Leila Johnston yesterday – often interrupted
Rule One of interviewing someone. Do not interrupt them with your own ideas.
In December 2011, I wrote a blog asking Leila Johnston what she actually does.
Yesterday, I met her in the main street in Borehamwood and asked her again. The answer seems to be Everything. She is certainly not boring yet, despite this, she is going to be talking at an up-coming Boring Conference about living in Greenock and having IBM posters on her bedroom wall when she was six years old.
Next month, she will be talking about Making Things Fast to BBC Radio staff at Broadcasting House in London… “I’m trying to cast myself as a sort of geek self-help guru,” she tells me. “It’s a kind of modern motivational talk.
“Also in November, I’ll be doing the same talk for a thing called The Monday Club run by someone from The Idler… and I’m hosting a panel of computer art pioneers from the 1960s at the Site Gallery in Sheffield… and I’m doing an investigation into people’s ghostly experiences for Den of Geek‘s Den of Eek night… and I’ve been asked to come up with a data art installation for a wall in an office at Broadcasting House… but, In December, I don’t plan on doing anything except maybe getting a dog for my new semi-rural lifestyle. And sending out lots of pitches, of course. And editing The Literary Platform. And working with a magician and illusionist.”
Leila’s reference to her “new semi-rural lifestyle” is because, just over six months ago, she went up to Sheffield for three months to work on The Happenstance Project which aims to insert people from the world of technology into arts organisations.
“There are three participating art galleries,” she told me yesterday, “and I was put in the one in Sheffield. It was a residency. Like an artist-in-residence.”
“A nerd-in-residence,” I suggested.
“Yeah,” Leila laughed. “There was a lot of debate about the word ‘technologist’…”
“Is that what you are?” I asked. “A technologist?”
“Well, that’s part of the way I cast myself, I suppose,” she answered.
“Really, though,” I said, “you’re half-and-half. You’re an arty writer and a nerdy geek.”
“There’s a phrase being used at the moment,” Leila told me. “A ‘creative technologist’. Which is quite a nice thing to be, because it implies you’re given a bit of freedom to invent stuff.”
“Some new word will be created,” I said. “A ‘Creatologist’ maybe, though that makes it sound like you don’t believe in Darwinian evolution.”
“A creatin, perhaps,” laughed Leila. “Maybe I’m a creatin. It’s only in the last year or two that people have accepted there are people like me who can help bring arts into a digital era, because a lot of arts organisations are still working in really archaic, inefficient ways. They don’t really know anything about the possibilities of technology. There’s a whole world of creative tools they don’t really understand.”
“Every art gallery could have the Mona Lisa on their walls,” I suggested.
Leila laughed. “You can’t get very close to the real thing anyway,” she said.
“You could have 3D printed, 18-squillion pixel versions on the walls of different galleries around the world,” I suggested.
“You could recreate the whole Louvre,” said Leila, not exactly convinced.
“Duplicate the Getty Art Collection in Los Angeles around the world,” I suggested.
“Make every art gallery into a sort-of super-villain’s lair,” laughed Leila.
“It could be sponsored,” I suggested. “The walls of every Tesco could be like the Louvre… Capitalism at work.”
“Mmmm…” said Leila.
“When I walked round Moscow under Communism,” I said. “It was dull. Lots of posters and banners, but all the same. Art which might have been cutting-edge in 1917 but wasn’t now. Everything had stagnated. It was a literally decadent society. Not colourful. It was all red, white and grey. The buildings were grey; the street art was red-and-white. In medieval times, the Medicis sponsored the best creative artists and they took months or years to make pieces of art which were stuck on one wall in one building forever. Nowadays, in the West, advertising agencies pay the best visual artists and the most creative minds bundles of money to work for them. So, walking round the streets, when you’re waiting for a train in the tube, when you’re watching TV, you’re surrounded by constantly-changing, highly-creative advertising art. It’s like you’re living in a constantly changing art gallery. Capitalism at its best.”
This, you see, is a perfect example of how not to conduct an interview… to give your own opinions instead of finding out the other person’s.
“Mmmm…” said Leila. “Interesting.”
“Not really,” I admitted.
“Mmmm…” said Leila.
“I don’t think I realised you were managing editor of The Literary Platform,” I said, trying to get back on course.
“Well,” said Leila, “after Happenstance, which was a three-month thing, I decided to stay in Sheffield because I liked it so much and one thing I got involved in was The Literary Platform. It’s a website which showcases projects involving new technology and storytelling. If somebody’s made an amazing iPad app that is somehow interactive and you can tell a story… or there’s something about the future of reading and eBooks… things like that. It’s got a business side and a creative side, but my own posts are all about the creative side. I’m always looking for new projects to showcase and people to feature.”
“Such as?” I asked.
“There’s a guy I’ve just interviewed,” Leila told me, “who is going to (the late Poet Laureate) Ted Hughes’ house for a few days and he’s going to be filmed with a web cam and just write whatever anyone asks him to.”
“Cheques?” I suggested.
“Well,” Leila said, “like Write me some copy for my website… Write me a story about this… People can send in suggestions and he will have to write whatever anyone wants and it’s for charity. Good, but a bit weird. Closing himself off in this house on his own.”
“It’s like he’s trying to be the David Blaine of writing,” I suggested. “What did you study at university?”
“History of Art,” Leila told me. “And then English for my Masters.”
“So you’re writing letters as two Victorian ladies…” I prompted randomly.
“Yes, we’re doing it with SAEs,” Leila explained. “I’ve got two digital receipt printers which are connected to the internet – so they’re like fax machines – and me and my friend Tim, who I write loads of things with, are writing letters to each other as characters called Elspeth and Lottie. They are like Victorian ladies who happen to own these electronic printers and all they write about are their friends who are in long-running 20th century TV shows.”
“And you have written an interactive opera about the Minotaur,” I said, changing the subject. “Minotaur! – The Moosical.”
“It’s quite nerdy,” Leila said. “It’s a rock opera.”
“…as opposed to some fat Italian woman screeching?” I asked.
“Exactly,” agreed Leila. “It’s not an opera at all and some of the songs are quite Elvis/rock ‘n’ roll. But it’s geeky, it’s about hacking, radiation, a big maze, a heartbreaking love story between the Minotaur and Pandora who’s a woman afflicted with a curse of emitting toxic force fields so people can’t get close to her. Then there’s Theseus, who wants to marry Pandora. We’ve written quite a lot of songs and some music because we’re not musicians, but we might do it with puppets.”
“Where might this be put on?” I asked.
“If we can figure out a way of recording and playing the songs, then we might be able to do something at a geeky comedy night.”
“You should put it on at the Edinburgh Fringe,” I suggested, “and stream it on the internet, if you can figure out some way of charging 1p or 2p per view.”
“Have you seen Forgetting Sarah Marshall?” Leila asked.
“No,” I replied.
“It’s really funny,” said Leila. “The Jason Segal character’s dream is to put on a tragic puppet musical about Dracula using the ‘Count’ character from The Muppets.”
“If you can get the bloke who did the giant puppet for War Horse,” I said, “you could do it at the National Theatre.”
“Somebody I know said he might be able to get it on Radio 3,” Leila said, “but my hit rate with producers is… They tend to get busy on other things or they leave their job…”
“Why are you thinking of radio?” I asked. “As a pilot for a TV show?”
“No,” said Leila, “just to get something made. In itself. Maybe it could lead to something else.”
“You work for a magician,” I said. “Do you want to talk about what you do for him?”
“No,” said Leila.
“Did I tell you I’ve been to North Korea?” I asked.
“Ah…” said Leila.