#rp17 Speaker: Nelly Ben Hayoun: Subversive Strategies in the Orbit of Science and Design

Nelly Ben Hayoun is our the latest addition to our mainstage programme! She will speak on Monday about Designing the Impossible and you can also catch her on a panel at the MEDIA CONVENTION. She is a director and designer on a mission to introduce chaos and subversion into the tidy and hierarchical worlds of science and design.

Here, the role of disruption has nothing to do with “business opportunities”, but instead addresses a necessary sensitisation to the importance and impact of research, especially in our everyday lives. Hayoun explains that her projects focus on the question of how we can use design and design processes as critical platforms, so as to better understand institutions and develop a healthy “immune response” of initiating discussions concerning their function. This can sometimes happen in unusual places: Ben Hayoun has already realised projects under water or in the depths of outer space. 

All this has earned her the nickname of the “Willy Wonka of design and science”. Just like the legendary chocolate manufacturer, she has mastered the art of opulence – in both expression and form, as one can see with projects such as the “International Space Orchestra”, which she realised in cooperation with NASA. Experts from the space agency and the SETI Institute, a private initiative dedicated to the search for intelligent extraterrestrial life, were re-schooled as a symphony orchestra, who then collaborated with musicians like Beck or Bobby Womack (from Womack & Womack) to record the space opera “Ground Control”. Sci-fi author Bruce Sterling and his wife, author Jasmina Tesanovic, wrote the lyrics. The premiere took place in a wind tunnel, was recorded, pressed up and shot into orbit in a capsule, where the recording still circles the planet. A second disc was delivered to the ISS during the #rp15; ended up on a selfie with astronaut Sam Christoforetti and made it back to Earth safely on-board a Soyuz rocket. 

The results of these experiments aren’t simply a treat for both eyes and ears, but have a serious objective: “I’m positing a loss of institutional knowledge, which is unbelievably sad. The defunding of the sciences, for example, means that NASA is losing the accumulated knowledge of generations. There aren’t many people left who are able to conduct the necessary archival work. Financing is irregular, funding comes and goes, and the government cuts hit the space programme hard.” This is true for many other scientific fields at the moment, especially in the US.  Ben Hayoun’s project “Disaster Playground” touches on this, focusing on future catastrophes and the planned protocols of how to deal with them. 

Currently, Nelly’s main focus is on two large-scale projects. Her “University of the Underground” at the Sandberg Instituut in Amsterdam – a program with the aim of teaching students to engineer situations, design experiences and events, so as to best support social dreaming, social actions and power shifts within institutions, companies and governments. The world’s first university based in the undergrounds within the hidden network of urban spaces, it promotes interdisciplinary practices and experiments as the source of all progress. And: the Space Viking

This production includes a space odyssey and a Viking saga which takes place 11 kilometres under the sea. The viewer can join a diving expedition and get a lesson in biological archaeology. The merging of the fields of astrobiology and terraforming, on the other hand, allows for the expedition of uncharted territories, encompassing all fields of science – and also asking questions about humanity’s place in the universe.

There’s another point which illustrates why Nelly Ben Hayoun fits especially well in our world: she would love to work with Noam Chomsky as a composer for an AI opera. Why? Because: “He has been working a lot with complex systems, writing a lot about how the mind functions, linguistically of course, but he has also done a lot of work on artificial intelligence, so it makes perfect sense to me that there would be a link. I don’t know what form that will take, but that’s what excites me. It needs to always be challenging – it’s not just about the orchestra singing.”


Photo credit: Aaron Wojack