Nelly Ben Hayoun is an award-winning film director and designer whose work blends music, science, film, theatre and more to create subversive events and experiences. A French native, she studied at London’s Royal College of Art where she was a pupil of Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, renowned for their Design Interactions courses. Ben Hayoun has gone on to design extreme (and apparently impossible) experiences, with the aim of exploring unfamiliar territories and future scenarios.
Designers are not just designers. They are also directors, producers, fundraisers and connect all the different ranges of the creative fields,’ Ben Hayoun says. ‘As a designer, you can be someone who asks questions, connects the dots and adds an element of public engagement.
Influenced by performance-based cultural movements such as Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty and the Situationist International organisation of the 60s and 70s, Ben Hayoun works in collaboration with leading scientists and creatives to engineer situations that generate critical thinking and social action both inside and outside institutions. Her roles include designer of experiences at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute and head of experiences at WeTransfer, and she is a member of the International Astronautical Federation. In her own design practice, Ben Hayoun wears many hats. ‘I assess the success of a project depending on how many different audiences I can get on board.
Every time I work on a project I engage with academic, scientific, technology and design audiences, and for each of them I tailor a specific outcome,’ she explains. In one of her most recent projects, The International Space Orchestra, the designer used performance, music and film to disrupt the hierarchy of the bureaucratic and corporate environment of NASA, enabling the audience to engage with the people behind the craft of space exploration, and also encouraging the institution itself to analyse how it can demystify its fundamental mission and communicate better with the general public.
There was a similar quest to stimulate discussion and debate among designers, industry and the public with Nelly Ben Hayoun’s project Disaster Playground, which premiered at the South by Southwest (SXSW) film festival in 2015. It uses design fiction and theatrical practices to reflect on the real-life procedures in place in the event of an asteroid collision with the earth. The feature-length film investigates the process of decisionmaking and its political implications in such a potentially devastating scenario. It provides a stimulating look into the possibility of such a chilling future and helps the audience digest and relate to a multifaceted topic – offering a better understanding of some of the complex scientific, technological and political challenges of our times.