Provocateur Extraordinare: Nelly Ben Hayoun

This article appears in the Fall 2015 Issue of HOW Magazine. Find the full issue in MyDesignShop or Subscribe.


HOW_Fall2015.pdfContributed by Rebecca Bedrossian

Art provided by Nelly Ben Hayoun

When I first met Nelly Ben Hayoun, I was struck by her energy. She walks with purpose, speaks quickly in a charming and very thick French accent. She exudes an infectious air of positivity and enthusiasm. And this is before any mention of sonic booms and extraterrestrial exploration. Ben Hayoun is, herself, an experience.

The French-born, London-based Designer of Experiences at SETI Institute (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) has been called the Willy Wonka of Design and Science, and there’s no denying the element of play in her work. Part performance art, part design, Ben Hayoun choreographs experiences that span space and engineering. She and her team at Nelly Ben Hayoun Studio give us a glimpse of the universe by designing scenarios that stretch the limits of imagination.

“I design ‘extreme’ experiences for the public to access the surreal and fantastical in science,” says Ben Hayoun. “That means that I design dark energy in your kitchen sink while a volcano erupts on your couch and you are traveling in space on board your Soyuz Chair, while being bombarded with sonic booms and neutrinos in your bathroom.”

Weird science? A bit. But there’s a method to the madness and it lies in critical thinking, analytics, and experiential design. It’s intense; truth is stranger than fiction after all. But Ben Hayoun is casting design in a new light. She isn’t after solutions; she’s looking for questions.

“Critical design aims to really push the boundaries of design and to reconsider the element of fiction. Narrative is a big part of what we do,” explains Ben Hayoun, “but instead of finding answers, we generate questions. For example, how might the future of nanotechnology evolve? How might the future of synthetic biology evolve, and how might the public relate to it?

“THERE ARE NO LIMITS TO WHAT FORM OR SHAPE THE OUTCOMES MIGHT TAKE. ONE DAY IT CAN BE A FILM, ANOTHER DAY A CHAIR, OR AN OPERA, OR AN INSTALLATION. IT ALL DEPENDS ON THE EXPERIENCE I WISH TO CREATE.”

When asked about inspiration for this theatrical approach, Ben Hayoun brings up Antonin Artaud and his concept of the theater of cruelty. In the early 20th century, Artaud, bored with conventional theater, came up with a radical new way to interact with the public. By creating immersive and sensory conditions, he aimed to provoke irrational impulses and stimulate honest reactions from the audience. Or as theater critic and author Albert Bermel described it, the audience “would surrender themselves to a performance, live through it and feel it, rather than merely think about it.”

It’s an intriguing idea, and one that Ben Hayoun has eagerly adopted. “By taking an extreme approach, you really get the public to actively engage with a cause or with research,” she explains. “And that is what motivates me with space exploration, for example, which is one of my fields of interest.”

This begs the question, how did Ben Hayoun, who started off as a painter, begin exploring space, catastrophes, and what-ifs? “I have always been fascinated by space, the scale of the universe, and travel,” she answers matter of factly.

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“It drives me to speculate: How are we going to survive it? There are all of these technical and scientific questions that I love to think about, but there is also the fact that I’ve always been drawn to extreme challenges.”

Though she paints her answer with a broad brush, upon further questioning, Ben Hayoun reveals that her thirst for exploring science and the world around us was born while at university. “I come from this series of critical designers and speculative designers. Prof. Anthony Dunne and Dr. James Auger were my mentors while I was at the Royal College of Art in Design Interactions. Prof. Dunne and Fiona Raby created this whole platform for design debate.” Here Ben Hayoun learned to generate questions through design and creative practices.

Collaborating with Scientists

Of course, the main ingredient in Ben Hayoun’s secret sauce is collaboration. You might call her a creative conduit, one who bridges disciplines that might never otherwise cross. She is a body around which other objects orbit. Enter the scientists.

“One key aspect of the work is tangibility,” she says. “The experiences I put together with my team at NBH Studio will always have this component. We work with scientists or experts in each field.”

When Ben Hayoun promises a Soyuz rocket liftoff experience, it’s as real as it can possibly get, because she spends the majority of her time finding collaborators who are willing to share their experiences. She worked with astronauts who flew on the Soyuz rocket to develop a soundtrack about their experience. And then Ben Hayoun tailored the experience for public consumption.

“Amongst all my projects, working with individuals at NASA has been the most challenging and nerve-wracking, but an absolutely sublime experience,” admits Ben Hayoun. She’s referring to her second documentary film, Disaster Playground, which tackles what she refers to as the real Armageddon. The film investigates catastrophes (involving asteroids) and the procedures that are in place to respond to them. “When we think about space scientists, and scientists in general, we are not necessarily thinking critically,” she explains. “We think of rationales and data and, in that sense much like political philosopher Hannah Arendt, we believe that scientists are not really equipped when it comes to make decisions or to reflect on the making and possible outcomes of their discovery.” Arendt used Oppenheimer and the atomic bomb as an example of this in her 1956 book, The Human Condition.

“I believe that scientists can be decision makers,” Ben Hayoun asserts. “And I needed a strategy, an experience to set this and demonstrate it. Disaster Playground presents the chain of command in place if an asteroid was to strike. It’s far away from Bruce Willis and the fictional Armageddon. It shows the real scientists who are currently designing the emergency procedures for that extreme scenario, somewhat not-so-speculative doomsday event.”

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Entertainment was not the original intent of Disaster Playground, though Ben Hayoun points out that humor and quirkiness have their place. By highlighting the people behind the space program, the audience hears from the key players from Planetary Defense all the way to the United Nations, and begins to fully comprehend the complexities and humanity involved with these scientific roles.

Are all scientists on board with Ben Hayoun and her unconventional way of investigating the processes in place for protecting Planet Earth? “I only work with the boldest scientists! The biggest barrier is the notion of ‘polite’ collaboration.”

“There is a connection between art and science and design, but they are not merging,” she continues. “The innovation comes from conflict between these disciplines, rather than working politely together. When taking on a project, I go into someone’s office and try to find a way to challenge the interviewee. If you’re an expert in your discipline, you’ll get annoyed when a designer challenges your research. And then you’re either not an expert or you’re not passionate enough. And that will be reflected in the delivery; the product of that collaboration won’t be challenging or innovative.”

That’s it. Passion. Ben Hayoun has plenty of it. Her zest for life is contagious. “What I like to bring to the table is a paste, like a painter would do in his/her painting and the color he/she is choosing. Nowadays, our roles as designers extend to director, producer, social sculptor, scriptwriter, and much more. We need to be open-minded and grasp the multiple fields at our hands.”

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A Designer of Many Titles

At 30, Ben Hayoun’s calling card is impressive. She’s created the International Space Orchestra (ISO)—composed of individuals from NASA Ames Research Center and The SETI Institute who, according to its mastermind, perform opera, music, and reenact space missions. The ISO has arranged collaborations with Beck, Bobby Womack, Blur frontman Damon Albarn, science fiction author Bruce Sterling, Japanese composer and designer extraordinaire Maywa Denki, and Grammy award-winning violinist Evan Price. (The ISO was the subject of her first documentary film.)

As the Designer of Experiences at SETI, Ben Hayoun works on outreach activities and design in terms of scope, scale, and methods of engagement toward architecture, installations, environments, social systems, and performances as events. And as Head of Experience at WeTransfer, she’s developing partnerships to build a critical digital platform for its 66 million monthly users.

What’s the next adventure for this unconventional creative? Space is certainly not her final frontier. In 2017, Ben Hayoun will set sail with The Life, The Sea, and The Space Viking.

“It is a submersible ‘Space Odyssey’ on board a Viking ship,” she explains. Encompassing space colonization, creative vision, and ethics, Ben Hayoun aims to create a unique and provocative conversation between techno-archaeologists, Vikings, artists, and scientists.

“It brings together both scales: deep under the sea to the greatest height of outer space. It’s merging the fields of astrobiology, terraforming, and the research of extremophiles. It aims to engage the public with one of the greatest debates of our history: Shall we or not send life to colonize outer space?”


HOW’s Fall 2015 issue, The Reinvention Issue, explores how today’s leading designers, brands, and marketers have succeeded in our dizzying, fragmented, globalized world by embracing the knowledge that the only constant is change. The only way to stay on top of a constantly changing world is to reinvent it.

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