Invention is the art of working with what we have

Leila Johnston and 3D printer at the Hack Circus event, Access All Areas, which took place in June this year at Lighthouse Arts in Brighton. Photo: Lighthouse Arts

A year ago Leila Johnston launched Hack Circus, an independent creative collective about ‘fantasy technology and everyday magic' that publishes a quarterly print magazine and stages a reality-bending live show mixing art, science and philosophy. Hack Circus is about experiencing things in the real world but, as she explains here, this has proved to be a surprisingly controversial stance...

People often ask why I am making a physical magazine when a digital version would be more relevant these days, writes Leila Johnston. The question belies a defensive fetishisation of digital, an elevation of what amounts to information convenience food.

The artistic merit of the physical world is to do with its difficulty. For a start, printed text carries culture, it is not simply a delivery mechanism for data. Objects are expensive to our pockets and demanding on our souls; we interpret them first with our hands, and we can't immediately look to hundreds of others to divine an acceptable opinion.

We are alone in our interactions with objects, and those adapted to a highly sharable world are bound to feel uncomfortable.

Cover of issue 2 ('Reality') of Hack Circus, March 2014


Digital media, however, does not carry the same inherently artistic or emotional challenge (at least not yet) – hence its extraordinary success.

Its facture is invisible and its contents materialise on screen without history or baggage. The digital is not emotionally difficult, it doesn't remind us of anything, it doesn't compete for our physical space. Instead, it invites us to build our own world, in comforting facsimile.

Anyone attempting creative work in ‘meatspace' is up against it. Progress and innovation have become synonymous with digital such that large amounts of funding are available for creative productions that might be the first to ‘crack' the problem by using technology in their work.

But this is a culture of faith; technology is not yet there. Digitising a piece of work does not automatically improve it, and frequently hinders it.

Creative technology is in its infancy, and we are pinning all our hopes to it. Since 2012, I have completed two residencies at arts institutions and talked and written about technology and the arts for numerous organisations, and I have come to the conclusion that technology should not be centre stage.

Spread from issue 5 ('Life') of Hack Circus, December 2014


We have a movement powered by a sort of quasi-religious optimism – concerned less with what's possible now than what may be, one day.

It is there in the singularity-like implications of the digital publishing question – that magazine creators await futuristic salvation from material production, and it is there in the neo-fifties notion that a performance is only complete when some slice of it can be rendered ‘in every home'.

Hack Circus has been described as "The Fortean Times as published by Make", and while the ‘hack' part attracts a tech crowd, in spirit the project is solidly Fortean. Invention is the art of working with what we have; it's about seeing the potential in the world right in front of us, today.

The Fortean Times is marvellous – and mocked – not because it's speculative, but because it subverts the model of the world around us right now. The fantastical shines so brightly because it sticks to archetypes, those vessels of true feeling in the present moment that root us in a past and a future.


Part of Seb Lee-Delisle's interactive installation, Lunar Trails, shown at the Hack Circus Access All Areas event in Brighton. See Photo: Lighthouse Arts

Artist and photographer Sinead McDonald at the Hack Circus Access All Areas event in Brighton


Immediacy and fantasy go together. Journalism, writing, performance and design all need to transmit important ideas fast, with minimal interference, but there are three major obstacles preventing independent creatives from capitalising on the communicative power of fantasy.

The first is the digital art scene, where quick, sharp, experimental projects are now a quaint sideshow to a lengthy, academic preoccupation with speculative design. Reams of difficult supplementary material stifle pure ideas, as creatives contort their politics to fit futurist aspiration.

The second is agencyland, which has now almost entirely appropriated playfulness, because artists desperately need money and digital agencies desperately need fun. And the third is the fact that things worth doing are often difficult. People look everywhere for the reassurance of something shared, but reassurance comes from within.

Hack Circus and similar projects are not about safety, they're about taking your creative life in your own hands and experiencing the vertigo of going it alone.

Leila Johnston is a writer, curator and artist and the founder of the creative collective, Hack Circus. A residency at Lighthouse Arts in Brighton enabled her to develop the project over summer 2014 – it has now evolved into a live show (with events on themes such as Time Travel and First Contact), as well as a magazine. Issue five is published this month – see Johnston's website is