Hacking the Barbican into an ‘experimental playground’

16 August 2013

Hack the Barbican is a free-form, self-organised fusion of interdisciplinary workshops, installations and activities running in the foyer of the Barbican Centre throughout August. Martin Dittus (EngD student in UCL Computer Science) is a founding member and key organiser for the project: we asked him about his experiences working with arts organisations, self-organising communities, and how it fits with his studies.

First things first: How would you describe Hack the Barbican?

Martin Dittus at Hack the Barbican - Photo by Siddharth Khajuria

Martin Dittus at Hack the Barbican – Photo by Siddharth Khajuria

Even after months of planning and almost two weeks of experiencing it it’s still hard for me to summarise it succinctly.

For the month of August 2013 we are taking over the Barbican’s foyer spaces to create an experimental playground of technology, art & entrepreneurship. We’re inviting a large number of practitioners from very different disciplines to develop and present work here: installations, performances, workshops, and project work. As part of this we’re also setting up a range of social spaces, workspaces, and hangout spots.

I like to think of it not as a centrally curated event, but as a slowly growing city that is gradually taking over the Barbican’s public spaces with many imperfections, but also many moments of unexpected magic.

It’s also important to point out that most of this is driven by volunteer work, with very few exceptions; and it runs on a minimal budget. (Really, really tiny.)

What sort of people are involved with the project, and how have you found working with this multidisciplinary crowd?

We realised early that in order to make an event of this size (and this miniscule budget) work we needed to build a large community. We started in January 2013 with 15-20 people – it¹s now hard to delineate where our community begins and ends, but it’s easily one of hundreds of people. Something you often don’t notice when you¹re simply exploring the event spaces. Many walks of life are represented, and many professions: painters, hackers, writers, technologists, musicians, researchers, curators, performers…

I think this aspect in itself is already one of the key outcomes: having blurred the line between ‘organiser’ and ‘performer’, and even ‘participant’, to an extent. To have people work together as a very fundamental aspect of the event experience, and to allow for transient engagement as well as deep long-term commitment. And, by virtue of having a number of strong universal attractors (most prominently the amazing event space of the Barbican), having created a social space that is incredibly diverse, demographically as well as thematically.

The space seems to be a key element of the event; how are you finding your temporary home?

The Barbican Centre provides a perfect setting for this event, as a public space in a very prominent location, but also a place with a very interesting structure and history. There are many things to explore, and many hidden corners we can occupy. I¹m looking forward to see us grow our presence further as the month progresses.

What are your hopes for the programme? 

We want to create a situation where it becomes easier for new people to come together who would not usually meet. We¹re not always successful, but I’m proud of how far we¹ve come, and we’re constantly getting better.

Among all our other aspirations I’m particularly fond of our aim to give event collaborators a greater degree of influence. We’re mostly community-run, have had open org meetings every week for the past months, and I feel we are a very permeable organisation.

Does this have any relation to your academic work? 

For my EngD I’m researching data-gathering communities at the Intel Collaborative Research Institute for Sustainable Connected Cities (ICRI Cities): a new institute spanning UCL, Imperial, and Intel.

A strong aspect of my research is to develop a deeper understanding of certain kinds of communities of practice, so this is a clear and tangible connection. I don¹t feel I have my researcher hat on while I¹m here, but I’m gaining much experience and intuition about community organisations; and I’m fascinated by what I¹m experiencing here. I feel privileged to be a part of this.

What have you enjoyed about working on this event?

The process of building the community, and honing my facilitator skills; but I was also overjoyed to repeatedly see people getting to know each other who I¹ve known from very different aspect of my life, people I would never have expected to meet each other. I think as a social melting pot we’ve already been very successful, if I may extrapolate from my own experiences…

Do you have any advice for those thinking of coming down?

You will have the best experience if you come with an open mind and some time to explore.

Visitors can expect to be confused by the small and big things happening around them, and by the seeming absence of clear direction. This is by design: Hack the Barbican is organised without central curation, and participants are encouraged to improvise and take initiative. Even people in the organising team who are deeply involved with event planning are regularly surprised by unexpected activities around them.

At its core Hack the Barbican is a social event that brings together people over shared interests, and a curiosity to look for new things outside your discipline: start talking to people around you, ask them about their work, and when you meet someone doing interesting work then do offer your help.


Hack the Barbican runs in the Barbican Centre throughout August, seven days a week during the usual opening hours, and is free. Visit the Hack The Barbican websiteFacebook or Twitter for more details about what’s on when.

As well as a UCL student, Martin Dittus is a trustee and long-time member of the London Hackspace, and one of the organisers of the Electromagnetic Field hacker camping festival. His personal website is .

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