Interview with Nelly Ben Hayoun

Dr. Nelly Ben Hayoun Speaking at NASA Ames research center

This year’s OEB is all about the skills people need to survive and prosper in a new age of uncertainty. Conference participants will be asked to consider how they can use uncertainty to bring about positive change. It’s an area in which Dr. Nelly Ben Hayoun, dubbed “the Willy Wonka of Design and Science,” is something of an expert.


An award-winning director and designer of experiences, Dr. Ben Hayoun has worked with a seriously impressive list of artists and organisations. Her activities include serving in the position of Designer of Experiences at SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute and founding the International Space Orchestra (ISO) – the world’s first orchestra of space scientists and astronauts from NASA. In the latter, she has worked with Beck, Damon Albarn and Bobby Womack amongst others. Her output has been exhibited at the National Museum of China, the MOMA, the V&A, and other leading design institutions, and she has written and directed two feature-length movies, including the award-winning ‘Disaster Playground’.


In 2017, Dr. Ben Hayoun launched a free postgraduate university called the University of the Underground, with academic partner the Sandberg Instituut and digital platform WeTransfer. The University provides scholarships for students to study in its Masters programme in the Design of Experiences, and the ambitious aim is to make innovative use of design, linguistic, experiential, mythological, political, musical, and film practices as tools with which to engage the public and wider world. Led by a multidisciplinary team of ‘dreamers of the day’, the University believes that ‘a positive inspiration and disturbance to the current cultural and educative system is required to best support the young generations in their creative and political endeavours.’ OEB caught up with Ben Hayoun to discuss the University, the need for educational change, and her role models.


OEB: As the director of the University of the Underground, can you tell us more about its strategy and mission for the future?


The University of the Underground is a postgraduate programme, a Masters. We provide an MA in the Design of Experiences with academic partner the Sandberg Instituut and digital platform WeTransfer, that is free for students, who get scholarships: we take 16-17 every two years. We are very much conscious of the idea of bringing together academic disciplines: students learn about semiotics; about film, design, and music; and about politics in the way that we hope will enable them to design events and modify the power structures of institutions. There is a real political agenda to the programme.


What are the University’s aims?


In short, the University of the Underground has three main aims. Firstly, we have decided to provide free education. We believe higher-education fees are excessive, so we have created a system in which scholarships are provided by the University of the Underground, a charity that receives both private and philanthropic donations. Secondly, we wanted to create a network of ‘dreamers of the day’; we wanted to enable creatives to find their way to be at the forefront of decision-making. Thirdly, we wanted to create this interdisciplinary cultural anthropology. As I’ve said, we want to teach students how to move from being the ‘rats of the city’ to being president, from the underground to the top, and we want to empower them to define new roles for themselves.


What are the power structures that the UoU itself felt the need to modify as an unconventional education institution?


So that we are clear about the role these people have with the University of the Underground – they are not teaching but on the advisory board. We believe there is a need to understand power structures. We are working with a number of what we call ‘partners in crime’. For example, we are working with Noam Chomsky, a member of our advisory board, who is bringing an element of semiotics to the programme, and John Best, who is also on our advisory board, who comes from the music industry. There are also people from the tech industry on our advisory board like Alex Schleifer from Airbnb. We have an incredible amount to offer academically. We have designed our learning space with the structure of a proper university; that is, we are not saying that the university should disappear, but we are trying to find places of tension. We also asked all of our partners to commit for the next one hundred years because we realise that change takes time – we are thinking long term.


Personalised learning is a big topic at the moment in education – how does the University of the Underground fit in with this?


We do not offer completely personalised learning – we are not suggesting that the students make their own curriculum. We actually provide a curriculum in the first year. The year after, the students collaborate with experts and institutions that they pick themselves. In the first year, we really impose the curriculum, which essentially encompasses social action, experience, and politics. Alongside this, they have short briefs with content on socio-technical, science, and political systems in the widest sense that students deal with in groups and individually. For example, this year they are looking at gentrification and the future of storytelling. It’s not a ‘free curriculum’ in that sense.


How does the idea of student-led feedback fit in? You were recently awarded a student-led teaching award at the UAL Central Saint Martins.


I think we are talking about two different things. One is feedback. Right now, I am writing an article about why education should be free. To me, paying for university creates the assumption that either you own your teacher or your teacher owns you. You need to have a real relationship between students and teachers, actual, real academic discussions that go beyond the financial factor– the financial aspect adds an unnecessary layer of dialogue between teachers and students.


Regarding this award, this gave me the confidence to start the University because it told me that the young generation and I share a vision of how education should unfold. When it comes to education, it is becoming difficult because nowadays people pay such a fortune that it is difficult to make them the object of criticism. For me, it’s about being as honest and as raw as I can be; how we can support the creative journey for students; how they can learn, fail, fail again, and eventually succeed.


How does the culture you are trying to create at the University help educators as well as students?


For us, for all of us, we truly believe in students. We are all producers in our own respects and we are all practitioners, which was important to us. Universities tend to hire educators not practitioners, but it’s nonsense. Students cannot respect their tutors if they are not practitioners:  people who know about the landscape of the creative industry. Students are looking for mentors who can provide insights into how creative projects can be made to happen. To some extent, nothing of what we are doing is totally new. We’ve been looking at a lot of educational models and trying to find a compromise between say, for example, Black Mountain College and the Bauhaus.



Finally, who has had the greatest influence on you?


I would say Hannah Arendt, who has influenced how I think and structure things. And definitely Roland Barthes, whose work on power structures was a call to action for me. On a personal level, I would say my grandparents. They came to France from Armenia and started a small business. My grandfather eventually got into politics and became mayor of a small town. He tried to help immigrants get more educated, and he was one of the very first immigrants to become engaged in politics in France. This definitely inspired the way I teach: being resilient, being passionate, and being curious. I want to bring these three things back into teaching.


Hear from Dr. Nelly Ben Hayoun at the OEB Spotlight Stage on Thursday, December 7.

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