Deena Chalabi talks with Nelly Ben Hayoun, experience designer at the SETI Institute and creator and director of the International Space Orchestra, about the relationships between art and design, science and culture, and history and the future. Ben Hayoun is a visiting professor at the Royal College of Art and a lecturer at the Architectural Association and Central St. Martins, and is a Ph.D. candidate in geography at Royal Holloway, University of London. The interview took place at Sou Fujimoto’s pavilion at the Serpentine Gallery in London in July 2013.
DEENA CHALABI: You attended the Royal College of Art and you teach there, but you don’t call yourself an artist.
NELLY BEN HAYOUN: I came from the art world initially. I started in fine arts and used to paint, but I don’t think I was a very good painter. I decided to go into a more craft-based direction, which began as textile design. My discipline is design. I still think in those terms. I think about materials, about how they fit together. I think about communication.
Do you see big differences between design and art?
I wouldn’t say there is a big difference these days. There’s not even a question anymore about the fact that they’re blurring, and I think the blurring of boundaries is actually a really good thing. There are no more pure disciplines. I am happy to exploit this, especially in times of crisis. This is how new disciplines and hybrid disciplines can arise. Ultimately, whatever I do, the aim is to communicate. The experience is for you, the public.
So what is an experience designer?
I come from this series of designers called critical designers, speculative designers. My mentor is Anthony Dunne, who taught me while I was at the Royal College of Art for Design Interaction and who has created this whole platform for design for debate. He is really pushing the boundaries of design and reconsidering the element of fiction. Narrative is a big part of what we do, 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? So we try to generate these questions through design practices.
But critical design hasn’t just popped up—it’s informed by radical architects like Archigram, for example, in the ’60s, by Italian Radical Design from the same period. Digging deep within this area of critical design, I came up with my own thing, which is the design of experiences, which for me is critical design with input from the theatrical world and the performative world. I look into improvisation and Commedia dell’Arte and think about how to implement that into design. I’ve been interested in the theory of theater, especially Brecht.
Who else is doing this kind of work?
Other people who graduated with me, like Thomas Thwaites, who has been doing a toaster from scratch. He has been all over the U.K. to try to make his own copper, his own plastic, and try to really think about what actually makes up a toaster. If you had to do it in a postindustrial world, what would you do and where would you start? Then you have other people like Zoe Papadopoulou and Catherine Kramer, who have been developing something that is more about the poetics of science. Daisy Ginsberg is another, looking at synthetic biology and asking, now that we can hack into DNA and modify it and do pretty much what we want, then what do we do?
Plenty of people who do similar things to you and your Royal College of Art colleagues might describe themselves as artists. Your last example reminds me of someone like Eduardo Kac, who uses biotechnology. He has worked with a genetics lab to splice a jellyfish protein and create a glow-in-the-dark bunny. He describes himself as an artist.
For me the key difference is about the communication and the systems that you try to design. I’m interested in thinking about not only the actual object, not only the situation. I think about things as a system, and how I will tackle the system, and I will think about how I will communicate directly with the public as my ultimate aim. As a designer you try to embed your systems within global socioeconomic ethical contexts. That’s what I’m creating and what I’m trying to challenge. In a way, yes, artists do that as well. The question is, Do they think about it in terms of diagrams, mapping, things like that?
Can you briefly describe your process?
The process is similar in every single project. I always involve fieldwork as part of it, and that’s how I source my collaborators as well. Most of the time the scientists I gather also end up performing as part of the final experience. So for the project Dark Energy in the Kitchen Sink, I went to Geneva, into the Large Hadron Collider, which is a gigantic experiment over 100 meters underground, 27 km in diameter, where scientists have been bombarding protons at the speed of light in order to recreate the first seconds of the Big Bang.
When you hear that, when you think about it, the scale of it is just completely insane. All these brains, all these physicist brains trying to recreate something that took place on a giant scale and turn it back into something that they can actually operate. That’s really fascinating. They want to know exactly what kind of matter is being created, so there is a really technical element of it, the scientific value, but there is also the poetic and the creative side: What does it feel like to be there when you switch on a machine like that? That they don’t see.
And that’s where I come on. I, and I guess all of us, would like to be there and would like to experience the thrill when you switch on such a big, gigantic machine that is filled with really powerful magnets. I wanted to deliver an experience that is as close to this as possible. So I asked, What if you could create a machine to generate the same material being created through the Large Hadron Collider but in your kitchen sink? I got physicists on board, and we tried to recreate the original experiment from 1927. We tried to gather all the tools that made this experiment happen in your kitchen. That implies taking apart your fridge, getting a really good friend who’s also a nuclear scientist to get hold of some gadolinium, and so on. At the end of the day you can be there and beam some microwaves into pigeon’s eggs and actually recreate a bit of dark energy. For me it was this: how is it possible to recreate a bit of the unknown while you eat your pancakes. That was the situation I designed.
So what does this achieve?
It can speak at many different levels. You can see it on an artistic level and enjoy the aesthetic of the objects involved. But you can also enjoy the scientific level. I haven’t gone into the detail of it, but scientists would understand that this is the application of the Casimir experiment. Other people would see the value of the scenario, the narrative that comes with it. I really enjoy that a work can be read at many different levels.
That’s something about the experiences in general. You can choose to experience it physically and actually play with the things and really interact with them, and at the same time you can also decide to not interact with them. Most of the time, I want to design and create extreme experiences, extreme scenarios, to provoke questions. Like when a volcano is erupting in your living room and you have to domesticate it, what would you do?
Well, I think of the Susan Sontag novel, The Volcano Lover, where the titular character is passionate about volcanoes and climbs Vesuvius several times, but he is also in love with his art collection. There is a tension between his love of nature, which he can’t control but responds to quite viscerally, and his other love of these delicate human-made art objects. You seem to play a great deal with the relationship between chaos and control.
There is a fascination there, and a love-hate relationship with the volcano. Everything that is extreme has these elements, and that’s what I love—this kind of tension between elements. It gives you the strongest experience.
For the volcano, the main reference was actually Sartre’s play No Exit, when the three of them are stuck in a room and they don’t know why they’re all together, and it ends by saying finally that hell is other people. There is this sort of contained love-and-hate relationship described really well there. But yes, I have always been fascinated with the idea of how members of the public experience chaos within a closed-loop framework, and that comes through in other projects.
You’re looking towards the future but you seem interested in cultural memory too, in activating the past.
Maybe it’s because I’m French, but for me every single work needs to be associated with a historical element. I need to know where it comes from. You cannot build up a future without knowing what has come before. When you develop and design a future scenario, there are many different ways of doing it. It can be purely an image or an object, but I think the power of the experience, what is most important for me, is to engage the public physically—to have your body engaged with the question of the future. If I can make it happen—and I’m not saying I’ve succeeded in that but it’s the whole point of my practice—to figure out how you can design future scenarios with a past and with experience as a medium. And really get people to react.
What is the International Space Orchestra?
The International Space Orchestra is an orchestra made up of space scientists from NASA Ames Research Center, the SETI Institute, which is the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, Singularity University and the International Space University—basically the Californian community. We had Google at some point, and then they dropped out. Google and SpaceX should have been added to it because, of course, the private industry is a really big part of the space community these days. So anyway, we brought all these guys together, to play music, performing and re-enacting the drama of mission control. Specifically I got them to reenact mission control for Apollo 11, so a mission that ended well, with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landing on the moon and actually walking. But everything leading up to that in the control room was actually really wrong. They had alarm problems, they had fuel problems, they had all these issues. And I asked them to re-enact it.
Of course the people from the original mission control are from a completely different generation—they are all 83 years old. So this was a young generation mixed up with the older generation as well, testing how to react to intense pressure. There was a big team of collaborators who were also part of the performance called Ground Control: An Opera in Space. It is 27 minutes long, and it’s three acts, three dramas in the control room. Then there are interludes of music by Damon Albarn and Bobby Womack. We had a Japanese composer called Maywa Denki and the libretto was written by science-fiction writer Bruce Sterling.
You have to admit, there is this huge degree of absurdity to this project.
That’s the exact point. And in the process try to figure out, What is this agency these days? What is NASA? Because in a way we have all bought into the imaginary that they’ve created, around the moon landing and all that. Nowadays nobody knows the names of any of the astronauts who are on the International Space Station. Some people don’t even know what the ISS is about. Nobody knows that the Mir station is not working anymore. We still live with the ’80s spirit and imaginary around this. So I needed to know what is the human condition behind it. To do that, I had to come up with a project that they can really be part of in some sense.
What was your intended outcome, given your investment in the process?
There are different ways of reading a project. My personal reading is almost anthropological. I tried to figure out who this space community is, how they organize, and who they are. This meant designing microevents within NASA Ames that were complete within themselves and where each of them was given a role that is not their role in real life. For example the head of NASA wouldn’t play the head of NASA, someone else would be doing it.
In these scenarios, you have to discuss with the person who is going to play the role, and that creates dialogue between people who actually had never met in their workspace—there are 2,700 people at the Ames Research Center specifically. So people had to discuss their research and sometimes fought because they said, “You’re not performing my role properly,” and so on. And I was really interested in that. Also in someone like John Cage—how you can design a microevent, and his special name for his instructions: event scores. When you write something and make it happen or not happen, it’s like music. The action is like music. I like that.
What have you learned about the relationship between culture and science?
I think you just have to accept there are different understandings of things. That’s the most difficult part. We can totally understand each other, but the way they speak about the project is so different from the way we speak about it. Sometimes it creates tension, especially when you’re a control freak like I am. It can be really frustrating. I produce and direct my shows, or do a film if need be, and I can say, This is the particular imagery we’re using. I can design and control the quality of the visual images associated with the project, and so there is a really strong visual identity for the International Space Orchestra. Wherever they go and speak about the orchestra, they still have that material, even if they will speak about it differently. At least we have a base.
You mentioned that you see this as anthropological research, but you’re much more than even a participant observer.
But that’s the thing. All of this is becoming part of my Ph.D. in geography. I’m really interested in the notion of explorers.
The relationship between geography and art is interesting—are you familiar with Trevor Paglen? He is an artist and an experimental geographer who has investigated satellites and surveillance, and recently sent images into space. He comes from a Marxist-geography background. Your discussion of the role of design also evokes for me the early 20th century Russian constructivists who wanted to move away from a bourgeois concept of what an artist could be. So I want to go back to the notion of your market. You don’t design or create products—
For me the product is an event.
Right, but the notion of what a market means is one of the things that continues to distinguish design from art.
Your work seems to buck trends on both sides—to create an event or an experience goes against the prevalence and status of the object in the categories of art and design. So how do you define your market?
Hans Ulrich Obrist just said something interesting to me. He said I was doing social sculpture. I thought that was a lovely way of putting it together. But who is my market? My audience is all of us. It depends on the site, the setting. I will use a nightclub, or even a gallery, or a public space like a park. I’ll do something at a festival to get the broadest possible audience for the experience.
But where does your funding come from?
The funding is interesting, you’re right. It can come from public engagement and from more scientific outreach organizations such as the Science and Technology Facilities Council and the Institute of Physics. Or it can come from art sources like the Arts Council or from the British Council design department. It just depends. For the new project Disaster Playground there are several partners. You have the V&A, which is more craft-based and interested in traditional design; Z33, the house for contemporary art in Belgium, which is more art-based; Broadway Cinema; and the last partner so far, Abandon Normal Devices festival, more related to the digital.
What’s that project?
It’s about when things go wrong. It’s about failure and catastrophe in the space program. There are many different narratives involved, but basically it’s questioning the notion of catastrophe within NASA, and how they communicate it to the public and how they speculate and plan for it.
For example, there is a whole department called the Near-Earth Orbit program, which is thinking about and designing emergency responses to, say, an asteroid that might hit us in 2040. So I go there and I get them to enact for me what they would do—who would they contact, how would they work, what sort of simulation have they put together? And that is when you realize the complete absurdity of what the plans are. The plans are to bombard a chunk of white paint into the asteroid to get it to slow down, to slow its velocity so that it doesn’t hit us. That’s the plan. So the project will have this sort of narration, mixed with the worms and other things.
When the Challenger exploded in 1986, NASA was responsible because there was a structural problem. They launched the rocket, but it was too cold, and everything exploded and was destroyed. The only things that survived were these worms that were on the rocket for an experiment. And those worms are still being stored at NASA headquarters, and they’re still being used for experiments. I’m investigating now how to get to these worms and find out more about them. I’m in the research-and-development phase for that project, which will take about five years and will lead to a bigger film, I hope.
How do you feel human nature is going to react faced with increased access to space?
I prefer the process of accessing the impossible than to actually seeing it happening. For example, I have an issue with the fact that the aim of the International Space Orchestra has always been about sending the music into space. We create the music, we send it into space, and then I follow up the entire process. And now it’s happening. It’s going to lift off on August 5—we have two satellites that are going to be broadcasting the music in space. So it’s actually really happening.
But there somehow is then a big ethical question there. When you get to the point where it’s actually happening, and it’s not about speculation, or interrogating bureaucracy or interrogating technology, but it’s actually a readymade package, it becomes a bit problematic for me. That’s the same thing for space exploration in some sense. I say we should all have access to space exploration—I work as an experience designer at the SETI Institute so of course I support it, but I don’t support space exploration for the sake of sending humans into space to drink Coca-Cola and do the same things that they are doing on earth, and not in a poetic way.
So what for you are the poetics of space exploration?
You’re asking me what are the universal elements we should send up there. That’s the Golden Record. That’s Frank Drake. He is one of the founding directors of SETI and put together the Golden Record. I interviewed him about how he came up with it, and he was saying how difficult it was to make a decision about what should go on it, what should we send up there, what sort of message it should contain. I don’t know how to answer that.
But I think I’m asking something else about the process. There are very complicated politics of exploration and colonization that go into the discovery of space and its imaginary as a whole. As an ethnographer of that imaginary, now that you’ve acted as a broker between one sphere and another, I’m curious to know what you feel is missing.
How do art and science inform each other? They’re part of a whole. I don’t know how else to put it, but I can talk about the challenges of the collaboration. When you work with scientists who need to learn their vocabulary and they need to figure out a bit more about the end product—that can be difficult. There’s also this certain top-down approach that needs to be avoided, of “I am an artist and you are the scientist and you know about the real stuff and I don’t.” A lot of people are doing that, going to scientists and scaling their skills and knowledge down because they’re in a new field and they don’t see themselves as equals.
But that’s something I’ve been really careful about. This collaboration only works if you have this discussion on a level playing field. So that’s the way I handle it. And if someone is still using a top-down approach with me, I just don’t work with him.
It needs to be critical, not just celebratory.
Yes. And you really need a curator, a quality check. My role is about this quality control for how ideas are communicated—it’s someone’s research, someone’s life. It’s not about science as much as it’s about respecting someone’s work.
You dedicate the ISO project to your grandparents. Why?
I’ve been really bloody lucky in the sense that my family has always supported my madness. Like when it came to taking things apart, throwing ketchup all over the place. I used to experiment with modeling with clay—I didn’t know how to do it. So I put my grandmother into a mold made of plaster, and then we had to get her to the hospital to get her hand out because I’d used too much. Things like that. They really let me do the whole trial-and-error thing. And they always taught me to remain humble whomever you meet. My family couldn’t care where I am or whom I’m working with. They went through the Armenian genocide and what is important is how you communicate memory over generations, and how you tell stories. Storytelling is a big part of my Armenian culture. That and cooking.