Interview: Darren Johnston Q & A

Tuesday 12 May 2009

Read a Q&A with Darren Johnston about Underdrome, his new production for the Roundhouse, May 2009

Archive interview: November 2002

Darren Johnston in 'Silicon Sensorium' Photo: John Chapman Darren Johnston’s ‘Silicon Sensorium’

*The Purcell Room became a surreal, futuristic test zone on 17 and 18 December
2002 when Darren Johnston presented the UK Premiere of Silicon Sensorium with an original unreleased soundscore, remixed and arranged by Squarepusher* (Warp Records). The event also marked the launch of a new artistic collective,

Silicon Sensorium is an arcane study of artificial life in three parts, phases one and two showing
here. Phase one takes us on a cinematic journey to a secret underground location
where a lone scientist and his worker clones fine-tune the latest artificial creation.
Phase two, Anthopod, sees this artificial creation as a lonely physical presence,
performed live by Darren Johnston, isolated in a virtual/physical space. Experimental
states of choreography, scenography, electronic sound and computer generated imagery
merge to deliver an intense audio/visual experience.
Darren Johnston is a UK-based choreographer, performer, video artist and sound designer. His upbringing through the electronic music subcultures of the 1980s and ’90s has been a huge influence in sculpting a strong desire for alternative live performance and the visual/sonic arts. In 1999, he received Laban’s award for outstanding choreographic achievement whilst still a student. In 2000, he won first prize at the International Choreographen Concours in Groningen, Holland and the first international choreography competition in Borenam, Belgium. In 2001, he won the Bonnie Bird choreography award. Most recently, he has created installations for the Royal Festival Hall’s Ballroom Floor and the launch of Laban. He is an associate artist at essexdance.
Darren took part in a Q & A session for…
How old are you? 28

Where were you born?
Harold Wood in Essex

How did you first get interested in dance?
Through a mixed route i guess. I grew up through the hip/hop electro scene of the eighties and followed a sort of progressive trail through different electronic music genres. Dance for me always remained at the forefront of this progression. Also i was lucky to go to a school that was quite big on the performing arts so i was able to develop my interest there.

Can you remember the first dance company you saw?
I think it was London Contemporary Dance Theatre at the old Sadler’s Wells. Can’t remember that much about it because it was so long ago. I can remember being really impressed by the abstract set design and technical elements of the work as that was still fairly new to me at the time.

Did you study dance?
Yeah, i studied at Laban for three years. Prior to that i was at a performing arts college. The performing arts course gave me a real creative freedom to diversify between different performing arts. I guess that’s where my interest in collaboration started, so by the time i came to Laban i was already experimenting with my own ideas and processes. My time at Laban taught me to question and make my own decisions. It’s a tough route because it can mean opposing the opinions of those who are supposedly teaching you. Also the technique side gave me the facility to push my movement ideas further. *Why did you start your own company?*When i came to London i already had my own preconceived ideas about alternative live performance and electronic music. London being the hub of all that is cool, i assumed that everyone was going to be into that and that I’d be surrounded by like minds. Consequently I felt quite alienated from what was going on in contemporary dance and couldn’t find much that i connected with. At Laban i became really engaged in my own work and realised quite early on that this was the direction i wanted to head in.

*Why are you so interested in working with such a wide range of collaborators?*I like the process of bouncing ideas off people. With the right collaborators you can take your craziest ideas and make them a reality. I think that’s the beauty of collaboration, the introduction of different expertise to open up new possibilities. I see each collaborative element as a piece of work in itself and their careful fusion holds the potential to create something exceptional.

You seem to have got a lot of recognition quite early in your career, has that helped you? How?
It’s definitely helped but I’d say it was a little sudden and intimidating. To win three awards with your first piece out of college leaves you with a strange feeling of “where do i go from here?” Anyway, i made a conscious decision to create something different for my next work and have maintained this desire ever since. I really respect diversity within artists and this early success has given me even more incentive to achieve that.

Who or what are your influences?

I’d say my influences are varied. I really admire David Lynch for his unusual approach to film making, his dark abstracted narratives and
his clever use of sound to intensify dramatic moments. Also i’d say I’ve been
influenced by the artist Hr Giger. His dark visions and amazingly complex paintings have inspired me throughout
my development and I still find an intense fascination and intrigue in his work.
I also draw influence from my own experience. From dreams to the day to day stuff.
I think Life can be pretty surreal in itself sometimes.

Who or what inspires you?

I like work that feeds the imagination, that leaves you thinking or gives you
a place to create within yourself. I find music a great form of inspiration, its
sensory relationship to visual performance makes it a really useful and creative
tool. I find *Chris Cunningham’s*work inspiring, the way he utilises sound to create amazing visual interpretations
in music videos.

What is the inspiration behind your work?

I’m fascinated by complex things that i can’t properly comprehend. Elements of
science, science fiction, surrealism. Contemporary concepts like artificial intelligence
fascinate me because they fuel me with dark visions of a reality not so far away.

Do you prefer dancing or choreographing?

I like both for different reasons. I like the challenge of making a new piece
of work, but then i like the feeling of performing. I’d like to separate the two
sometimes because it’s hard to be objective about your own work when you’re inside
of it.

Future hopes and ambitions?

I’m really interested in movement-based film. I like the way you can distort
reality in moving image, not going c.g.i [computer generated imagery] crazy just clever manipulation of material to create bizarre and unusual work.
So yeah my immediate ambition is to push my on screen work into new places. Long
term, i guess to play a part in the development of movement-based work and to
continue pushing myself as an artist.

What would you do if you weren’t doing this?

Maybe something to do with science. Experimental research in genetic modification
or artificial intelligence. I like the idea of being involved with something revolutionary
and potentially life-changing.

What’s your favourite book, record and film?

That’s a tough one cause there are so many i could name. I think film wise something
by David Lynch. Probably Eraserhead. Favourite books – A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Favourite record is really difficult because there are so many pieces i like
for different reasons. I could get it down to 5 which would be ‘Breakers Revenge’ by Arthur Baker, ‘Valley of the Shadows’ by Origin Unknown, ‘Tundra’ by Squarepusher, ‘Consumed’ by Plastikman and something on Motown like ‘the Onion Song’ by Marvin Gaye.

November 2002

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