and transform them from Orwellian harbingers into beams of magic that moved when the cameras did. We found ourselves in the park collecting childhood fairytales from a group of drug dealers, and left them, smiling, with our hamfisted gang signs (actually Rachel was very good). 

And that was when I realised what all this was about. Putting yourself in a different context is an intervention and an innovation. And the more publicly you do it, the more completely you embrace the challenge, the more your experience will impact on your surroundings. So creatives, hackers, anyone keen to make a difference but feeling by the overwhelming influence of the status quo, I urge you: do the difficult thing and use your freedom. Get away from the red house and head to the green wall, at every opportunity. You won’t regret it.

Leila Johnston is a writer, artist, entertainer and publisher, working on the intersection of technology and art to create and curate meaningful experiences about the limits of humanity. She is also ringmaster of Hack Circus, a creative collective of artists, scientists, writers and performers committed to delightful and unsettling effects and experiences.  Leila took part in our Global FutrLab 2015.  This is a shorter version of Leila's blog on her own site here.