Leila Johnston speaks at TEDxBrighton © Toby Lewis Thomas
Leila Johnston speaks at TEDxBrighton © Toby Lewis Thomas

Lighthouse Studio - Leila Johnston


22 May 2014

We've just welcomed our next set of residents to the Lighthouse Studio. New resident Leila Johnston writes on her plans for the next three months of her residency.

Hack Circus, a project by Leila Johnston.
Hack Circus, a project by Leila Johnston.

I have some exciting news. I’ve just started a residency at Lighthouse Arts in Brighton to develop Hack Circus. Partly inspired by Happenstance – a project you may remember I took part in back in 2012, the new Lighthouse ‘Studio’ programme invites residents of different disciplines to come and work on their stuff, share ideas and generally hang out at Brighton’s most excellent arts institution. I’ll be sharing a studio with these guys. Can’t argue with that.

Without going into details that don’t yet exist anyway, I want to do something with RADIO, something with PODCAST, something with VIDEO, something with LIVE EVENT, something with ANOTHER PRODUCT, and something with FAX MACHINES. I’ve been talking to a lot of people about it over the last few weeks. This means there are plans afoot, albeit hazy, but it also means I’m meeting a lot of splendid people who are unnecessarily generous with their time and ideas. These are the kind of people who make the world go round.

I’ve said it before, I know. But it’s true. People who put in far more effort than a normal person would are my favourite kind of people. If you want to be special, or interesting, or stand out, or do unusual things, you have – really by definition – to go a bit further than everyone else. Every fibre of your being will be trying to convince you to “take a break, make another cup of tea and relax, you’ve done enough! You’re different, you’re faster, smarter, you don’t need to do as much! And surely Hugh Hefner just hangs out in his dressing gown all day?” The voice is telling you to stop and be the same as everyone else. “If it’s meant to be, it’ll happen naturally,” it often concludes. But nothing happens naturally! We labour under the most extraordinarily compelling illusion about this, but trust me: the world does not behave as though it owes you anything. You get back what you put in. These aren’t just platitudes anymore, to me. I don’t know why it took me so long to realise.

Speaking of which, my new, bi-weekly commutes to the south coast have got me thinking about Roo, and how he commutes to London from Southampton every single working day. He makes an extraordinary effort to get the kinds of opportunities he wants. The kind of people who make these kinds of efforts make them right across their lives. And by the same token, I’ve found that people who don’t bother much in one area, probably don’t bother much in any other area, either. Not that that makes them ‘bad’ – it’s just normal. Most people don’t bother. Most people don’t bother to make a podcast no one pays for, most people don’t bother to spend their unusually long commute editing it, for free, to make it sound really good.

So in respect to this residency, and to the apparently insurmountable challenge of making Hack Circus profitable, and of getting my life where I want it to be in all departments, I’ve been thinking a lot about bothering.

When someone asks you, “Why do you do all these things that other people don’t do? Why not just lead a regular, easily-recognisable, life of convention? There are hopes and dreams for sale already. Why do you bother trying to reinvent the wheel?” (well, you have to accept that asked from within the mass of normality, it’s a decent question). The answer is: “Because I am going to die one day. And before that, I’m going to be even more middle aged, even more tired, have even fewer options. One day, I might become paralysed in an accident. One day I might become cynical. But today? I can do it today. So this is the time to bother.” There is less of a promise, of course: you are in unchartered waters, anything could happen. But as I’m always saying, this is the X Factor era and the dreams and promises we buy off the shelf are just a way to keep us in our place. The charts we have for the waters we’re already in aren’t exactly trustworthy.

Hack Circus is a circus because a circus is a complimentary collection of unique and extraordinary talent. Circus performers dedicate their lives to the pursuit of an absurd degree of skill, and a unique act. These aren’t just talents, they are extreme talents. They imply long-term, often solitary, commitment – in fact, commitment levels that may mentally and physically break you. For whatever private reason, these people display highly unusual levels of bothering.

I’ve been thinking a lot about those The Idler guys, too. Now there are some folk who definitely aren’t idle. Where did they come from? One imagines they grew up in a house without books and have been fighting for their right to party with dilettantes ever since. They’re half a generation up from me, and so far as I can tell, they’re responding with some irony to their parents’ ‘earning the money’ (as opposed to my parents’ generation, who wanted to ‘win the money’, Thatcherite style) – and seem to be rebelling against what they see as bloated middle-aged capitalism with a joyfully arch flurry of ukeleles and a spot of unexpected gardening.

But what’s The Idler for our generation? I’d like to think we’ve outgrown rebellion against our parents as the driving force for doing anything, but I’m not sure we ever do. And I suppose my rally to ‘put fuckloads of effort in, for Christ’s sake’ does indeed contrast neatly with the 80s ‘get rich quick’ thing we saw going on above us when we were kids.

Like any other circus, Hack Circus is a celebration of people who make the effort, and I plan on making the effort, too. It’s not easy. It turns out, in 2014, people are not giving out sackloads of money to humans with original ideas. And if we are surprised by this it’s because we grew up buying into the fairytale that things would work out, if we only made the right choices at each step. But life isn’t fair! The choices are rigged! Originality is rewarded disproportionately at school (even if not very much) – but out in the real world things are different.

None of this is new, I suppose. But I really wanted to write something warning against wishing wells, as much as a reminder to myself as anything else.

It is in the nature of chance that, in general, people will not take chances on each other and waiting for someone to take a chance on you, often while throwing money into a pit, is a fool’s errand. (Might be worth mentioning, at this point, that in four and a half years, several press mentions and frequent iTunes chart places, Shift Run Stop never led to any real ‘chances’ for Roo and I – we realised a long time ago that it had to be an end in itself.)

Excessive effort does not lead to chances, but chances aren’t what we’re after. Chances are exciting, fun and magical, but they are passive. Maybe it’s generational, who knows, but I think we’ve actually been trained to live passively. It’s understandable why we’ve ended up using hopes and dreams as a strategy of progress, though. It’s a hell of a lot harder to stop hoping and hoping, and actually do something.

This post first appeared on Leila’s blog, finalbullet.com


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