002: Nelly Ben Hayoun

002: Nelly Ben Hayoun

Nelly Ben Hayoun: Ollie
Palmer I never stop.

And you can, you don't
need to send me any proof.

As for the University of the
Underground, we don't tend to, you

know, um, edits or do things like that.

Like we leave it as raw as it can be.

It's always a pleasure to see you to
meet you and to actually hear about all

the amazing projects that you're doing.

Ollie Palmer: Hi, and welcome to the
Hold the Space podcast, the podcast

about the intersections between
creative practice and teaching.

Each episode features a conversation
between myself, Ollie Palmer, and a

creative practitioner who also teaches.

Before anything else.

I would like to update
you about this show.

There are a lot of podcasts out there that
have a whole team producing them, with

sound engineers and fact checkers, and
editors, and story consultants and so on,

but this is not one of those podcasts.

I am the entire team, and it's
taken a while to set everything

up and get the cogs in motion.

But I'm happy to announce that there
will be new episodes every two weeks

between now and the end of 2023.

They will be released on a Friday,
just in time for a nice weekend listen.

The interviews are a mix of old
and new, but I'm really excited

about sharing them with you.

There are some great guests.

I've had some really interesting
conversations, which have taken

completely unexpected directions, and
there've been some fascinating ways of

combining creative practice and teaching.

I hope that you will enjoy
listening to them as much as

I've enjoyed producing them.

Anyway, on with the show.

This is the second episode of
the podcast, and what an episode.

I was delighted to speak to somebody
who I've known for a long time and

whose design work, career, films,
and attitude towards life have

been a real inspiration to me.

That is Dr.

Nelly, Ben Hayoun.

Nelly has been pioneering her own
unique brand of experience design

since at least her student days
at the Royal College of Art, where

she carried out complex scientific
experiments on a very domestic scale.

I remember seeing her graduation project
from the RCA, which she developed with

the astronaut Jean Pierre Haignere,
which took a specially repurposed

reclining chair - the kind I remember
from my grandma's house - and simulated

a trip to space for audience members.

It was beautiful, bizarre, really funny,
and it hinted at the types of projects

that would follow in the coming decade,
all of which fused wonder and abstraction

with the everyday her interest in space
has taken her to the Seti Institute-

that's the search for extraterrestrial
intelligence- it's taken her to the

European Space Agency and NASA, where
she established, and continues to direct

the International Space Orchestra.

She's collaborated with musical
luminaries such as Beck, Bobby

Wommack, Damon Albarn, the Avalanches.

She's created installations, experiences,
gallery shows, touring festivals,

and she's directed multiple films.

Her studio works with commercial companies
and organizations on what they describe as

"large scale, multimedia, multi-platform,
highly ambitious projects."

These are sometimes so audacious
and require so many moving parts

to be aligned that the influential
curator Han Ulrich Obrist once as

described Nelly as a "social sculptor."

Crucially for this podcast.

She's also taught, both on
courses such as Central St.

Martin's Textile Futures course, and as
the director of the University of the

Underground, the free, pluralistic and
transnational educational institution

she established in 2017 in a nightclub
basement in Amsterdam, and whose

advisors include influential people
from many spheres, including Noam

Chomsky, Paula Antonelli, Dave Eggers,
Massive Attack, Peaches, and many more.

This biography could go on for some time.

I've had to really cut it down.

Nelly's an absolute force of nature.

But I will stop here so
that we can hear her voice.

In this conversation, we discuss:

- What motivates Nelly

- How she approaches projects
from the funding stage onwards

- The ethics and the curiosity she embeds
into all her projects and teaching

- How she thinks about project success
and how everything comes back to

Michael Jackson, Hannah Arendt...

and couscous.

This interview was recorded remotely
in November 2021, which means that some

of the upcoming projects that Nelly
describes in the conversation have

actually already taken place by now.

Anyway, I will stop talking now
and hand over to this episode's

guest, Nelly Ben Hayoun.

I hope you enjoy this conversation.

Nelly Ben Hayoun: So I'm Nelly Ben Hayoun.

I design experiences.

So I make people lift off from their
living room while dark energy is being

created in their kitchen sink, and sonic
boom are exploding in their bathtub.

So, you know, this is the kind of
the world that I live in really like

trying to bring in the sublime that
exists in science into our everyday.

But that's one part of the iceberg,
because most within the past, like I

would say seven years, eight years,
the work has been developing more

and more within the rethinking or the
re shoveling or the challenging of

power structure within institutions.

So identifying the politics with an and
the power structures, dynamics that lead

to decision-making within policies or,
when it comes to make decision in term of

economics, politics, uh, sociology and try
to identify what are the systems that are

in place and actually challenge them from
within through the means of the events.

So I do a lot of this and that kind
of led me to develop platforms.

So that others can also experiment
with some of these methods, but also

to really advocate for what I strongly
believe in which is pluralistic thinking.

So the idea of bringing in multiple
different viewpoint on the table, uh,

and actually embed that within the
construction of our societies and how

we think about power dynamics and we
think about decision making again.

And then on the other side of that
also building organized community,

and that's a very important word to
me, organized community, the idea that

you're going to build a platform in
which you're going to build a network

that is going to be allowing for a
support group, so that whenever you are

challenging existing status quo, you're
going to find yourself into a sort of

a pariah situation where you're being
left on the side of effectively society

when you're going against the flow.

You get really stronger
action, violent reaction.

So it's really become more and more
essential to me to actually consider this

notion of organized community that support
each other, and effectively allow you to

maintain pressure within this existing
systems for the long term, because I don't

believe that you can change things just
through the mean of the events, the events

or the experience is kind of like the
starting point of this, uh, conversation.

But then in order to really modify it for
the long term and for good, you're going

to need to act pressure for 10 years,
15 years, like even sometime a lifetime.

So you're going to need this organized
community in place because it's not

going to be a solution, you know?

Ollie Palmer: Yeah.

I remember the first time I met
you was at the RCA when you were in

Design Interactions and I was really
impressed with your bio statement.

Was it on the wall or was it Michael
Jackson's coat that was on the wall?

The first thing that I remember was like,
you just went, I love Michael Jackson...

... there's something in that absolute
joy for, for the things that you're

passionate about that really is
infectious and wears off on other people.

And you can see that through the making
of the films that you do, where, you know,

you just went to NASA and just started
talking to people, but, as you said, it's

not just about creating that moment, that
funny bit of friction that causes some

sort of different dynamic, but you're also
really good at building these communities.

And maintaining these relationships.

These things are really lived in.

How did you get to a stage where you're
able to assemble people around you

and make things happen to that extent?

Nelly Ben Hayoun: I mean, this is
an all in one question Ollie because

you mentioned michael Jackson, so
of course I cannot just speak it up.


I mean, Michael Jackson is not the
most popular character right now.

So I guess this is like the perfect
starting point to talk about the

University of the Underground.

We live in very strange times, obviously.

There is a lot of pattern that find
our way back into our societies

that for a long time, we all
thought wouldn't find their way.

One of the key philosopher/
political theorists that I always

go back to is called Hannah Arendt.

Hannah Arendt is a political theorist;
she died in 1975 and she wrote this book

called 'The Origin of Totalitarianism'.

But also another one
called the Human Condition.

In 'The Origin of Totalitarianism'
it really is about the mechanics

that led Hitler to be in power.

But so the mechanics that build
totalitarianism regimes, and with

the kind of the core factor of
totalitarianism or this kind of specific

political regime is an ideology, right?

And this ideology is being replicated
throughout all of the system of society.

So what I found fascinating about this is
that, at some points we are seeing - and

now we we've been seeing it for the past,
like 10 years - a sort of a resurgence

of far right ideas with Le Pen, of course
Trump, Balsonero in Brazil, and there is

many other, resurrgences of totalitarian
regimes or ideological regimes that find

their way back into politics, right?

And with that come the needs
to question ourselves as to

what, why is this like that?

And of course, Michael Jackson - I'm going
back to Michael Jackson now - Michael

Jackson is just one other example of
something that is also very common in

our society now, that we call cancel
culture, this idea that, suddenly

someone is being seen as not being
popular anymore, so we're gonna delete

it from all the different channels.

Suddenly Michael Jackson is someone
that has been touching kids, has been

doing pedophilia, you know, there's
been a Netflix TV series about this,

uh, you know, da-da-da-da-da-da, so
with that in mind, that was, you know,

so then you have a strong reaction.

Of course, it's talking about taboo within
societies, it's talking about things

are completely forbidden, and instead
of having that conversation about taboo/

forbidden, with someone that is actually
effectively dead, there is a whole

different layer of complexity that need to
be unpacked, then we just suddenly cancel

everything that is about it, you know?

And so for me, it's kind of
like, typically Michael Jackson.

Actually, we could totally do a Michael
Jackson program at the University of

the Underground, typically because
it's hairy, typically because these are

topics that nobody wants to talk about,
and typically, because it's complex.

You know, it's not as simple as "I'm
going to eradicate Michael Jackson

for my life", or "I'm going to stop it
from airing on every single channel",

or "I'm not going to do that because
that's going to show my support towards

pedophilia" ... I mean, obviously
just be aware I'm not supporting

paedophilia, just to make it clear here...

within that, like, I think there
is a moment where we need to speak

about these things, you know?

And so for me, the University of
the Underground is a place where

we can talk about things like that.

And we can have these conversations.

But to go back to when we met, Ollie,
we met at the Royal College of Art, I

was I think maybe 21 at the time.

And of course, Michael Jackson really
impacted my life in a very major

manner because when I was a kid and
like many other people and many other

kids, Michael Jackson was kind of like
this alien that you could see on TV

when MTV, uh, this channel that is
kind of like starting all the video

making and music kind of existed.

and So then you see this guy that
doesn't look like anyone else.

I mean from the get-go he
doesn't look like anyone else.

He doesn't fit the box of anything.

He's neither black, he's neither
white; he's black and white.

Uh, you know, and he's kind of advocating
it into his songs he's really, um, a

problematic character on every single
level, you know, because he effectively

doesn't rank himself in any category.

And he come up with a complete new genre.

He dances differently, he's dressed up
differently, he's got sparkles all over.

And so for me, it was kind of
like my first encounter with

something that I couldn't pinpoint.

I couldn't say this, is music, I
couldn't say this is performance.

I couldn't say this is
architecture, I couldn't say this

is anything that I knew about.

And that's exactly what I wanted to
be in a way: I wanted to be that same

and he was extremely inspirational
that despite all of the critique,

despite all of that, this character
or this person was living his life

the way that he wanted to live it.

So that's also why he kind of like
stayed with me all the way through

my studies when I was studying Design
Interaction, which is this discipline

that was all about looking at technology,
new technology, and actually its

complex implication into society and
how to communicate, uh, this future

or these potential futures that we
will expand to the next few years.

So, all of these things digested
and diluted themselves into

the work that I'm doing now.

And when you speak about,
"How do I do these things?"

Well, again, I learned it from people like
Michael Jackson, I learned it from others.

You don't actually make these
things happen on your own.

You need a lot of people to support the
mission, to actually build this organized

community, to be with you along the way.

Uh, so, there is a vision always, but,
uh, for me, again, being an advocate for

parality, I think that is made multiple
visions and you know, for these visions to

even exist beyond the events, you're going
to need to be able to allow for feedback.

You're going to need to be able
to have many people taking it in

different manner, in different ways.

That's how I do these things - but
to your point, it's really difficult.

Ollie Palmer: Yeah.

Nelly Ben Hayoun: It's not an easy path.

Ollie Palmer: When you look at the
extent and the scale of the projects

that you work on, there's such a breadth,
but there is a core that seems to be

consistent, in terms of, a wild, extreme
idea and a declaration that something

is happening, and then willing that
thing almost out of the earth through

creating these communities and so on.

I'm curious though, because the
work really does transcend genres.

You were saying about Michael Jackson
being impossible, to put in a box.

I think the work that you do is
really, unclassifiable, there's

this idea of creating experiences
and this kind of thing, but how

do you determine if something is
successful with work that you're doing?

Nelly Ben Hayoun: That's
a very good question.

I mean Ollie, can I just say for
our listeners that you have on your

back, this amazing, like astral
wallpaper, I dunno where we are.

Where are we in the house is
what I want to know, Ollie?

Ollie Palmer: This is in the basement.

I made a little recording studio down
here, and I spoke to a sound engineer

friend and he said, um, like the best
thing you can do is get packing blankets

and just put them into duvet covers.

Nelly Ben Hayoun: That's amazing.

Ollie Palmer: I like it cause it's
really silly and confusing that this

podcast is called, hold the space.

And then my background is like space
in a completely different sense.

Nelly Ben Hayoun: This is amazing,
but you know, I mean, I love the fact

that you're in a basement as well.

Like the University of the Underground
by definition is in the basement as well.

If you think about Plato and the
cave, it's like, this is where

things are happening, this is where
knowledge kind of reveals itself

or not, when you are seeking it.

And I love the fact that even in your
own location, you're like, you're there.

So to come back to your question
about what is success...

Every thing I'm doing, when it
starts you have to apply for

funding application, right?

You need to get funds to
make this project, which are

usually at a major scale.

So with a major scale comes also major
scale of funding, that is required.

So with that you always have these
questions within the application,

as, you know, what would be success
if you were successful in actually

getting the funds, you know?

And so usually you would come down
to things like, okay, well, you

know, I'm going to get that number
of people watching it, I'm going

to do this for the community.

I'm going to da-da-da-la;
that would be a legacy.

But for me, it's always, actually
where the innovation comes.

You know, this idea that, what
is actually gonna make that

project last in the long term?

So that legacy element
is really important.

All these projects in a way, they're
really complex to put together.

Something like the International Space
Orchestra, which effectively in a nutshell

is to put an orchestra together at NASA
being Algerian, Armenian, French, not

having the US citizenship either...

and remembering that NASA is a military
agency, so to get in is about 95% of

the complexity of the project, really.

A project like that, to make it happen
is something, but to actually maintain it

through the years is for me the baseline.

It's not so much about you can make
it happen; okay, that's big part of

the complexity, but a lot to do with
writing, with figuring out the politics

with, you know, all of that stuff, but
really when it becomes really interesting

for me is when you actually, allow
for critical thinking to embed itself

inside an institution for the long term.

We started the International
Space Orchestra in 20 - oh my God!

- like 2012.

So that actually makes me realize that
next year is our 10 year anniversary.

And we're still going.

Every year, there is a new performance so
this year we did an event with Kid Cudi,

which is this incredible hip hop artist.

We did this thing, it was a music, which
was effectively about whether or not we

should go in space and decolonization,
a pattern and, you know, to bring that

kind of like questioning inside an
institution like NASA, is not easy,

but we got to a certain point now where
we can have this conversation because

we've been doing this for 10 years.

And so I'm extremely proud to know that
there is a new generation coming in,

at the International Space Orchestra.

And there are also the old members of the
International Space Orchestra, the ones

that have been there with me for 10 years.

Uh, so that is kind of part of
what I would say is success, but

I never start a project thinking, "oh,
this is what success will look like".

But I do know for a fact that there
is some values that really call to

what I'm doing and what I want my life
to be about, which is, making sure

that I bring in this plurality inside
society that I can challenge politics.

But to a top level in a way that really
will renegotiate, policy making, whether

it's within an environmental context
whether it is within, you know, again,

supporting grassroots communities
and making sure that there is food in

the table at the end of the day, that
there is a redistribution of wealth,

that we decolonize this institution.

That's a big thing for me.

And with that in mind, and I'm
speaking on my own self there, I'm

not speaking on the behalf of any
of the institutions, I've built.

But for me, you know, this
doesn't happen peacefully.

You know, and I speak on my own behalf.

You see I'm wearing a Lonsdale
jumper, I'm a boxer as well.

I do that.

And I don't believe that you
decolonise and I don't believe that

you do these things in a peaceful
manner, you know, for me, it's coming

back to taking back sovreignty.

And I'm speaking about things that are
not maybe easy for people to digest.

A good friend of mine is
Micah White with the guy that

co-funded the Occupy Wall Street.

And he wrote a book where he's actually
studying how Occupy Wall Street,

from his perspective, was a fail.

So he's a guy that co-funded Occupy
Wall Street, which is the idea of

everybody going to the streets, and
we kind of speak about wealth and

how wealth is being distributed.

Now from an activist perspective, he's
been an activist since he's 13 years

old: this was the biggest movement
ever created in history globally.

You know, like everybody was out there
saying the 5% shouldn't be the 5% anymore.

Now the reality is like
the 5% are still the 5%.

So although this movement was
moving people in the street, that

didn't lead to actually the change
that the movement was about.

So from his perspective, the
reason why it failed is because

they didn't take back sovreignty.

And so in a flip of the mind, his
book is effectively about the idea

that, actually, if you want to
really change things, you're going

to have to go after the power, and
it's not gonna be smooth, right.

Uh, and so for him, his book is
going into this kind of violence and

understanding of, you know, should we
go at war then, and should we actually

like really go and take it back wages.

So I'm not going to say I'm one
of the person that thinks that,

you have to go and bring in
blood back into the perspective.

But I think effectively there is an
element where, you know, these connections

and these revelation of power dynamics
are not going to be a smooth ride.

So that's for me, what is success?

Success would means that actually
whatever I do has effectively brought

change for the long term within the
communities identified in the first place.

So if I'm going to be working for youth,
like I'm doing now, with Tour de Moon,

which is this nationwide festival , then
I need to make sure that there is

youth club by the end of this project.

And these youth clubs know of each
other, and they have a cooperative

that I supported so that they know of
each other and down the line, if there

is another COVID situation, then they
can support each other financially.

So to still be here to support youth
down the line in their communities,

you know, that is success, for example.

Ollie Palmer: Yeah.

I think the thing that's really nice
about the way that your work operates

is that the entry mode for an audience
member is quite often through something

that is either really visually
appealing, or seems on the surface

ridiculous, in a really good way.

Like there's a, like an absurdity to it.

Nelly Ben Hayoun: Yes.

Ollie Palmer: But then once you go
under the surface, as I think with

both Disaster Playground and the
Intentional Space Orchestra films,

you start out with this small sort of
nagging question and " Can I do this?"

And you think, oh, this
is quite audacious.

And then you're able to take an audience
through the complexity of a series of

systems, which you start picking apart how
that power works and how it manifests and

how to really get to the people who you
need to talk to in order to make change.

But there's also just this, because you're
not turning up in military combat gear,

nobody's going, "Oh God, somebody at the
gates who's going to try and upend some

sort of power structure!", but there's
this infectious humor that everybody

kind of buys into, and then slowly
realizes that, oh, actually what's going

on here is something bigger than just,
just the actions that are being performed

and could have this long-term effect.

So I think if anyone who's listening,
hasn't seen Nelly's work, like massively

recommend all three of the films
or attending any one of her events.

Nelly Ben Hayoun: Thank you Ollie!

Ollie Palmer: I wanted to ask
you a little bit more about the

University of the Underground.

I think the last time we met in person
was in Central Saint Martins, maybe eight

or nine years ago, something like that.

Nelly Ben Hayoun: Yes.

Ollie Palmer: I think you'd just
made, or you were just starting

to make, Disaster Playground.

Nelly Ben Hayoun: Yes.

Ollie Palmer: So you've been teaching in
universities for quite a while as well.

But then University of the Underground
has a completely different structure.

How does it work and how do
you do things with students?

How do you enable them to
bring whatever they're bringing

to the table to show itself?

Nelly Ben Hayoun: There is so much to
unpack because I love your point that

you just made about a humour and you
know, Disaster Playground and so forth.

Maybe we can pick that one up afterwards,
after the University of the Underground.

The University of the Underground
for the listeners, just to explain

them a bit what, what it is...

It's a free, pluralistic and
trans-national, educational, educative

platform, in a way that is based in
the basement of nightclub in London,

in Amsterdam, but now growing pretty
much everywhere, everywhere, where

there is a nightclub, there could
be a University of the Underground.

With that in mind - so trans-national,
or just to kind of explain as well, what

is the, know, what that means is this
idea that it exists beyond nation states.

So it's got, again, a political agenda
in that, - but what doesn't, in some

ways, you know- and I would say,
agendas with an "s", because again, we

are pluralistic, so we are all about
having multiple different viewpoints

just to make things more complicated.

But I would say to you that, you
know, one thing that I identified

quite quickly was, and maybe it's
coming from also my own origins.

My dad is, uh, born in Oran, in Algeria,
my mom is Armenian, and in both cases

also very different type of histories.

They kind of migrated, moved,
displaced, and they have a very

specific relationship to totalitarianism
regimes and to ideologies in general

because they were impacted by it
effectively and many multiple people

are, you know, are impacted by it.

So I have this always strong, mistrust
into political, party systems, and

in a way democracy, the way that it
is, let's say in the UK, is still not

something that I would trust per se, that
I would trust as being sort of a fair

representation of everybody's viewpoint.

You know, so, and I don't know that
this is actually a political regime

that I support either like I'm
much more ranging from like Ocala.

And if some people are into politics,
people that speak about democratic

rallies, I'm like, other form of politics
that might not be the one of democracy

as we know it right now in our society.

But anyway, having said that...

I realized the way that education is
right now, it comes with a national

agenda, and that's part of the problem
when you think about colonization

or when you think about a big set of
systemic racism, or a lot of the ill of

our societies are back to education and
the way that education is being framed.

And of course this education is being
framed by political regimes ...and

who is running that political regime
at the time where the education

curriculum is put together?!

So, so a big part of the University
of the Underground comes from the

notion that you cannot just run
with a national educative system.

You're going to need
alternatives with an "s".

So I'm not saying it's neither/nor,
I'm not saying it should be just

University of the Underground.

I'm saying all of this should fit
together so that if at one point you

get another Hitler coming into the
pot, then you need to be able to have

alternative models so that freedom
of thinking is being preserved.

So the core of the University of the
Underground is to really preserve

freedom of thinking and to actually
allow for this alternative to exist.

And in our case, we are very much
dedicated to the idea of empowering

nightlife, because I strongly believe
that in nightlife, there is a very strong

energy, within this counterculture,
within that specific demographic that

is about reinvention that is about
rethiinking the status quo, you know,

when night turns up, people transform.

Even though I'm speaking very
big metaphor there, we all have

experienced drag shows we have on
this is a moment where drags wake up.

This is a moment where everything
changes where we don't look

at things with the same lens.

And so for me, nightlife, is
the place of innovation when it

comes to rethinking status quo.

So this university is effectively
dedicated to empowering nightlife within

mainstream institutions and allowing
for this conversation to take place and

empowering that specific demographic
to find their way into these places.

So we teach you things like linguistics,
semiotics, you know, speaking the

same language of the institution
is part of the conversation there.

We teach you about power and
political theory, you know,

identifying power dynamics, the
way that they exist in our society.

You learn about events and proper
production skills, like how do

you put an event together as a
starting point of the conversation.

You learn about surgical methodology.

So we, we talked about humour.

Humour is at the core of my
personal work, but the students

are doing many different things.

So if I was to give you an example
of a student that has been using

very interesting methodologies.

So, Oprah, for example, uh, we had
students that have been looking at

Deliveroo as a platform and have
been looking at showcasing issues

within the Deliveroo platform, a stru
operatic form in collaboration with

the opera national house, for example.

I'm not going to go into great detail
of each of these projects, but just so

you know, we've had students, obviously
music, they've been studying and music

and how music can be used to actually
speak about the future of the internet,

at Sales Force, which is, you know, on
90% of the internet and the worldwide web.

We've had students, that have been
looking at, literally ice cubes, ice,

and ice sculpture, as a means to speak
about the Middle Passage, which is this

key moment within, the history of slaves
and slavoury, where, you know, slaves

have been taken from Africa to the US.

And there is this moment where
there is a very unique connection to

water as a space of non operation.

And so that student has been inventing
what he called the Black Arctic,

which is a fictive territory that
he created that is a territory that

acknowledges, of course, the history
of slavery, but it's about trying to

reinvent the history of black people
away from the system of oppression.

So he builds that kind of
conversations through ice sculpture.

So he made an ice sculpture of himself
and you would go around in these places

of institution like the Maritime History
Museum, or this very kind of like,

hardcore historical, uh, I would say,
institutionalised spaces and bring this

ice cube version of himself to actually
enter a conversation with the curator of

the Natural History Museum, um, to speak
about, you know, actually the Black Arctic

for example, and say, Hey, how about we
start to rethink our connection to water,

perhaps differently, or the way that your
collection is being structured uh, but

maybe doing it differently again, from the
perspective of the oppressed, as opposed

to, from the perspective of the oppressor.

So things like that is typically type of
work that are being done by the students.

I have a student, Stoya, who is
a pornographer career artist.

And she did a whole project where she was
trying to speak about how pornographer

artists are connecting to religion.

You know, are being taken away,
or being excluded from religious

systems, and she did that to the
means of fashion, for example.

The extents of the body of form that
is being developed by our students is

exceptional, but also has a real impact
in the way that people think about the

system within their community afterwards.

I love another project - sorry, I'm
bombarding you with another one - but

Ollie Palmer: No it's great!

Nelly Ben Hayoun: One of our
students, Ana, is based in Georgia

and she's an activist, she's one
of the activists that was arrested

when , there, there, there, you know...

in Georgia, uh, there has been this
movement that was led by nightclub,

like Bassiani and others where suddenly
youth went and started to dance in

front of the parliament to express
that disconnect with the way that the

parliament was forbidding homosexual
and LGBTQ plus relationships, you know,

in Georgia, you're not allowed to be
homosexual and you will be arrested to

be, uh, you know, homosexual for example.

And so they all started to
dance and that was the reaction,

the rebel force to dance.

And she was one of those students, that
was one, one of the individual that was

dancing in front of this parliament.

And then she got arrested.

But as part of her project for
the University of the Underground,

she was looking at a specific
character of the Georgian culture,

which is called the Kinto.

And this Kinto is like a traditional
character that has got queer

characterizations throughout you
know, his way of being and acting.

And this character is being
performed in very traditional

operatic institutions in Georgia.

So what she was doing was to take this
specific character and kind of bring it

back to the institution through dance
and say, actually, we as a society,

through our entire culture, have
been building ourselves through that

queerness, this is what we've done.

This character that we use, as a
traditional- it's like Greek tragedy

for Europe, that's basically how
strong the Kinto character is.

And she started to play differently
and bringing it back to the

society, to, to this operatic place.

And then it led to a conversation
with the director of the opera

and then also political diplomats
to actually speak about queer.

And what does that mean back through
the past history of Georgia and

to what it is now, you know, and

these fundamental changes that have
been enacted by our students and I'm so

honored and humbled to actually every
single time be meeting with some of

these unique individuals that are not
going with the status quo you know...

that's what the University
of the Underground is.

Ollie Palmer: It sounds amazing.

I mean, it sounds simultaneously really
fun, but also getting stuff done.

Nelly Ben Hayoun: Yes!

That's the spirit.

Ollie Palmer: The roster of people
who are involved is also sort of

ridiculous that the students would
have access to so many people.

When people join.

You mentioned that there's all
these classes that they can do, for

running events and this kind of thing.

Is there any particular exercise that you
do with students to warm them up or to

get them thinking in a certain way, that
you would, I don't know, get everyone

in a room and do something together?

Nelly Ben Hayoun: When we start a program
at the University of the Underground, we

will start by explaining some fundamentals
about, political theories, semiotics,

you know, and we do that through an
intense, day where we literally, blast

you with all of this different knowledge.

And the hope with that is that...

it's like a recipe.

My family obviously like couscous and
couscous royale is actually, you know,

actually talking of which, this is like a
complete colonial invasion of food there.

But the bottom line is you
have everything mixed up.

So you have merguez, you have like
lamb, you have chicken, all of

that mixed up in the pot with a
courgette, everything is mixed up.

That's the baseline of the couscous
and the stew of the couscous.


So what we try to do effectively in
the University of the Underground is to

start from that baseline, we kind of mix
all of these disciplines together in a

way that you, as an individual and your
brain, the way you function, is going to

eventually land on mixing it up because
the confusion is going to be there.

So I'm hoping the way that we design or
we put together, these kind of educative

platforms is that they effectively.

You might, you know, as your brain,
you're going to get confused.

It's like zero gravity.

You suddenly enter new phase where
you're not sure you understand this,

you're not sure understand that, you
have to land into something that,

you know, because you don't have
any parameters anymore of reference.

So you're going to get lost.

And effectively it's a very
painful process for the students.

You know, you didn't mention this,
but we're quite a controversial

institution, you know, we've had
a lot of critiques in the past.

I personally, as an educator, I've
been very much targeted in the way

that this critics have been developed.

But anyway, bottom line is, you
know what I'm trying to say?


It's like, it's very confusing.

Going through a program at the
University of the Underground

is going to be very confusing.

And so some people are going to go
with that flow and some are going to

just say, no, I can't cope with that.

And I don't want to, and that's fine.

You know, nobody's forced to, to be a part
of this process, but I'm going to say to

you, that it's going to be an epic one
where you're going to start by thinking

"I'm going to be that person and I'm going
to leave being that person," but actually

you don't end up experiencing things the
way that you wanted to experience them.

So it's going to be really strong and
the reactions are going to be really

strong, and it's going to happen on
a very short space of time as well.

Uh, whether it's six months or whether
it's a two year program at the University

of the Underground you're going to
have so much input, and you're going

to have so much conflicted input that
you, at some point are going to have to

rely on decision making that your brain
is gonna have to process on its own.

So it's a very interesting
process to witness.

Nobody's really fully in control
of the process as it happens.

So with that, it's the flux of things.

Ollie Palmer: So sort of creating a
safe discomfort, like turning the heat

up and really making things happen and
then seeing what comes out of that.

Nelly Ben Hayoun: Yeah.


But I guess, it's very similar to
my experience actually, of being a

part of the Royal College of Art,
for example, when I arrived at the

Royal College of Art I didn't speak
English, to be really frank with you.

I only could align like six
words between each other.

The fact that I was selected
in an institution like that

was in itself a miracle.

I still cannot believe that this
happened, in itself that's a story.

I could tell that story but I think
that we wouldn't have the time for that.

But I would say that I, I
could not understand English.

So I had to rely on different
mediums to actually understand what

the lecture would be talking about
or interact with this knowledge.

And that would be things like
performance, gestures, visuals.

And still, I could learn, and
I think it's kind of like that.

Like, I think at the end of the day,
we're all different, our brain all

function differently and we all interact
with knowledge in a different manner.

But at some point there was
some stuff that sticks with us.

And it's my strongest belief that,
by putting everything into the

pot at some point when you open up
the pot, there is that extremely,

intestinal, visceral, unique tastes
and stew that reveals itself.

And that is what I I'm interested
in, in life in general.

Ollie Palmer: Yeah.

It's funny with that kind of thing as
well, because it's, I mean, my experience

of teaching is that people need to find
the right thing in the right time and that

you can never predict what you could say
the same thing to somebody - I mean, not

that I'd like to saying the same thing
to people like 10 times in a row - but,

there has to be realizations that people
make on their own terms, in their own way.

And you can never predict what
things are really going to stick

and what things are not going stick.

Um, and it's, it's a really similar
process to me to creating something:

that you have a bunch of ideas.

You're never quite sure which one's gonna
hold, which things you have to drop, and

which things do you have to focus on.

And somehow there's a synergy between
the internal creative process that you

have as somebody who just makes stuff and
tries to make things happen, and teaching.

I was going to ask you, how
do you, how do you start with

the development of a project?

Nelly Ben Hayoun: So how do you
stop the development of a project?

Do you know?

I had a conversation about that with one
of my team members actually yesterday.

She decided to leave a project.

It really is difficult building this
project in general, because ultimately

there is a moment where there is always
breaking points - with an "s" - where,

it goes, it happens, there is different
phases into a project that was moments

where, you know, things are right for some
people at certain time, and then things

are not right anymore for some people
at another point points in the project.

And so you have to let it go.

And that's one of my strongest,
um, uh, issues in life in general

is I don't tend to let things go.

I don't give up easy.

Um, you know, when my uncle told me I can
never become a boxer because I'm 30 plus

and I never did sport in my life, and I'm
a woman, that was the other point as well.

Then I thought, fuck that shit.

I'm going to show you.

I can actually win a trophy
and I can be a boxer.

And that's what I did.

Ollie Palmer: You have big nails as well.

Nelly Ben Hayoun: It's the
nails with the nails...

You know, uh, we can talk about how
you do that with snails as well.

But anyway, bottom line is,
I don't give up on people.

I don't give up on love
relationships either.

I don't give up on
anything, on anyone in fact.

So then sometimes it can become
really overwhelming, you know, on a

personal level sometimes, you know?

It's the same with the people that work
with you because when you develop a

project, then you realize that there
is so many different moveable parts

and people move around and people leave
and da-da-da-da, but the one thing that

needs to remain is in a way is like: you!

If you are the initiator of the projects
at the beginning, even though there is

a massive crew of people, and then you
disseminate into many different people.

Eventually you get there to a certain
point, eventually, don't get me wrong.

I never want to maintain that there is
one person that rules it all, you know,

like obviously, but at the beginning
you need to be able to, like you say,

this energy has to come from somewhere.

And it happens that when I start a
project this energy has to come from my

own intestine and you know, so, so you
have to, you know, you have to push it,

you have to kind of like get up there.

So, so when someone leaves, uh, the
project or leave that development, then

you know, you, you need to be able to
take this on board without actually

feeling too impacted by it because
there's always that in energy that

you're trying to disseminate, and it's
only starting to disseminate, you know,

cannot go down because there is another
team of people that needs to still

go and still push, push, push, push,
push, so we can build that platform.

So having said that, I would say to you,
like, and sorry, I'm speaking very, yeah.

You know, uh, maybe from the listener
perspective in very metaphorical manner.

But if I was to kind of like identify a
project and give example, like you can see

how this project, like, you know, I will
go through an army of different producers.

When I do a movie, I never do
a movie in a smooth manner.

There is a rollout of a team that can
get up to a hundred to six hundred

people that leave, go, come in, leave,
go, come in, leave, go, come in.

You know, and and it goes, like,
do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do he keeps

going, like, you know, and th the
intensity just keeps on growing and

growing and growing and growing.

But the one thing is, it's like endurance.

I need to maintain that flow.

You know, it's like the water
needs to keep on fueling itself.

And so, uh, to the, to the
question about the development, I

think he has to be an obsession.

If I was to speak personally,
and if you're asking me Nelly

Ben Hayoun, what does it take?

It takes obsession.

Ollie Palmer: Yeah.

Nelly Ben Hayoun: If I don't have that at
the core of a projects at the beginning,

this is not going to be successful.

It's not going to go anywhere.

And my family knows that.

So my family, of course who knows me
the best, know that whenever I get

into a monster project, there is a
phase where everything I'm going to

say to them, it's not going to speak
rationally to people or people are

gonna look at me like I'm insane.

Effectively, you have to be insane
to make this project happen.

You have to, you have to reach that moment
where things are not rational anymore,

where, you know you can make this thing
happen, but everybody around you is

looking at you like actually this woman
is never going to make this thing happen.

You know, a good example is when I did
the International Space Orchestra, I came

back in, France and I was talking about
it and I was saying, you know, I was with

a director of NASA and he was playing
the drums, and yeah, you had an astronaut

playing the kit, and then Damon Albarn
and Bobby Womack turned up and everybody's

playing, like "plif, plaf, ploof!"

In front of the world's
largest wind tunnel.

And then as this happens, we also
have the vice president of the United

States that turn up and kind of make
a speech, and then they all speak

about the future of space exploration
from the colonial perspective.

And everyone is being a part
of this and criticizing what

has been done to this point.

You know, like when you say things like
that, like, what would you expect people

are going to say - like, you're mad!

Like she never did something like that.

Nobody has, you know.

So then documentation is a big part of it.

You know, like making videos,
being able to actually document the

process and being able to share that
process and say, actually, this did

happen and this is how it happened.

Then at that point you can stop
thinking about what actually happened.

But until you have documentation,
then students will, will offer me

flowers and tell me, this is amazing.

This story you told us, but they
wouldn't believe that I did this thing.

You know, when I go in a bar and
people ask me what I do, and then I

say, "Hey, I make orchestra at NASA...

I'm taking taxpayer money in the
United Kingdom, that is being run by

the Tory party to actually disseminate
it to nighttime workers and youths

because these people have never got
any COVID recovery funds in the past...

and I'm doing this to the means
of, you know, putting together

a festival that is a nation-wide
festival!", things like that.

People are going to be
like, this woman is insane.

So having said that, that's what he takes.

It takes a certain level
of insanity and humour.

Humour, you nailed down before,
is essential to my life.

Of course we had a very serious
conversation here, but I'm a very funny

character, you know, although I do boxing
and I can be very violent when I need to

be, uh, I'm, I'm actually really funny.

I believe so, at least,
I like to laugh a lot.

I like to approach everything
in life with a certain level of

humour and actually question things
like, but why is it like that?

Why is it that we cannot
actually talk about things?

It's still with very serious humor,
but like actually approach it with that

level of maybe insanity, maybe humour.

Maybe only takes his humor and play
... you know, I like to play with things, and

that's maybe at the end of the day, what's
the most important things in life...

Just being able to play, to love, to
have a serious level of curiosity as to

the way that you are approach things.

A genuine curiosity, where you're
genuinely fascinated by others and

humans in general, all of them, without
any level of like, oh, you're more

interesting because you're the director
of something than you are someone

that is just off the street that I
will just talk and have a chat to.

Everything is fascinating, you
know, and everything feeds into

that big giant couscous world we
are building all together, you know,

Ollie Palmer: I mean, yeah.

With the humor thing, I think there's
something in the fact that anything,

anytime that there's humor, you
have to understand the context of

something and understand what it is
to have your expectations usurped.

I mean, this is seriously talking
about humor, which is the least

funny thing you can possibly do.

There's something about even a pun where
you have to have two images of something

in your head at the same time, and being
able to joke around with something really

means that you, you are able to untangle
and unpick exactly how it's working,

that I think is also driven by curiosity.

To me, these things are all
mixed up in and in a way.

Nelly Ben Hayoun: And
a hundred percent, yes.

Everything has to be connected.

I'm Not a Monster is the last film I did.

We released it in 2019.

And now I'm working on a new one,
which is called Red Moon, which

is the book, my two doppelgangers.

I have two women that look like me,
one in Algeria and one in Armenia.

And we are together planning
for the future of...

if there should be a human settlement on
the moon to look like, you know, and so we

are doing this with our respective family,
but anyway, I'm Not a Monster was a film,

which is about the origins of knowledge.

And when I go throughout film,
like I'm literally trying to figure

out a way to bring back knowledge
to my students in my suitcase.

I made that film as a reaction
to the critics that we got at the

University of the Underground, because
I wouldn't understand why people

would react so strongly against, uh,
this university, uh, at the time.

And I didn't have the level of maturity
and I still don't, to be honest, that

will allow me to fully understand
where that was coming from, you know?

And so I was trying to unpack this and
this film is really this kind of like

start from there, but it's not just
the University of the Underground,

but it really is about looking from
activist uh, from people that do

theatre in Japan, to people that
have been digging Lucy in Ethiopia.

So I go all over the world, right?

It's like a, kind of a journey, five
continent, 30 days, a suitcase, um,

you know, and looking for the origin of
knowledge with a puppet uh, all around

the world with Noam Chomsky, Pussy Riot,
you have all of these incredible humans.

And I go at them and I say, "Hey, can
you tell me what does it take to think,

and to think freely, at this point in
time in history, what does it mean?"

and, "What are the processes by which
we can allow others to think freely?"

That film kind of like
unravels all of this.

Every time I go and present this
film people are asking me what is

in the suitcase, you know, because
I come back, the end of the film

is of course I opened my suitcase.

And then here, there is some kind of
revelation right, with my students

at the University of the Underground.

And everybody's asking me,
"What is inside the suitcase?"

I think I'm going to just leave this
interview, uh, by seeing this to you.

Like, you know, just to imagine what is
inside the suitcase actually, what is

it that we take around with ourselves
as we enter a space and we leave a

space, uh, and as we evolve in our
histories as humans, uh, before we die,

like what is it that we take with us?

And we leave towards us, you know?

Uh, but anyway, with that, I'm not
going to answer that question, but

I'm going to leave you with that.

Ollie Palmer: Thank you for your time.

I'm going to thank you also,
Victoria, for setting all of this up.

Nelly Ben Hayoun: Yes, Victoria Adams.

Ollie Palmer: And, um, is
there anybody else who I should

thank, or you want to thank.

Nelly Ben Hayoun: Oh, my God, that's
actually quite funny to talk about that

because, you know, like, I like to thank
everyone on a project, like I mentioned,

that was like such a huge number of people
involved with the project every time.

So when, whenever I do a
movie, for example, the credits

are absolutely monstrous.

Literally, there's like six minutes
or 10 minutes or something, 20

minutes of credits, you know, it's
like, uh, but yeah, thinking like,

I would love to say thank you,
definitely Ollie for sharing, giving

me a microphone, amplifying my voice.

You know, I think that's
been really helpful.

Um, but, uh, yeah, I mean, thinking like,
I don't know, like I would thank all

of the humans that have been, you know,
kind of like coming in and on board of

each of these missions and projects, as
in when, uh, and apologize to them, of

course, for, you know, sometimes making
it really difficult for them, you know,

uh, and making it in a way that, you know,
sometimes they wouldn't understand or they

wouldn't just, it would come to a breaking
point because that's what it takes.

Like, every time I reached breaking
points with every single human that

I'm surrounded with, whether it's
my family, or others uh, you know,

it just is that like, you don't
make this project without that.

That just is the way like it
goes and it's a permanent flow.

So I think that's, for me, it's
really important to say, like, you

know, As you develop this project is
just being aware that it's endurance

and things are going to be epic.

I thank everyone for joining
that epic journeys, uh, that

life is as we move forward.


Thank you so much.

Ollie Palmer: Thanks for
going on beyond the time.

And thanks so much for talking today.

It's been, just lovely to catch up
with you and good luck with the boxing.

Nelly Ben Hayoun: Thank you so much.

Ollie Palmer: Thank you for listening
to this episode of Hold the Space.

If any of the things we've discussed
are of interest, please do take

a look through the links in the
show notes and the accompanying

website at www.holdthespace.art.

I've tried to link to as many
of the projects and people that

were mentioned as possible.

Many thanks to my guest, Dr.

Nelly Ben Hayoun for generously donating
her time to this episode, and to Victoria

Adams for helping set everything up.

As you know, this is quite a new
podcast and I'm still working out

the best way to make the format work.

If you have any suggestions or
comments, please do send me a note.

There are contact details in the
show notes and on the show website.

Again, that's www.holdthespace.art.

I am gonna start publishing these
episodes on a more regular schedule

with one new episode every two
weeks for this first season.

The guest for the next episode is Dr.

Barbara Neves Alves, who was for four
years, a respected colleague of mine at

the Master Institute of Visual Cultures.

This podcast is made possible by
the Situated Art and Design Research

Group at Carat, the Center for Applied
Research in Art, Design and Technology.

Each episode is recorded, edited,
and mixed by me, Ollie Palmer.

For more information, including
full transcripts for each episode,

links to relevant work or resources,
please visit the podcast website

at www.holdthespace.art, or the
click the link in the podcast notes.

Thank you so much for listening,
and I'll be back again soon.

Episode Video

Creators and Guests

Ollie Palmer
Ollie Palmer
Artist, film maker. Researcher, Situated Art and Design Group, Caradt (Centre for Applied Research in Art, Design, and Technology). Tutor, Situated Design MA, Master Institute of Visual Cultures, St Joost School of Art and Design.
Nelly Ben Hayoun
Nelly Ben Hayoun
Nelly Ben Hayoun-Stépanian PhD is an award-winning designer of experiences with over a decade of working to advocate for plurality and to manufacture impossible productions and complex events and projects. who creates multidimensional experiential projects at the intersection of film, science, tech, theatre, politics,music and design. Wired awarded her their inaugural Innovation Fellowship, and Icon magazine recognized Dr Ben Hayoun as one of the top 50 designers “shaping the future”. Nelly was distinguished as the first on the list of the top 50 women on the speaker circuit by The Drum Magazine; while Creative Review named her one of the Creative Leaders 50, selecting 50 creatives they felt were “driving change, not just within their organisation but in the world at large”, Dezeen selected her as one of the ’50 inspirational women in architecture and design’ and most recently she won a Karman fellowship for her unique global cultural achievements to astronautics and space exploration. Nelly is the founder of both NASA’s International Space Orchestra , the tuition-free charity University of the Underground and design agency Nelly Ben Hayoun Studios. Her large scale projects have included collaborations with political activists like Noam Chomsky, Pussy Riot, or Arjun Appadurai and artists like Massive Attack and Kid Cudi, The Avalanches to name a few. She is known for challenging institutions from within through events, and she has done so at the United Nations, NASA or the International Astronautical Federation where she is Vice Chair of the Technical Committee on the Cultural Utilization of Space (ITACCUS), a member of the IAF Space Education and Outreach Committee (SEOC), and a member of the IAA (International Academy of Astronautics) Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) permanent committee.Nelly is the author and director of three feature-length documentaries (ie: The International Space Orchestra, 2013; Disaster Playground, 2015 and I am (not) a monster, 2019). In 2020, Nelly became a grantee of Sundance Institute with her new documentary- currently in production- called RED MOON. Through role-play, magic, and doppelgängers, the film RED MOON offers an experimental vision and template for future diasporas beyond Earth. Set in Algeria, Armenia and France, the film asks How will human inhabitants of the moon understand origin, borders and nations? For this film, Nelly investigates her family origins in Algeria and Armenia- which led to the start of her radio show on underground radio -on Worldwide FM- the Nelly Boum Show. In 2016, she was awarded with Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London Teaching award. When she is not making films, Nelly is a keynote speaker and has spoken worldwide about the value of experiential design practices in the context of nightlife, outreach, community and education. Her design work has been exhibited at the National Museum of China, MOMA, V&A, the MET and other leading design institutions. Nelly is also an amateur boxer who trains at the legendary Gleason’s Gym in NYC in the fighting crew of trainer Hector Roca. She has two doppelgangers who work with her to appear at multiple places at the same time, a Barbie doll and a Lego made of herself. Nelly received a BA in Textile Design at ENSAAMA Olivier De Serres (college of applied arts) in Paris, a MA with distinction from the Royal College of Arts in Design Interactions, she holds a PhD in Geography (Human geography and political philosophy) from Royal Holloway, University of London. Most recently, she led a free nationwide festival across the United Kingdom called ‘Tour de Moon’ in collaboration with more than a thousand youths and nighttime workers. Tour de Moon is composed of immersive experiences and live events developed in collaboration with our “universal satellite”: the Moon, seen as a character, a landscape and a prompt for radical imagination. Nelly is passionately committed to supporting the creation of organized communities in building new beginnings. To this end, she actively works to build platforms for others to experience plurality, decolonial practices, social and racial justice, solidarity and equity, so that History does not repeat itself on earth and beyond, to this end she is a senior fellow of the Hannah Arendt Center, which supports humanities and human rights across the globe.