Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head
Leila Johnston, 35, the self-proclaimed "ringmaster" of Hack Circus, is in the basement of a pub in King's Cross, rapping. Quite slickly, in fact.
"There's no I in TEAM / but there is a U in FAILURE! / Don't be shy to dream / Join in my bacchanalia!"
She's never done so before, nor will do ever again, but therein lies the essence of a Hack Circus show: a one-off, technology-driven performance, comprising misdirection, information, fantasy and entertainment.
If you'd stumbled in at this point and whispered to an audience member, "What IS this?" they'd have hissed back, "Shh – it's complicated"; so far in this underworld-themed event we've had a simulacrum of a subterranean voyage, an authoritative account of a vicious shark attack in the Virgin Islands, a pastiche mobile-phone advert and approximately half of a specially written musical centred on the character of HP Lovecraft's Cthulhu, who's been restyled as a depressed seafood chef.
It's chaotic, brilliant and, as a reporter from the BBC World Service described it afterwards, "slightly odd". Many creative endeavours claim to defy categorisation, but Johnston's Hack Circus may just have achieved it.
As the show unfolds, it feels a bit like a "For Schools and Colleges" television programme with information and absurdity levels turned up to 11, but Hack Circus is more than that. It's also a magazine that's reached its sixth issue, an irregular podcast and a whole heap of other artistic ventures dedicated to technology, science and "celebrating the entertaining and engaging side of inventive thought", as the website puts it.
"I first had the idea of a technology-art-entertainment crossover about 10 years ago," Johnston says. "I was trying to tell people about [conceptual artist] Cory Arcangel's amazing Super Mario hacks, and everyone was just giving me blank faces. But today, people are getting into Raspberry Pi and coding… There's more of an understanding that artistic things can be done with the ideas around science and technology. [The Hack Circus collective] aren't just weird outsiders any more."
That spreading realisation that science and technology can fuel entertainment can be seen in everything from Robin Ince and Brian Cox's work on radio and the stage to the work of the acclaimed French designer Nelly Ben Hayoun (who, in her own words, spends her time "designing chaos"). "There's an educational element to what we do," says Johnston, who has studied art and critical theory at York and Cambridge, worked in the media and authored books, but for the past few years has focused her attention on real-world experiences, performance and events. However, she says: "I look at TED talks and I think: why are they so contrived? Why do you have to stand on the bloody red circle, why do you have to read the rules in the TED pamphlet before you're even allowed on the stage? I want to create a magical experience. When I go to a magic show I think, yeah, this is good, but I wish I was finding out more real stuff. And when I see a lecture, I'm wishing it was more magical. It's the same with the magazine; you'll open it and read a weird story about something real, and a real story about something weird that doesn't exist."
The Hack Circus show finds itself segueing into a demonstration of a Humming Engine, designed by Johnston's collaborator for the evening, musician LJ Rich. It comprises painted mineral-water bottles, piezoelectric transducers, cables, audio processors and laptops; the audience are invited to create a subterranean soundtrack by holding the bottles to their larynges and humming. "It's possible to do a show that's interested in science and technology but doesn't serve a global technological utopian agenda," says Johnston, afterwards. She's observed the way technology firms advise us of the creative possibilities afforded by phones, tablets and laptops, but for her, that's creativity within limited constraints, rigidly imposed by the interface; Hack Circus advocates physical wrestling with technology and using it in surprising ways. "Like, for example, a dancer who works with code," Johnston says, "or the idea of a greyhound that can help people breathe by using its powerful lungs."
The Hack Circus magazine, meanwhile, is the antithesis of digital, a bound paper object in an envelope that you open, read and think about. "I don't have a Kindle or an iPad," Johnston says, "and I suppose there's a kind of anti-screen agenda. Something very strange has happened to communication as a result of the internet. We don't have such a personal interaction with stories or information any more; our first thought is always about how we can tell somebody else about it. But what about something that arrives through your letterbox, into your own home, that's personally addressed to you?" The idea of creating an independently printed magazine might seem foolhardy in a digital age, but Johnston's ethos is one of disobedience and subversion. "I mean, people tell you that you're not supposed to charge 20 quid for an unrehearsed show about volcanoes underneath a pub in London," she says, "but let's do it! We only live once."
The show goes on, with geographer and historian Dr Ralph Harrington giving us the low-down on the Devil's Arse, a cavern in the Peak District, and how it inspired Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Dessau to create his own series of grottoes and caves. "I know it might look from the outside that it's a chaotic mess," Johnston says, "but from above, there's a narrative that makes it work for me."
The main thing people take away from Hack Circus, however, seems to be a heroic, can-do, will-do attitude that it constantly foists upon its audience, whether on stage or in print. (The latest issue of the magazine, for example, includes instructions for constructing your own circles of hell.) "Personally, that's to do with my consciousness of the fragility of time and human existence," Johnston laughs. "I'm very conscious of time passing."
That mindset is reflected in her talk entitled Making Things Fast, much viewed online, which advises us to stop caring about things we did in the past, or might do in the future, and to stop worrying about perfection. In essence, stop romanticising the idea of creativity – and despite constant financial battles for Johnston, following precisely that ethos has resulted in some brilliant, ridiculous work. "If Hack Circus did something more conventional," she says, "it would bring in more money, but there'd be less recognition of the things that I think are important."
After a mass waving of torches that the audience have obediently brought with them, a slide-illustrated guide to various manifestations of hell and a power-ballad finale, another Hack Circus is over. It's been a powerful illustration of the ability of technology and entertainment to communicate ideas, and the importance of devoting time and money to doing ridiculous stuff. "That's why our strapline is 'Fantasy technology and everyday magic'," Johnston says. "It's got to be on the border of what's possible. The border of the imagination."