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The Sheffield culture guide written by in-the-know locals

Leila Johnston

Photo by Helena Dolby

Leila Johnston’s practice sits comfortably across multiple spaces, whilst still finding a way to test and disrupt presupposed ways of understanding art. Coming from a background that includes working in advertising, writing comedy for the BBC and creating light installations for The Lowry, it's easy to get a sense that her multi-skilled approach translates perfectly into the eclectic and varied nature of the contemporary art world.

As well as producing her own digital art work, Leila also curates and programmes events across the UK. Until recently she was digital curator at Site Gallery here in Sheffield, which saw her invite guests to contribute to a series of events called Site Sessions on themes often around digital cultures but also including DIY initiatives and collective organisation.

As an additional string to an already full bow, Leila is also a published author. She has penned books such as As Bird I Stund Them All, How to Worry Friends and Inconvenience People, and Enemy of Chaos – with topics ranging from comedy all the way to a more subversive play on the adventure game genre.

Leila takes the approach of a polymath, applying her trade in an ever-expanding field, leaving no stone unturned, and bringing some humour to the often dry world of contemporary art.

Update: during lockdown, Leila is doing online stream on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 9pm, playing video games from the 80s and 90s and chatting to special guests (such as Ian Livingstone, who founded Games Workshop, helped develop Tomb Raider, and is a patron of the National Videogame Museum here in Sheffield). Join the chat or watch the stream via Twitch.

How would you describe your work?
I create subversive and playful work, often with fantastical science/magic themes, incorporating digital creativity, humour, and improvisational participatory elements. Sometimes I make things with physical, digital materials, like LED matrices. I also produce videos as part of my work, often there's audio, and until recently I was creating immersive experimental live shows too, and a magazine.

How do you choose the themes you work with?
They intuitively feel current and right, so I think I subconsciously pick them up from surrounding culture. They are often archetypal – even mythological – ideas (new beginnings; heroes' journeys; enchantment; eternal life, etc) combined with notions from the cutting edge of science or technology discourse.

What's your workspace like?
I work in my recently-converted loft on a very long white trestle table, or on the floor. I need a lot of space and light around me in order to concentrate, even though most of my work is done on my laptop. It's very white and bright, clean and tidy. I need to keep my surroundings like that because I get easily confused!

What, who or where should be better known in Sheffield?
A highlight of our city is the National Fairground and Circus Archive. They are based at the University Library and well worth a visit if you have any interest in the history of spectacle!

What would you change about the city?
I'd like to see a permanent digital art space in Sheffield one day.

What are you working on at the moment?
Mermaid fishtanks, several talks, science communication projects, a railway-themed commission for Derby Museum of Making, and soon I'm doing a new residency and exhibition around virtual reality.

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