In the early fall of 2019, Helen Leigh was the Feral artist-in-residency at Catch, Center of Art, design, and Technology in Helsingør, Denmark. Leigh is a creative technologist with a focus on craft-based electronics and education. Her approach is playful and creative and she wants to demystify complex technologies and electronics.
By Signe Häggqvist and Dare Pejić,
During her Feral Labs artist-in-residency at Catch, Helen Leigh worked on the development of a new addition to her series of sonic creatures, a project done in collaboration with sound artist Andrew Hockey. Furthermore the residency focused on the investigations of different possible business models, to ensure that Leigh can make a living out of her artistic and technological practice. One possibility that was examined was to turn the sonic creatures into sellable DIY-kits, which would provide Leigh with an income and at the same time enable people to build and experiment with their own creatures.
Can you tell us a bit on how you became a hacker and a maker?
It was kind of by accident, to be honest. Before I was a hacker and a maker I was working in education. Me and a group of friends we ran a consultancy for six years and we campaigned for learning outside of the classroom, for critical thinking to be taught in classrooms, for children to be taught to question things. We made education and material designs, and we had a series of books that were kind of cult hits in the way they approached education. They were very much play-based, very hands-on, and inquisitive. So, somebody from Intel read one of our books and he liked our approach. And they were working on a big project on Internet of things for schools. So they asked if we’d be interested in helping them.
I went to this Intel thing and this project was based in a fablab, inside a maker space in London. I went in, and was like “OH, MY GOD. What is this place?” Since that day I have primarily worked in makers spaces. I just knew that this fitted with everything. Learning by doing through playing, inquisitive thought, iteration, and hands-on learning. Immediately, I felt at home.
Maker spaces are radical education spaces: informal structure, decentralised peer-to-peer learning spaces. My education is the one thing I’m the maker community most grateful for. I had no technical education, but now I do electronics, and have a technical career. I had this informal learning network, and year after year it increased my technical knowledge.
Since then I have done a lot of work. I started off doing a maker education because I already knew a lot about education and education theory and wanted to bring that new interest of mine. A lot of my work is for children, but that’s primarily a function for making a living. There is a lot of focus on children, as there should be. But adult learning is somewhat neglected and I think that maker spaces are incredibly powerful places for that. They create these systems where grown ups, no matter age and background, can go and learn exciting new skills that they can be creative and tinker with.
I get a lot of requests from schools to come and speak about being a children's author or inventing stuff like robot unicorns or gestural musical instruments. So I'm setting aside two hours per week for skyping classrooms anywhere in the world. For free. AMA. Just book a time 💖 pic.twitter.com/jhK5u3sw8z
— Helen Leigh ⚡ (@helenleigh) September 19, 2018
What would you say is the best age to become a hacker?
There’s no such thing as that. You can become a hacker at 80 or at 8. Hacking is just a way of interacting with the world. It’s the ability to tinker; it’s the ability to think “Oh, I can fix that!” or “I could make that do something different.” I think there’s no ideal age at all.
You are currently at Catch’s artist-in-residency program. Can you tell us more about your stay here?
Thematically, at Catch at the moment, they are currently looking at sound art and technologies and that’s very much one of the areas of practice that I currently concentrate on. I do a lot of experimentation with electronic objects that are in some way musical. So I’m here to explore that part of my practice a little bit more.
The truly wonderful Trill sensors made by @BelaPlatform that I've been using in my sonic circuit sculpture creatures just launched on Kickstarter. Go get yourself some ultra responsive, great value, totally customisable touch sensors for your next project! https://t.co/klORuKTzjU pic.twitter.com/hqDJGcZz7C
— Helen Leigh ⚡ (@helenleigh) September 19, 2019
Artists often have to combine many different income sources such as teaching, commissions, sales to private customers, part time low-income jobs, and more to make ends meet. At Catch we try to identify if we can apply elements from classical business models, to ensure that the artistic practice becomes a reliable source of income. These things are important to talk about, if we want to make any change. So maybe we can turn to talk a bit on career development and money for a while – how do you make a living today?
Like most people I know in the artistic community, money to pay my rent comes from many different places. I’d say my two major sources of income are delivering workshops or intensive courses and writing or filming technology focussed teaching guides. I also get one or two paid artistic projects a year, such as the residency I just completed at Catch. I also get some royalties from my children’s book, The Crafty Kid’s Guide to DIY Electronics. Together these cover my rent and bills.
I also live a much more fancy life than I can afford by applying to speak at conferences or deliver workshops at events that will cover travel and accommodation. So at least I can pretend to myself that I can afford a holiday, even if I have to work while I’m there!
How do you see yourself making a living in 2-3 years – combining your artistic and technological backgrounds?
In terms of the things I want to be making, I’d love to be making installations for public places and smaller scale sculptures as commissions for musicians to perform with. Education is a passion for me and I’d like to be designing courses that teach technology in the context of creativity and vice versa.
How do you think you’ll get there and what do you envision the obstacles could be?
During my residency at Catch Art Tech, I spoke with many curators and artists. We looked at my existing work and talked about my ambitions for making some public work, then explored some of the ways I can start to adapt my practices to fit in better with the realities of public spaces. I think the best way to get there is to make something, try it, then adapt it. Iteration isn’t just for product design!
With regard to the smaller scale sculptures, I have been speaking with a couple of well-known musicians who will help me shape something that I make, then use it in their own work. Sending something out into the world is new for me but, again, but I’m only going to learn by doing it then improving.
I have already started to design courses. This year I wrote and delivered my first Masters module on Music and Hacking, and last year I designed a course for the Royal Court of Oman on Hardware, Coding and Design.
Aside from building my own skills and knowledge, I need to continue building my portfolio and presence as someone who is capable of designing and delivering projects that fall into each of these intertwined strands. People can’t hire you if they don’t know you exist, no matter how good you are!
MINI.MU Tutorial: How to make your own musical glove:
Why is it important to share possibilities and thoughts about making a living as an artist?
Making a living as an artist is precarious. This isn’t helped by our own inability to talk about money or our unwillingness to value our time properly. The romantic idea of an impoverished artist who creates no matter what is dangerous, not just to ourselves, but also to equality of opportunity. Art shouldn’t be only for those who can afford to make it. In my opinion it is actually a feminist practice to share how much we’re getting paid and by who, both in the art and tech worlds.
We should demand transparent funding opportunities that ensure that artistic opportunities such as residencies are paid well enough to live a decent life, enough for rent, health insurance, transport, materials, and the normal costs of being an adult human, not a student.
Catch AIR program is part of the Feral Labs Network activities, which is co-funded by the Creative Europe programme of the European Union and led by Projekt Atol in Ljubljana (Slovenia). The other #ferallabs partners are Bioart Society (Helsinki, Finland), Catch (Helsingor, Denmark), Radiona (Zagreb, Croatia), Schmiede (Hallein, Austria) and Art2M/Makery (France).