Nelly Ben Hayoun has been interviewed by Disegno’s Anya Lawrence discussing the launch of the University of the Underground. 

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Words by Anya Lawrence. 

Nelly Ben Hayoun pulls no punches when discussing her latest project, the University of the Underground. “I am not going to lie to you,” she says. “It’s a complex idea.”

The University of the Underground is a two-year design MA, directed by Ben Hayoun. The degree will be awarded by the Sandberg Instituut, the experimental postgraduate arm of Amsterdam’s Gerrit Rietveld Academie and offers officially licensed degrees funded by the Dutch government. Sandberg courses are relatively small, averaging 20 students each, and are run by prominent artists, designers and curators, each with their own international practice. University of the Underground is one such course. As a Dutch degree, University of the Underground will be based in Amsterdam, but for a maximum of three months of each year will relocate to Village Underground, a non-profit cultural hub, studios and performance space in Shoreditch, east London.

Today, University of the Underground announces two partnerships. WeTransfer, the Amsterdam-based technology company where Ben Hayoun has held the position as chief of experience since 2013, has committed to “100 years of education,” providing students with scholarships to cover their tuition fees. Additionally, Village Underground has agreed a century-long year commitment to host the course on its premises. 

The University of the Underground has bold ambitions. Its approach to education is unconventional: classes are led by a multidisciplinary team, its tutors are drawn from largely creative and non-academic backgrounds, and its funding model has been established to counter Britain’s alarming surge in tuition fees in recent years. The programme’s approach to design is also unique, aiming to teach students how to design experiences and events that facilitate social action and power shifts within institutions, companies and governments.

Shortly after the University of the Underground programme was first announced, Disegno met with Ben Hayoun at Village Underground. An edited version of the resultant conversation, in which Ben Hayoun discusses the urgency of challenging power structures, the logistical considerations of setting up a degree, and the challenges of conducting an abstract course in a regulated academic format, is published below. 


Founding an educational institute is an ambitious, and a presumedly a hugely time-intensive, undertaking. Why set up a university?

There were three main reasons. The first was wanting to bring down the cost of university fees. It was important to offer free courses to our students and have a sustainable business model that allows us to achieve consistent financial support. The second is to make the point that designers are no longer just making chairs and tables. As a designer you are also a director and a producer. The programme is about supporting entrepreneurship at the core of the curriculum. When you sign up to the University of the Underground you get classes in politics, theatrical practices, design, film practices but also sociology and ethnography. Its about emphasising the multifaceted role that the designer now has and building a curriculum around that. The third reason is wanting to create a network of Creative Soldiers. The goal is to create a network of people that have been taught how to work with an institution, how to develop their own role within institutions, and how to be really pioneering in finding new ways to interact with these institutions. 

What makes an ideal candidate for the University of the Underground?

We are looking for bold, impolite and forward thinking students. You also need to be politically engaged. In the context of theatrical practices like the Theatre of Cruelty [an avant-garde style, developed by Antonin Artaud in interwar France, that uses brutal staging to surprise, shock and provoke reaction from audiences], we want young people who are quite unapologetic in their approach. We want students who will actively go and seek the ownership that you deserve as a young person.

The University of the Underground has a somewhat complex concept and mission statement. Can you spell out exactly what students enrolling on the programme can expect?

The first year is made up of five briefs that are focused on five disciplines: film, music, design, political practices and theatrical practices. In each of these five briefs, students are tasked with working with one institution from each discipline where they will develop their own their own experience. In the first year they get totally bombarded with things and we encourage them to think about their role within the institution that they will develop the experience for. In the second year they identify an institution to work with. It could be within the NHS, for example, or it could extend to companies. I would love for one of the students to hack into 20th Century Fox Studios and question why all Hollywood films are made in a certain way. Alternatively they may work with Greenpeace and question the way that it is dealing with climate change and then develop their own ways of dealing with it.

The University of the Underground adopts an alternative funding model whereby all students receive full scholarships. Why was it important to offer this?

I have been aware of the increase in student tuition fees, especially in post-graduate studies, for a while. There’s considerable financial support and scholarships available for undergraduate courses but when it comes to MAs and PhDs, it gets more complicated, and easily becomes the domain of the more privileged. I could see that there was a need to come up with a new system that can support education. I looked at the business models of institutions, specifically museums in the US like the Met and LACMA, and how they find sponsorship and develop support to the arts. We copied this model and came up with a funding goal: 80 per cent provided by philanthropists and 20 per cent by government. 

How is that sustainable? Does relying on sponsorship limit the extent that the university can grow?

It’s sustainable because it adopts a long-term approach. Research can take a long time so supporters need to be able to grasp our concept of a 100-year timeframe. This is why we have established partnerships with both Village Underground and WeTransfer for the next 100 years. It is also about renegotiating the way that companies sponsor things; understanding that when there is a long-term goal, long-term support is required. The tech world is currently generating a lot of income and it is important that a proportion of this income is being invested in the younger generation. It’s something that every tech company should be supporting. It’s just a case of tapping into this need to donate and providing tech companies with an outlet to do so.

Does relying on tech companies to fund the students’ studies have implications on the course content?

There are obviously elements that will be incorporated into the University of the Underground as a result of collaborating with these companies, but these will be kept separate from the students. It is very important that we protect the freedom of learning. One thing that we are really picky about is protecting our students – making sure that they have ownership and copyright over their work. To some extent the tech companies benefit from the element of developing communities and connecting with a younger generation. There are many ways that you can do that but being able to say that you are actively supporting education and the arts is highly beneficial for these companies. 

What makes you equipped to run a university?

I have a good understanding of this industry and the potential ways to fund it but I am also passionate about education. I really believe in the next generation. I think it’s necessary to have positive people telling students that they can do it: if I can, you can. I am also a visiting professor at the Architectural Association and the Royal College of Art, and have been teaching in institutions all around the place since 2009. My work looks at modifying power structures and getting people to think about themselves as decision makers. I am trying to bring a certain mindset into public institutions, and get people to realise that it’s not okay just because bureaucracy says it’s okay. If you don’t agree then you must stand up for what you believe in. The University of the Underground is about supporting that mindset; designing events and experiences that are meaningful in the context of public institutions. It’s a question of how to bring social dreaming back to institutions. 

Is the University of the Underground a critique of established institutions?

Some institutions have 500 years of existence and that is fantastic. I’m not saying that public institutions are passé and we should just get rid of them. I really respect institutions, but they are not all in-line with the young generation. They have also forgotten the reason that they were created in the first place. I want to make the statement that politics and social dreaming are things that should be assessed. I also want these institutions to not just be about numbers. In any public institution the success of creative projects or collaborations is gauged by numbers rather than the fact that they communicate the passion or the critical thinking behind an institution. I am hoping that the University of the Underground students will challenge this approach and come up with alternatives. 

You refer to The University of the Underground’s course tutors as ‘dreamers of the day,’ which is quite a whimsical term. What are the attributes of dreamers of the day, and how did it lead your approach to appointing course tutors?

It was important to appoint a multidisciplinary and diverse team that actively want to change the way that things currently are. There is a quote from T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom that centres on the notion that the world is made up of two types of people. There are people that dream at night, and when they wake up in the morning their dream is exactly that, just a dream. But being a dreamer of the day means that you are an adventurous person because you dream all day long. These are the people that make projects happen. The project started with finding the right team, appointing dreamers of the day. 

The programme is designed in different ways. There are course tutors that students see regularly, at least once a month, and there are guest tutors, people who cannot offer as much time to the programme but still have an involvement. We also have an advisory board. The University of the Underground is all about the contemporary and getting students to adapt to this ever-changing world. It is crucial to have an advisory board that lets us know if we are delivering a course that is credible and will make sense in relation to contemporary and future issues. The board is formed of people from fast-paced startups and tech companies, as well as people who work for institutions that adopt a more long-term approach. This achieves a dual pace.

University of the Underground seeks to promote unconventional practice. Is it a challenge to achieve that within a structured syllabus? Presumedly you still have to assess students according to set criteria?

Yes, absolutely. We have to follow rules that are standard in every design MA in Europe and the US. Students must establish their research and analysis, prove that their research fits, and demonstrate that there is critical thinking in place that makes sense. Then you have production, as well as personal development and professional development. Documentation is also crucial. Students can be creative about how they document their work. It could be theatrical, a reenactment, poetry or even a symposium. I don’t mind the format but documentation is necessary in order to see what’s the potential for change. 

There is also a question of how you witness experimental action. How do you account for it on an academic level? Each student must define their own parameters before going into an institution. They must have set rules and objectives which they stick to. By having parameters they can establish whether their experimental actions or experiences are meaningful and have had an affect. To some extent you are taking inspiration from ethnography and sociology and using these tools, and the way in which researchers work before conducting fieldwork, to establish whether or not you have modified parameters. It is quite scientific, it has to be. 

Why was it important to provide the University of the Underground graduates with an official degree? Arguably, if the University of the Underground functioned as an educational platform but didn’t offer a degree, then there would be fewer constraints and more freedom.

It is about saying that education is not dead. We exist in a certain educational framework and in that framework you leave with a degree. The University of the Underground is a physical representation of what we want students to be doing. We are in an institution, the Sandberg Instituut, but we are also outside of it. The same goes for degrees. We want to have discussions with other universities about the way that degrees are provided and how academia is approached. To be in a position to have those discussions and to share knowledge with other educational institutions, it is important to provide a degree. A degree means a set of rules, but we shall also have our own set of rules within those rules. 

What is the long-term vision for the University of the Underground?

Next year we aim to begin developing the University of the Underground in the US. We aim to go to New York and do the same as we are doing in London and Amsterdam: collaborating with an existing institution, establishing as a non-profit, and basing ourselves in the underground of the city. We also want to open in San Francisco. Each university will be limited to 15 students and we will work as a biannual. You can only apply until the 1 April this year and then the next admissions process will not take place again until 2019. We want to tap into generational students; tap into one generation and then tap into the next.

The University of the Underground is about building up a culture of Creative Soldiers that will investigate institutions on a long-term basis. It is important that our students have a role to play at government level. Ultimately we want one of our students to become president, whether that happens in 10 years or 100 years. We want our students to be modifying the way that people think about humanity and our place in the world. I am not going to lie to you, it’s a complex idea. But I think that every single young person right now, as they learn about the political world and the world as it currently stands, is already having to deal with these issues, whether it is with Brexit, Trump or things occurring elsewhere. You get a full sense that there is a need for change to be established.

Disegno is a world renowned quarterly magazine, website and salon covering international architecture, design and fashion. They have been online since sSeptember 2011 and launched their first printed biannual in December 2011.

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