Stretched between art and tech: the most flexible woman in the world and her passion for VR

She joined the circus, performed contortionism all over the world and won three Guinness World Records for being the most flexible person on Earth. Now, contortionist Leilani Franco has settled in Hamburg to take part in Miami Ad School’s brand-new Creative Technologist course. Turns out Leilani is also really into technology! Boy, we’ve got a lot of questions for this lady. Luckily, we were able to sit her down for a quick chat about life in the circus, VR and how to combine art and tech.

Text: Sabela García Cuesta  / Photography: Teresa Enhiak Nanni

Leilani Franco for Gute Leute mag_Teresa Enhiak NanniLeilani Franco for Gute Leute mag_Teresa Enhiak Nanni

Hi Leilani. It’s a pleasure to meet you. Who are you exactly?

My name is Leilani. I am a contortionist, creative technologist & virtual reality designer. I am half-Filipino, half-British, Polish, Egyptian. Also I’m 32 and single (hahaha).

Are you a contortionist? What does it mean?

Yeah, well … I am one of the most flexible people in the world!

How did you figure out that you were that flexible? Skill or talent?

I was born like that. My parents took me to a circus when I was 8 years old and we saw a contortionist and I said, “Hey, I can do that too!” They asked me to show them and then I did it.

What did you do exactly?

I was on the stairs, and I bent backward like the exorcist and put my head on my butt.

Without practicing?

Yeah…

WOW.

My parents actually thought it was the coolest thing ever! They were really happy when I joined the circus – which is not so common.

What happened next?

I started with ballet, jazz, piano, taekwondo, ice skating, gymnastics, rhythmic gymnastics… I did a bit of everything since I was 3! I was in a ballet company at age 16, and I was really good, but I was not naturally skinny. So I joined the circus instead.

OMG, you were a sporty girl!!

No, I had a tiger mum…

Tiger mum, what’s that?

It is what you call Asian mums who make you do all these activities as a kid.

What about your studies?

I went to university in the Philippines when I was 17. I wanted to become a doctor, but I wanted to be on stage more. So I joined the National Circus School in Montreal right next to Cirque du Soleil and spent 3 years there speaking French and bending. I also have a Bachelor’s degree in film and media from the University of Westminster in London. I used to go to school in the mornings, and then at night be performing in the top London clubs like The Box Soho until 3 AM. Wild times.

Leilani Franco for Gute Leute mag_Teresa Enhiak Nanni

Where is home for you?

Haha! I grew up around the world, because my father is a Mergers & Acquisitions consultant, and then I ran away to join the circus. After Montreal, I moved to London for 6 years, and now I ended up between Hamburg and Berlin. I am really happy about the combination of these two cities. Hamburg really surprised me because there is a strong VR community. People are extremely supportive and willing to share ideas and learn from each other. I’m excited about the new Hafencity M28 VR headquarters, with fun people like Noys VR and the cool VR Nerds.

Coming back to the circus, how was life there?

I did more theatrical contemporary circus, without animals on stage. I got to work with amazing artists from around the world, performing in everything from Eurovision to Britain’s Got Talent, working with FKA Twigs, Cirque du Soleil parties, German cabarets. The tough part is being always on the move. It was nice making friends around the world, but I kind of wanted to stay in one city. On tour, I was always studying by myself in my hotel room. I’ve studied every subject you can think of: from Russian to Opera to AutoCad! I would make circus mockumentaries about tour life, which led to my interest in media. I achieved the top of my career within 5 years, so then I needed more progression.

Is this when you thought about how fascinating technology is?

Actually, this was all by chance. I came to chill out in Hamburg for the summer and do a B2 Deutsch course. By total coincidence, I came across the Miami Ad School where they teach this epic degree to become a creative technologist. It just fit me like the perfect black dress, and I dropped everything to stay in Hamburg. I’ve never been happier.

What is exactly what you are learning?

I love VR, but there is more than that. Being a creative technologist is about encompassing all artforms, using technology as a tool of expression, finding new ways to combine art and tech. There is visual coding, where you’re creating artwork with algorithms. We get sound design class at a professional post-production studio! I love learning Cinema 4D, Unreal Engine, and Unity. You learn a bit of everything, and then you specialize. We have the most amazing mentors and teachers. For example, I met Philip Wogart, the president of the VR/AR association in Hamburg, and he was my gaming teacher.  I think it is because of him that I fell in love with VR!

Leilani Franco_by Teresa Enhiak Nanni_DSC05119.jpg

How can you bring together your two worlds: contortionism and technology?

My first experiment with art and tech was making a multi-sensor robot performance installation with Arduino, where the audience became human prostitutes for the robots who took over the world in a hypothetical future set in a posh London member’s club. This led me to create a circus opera with this theme. I’ve dabbled in neural network algorithms, using my body as an input, and having a visual or auditory output. For The Art X exhibition, I will collaborate with tilt brush artists and sound designers to create a contortion performance in VR. I am also experimenting with VR DJing, as dj VRgin. Maybe I’ll try DJing with my fee

Sounds awesome! Do you have any contortion performances coming up?

I still perform contortion, but only for projects I like, such as the World Bodypainting Festival in Austria this July, and in August, I’ll be the opening act for the LGBT Festival fashion show in Sweden. My next one in Hamburg is with Wet the Show cabaret in January, but my amazingly talented friends are always calling me up last-minute and convincing me to jump in on their next adventures.

Wow – your life sounds crazy and so inspiring. I can’t wait to see what you come up with for The ArtXperiment! Thanks so much for this talk Leilani, see you around!

Learn more about how to become a creative technologist  @ Miami Ad School ! 

 

 

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