NELLY BEN HAYOUN
WORDS: HELENE FURJÁN & LEE NENTWIG | PHOTOGRAPHS: NICK BALLON
Nelly Ben Hayoun is driven by a need to access the impossible. The more challenging something is, the more she wants to accomplish it. Referred to by many as the Willy Wonka of Design and Science, her fearless and extreme ambition is matched by an attitude of absolute perseverance. To Nelly, a no is never a no, it is only the beginning of a yes. "Being polite,” she attests, “doesn't get anywhere, innovation arises from conflict."
Surging to become one of the world’s most recognized designers, Hayoun was a recipient of the WIRED Innovation Fellowship in 2014 and named this year to Dezeen's list of 50 Most Inspirational Women in Architecture & Design. She is the director of her own design studio, while also contributing as Designer of Experiences at SETI, Chief of Experiences at WeTransfer, and as a member of the International Aeronautical Federation (sitting on the Space Outreach and Education Committee). All the while, she is finalizing her PhD on political philosophy and the design of experiences at Royal Holloway, University of London.
The Other Volcano, developed in collaboration with volcanologist Dr. Carina Fearnley, brings one of nature's most violent processes into the corner of an everyday living space.
For Nelly Ben Hayoun, the role of design is to create debate, to explore ideas, and to experiment. “To get the public engaged in something is difficult today," she explains, "How can we utilize extreme situations and experiences as a way to initiate progressive social and cultural change?” Hayoun believes that you have to create intense events and experiences that make the public think. Putting her design expertise to practice for institutions that are not the typical clientele of marketing companies, her events modify the way these institutions think about themselves and communicate with the public. Together with her team, she designs experiences as platforms that connect participants to today’s issues across science, politics, and critical socio-cultural discourse, providing a foundation to discuss those experiences.
To achieve this requires intense, immersive, radically unexpected, and imaginative experiences that instill critical awareness and a strong emotional connection. It is what Marshall McLuhan described as an active participation that leads to understanding, rather than passive spectatorship. A method which creates intense chaos to engage the audience with ideas and speaks to their gut. It is a viscerally overwhelming experience that takes time to digest and enables the audience to remember that experience by association with strong sensory and emotional effects.
The design of such experiences borrows as much from theatrical practices as it does from iterative creative processes. Hayoun pulls from theatrical practices such as dramaturge Antonin Artaud's Theater of Cruelty. Her experiences are curated, not scripted. They are about improvisation and unpredictable happenings. She levers this unpredictability to encourage active participation by the public. Calling this her Total Bombardment Approach, she designs experiences that violently shake up their audience, awakening them, connecting both their mind and their gut to new ways in which to see the world.
“A 'no' is not a no, it is actually the beginning of a yes. The moment that someone is telling you, 'No,' is the start of the story. This is where I have to engineer a situation to actually turn that 'no' into a 'yes'."
The Soyuz Chair, designed in collaboration with space veteran Jean Pierre Haignere, reproduces the thrill of a rocket lift off in a reclining chair.
In 1968, student protests began in Paris and spread across the world. They were rooted in the practices of Guy DeBord and The Letterist International and The Situationists International movements that he had initiated in the 1950s. Central to those practices were engineered situations, the hacking of media products, art works, texts, advertising, political campaigning, and so on, into experiences and events that critically reworked, and thus re-routed, them. Referred to as a détournement, these subversive situations included the psychogeographical dérive, in which the city was felt, emotionally and sensorially. The dérive pulled the participant on an unscripted and unexpected journey through the changing ambience and experience of a city.
Nelly Ben Hayoun’s experiences are just this. They are détournements in which she digests culture and presents critical concepts to the public in an understandable, but critical form. Primarily, Hayoun “hacks science,” developing experiences that allow the public to understand what it's like to “feel” scientific understandings. Along with her avant-garde crew, she hacks science to find its creative needs, to think about its futures, to introduce critical thinking within the institution’s culture, and to create projects scientists wouldn't ordinarily think about to generate public debate.
Agreement closes down creativity. When no one learns, nothing can evolve. To invent, people need to rethink their work and practices, and debate serves this. This is especially so in science.
In a way, Hayoun’s work creates a scientific sublime through experiences that allow people to connect viscerally, conjuring new perceptions and instigating new conversations. She generates immersive experiences that make the awe of science available to everyone. Take, for example, The Other Volcano, an inverted thrill ride in which the stereotypical science-project volcano becomes a miniature but real and dangerous pyrotechnic in-home threat. Or her Soyuz Chair, which retrofits a recliner chair to act as the ISS’s Soyuz Capsule in transit, recreating the full discomfort and intensity of a rocket liftoff. With the Super K Sonic Boooum, Hayoun allows the public to experience the sonic boom created by accelerating a particle faster than the speed of light through a narrative journey, rather than technical science. Through domestic-scale experimentation, Hayoun brings scientific eureka moments into the space of everyday life.
For those that are unable to experience her exhibitions first hand, Hayoun uses film as a method to engage an even larger scale of audience. Her recent project, The Life, the Sea, and the Space Viking, explores sites the public usually never gets to see, looking for forms of life in the sea to aid other-world colonization. While her feature length film Disaster Playground investigates the emergency procedures set in place for an asteroid impact. Working with FEMA, the Disaster Training and Response Center, NASA, astronauts, and near object impact researchers, the film documents the people in charge, who makes decisions, and what happens in the case that a disaster occurs. One of the results of this cinematic research project was the production of a debate and discussion in the scientific community which eventually led to NASA's initiation of the Planetary Defense Coordination Office.
A super-sized version of a Japanese neutrino observatory, the immersive Super K Sonic Booooum installation allows visitors to imagine what it would be like to see sub-atomic particles slam together at high speed.
Nelly Ben Hayoun's latest, and perhaps most ambitious, project takes on models of education. The University of the Underground seeks to return vision (what its founder calls "social dreaming") as a central mission of public institutions. Its curriculum emphasizes the importance of examining and modifying power structures in companies, organizations and public institutions and investigates why a place for unconventional research practices is crucial.
Tutors at the university are required to have experience working with governments or institutions, to be able to teach students how systems work and how they can be adapted or modified. Its mission statement reads, "The world's first University of the Underground, based in the underground of the urban space, promotes unconventional collages of references, interdisciplinary practices, chaos and experimentations at the start of any creative process."
The University of the Underground shifts power within institutions by working within them through partnerships, trying to reinvent higher education as a fee-less system to combat the problem of crippling student debt. All the while, it maintains the seriousness of accreditation and credentialing, ensuring students receive degrees that certify their achievements. Hayoun believes in the value of degrees, and wants students to feel that they have been fairly evaluated, and provided a set of educational aims and guidelines. The University of the Underground is hosted by its academic partner the Sandberg Instituut in Amsterdam.
Hayoun’s diverse background matters to her, and she is committed to multidisciplinary training. She has always been interested in the ways painters bring other fields into their work, mixing disciplines into one. Students will learn about particular disciplines or forms of storytelling—from film-making to theatre—and explore how they could be applied within a particular organization. Through a syllabus that works across the disciplines of design, film, theatrical practices, politics, and experience, students are equipped to operate as multidisciplinary experience designers, with critical understanding of the industries and institutions they will work within, and the socio-political context surrounding them.
“The rats don’t stay forever in the dark,” Hayoun declares. Applying a bottom-up systems approach to social transformation, the University of the Underground provides students with agency which enables them to navigate the practices and positions they encounter from a position of empowered knowledge. Students choose their own path rather than being trained in the image of their professors. This approach not only supports “creative entrepreneurship,” it encourages students to “think about themselves as decision-makers,” while bringing new ways of thinking to industries. Ultimately, she hopes her graduates will become an army of creative soldiers who are “dreamers of the day,” and, thus, “the fuel for social actions.”
“All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.” - T. E. Lawrence
Training students to "dream with open eyes" and think beyond the possible focuses on problem finding rather than solving. The curriculum builds from Critical Design, a field that Nelly studied while at the Royal College of Arts under Prof. Anthony Dunne, in which students are asked to think about new technologies and discoveries, asking questions about how they operate, how they impact the public, or what problems they pose. The design of a product then intends to challenge the curiosity of its audience."'Product' is a debate you can generate," she explains, "Designing a platform for debate is the goal."
"We need to be bold, unapologetic and ambitious for the next generation."
Hayoun often cites “The Invisible Generation,” William S. Burroughs’ epilogue to his 1962 “cut-up” novel, The Ticket That Exploded, which speaks of the recording of information as a tool to undermine institutional structures of power. Burroughs’ text details a series of splicing experiments intended to disorder, confuse, and subvert information recording. While Burroughs focused on tape recorders and typewriters, Hayoun worries about digital culture.
For her, digital platforms run the risk of operating as a opaque authorities which obscure their decision-making processes and naturalize their findings. We don't know who is behind the platform, how the parameters sort data, how they weight it, and what their biases are. Hayoun believes we need to invest more into understanding the socio-political and cultural impacts of technology and find ways to engage the public. She is interested in designed experiences as a method to make an audience think and learn, but also act.
The work is a kind of Performance of Politics. Events and spectacles, for her, have socio-political implications. They intend not only to generate transparency and engage the public on important matters, but to challenge understanding and activate imagination. Nelly Ben Hayoun is planting the seeds for social transformation. Her experiences are designed to incite social dreaming which leads to social action.
Nelly Ben Hayoun's film, Disaster Playground, investigates emergency procedures for disasters such as earth-bound rogue asteroids and meteor showers.