me_oct2013Who are you and what do you do?I AM HENRY. I've been getting paid to make stuff with computers for about a decade, and doing it for fun since well before that.

What are you going to be talking about at Hack Circus: THIS IS REALITY? I'm going to be talking about some bots I've made that live on Twitter and impersonate people, and the things that I've learned as a result about how humans respond to software that looks like people.

What are you working on *today*? Today I've been working on an iOS app for Faber and Faber. I worked on  Malcolm Tucker: The Missing Phone a couple of years ago, so it's nice to be doing another project with them.

Give us one insight about reality based on your work... Our monkey brains are as riddled with backdoors and exploits as an unpatched copy of Windows XP. Ask a magician about this one day, or flip through a copy of Mind Hacks, which neatly illustrates a whole pile of quirks in our perception of the world.

Tell us about one great project that you've seen recently. I saw Julian Oliver present some of his work recently (this was before the kerfuffle at Transmediale), and it pushed a lot of my buttons. I really like how his stuff legitimately sits in both the critical arts world and the 2600-style hackery camp; he's talking the talk and walking the walk. The thing I enjoyed most was Newstweek, a project where he critiqued our reliance (and trust) of online news sources, then went off and proved his point by making a covert appliance which could be installed in (say) a coffee shop that would alter news as it crossed the local wifi network. And then installed it covertly on a bunch of public wifi networks. Perfect.

Over the next couple of weeks we'll be meeting some of the talented individuals speaking and performing at the next Hack Circus event, THIS IS REALITY. First up, hacker, musician and artist, Alex McLean.

Who are you and what do you do?

I am Alex. I like making things with code, and then immediately deleting them again, a practice known as "live coding". I do this to make live music, which is a major preoccupation, but also do the odd bit of software and installation art, and am a research fellow in the University of Leeds.

What are you going to be presenting at Hack Circus: THIS IS REALITY?

I'll be working with choreography hacker Kate Sicchio, performing a piece called "sound choreography <> body code" and probably talking about it a bit.

What are you working on *today*?

I've been mostly been responding to complaints about the neo-classicist tone of a call for papers I recently sent out, while also running a peer review process, submitting a funding proposal for a live weaving and live coding collaboration, writing some reports, booking a venue for some live art activity in the woods, and getting my software rewritten ready for our rehearsal for Hack Circus tomorrow. So mostly sending and receiving emails and doing a bit of code.

Give us one insight about reality based on your work...

I've spent a large part of my life staring at emacs, and a large part of my research career trying to make this reality a bit richer.

Name one great project that you've seen recently.

Susanne Palzer's "Open platform" performance art project in Sheffield. It's a series of happenings which take place in small places (e.g. cupboards, atriums, passageways), exploring technology without technology. It is based on this platform which is an actual platform, and people come and do digital performances without digital technology. Last time I did some knitting on the platform, encoding Susanne's movements in knit and pearl.

Screen shot 2014-02-18 at 17.16.45 Hack Circus stands for a number of things: quality independent publishing; hearing diverse voices and getting out of the London echo chamber; working without a commercial agenda; entertainment; profiling projects, people and ideas you won't hear about elsewhere; making, playing and exploring. You're probably here because those things sound good to you, and if you'd like to be involved there are various ways we can make that happen.

1) Pitch an idea We're choosy and well connected to the right kinds of contributors, but we're always open to hearing about new people and projects. Maybe you have an amazing idea for a regular feature you could send in, a graphic you could create, or an interview you feel would be perfect for the mag? Get in touch.

Screen shot 2014-02-18 at 17.19.32

2) Take an advert It's early days, which means that advertising is still absurdly cheap (for you) while being an incredibly significant contribution (for us). Hack Circus currently reaches proper conferences, major media outlets, individuals, agencies, arts organisations and businesses – and its reach will just keep expanding. If you'd like to be seen by some of those eyes, get in touch.

Preview of Hack Circus Issue Two (March 2014)

3) Talk about Hack Circus In some ways this is the most important one. If you believe in some of the things listed at the top there ^ please tell people about Hack Circus. Are you looking for content for your own website, podcast or magazine? Get in touch. We have a lot to say about ourselves. Press get into the events free, and review copies of the mag are always available.

It's not just a magazine and an event series, it's a community and, well... a philosophy. Thanks for all your support so far.

AuthorLeila Johnston

fatrabbitThe next issue of Hack Circus is almost ready to go to print, and will be available to buy on this site and on the Imperica Shop and a couple of real life places in Sheffield, by the 15th of March. If you've already subscribed, you should get your copy sometime in the third week of March. Issue 2 is themed on the nature of reality. Our explorations will include:

  • Why some people think the Universe is a hologram
  • How to find out for sure whether you are just a brain in a jar
  • How coding and dance are connected by perception
  • Why you can't even believe your own eyes
  • What scientist know about ghosts
  • The strange metaphysics of emulation
  • Why we like bots to be human
  • Real devices from fictional worlds

– and more.

As ever, there will be a tie-in event on the same theme. THIS IS REALITY will take place at the Site Gallery in Sheffield on the evening of Saturday, March 15th and speakers/performers will include scientists, historians, technologists and artists. Some of the contributors from the previous issue will be speaking (Sinead McDonald is flying in from Dublin again) as well as some people who've written for the new issue, and some who we've just invited because they're great.

Remember you can view videos of all the talks from the first (time travel-themed) Hack Circus event on our YouTube channel.



AuthorLeila Johnston

Last summer, Anjali Ramachandran visited London's Barbican Centre for a hack event with a difference.

In 2013, London’s Barbican – a wonderful, airy grade II-listed public building built in the Brutalist style and one of the city’s most well known arts – celebrates its 31st birthday.

The building opened its doors to artists and technologists for the whole of August, a period when the Barbican experiences a summer lull and a temporary break in its relentless year-long arts and culture programme. A group of talented people described on the website as ‘theatre performers, computer scientists, sculptors, hardware hackers, teachers, musicians and everything in between’ were brought in through a programme called Hack the Barbican.

The idea started as a conversation that happened towards the end of 2012 between representatives of the Barbican and entrepreneur and sociologist Charles Armstrong, founder of the Trampery, a London-based social enterprise that designs and manages social workspaces for multi-disciplinary communities in east London. The Barbican team wanted to put the building’s cavernous open area to better use in August, and Mr. Armstrong’s recommendation was for the task to be handed to a self-organising group of passionate volunteers rather than one or two people.

It was the right time for something like this to happen. With the city’s Silicon Roundabout getting more attention and investment over the last few years, Hack the Barbican was envisioned as a showcase of the best of London’s art and technology community, cementing the city’s relationship with creativity further.

One of the core members of Hack the Barbican’s self-organising committee, Lloyd Davis, sat down with me and chat about his experience with the project in the peaceful surroundings of the Barbican’s public terrace, as the month-long event wound to a close.  

When close to 50 people decide to take it upon themselves to give some sort of shape to a programme of this scale (there were more than 300 participants), all sorts of issues rear their head. No one person was really ‘managing’ the show, but a representative was needed to channel communication between the Barbican’s team and the volunteers, for example. And as anyone who’s worked with a big organization, whether corporate or non-corporate, might expect, rules and regulations – practical ones, most of the time – did make an appearance. Open yet firm communication became a skill; the rules had to be dealt with patiently and delicately to ensure that they were not completely at a tangent to what the programme’s ‘hacking’ ethos was hooked on.

Listening to Lloyd, I got the feeling that the ‘how’ was much more of an accomplishment than the ‘what’, though the ‘what’ – the hundreds of art and technology installations and activities that happened over four weeks – were very impressive indeed.

I spent a very engrossing afternoon at the Barbican wandering around the different installations, chatting to some of the creators who were on hand, even participating in a crowdsourced project. I barely got to scrape the surface of it all, but it was inspiring to see such different kinds of creativity on display. Here are just a few of them.


The Balloon

Carolyn Defrin and a group of fellow student collaborators from Central St. Martin’s put on a performance of ‘The Balloon’, which brought together live performance, small-scale puppetry, live video feed and pre-recorded green-screened film (a technique for combining two video frames). The story of a grieving pilot who had to journey through his former family life in order to take flight again, it was a bittersweet narrative that had me hooked for the ten minutes that it was performed – I’d never seen anything like it before. The Kinect is used her to great effect to create the illusion of depth, as one of the technologists on the team mentioned after the show, and Carolyn spoke about how the genesis of the show was a long-held desire to bring a hot-air balloon on stage, which was accomplished in an unusual manner using the projection techniques that were part of the story.




Contemporary artist Liz Barile-Page explained how her showcased project, a two-day collaboration with designer-technologist Stef Lewandowski, was built during the Digital Sizzle Art Hackathon in July 2013 (it won second place). ‘Cryptographics’ conceals sensitive information like passwords in physical works of art. In Liz’s case, she stitched a beautiful patterned quilt in 12 hours that was displayed in the foyer of the Barbican – an amazing accomplishment in itself, but hidden in its glorious weft was a personal secret of hers, and only she could decode the pattern.

Stef used his bank PIN in a graphic poster, an image that looked like any well-designed piece of artwork to everyone except Stef. The pair invite anyone to create a cryptographic of their own online at


The Citizen’s Office of Communications Safety


Christoph Sassenberg and Mark Durrant won first place at the Digital Sizzle Art Hackathon for their project, a digital screen that featured a live feed of devices accessing public WiFi in the area and the sites they were visiting – the idea was to highlight the boundaries between private and public information in a public space. It was (and was intended to be) rather disconcerting: ‘Charlotte’s MacBook Pro accessed’, ‘Tom’s iPhone accessed’ – you get the idea.




Mashifesto, which won third place at the Digital Sizzle Hackathon, took people’s Twitter feeds and pulled words together in a random manner to form sentences which were exhibited as Russian propaganda. Tweet @mashifesto to get yours.


Musical Cloakroom

The Barbican’s cloakroom brought out the child in me – the floor in front of the long coat racks were rigged with RFID chips and divided into squares with tapes. As I jumped from one to another, musical notes emanated from the cloakroom itself – joyful!


Archeology Project

This project aims to create a crowdsourced memory of the Barbican. Visitors were asked to imagine that London had been submerged by waves or hit by an asteroid and that the Barbican was destroyed. How would we let our future generations know what it was like? Plenty of people, including myself, shot 60 seconds of footage on their smartphones as they wandered around the building and submitted it to be made into a documentary.


Creativity unleashed

I could go on and on about the projects I saw and others that were staged through the month, but I wouldn’t be able to do justice to the range of activities Hack the Barbican encompassed.

A huge game of table Pong? Check. A story created from pictures of objects tweeted? Check – it was called Shelf Talk. Discussions on sex and desire? Check – Intimacy Lab was in fact something that Lloyd Davis mentioned as trying to do something very different, working with the community. Bikes whose riders could listen to the same music depending on how far they were cycling from each other? Artist Gloria Chang was on hand to talk through how her project Tandem worked, and was even modifying her installation in real-time at the venue.

In the end, Hack the Barbican succeeded as an example of what the space could achieve when it stepped outside its comfort zone. It wasn’t easy by any account – one person’s definition of hacking is very different from another’s, which might be different from mine – and there was always going to be a limited amount of time and energy to invest. A journey of a thousand miles does begin with one step, and I felt that Hack the Barbican was a huge, ambitious and positive step for the building.

AuthorLeila Johnston

Issue 1 of Hack Circus is all about TIME. We caught up with Austin Brown of the Long Now Foundation to hear about the extraordinary 1000 Year Clock project – currently underway in a mountainside in Texas. Lots more of this sort of thing in the first issue of Hack Circus.

The Clock of the Long Now is a monument to (and an exercise in) long-term thinking. It is an architectural-scale kinetic sculpture that will tell time for 10,000 years, housed inside caverns carved into a Texas mountain.

When do you think it will be finished?

It's been under construction for several years now, with many years of research and design before that. It will take several years more at least, long enough that we've not set an official completion date.

What sort of things have been taken into account when designing something to such a timescale?

A book could be written on this question, but an outline of the Clock's design principles is listed on our website here:

Here are a few examples in my own words:

The location and materials, to start, were chosen for their stability. Texas is dry and geologically calm relative to much of the US. The Clock will be made of things like stainless steel, Monel, Titanium, and ceramics. These materials are hard, strong and resistant to corrosion, making them very durable.

One thing that often surprises people first seeing prototypes of the Clock is that it doesn't display time in terms of hours and minutes. To account for visitors from a distant future civilization that may have no record of our timekeeping system, it primarily tracks astronomical events. Hours and minutes are arbitrary units that may go out of fashion thousands of years hence, but no cultural change is likely to alter the length of a year or the movements of the planets and stars.

Is the goal of the project principally to change people's thinking about the future in the present, actually communicate with the future through a physical link, make a powerful symbolic point about time and the longevity of humanity, or something else? Is this chiefly a practical or artistic work?

Well, kind of all of the above, but to be more specific, the hope is to give people (now and in the future) who care about the future something to rally around. The Clock is meant to demonstrate and inspire investment in the future. Each generation has to reinvest, though, so a durable reminder is necessary.

Are there other examples of long-term building projects that have inspired the project, or which are happening now that you are interested in?

There are quite a few, some current, some very old. Our Executive Director, and the Clock's Project Manager, Alexander Rose gave a talk a while back on some of these inspirations. He called it Millennial Precedent. You can watch it on our site:

To name a few, we're big fans of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a collection of plant seeds stored in a vault on an arctic archipelago; the Internet Archive, a massive database of books and digital culture; and Japan's Ise Shrine, a structure that's been rebuilt every two decades for many centuries.

How do you feel about the prevailing cultural idea that we are 'living in the future'? The Long Now projects seem to see things from a different perspective: the optimism of knowing we are not yet in the future but can influence it.

We sometimes quote our co-founder Stewart Brand: "This present moment used to be the unimaginable future." So, we're not immune to that perspective ourselves and wouldn't necessarily consider it a bad thing. Looking at the long-term, it's important and valuable to note how far we've come, but we're also trying to remind people that there's a long way to go yet.

How do you counter criticism around the idea that thinking ahead like this has morbid or idealistic connotations?

Clearly, considering a 10,000 year timeframe does require acknowledging one's mortality, but it's also not so vast a scale as to get into geological time. Rather than get lost in the vastness of geological or astronomical time, we've specifically chosen civilizational time - humans began transitioning from hunting and gathering to agriculture roughly 10,000 years ago - as our framework because it's a stretch, but not incomprehensible to imagine having an intentional impact at that scale.

What are some of the issues involved in creating for the future when we're limited to the technology of the present?

Well, we're always limited to the technology of the present and I think creation is always future-oriented. I recognize, though, that you're pointing out that the Clock is created, in part, for a more distant future than most creations. What's interesting is that that challenge has pushed the designers towards less high-tech solutions than if they were building for a more immediate future. New technology is often untested in the long-term and tends to rely on a great deal of infrastructure that we can't assume will remain reliable over millennia. So in a way, there's a lot of technology of the past in the Clock. But the design and fabrication has also leveraged, and even created, new technologies. The more durable an outcome you seek, I suppose, the more broadly throughout history you'll want to look for strategies and solutions.

Do you think we genuinely are living in an unusually exciting time, or is it a condition of humanity to always feel this way?

Both, maybe. Just because it's a condition of humanity to always feel that the present is unusually important doesn't mean that we're not going through some very serious times. Geologists have started discussing the idea of the Anthropocene, that our species now influences the planet so significantly that the present geological epoch should be named for humans. That's a big, unprecedented deal and whether you say it started with the industrial revolution or agriculture, you have to recognize that we're affecting the biosphere more and more deeply than ever before. And while our dominance over the planet's systems may remain up for debate, our competence to manage them is undeniably lacking. As we grow as a species, we may not have the choice to not be a dominant force on the planet. That's exciting in sort of a frightening way since so far we're exerting our influence rather haphazardly and unintentionally. But with an increasing focus on the long-term we might be able to rise to the occasion and start to take a more intentional approach.

The Rosetta Project has captured language in a very beautiful way – is it important that these projects involve beautiful artefacts and design, and what are the most important things to try to preserve and conserve about the present?

To have the intended effect, the projects must speak to people in an immediate way as well as in an enduring one. Making them beautiful helps.

As to preservation, The Rosetta Project is meant as a way to show that we value preservation and want to encourage and support it, without taking an overly prescriptive stance on what should be preserved. By trying to preserve as many languages as possible, we hope to help future archaeologists and historians access as wide a swath of human culture as possible. The Rosetta Disk is a highly durable decoder ring of sorts - it contains parallel texts in over 1,500 languages, as well as documentation of those languages. That way, any culture's textual artifacts discovered in the distant future will be more likely to be readable, even if their language is no longer spoken.

What is The Clock of the Long Now?

AuthorLeila Johnston

Kicking off the first of a regular series of short interviews on the Hack Circus blog, we chat to artist and speaker Seb Lee-Delisle about his piece Lunar Trails.

What is Lunar Trails?

It's an arcade cabinet, running the 70s arcade game Lunar Lander, coupled with a 3m wide hanging plotter that traces the trails of the players on the wall as they play.

How long did it take to build?

I've been working on the remake of Lunar Lander on and off for quite a while, initially in Flash, and then I converted it to JavaScript a couple of years ago. The physical build of the installation was probably around three months.

What was the process like?

When I first made the online version of the game, I was experimenting with socket servers and I set up a secret page where I could watch people playing the game in real time. I drew a trail as they moved around and Lunar Trails was born!

But the full installation was something I'd been thinking about for a while - to make a real-world physical version of the trails image. So I bought one of Sandy Noble's Polargraph kits, which languished in the box for over a year before I got it working. I enlisted engineer Paul Strotten to help me scale it up and he convinced me to use servo motors instead of steppers. We rebuilt the polargraph and I eventually replaced most if not all the arduino code.

How did the idea change as things progressed?

I don't think it changed at all really, once I'd figured out that I wanted to make a bigger version of the Polargraph. I thought at one point I'd have to use black markers on white (because all the opaque light pens would dry up in minutes – I tested probably 100 different pens!) Eventually we found that silver sharpies worked pretty well and last a couple of hours, and most importantly it meant that we could use a black background, which I really wanted.

At one point I wasn't going to build a full arcade cabinet, and just make a control panel with a screen, but I decided it was too important to sacrifice. An arcade cabinet is the embodiment of an invitation to play, which is really important when you're trying to get the public to engage with an installation!

What made you choose Lunar Lander, or did you always know you wanted to work with that game?

It chose me, really. Discovering the beautiful patterns that people made when they played the game was a happy accidental discovery. But I have always been obsessed by the game. It's so difficult, it really takes practice. And it seems really slow for ages and then it's a mad panic at the end.

Is it important for art to be playful?

It's a recurring theme in my work, it's what I like and it's a good way to encourage participation, but I don't think art necessarily has to be playful.

What do you make of the retrogaming trend?

I think it's pretty cute, I've never been any good at modern console games. Although I'm a bit unsure about pixel art when there are fake pixels that rotate and scale.

Have you seen any other game/art hacks you've enjoyed or been inspired by?

Sam van Doorn did something that has a similar aesthetic to Lunar Trails except using a pinball machine with inked balls that left a trail on a poster. Very cool!

Lunar Trails was on display at the Dublin Science Gallery until January of this year. There's some more info on Seb's site, and lots of nice pictures of it in action on his Flickr stream, here.


Lunar Trails from Seb Lee-Delisle on Vimeo.

HCcoversmallTechnical ideas are often driven by a suppressed need to construct new, intelligent, interesting things – a burning, unfocused creative excitement disguised as something more commercially viable and socially acceptable. So our work begins life fuelled by a tremendous sense of potential, but we live in a world where technology holds huge commercial power, and the dizzy delight of the unknown is easily swamped by the dizzier thrill of making money.

Hack Circus is a step back from crystallising commercial forces and towards the initial power of thought; a step into the unknown. Innovations, inventions and concepts don't have to be useful, but nor do they have to declare themselves 'art' to be appreciated as meaningful or straightforwardly valued and enjoyed. There is another way.

In this magazine you'll find creators whose work might make you smile, but whose curiosity is absolutely serious and all-encompassing. What if the world was slightly different? What if impossible notions were treated with a smile, yes, but also a little reverence? Hack Circus stands for a love of performance, entertainment and demonstration – not necessarily to teach the 'important' stuff, but for the childlike joy of surprise, and for the vital recapturing of those first feelings that anything might happen. It's a place where ideas can simply amuse and impress.

Issue 1 is themed on time and time travel. Amongst other things, it features writers and makers discussing clocks, programming, the narrative tangles of time travel fiction, and a real time machine.


Sandy Noble Chris Farnell Bosley Fletcher Sinead McDonald Alex McLean Laura Wilks Jason Fitzpatrick Leila Johnston

Hack Circus is produced and edited by Leila Johnston, with branding and design by The Beautiful Meme. It's printed by Pressision.

AuthorLeila Johnston

A lot of copies of Hack Circus Issue 1 have arrived! Let's do this!brodieboxes

AuthorLeila Johnston