Art News

When Tech Meets Art | An Interview With Leila Johnston

This week's guest curator is writer, digital artist and curator of Sheffield's Site Gallery. We caught Leila for an interview in the run up to the gallery's very first STEAM event to chat about how digitalisation is evolving the art world, and how she fills her life with creativity day after day.

By Teddy Hall | 24 Apr 2017

This week's guest curator is writer, digital artist and curator of Sheffield's Site Gallery, Leila Johnston. We caught up with Leila for an interview in the run up to the gallery's very first "STEAM" event, to chat about how digitalisation is evolving the art world, and how she works creativity into her everyday life. Discover her top 5 Rise Art picks, and her full Guest Curator Picks collection showcasing stunning contemporary works with a distinct new media focus.



Tell us about you & what you do

I am an artist, writer and now Digital Curator at the Site Gallery, a contemporary art institution in Sheffield.

I started out as a writer and editor for magazines, but always made fun, collaborative things with technology on the side (mostly websites). By 2012, I was working as a copywriter for a digital agency in London and was actually quite unhappy -  I've lived in the North most of my life and really wanted to get away from the rat race. One of my jobs at the London agency had been to develop an internal 'labs', so I started applying for creative technology opportunities.

I won a place on the Happenstance Project, an experimental residency scheme set up to put three pairs of technologists into three different arts institutions to see what cross-influence might occur. I was teamed up with Sheffield technologist James Jefferies and allocated to the Site Gallery. It was an amazing three months, and five years on I'm still here.


Site Gallery in Shefflied


What inspires you in your work and life?

My surroundings are really important to me. I need space and calm around me in order for my brain to function.

Last year I did a residency at Rambert, the UK's leading contemporary dance company, and I was absolutely rocked by the experience. Being confronted every day with the extreme possibilities of human attitude (dance isn't really about the body, to me) was overwhelming. It hugely expanded my perspective. My friends and family are a great inspiration to me, too. 

What do you surround yourself with at work or at home?

Space. Colour. Half-full cups of tea.


Left: Dorman Long South Bank Coke Oven Tower by Theo Simpson, available at Site Gallery

Right: Strike by Anna Barham (2013), available at Site Gallery

Images courtesy of Site Gallery


Is art & design important to you and why?

I've always been interested in art from every side really; the maker, the receiver, the critic all get something from creative work, and I have been all of those people. I think it's important to have things in the world which can't be questioned by language too. Because language is so acutely cultured; it comes with tonnes of baggage. It doesn't make sense to speak of art 'meaning' something in the same way that other things map to signifiers. Art (to me) is more in the world of "it makes sense because it feels right".



How do you think digitalisation is changing the art world?

I suppose it has brought images to a much wider audience. The internet was just coming in when I was at university in 2000; people still had to look up some works in books (imagine!) But now all you need is a phone, and you can access any idea from anywhere. I like the idea that creative digital work will find a home in domestic design experiments.


Do you collect art or anything else?

I collect art, accidentally, because I know a lot of artists and they give me things, which I consider an amazing privilege. On the whole I try not to have too many things, because of the need I always have to be surrounded by a nice pocket of clean air. 



Do you have a favourite artist and / or museum?

It's so hard to choose just one, but I will try. Last year I had a residency at the Theatre Museum in Helsinki, which was quite magical and full of Moomins, as you'd hope. It's in an amazing complex called the Cable Factory (Kaapelitehdas) with a Photography Museum underneath it and a Restaurant Museum above it. Opposite there's a circus school and a dance studio, and all this stuff is totally hidden away inside the same building, which still looks like an old factory from the outside.


Favourite inpso quote?

Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm. My grandma taught me that.


Do you Instagram / Pinterest? Who do you follow?

I follow a lot of the Rambert dancers (who I met on my last residency) on Instagram, and seeing what they're achieving gives me a huge boost every single day.



What are you working on at the moment? Tell us about your latest event at Site Gallery

We are about to launch the first our series of "STEAM" events. STEAM stands for science, tech, engineering, art & maths. The events are supported by funding from the City of Ideas, and we're going to try to do something every month for at least the next year.

The first one will take place on 27th April. I've invited three terrific speakers for the panel: Katharine Vega (artist & educator at, Dr Sean Power (philosopher of time at Trinity College, Dublin) and Simon Ings (Culture Editor, New Scientist magazine).

They'll be discussing the question of where 'the Truth' lies, in relation to science and art. The audience will be invited to contribute to the discussion, which I fully expect to be quite lively – maybe even heated! We're holding it at the Upper Chapel in the centre of Sheffield, which is a beautiful Unitarian church. You can find out more and get a ticket here.


Leila Johnston's Top 5 Rise Art Picks

Neon OrbMark Beattie


Shop Mark Beattie's Works >>

I love this! It's a nice sculptural use of neon rather than the usual hanging letters or numbers up on the wall. I think the 3 dimensional scribble appeals to me, the cheeky cartoonish dervish. I could easily have picked more Mark Beattie pieces, too. I think they're terrific.

Liquid KoanLiliane Lijn

Shop Lilians Lijn's Works >>

I met Liliane when we were on a panel together at New Scientist Live at the Excel Centre, last year. She was super interesting and it would be an honour to have her work in one's home. Then eventually I could work towards getting one of her building-topped colour-focussing crystal prisms mounted on my roof.


My SunshineAlexandra Gallagher


Shop Alexandra Gallagher's Works >>

I thought this was a beautiful and unpretentious use of the material. It reminds me of moments when I've had an idea that I just knew will work, the excitement of being sure you're onto something. Just looking at it is making me feel a bit funny actually. It's lovely and hypnotic.


The Light You LeaveKirsty O'Leary-Leeson


Shop Kirsty O'Leary-Leeson's Works >>

I can't even imagine how Kirsty O'Leary did this. It looks like a negative photograph but it's a drawing. It's really haunting, as are all her works on your site.


Bulls I-III, Zil Hoque


Shop Zil Hoque's Works >>

I REALLY like these bulls. I don't know why, but the whole thing makes me smile, even the title. I think they're really cute while retaining their bull-ness. I love how big this piece is, as well.


Leila's Guest Curator Picks | Browse the Collection

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