I had an email conversation with Leila Johnston about putting on events. Leila publishes the quarterly Hack Circus magazine and organises events around the theme of each issue (the next event is on March 15th and is about reality). I organise Boring and write this blog, but you probably know that already.
LJ: So, events. Why do we keep doing them? I think I’m a bit addicted to putting on things for “people who have something a bit wrong with them”. Do you think there’s something wrong with us?
JW: I think there possibly is something wrong with us. There’s something wrong with people who make the decision to put on an event rather than go to one. Going to an event is great. You just buy a ticket and then go to a place and sit down in a chair for a bit and things happen around you and then you go home. Putting on an event is awful. You have to go to a venue and arrange to hire it and pay a deposit which you’ll lose if it turns out that actually no-one is interested in your stupid idea. Then you have to email loads of people and tell them about your stupid idea and ask if they want to take part. And then you have to actually do your stupid idea. This thing is now a reality and all these people have turned up and are sitting in their chairs and waiting for things to happen around them before they can go home. And then – finally – it’s all over and no-one died and you think you can relax but someone says “So when’s the next one then?” and you have to do it all over again and again and again forever until you die.
LJ: You know, you’re making me think we maybe shouldn’t bother. You’re absolutely right; it’s a bind. My favourite thing is the way you spend six weeks talking about it and trying to drum up interest, you get retweets and everyone asking about it, but no one buys a ticket until the last fifteen minutes… when suddenly, *everyone* buys a ticket. And it’s stressful knowing all these people have given up some portion of their lives and come to this thing because of you. If they don’t have a good time, it’s on you. They’re going to tweet about it; they’re going to have opinions about you. I wonder if we’re a bit masochistic, really.
But there are good things about doing events. I think I find them addictive because they’re so all-consuming and there’s so much lurching uncertainty about the whole thing. I kind of love the risk. And I love the feeling that I’m in a position to give someone the platform they’ve deserved for a long time, but no one has taken a chance on them yet. That’s what happened to me with the organisers of Culture Hack Day and Interesting, a few years ago, and taking part in those live things had an impact on my life and career that would never have happened if I’d just carried on plodding through the abstract digital world.
JW: Yes, it can be very stressful. You’re responsible for all these people. They have two days of free time at the end of the week and they’ve decided to use part of that time to come to your event and if it’s not very good, then you’ve slightly ruined lots of people’s weekends. And there’s loads of other things which are involved and which people don’t notice. Every year, I get a sore in the middle of my hand because once I decided that everyone who came should get an envelope of stuff, and I decided to get a rubber stamp and stamp the word “BORING” on all the envelopes, and on the envelopes inside the envelopes and it’s lots of envelopes and it takes ages and it hurts my hand, but I still do it, even though it makes no difference to anyone’s enjoyment of the day because they only have one envelope to worry about. They’re not interested in all of the other envelopes. Quite rightly.
But, as you say, there are definitely really good things about it too (if I sound a bit too negative right now, it’s because I’m at the point where I can begin to see all of the work that I still have to do for Boring and I’m scared). Discovering someone amazing who has a particular interest in something unusual and being able to say to loads of people “Hey, look at this!” is a really great feeling. And the sense that even though you are the person who has organised everything and planned everything, when it comes down to the actual content – the talks themselves – there are always surprises because you don’t know exactly what everyone is going to say or how they’re going to say it, and there’s this beauty about seeing the different ways in which each person has approached the over-arching theme of the event. You start off with something small – a single word or concept (“boring”, “time travel”) – and then people add to it with their own interpretations and it becomes this enormous collaborative thing and (hopefully) people like it and you’ve made people happy and that’s nice. So yeah, there are good things about it too.
LJ: Mate, *you’re* worried about time? I’ve got a week and a half to fill an art gallery in Sheffield! Seriously though: I know you’ll sell out, but I also know you’ve got a lot more people coming, and a lot more to do in preparation than I do. Especially with the Russian dolls nested envelopes thing. I always appreciated all the envelopes, by the way, even if no one else did. I think the attention to detail really helps with these events, regardless of whether you get much feedback about it.
That’s what I tell myself, anyway. I did two events about the apocalypse in 2012. The tickets cost £5 but I handed out sackfuls of goodie bags worth about £20 a piece. If you came to one of these “Events” you got an afternoon of entertainment… plus sweets, vouchers, publications and review copies of hardback books that weren’t even out yet. I really didn’t have to supply such comprehensive goodie bags, but I felt I wanted to put on the best party ever for the end of the world. The stress of it all did me in, of course, and I swore I’d never do anything like it, ever again. But however hard you try to remember what a killer it was last time, it turns out a year is *just exactly too long* to remember that, and there we all are again the next year putting ourselves through it all again. I think the stress gets a bit less each time. Certainly, most people are forgiving of things like technical hitches as long as you keep talking, thank god.
The pressure I’m feeling now is all about doing justice to the Hack Circus performers and speakers – all of whom I know personally to some extent. I completely believe they *deserve* a full house, and they’re travelling a long way. As you say, it’s not our thing: you supply the idea and this sort of… *raft*, which you, er, paddle forwards… and people come and pile stuff on it, some of which helps to catch the wind, some of which weighs it down and makes you work harder. (So glad I started with that metaphor.)
People put a huge amount of themselves into these things, but they get a lot out of them too. Were it not for my IBM tills talk being so well publicised by the journalists at your last event, I might not still be receiving emails, corrections and marriage proposals from IBM enthusiasts a year and a half on. I like how you call yourself the ‘Chairman of the Bored’. We are like chairmen, producing and moderating something. I still prefer to think of myself as a kind of Hugh Hefner figure, though.
JW: To be honest, I think I’m kind of lucky. For whatever reason, Boring always seems to sell well, but I don’t think that’s anything to do with me. It’s just because it has a kind of eye-catchingly counterintuitive name that people seem to like it, and so I get the credit for something which was unintentional and started by accident. Also, it’s only once a year, and it’s in London so it’s easier to recruit people.
Out of the two of us, your project seems much more ambitious. Putting on regular events, with different themes, in different cities to support a self-published print magazine. What on earth were you thinking? I mean, it’s brilliant. Well done. I loved the time travel issue and event. But fucking hell, you don’t make life easy for yourself, do you?
I like the awkward raft metaphor.
And I don’t think I actually called myself the ‘Chairman of the Bored’, it was just something a journalist came up with and then kind of stuck. I’m not very good at coming up with catchy lines like that. I tried using the slogan ‘Boring puts the “IUM” into “TED”‘ but it didn’t catch on.
LJ: Haha I know. I am out of my mind. Actually, the venue booking and the people booking are, for me, the easy bit. I don’t know why I have to make my events four/five hours long though – most things, especially most things put on by one person (I’m just realising this now) seem to be more like one hour long. I think it’s to do with trying to make everything the best thing in case it’s the last thing, which the apocalypse events were of course the platonic example of. I obviously need help. This conversation is quite therapeutic.
You’ve got to push “Putting the ‘ium’ into TED” through! Putting the ‘x’ into ‘TED’ would also be good, for those occasions one runs up against a former lover at an event (these are small communities after all). I’m trying to think of other words for tedium now. I imagine you have to spend a lot of time thinking up synonyms for boredom…
Do you like putting together your own intro? I quite enjoy that part, because it’s the only opportunity you get to do whatever you like and set the tone for your own event.
JW: Yes, I think setting the tone through the intro is important. A couple of years ago, I did an Edinburgh show with Peter Fletcher and Lewis Dryburgh and it was a sort of mini-Boring with us each doing two ten-minute talks during the hour. The intro music was Ho Renomo by Eno & Cluster, which is this quiet, contemplative instrumental which sort of builds slightly but then drifts off before reaching any real conclusion, and we had it playing over a video of George Perec quotes taken from Species Of Spaces (“What we need to question is bricks, concrete, glass, our table manners, our utensils, our tools, the way we spend our time, our rhythms. To question that which seems to have ceased forever to astonish us”). I think there was a little clip of someone stirring a cup of tea as well, although that might have been at the end. It sort of sounds a little pretentious, but that was the point. In Edinburgh, there are so many shows where there’s loud music at the beginning and people come out and they’ll all “Are you having a good time? Wooh! Yeah!” and ours was not a wooh yeah show. We needed to make it really clear in the first couple of minutes that this wasn’t a stand-up show, it was just three men talking about little, insignificant things for an hour.
With Boring, I like to have a video playing as people come in, but it’s a video where nothing happens. Last time it was a roof of a suburban house and the camera doesn’t move at all and it’s only when a bird flies past or a tree moves in the wind that you can tell that it isn’t just a photo, and then words slowly fade in and out welcoming people and there’s more Eno (Discreet Music). But then once that’s done, I like to play The Thrill Of It All by Roxy Music because it has this brilliant introduction which is kind of exciting, and it’s my way of saying “OK, this is starting now, you’re allowed to get a little bit excited if you want to”, because although it’s about boring things, it is a show and I want people to enjoy it.
I think with an event, you’re creating a little bubble which is cut off from reality. I’d like to make it more bubble-like, but for reasons of practicality, cost, and fear of testing the patience of my audience beyond breaking point, I am limited. Do you have things where you think “If only I had an eccentric millionaire backer, this could be so much better”?
LJ: Ah yes the Eno thing is perfect. I love putting together intros too. Using the same people for so many of my different projects means I can make my intros personal and ground the speakers in their other work. I got to mention Alby Reid’s previous ‘decimal time’ invention in the intro to my time travel event – where Alby was speaking. Then I used that as a jumping off point for a discussion about a friend’s suggestion that weeks should be two weeks long and the subsequent implications of that. It was a weird and well thought out idea, but it turned out he was just sick of missing the binmen. I feel much more relaxed talking to the audiences of my own events than those of others; I kind of think of the attendees as guests at my party. I guess it’s why people never look very nervous giving talks at weddings.
I think there’s always a part of you that imagines a family of mysteriously wealthy bumpkins will swoop in, share your vision, be unable to act on it themselves (for some reason), but be sufficiently motivated to reward you with the riches you need to make it all happen. It comes from the natural desire to make something happen without having to be your own fundraiser and cheerleader, as well as everything else. But there are also ways of accessing some of the millionaire backers through their international corporations (I’m told, I’ve never managed to get any money out of them myself) – arts organisations etc. It’s crushing though. You have no idea what you’re doing, filling in these forms, trying to make an artistic case, knowing there will be compromises and you’ll be up against 500 people with more experience at squeezing money out of things than you have.
The idea of creating a bubble – a separate reality – is definitely a huge part of the appeal. Do you think you’re quite controlling? I think I probably am. I really enjoy the way that it’s one thing in my life where I can make a lot of the decisions involved and know that it will all work out how I pictured it, without compromises. But I guess you pay for that right by not teaming up with influential sponsors etc. And yeah, who wouldn’t want to have someone hand over a wad of cash and say “Do whatever you like. Seriously, rollerskates, A.I poetry, whatever the fuck you like. I trust you”.
For the first apocalypse event in 2012, I had loads of really expensive ideas. I wanted a countdown clock and maybe a person hidden inside it, and people walking around in radiation suits with geiger counters and stuff. But of course the event never lives up to that, so you’re left with something that will always come second to your imagination. In a way I’ve stopped thinking ‘big and expensive’ now so I can be as pleased with the results as everyone else. Maybe that’s bad. It kills me that there are so many events that seem to sell out, get loads of financial backing, and have no ideas behind them at all. But perhaps we’re the ones doing it wrong.
JW: I know exactly what you mean about feeling more relaxed talking to your own audiences. I guess I kind of think “Well, these people have decided to come along to this stupid thing I’ve dreamed up, so they’re probably OK”. Boring is the sort of event that I would go to if I wasn’t the person organising it, so I assume the other people and I must have something in common, some sort of shared interest. And also, I do actually know quite a lot of the people who come anyway, so that helps (although maybe not – if something goes wrong, maybe it’s better if it happens in front of a load of strangers instead of in front of a load of my friends and family).
I think the options for corporate sponsorship of Boring are slightly limited as it’s not exactly a word many companies want to associate themselves with. Twelve Thirty Eight are the exception. Red Bull gate-crashed once. They heard about it on Twitter and sent some people along with a load of cans to give to people to help them stay awake, which I thought was quite clever, but it would have been nicer if they’d also given me a load of money. It’s not like they’re short of cash, the energetic bastards.
One idea I had for Boring which I quite liked but have never got round to doing is to have a stenographer sitting on the stage taking down everything everyone says. I imagine hiring a stenographer is quite expensive though. Mainly I just want to play on one of the machines.