Hack Circus is a magazine, podcast and experimental live show about ‘fantasy technology and everyday magic’ that I’ve produced, directed and self-funded for the last three years. We created 12 editions of a magazine, six sell-out live shows in different parts of the country, many works of art and weird products and 50 podcasts. The project involved artists, designers, musicians, actors, authors, composers, scriptwriters, journalists, scientists, mathematicians, historians, magicians, technologists, poets, arts organisations, coverage from World Service Radio, BBC Click, The Times, The Independent, The Guardian, Boing Boing and others, many failed funding bids, numerous very late nights, hundreds of sacrificed weekends, and oodles of goodwill, trust and favours. The project is now coming to an end, and it’s time to reflect on some of the things I’ve learned.
- No one does this.
The only thing I can compare my urge to make things with is the biological drive to have babies that some women tell me they feel. It’s not remotely rational, there are many great reasons not to do it, but every bit of you screams this thing simply must be made to exist. So it was that, without any formal agreements with any collaborators, and despite the bafflement of almost everyone around me, I decided to launch this, back in 2013. Only as the months wore on did I realise: no one else is doing this kind of thing, on this kind of scale. It’s OK to do things that no one does, but you must stand by its irrationality. Accept it will not resolve into anything sensible like a “business plan”. It is not that sort of thing. Some things cannot be explained. Make no apology.
- People are better and worse than you could ever imagine.
When you put yourself into extraordinary situations, you see extraordinary things. The generosity of spirit I’ve witnessed over the course of HC has outstripped anything I’ve ever come across when working on my own. It’s as though, when they get together, humans are hardwired to keep a ship afloat. The problems have come when people can’t see the ship, and think they’re just out their on their own, clinging to driftwood like Leonardo Dicaprio while you glide past on your luxurious door (there was space for him on it you cow!)Over three years, some people have of course promised more than they have delivered, but many more have delivered far more than they have promised. It works out OK, because when one person is generous, everyone benefits. Someone always picks up the slack. At different times, we are all Leonardo and we are all Kate. None of us is ever really on our own, and we’re all as bad as each other.
- High stakes make you good with money.
Hack Circus cost me thousands. Like, double figures thousands. I’m not going to pretend I enjoyed that – I’ve had a few wobbles! But you know what? I clawed it all back. And then some! Remarkably, I’m going to finish (slightly) in the black. It comes back to mortality, again: I’m acutely conscious that I’m not going to last forever, and I’m glad I threw my life savings at something, while it really meant something, at the peak of my professional and biological life. You never know how long you’ve got left; how do you want to spend your resources? Easy to say this now we’re finishing on a high, of course, but we went the distance, we didn’t sink, and if we hadn’t done it, how would we ever have had a chance of finding out we could?
- Whatever you make, the people will decide what it is.
I get stupidly precious about people describing HC as a “fanzine” or a “zine”. It’s like someone calling Picasso’s line portraits “cartoons” (Oh no, she di’unt!!!). Nothing wrong with cartoons, comics, zines or newsletters – I’ve made many of all in my time – but this was something I wanted to do beautifully, commercially, and on a big scale for big reasons. (I was immensely fortunate to have found such a tremendous designer in James Rogers and I strongly advise you to hire him for any print design projects, if you get the chance.) I’m pushing 40 and I used to be Deputy Editor on a national glossy magazine; please forgive my ambition. In the end though, what I think HC is doesn’t matter: it’s not up to me. I eventually accepted that people bought the mag, largely, to do me a favour (see point 2, above), in the way you might buy girl scout cookies at the door, if you’re in an American sitcom. I told the people it was an earth-shattering movement standing against the alienating forces of commercial digital… and the people decided it was a cookie and invested accordingly.
- The only real reason to make things is to make things of quality.
The reason to do something must be to do something good. It might not be good at first, but you keep going because eventually it will be good. From shit to sharp, for the entire creative journey, from the shortest brainstorm to an entire media empire, quality must always be in your mind. I learned this from watching how the world’s best dancers work during my Rambert residency, and I learned it from watching the contributors to HC over the years. Usually unpaid and for small audiences, the goal was never fame or money for them, rather the opportunity to create quality. And this is really an artistic sensibility; all the HC contributors are artists, in that way. I always think if people will make something wonderful because they are motivated by wonderfulness alone, then you should hang onto them and try to work with them forever.
- You’ll never correct everyone’s expectations.
One reason my stuff doesn’t do as well as it should (though surely not the only reason) is that my market has traditionally been the digital community, and digital culture rates me very poorly. It was a delicious shock to discover this year that the dance community was so open to me, and to the idea of women/outspoken women/independent women being good or original or as high status as men, and having something to say that might be worth listening to. I’ve never felt particular personal malice in the online communities I’ve known over the years, but neither have I felt the level of respect and acceptance I felt immediately in the dance world. Technology, in my experience at least, is almost the exact opposite of how it projects itself. In many ways, it’s laughably behind the times.I’m sick of seeing people – usually women – do everything right, and still blaming themselves when it doesn’t work out. Well, we can’t make everyone imagine our work without a gender attached before they appraise it. We can’t force people’s eyes open like in Fire in the Sky and make them see the plain reality that “roughly equivalent to you white guy” is being dished up opportunities every time he opens his mouth… while you’re patted on the head and shuffled towards the door. You might say, “It’s probably not sexism”, but what if it is? Shouldn’t we at least be open-minded to still-radical idea it is? What would we do differently if we were forced to conclude we couldn’t change global kernel of dismissiveness embedded deep within every brain? We would free up tonnes of energy. We would learn to ask nothing of the community, to not need it, to treat it with the distance with which it treats us. I’m all about the business values these days, because it seems to me that thinking like a business liberates us, somewhat, from expectations – a depersonalising move that takes the pressure off the seller’s popularity. At risk of sounding maniacal, people don’t have to like me to discover, ultimately, that I am right.
- There’s no going back
I feel like a low-rent Philippe Petit. How do you go back to ‘normal’ levels of ambition after something like this? The next thing, whatever it is, will certainly not be less absurdly over-reaching. I’m not sure if I’m indestructible now, or just have nothing left to lose.
Either way, I’m definitely one of the lucky ones. There are people out there making amazing stuff and saying important things who have no audience at all, no feedback, no income, no amplifier. I have had work and some kind of profile through all of this, and even if I think the scale of what we’ve achieved has been broadly under-rated by the tech and art communities, we have survived the whole thing relatively unscathed. The effort is everything. Remember the motto of Starship Hack Circus? It’s better to be slightly on fire than to curse the darkness.
Make no apology, find individual champions, amplify the voices that no one else can hear, and value the women, for they are working 4000x harder than you know.
Thanks for reading.