Why WeTransfer collaborates with an astronaut in-training, disaster-obsessed experiential designer
Written by Liat Clark
As an experiential designer Nelly Ben-Hayoun’s work has taken her to Stanford’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory where she collided atoms, Kazakhstan’s Baikonur Cosmodrome where she climbed into a Soyuz rocket capsule, Super Kamiokande in Japan where neutrinos collide “to form SONIC BOOOOUM!” — in Ben-Hayoun’s own words — and the wastelands of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, where she got the inspiration to put together an orchestra made up of astronauts. Her work is about sharing knowledge through experience, and crossing disciplinary boundaries while she does it — which is why filesharing site WeTransfer has just brought her onboard to give the service’s digital content a more “physical experience”.
“For me, it is like we are building a new astronaut ‘corp’ — a community of users that want to create and explore new things,” Ben-Hayoun tells Wired.co.uk. Understandably, she’s a bit astronaut obsessed right now.
In between training to become one three times a week in London (she says she’s on track, notwithstanding any Christmas cakes over the holiday season) and creating a “counterculture” at Nasa with the hugely successful International Space Orchestra (following the performance of Ground Control: an Opera in Space, co-composed by Damon Albarn and others, the music has been launched into Earth’s orbit on two Ardusats), she is building multidisciplinary experiences with scientists at the Seti Institute to teach the public about its search for life in the universe and building emergency scenarios with her Disaster Playground project.
The question is, how does one bring the weird and wonderful world of Ben-Hayoun to WeTransfer. She’s going to try to achieve this by doing what she does best — directly bringing the public into that world. Every week the designer will post a new image from her work and travels to the site, creating a kind of visual diary on WeTransfer’s background where we can stalk her during all her antics.
“They will be able to experience the places I go, the activities I do and the people I meet. Each entry will be numbered so people can follow the diaries as they are published,” Ben-Hayoun tells Wired.co.uk. This will extend into a further “storytelling” platform that will incorporate the service’s app, she explains. “I will be working with them to develop ways in which they can make their digital content a more physical experience for users, whether this is through enhanced 3D backgrounds, videos, installations or events. Mobile can certainly play a part in achieving this. Ultimately this is about joining forces — I have my practice, which is all about bringing the scientific and creative communities together through carefully designed experiences, and ultimately WeTransfer is about creating unique experiences for their community of users.”
It’s no easy feat turning a site that sends virtual files into something tangible and inspiring. It’s certainly an excellent and efficient service that has helped change the way a lot of people work, but it’s not a particularly thrilling one in the context of, say, an experiential designer’s day-to-day job. Good thing then, Ben-Hayoun’s work is all about “designing for the impossible”. She’s put a volcano in a living room, and created an experiment for creating dark energy in her kitchen sink. It’s safe to say she wasn’t intimidated by the challenge. Ben-Hayoun has convinced Nasa scientists to take time out of their schedule to learn to play in an orchestral ensemble despite some being distinctly reluctant to do so at the beginning. It helped that they had one key thing in common with her, and it’s the same thing she tries to tap into with any member of the public through her designs.
“The scientists I work with are mainly dreamers, they share the same passion I have for the unknown.”
She wants to bring impossible experiences to everyone, and WeTransfer is just another way of reaching those aspiring astronauts and physicists out there. “I really hope it will inspire them to overcome the challenges they have set for themselves, which has been a theme throughout all of my work. I’d like people to know more about the stories that I am starting to tell through these diary entries and ultimately take their own leap into the unknown in fun and creative ways.”
She wants to build a community of dreamers through this new, virtual version of her “astronaut ‘corp'”. That kind of team spirit, she says, of feeling like you’re part of something greater than yourself, is what got Nasa to the Moon. Without that driving impetus, that dreamer’s spirit and the sense that it will mean something, the impossible would seem all the harder to accomplish. “Some might say ‘technology’ [got them there], but technology without the ‘know how’ means nothing! The space operator behind his desk has as much of a role as the astronaut up there.”
This ethos isn’t only necessary for lofty quests, though — that same spirit got those Nasa scientists into their orchestral seats. “We had nine rehearsals of two hours to put on the 25 minute opera piece we performed in front of the world in the largest wind tunnel at Nasa’s Ames Research Centre,” says Ben-Hayoun. “It was fantastic to witness the way that Nasa Ames Research Centre and the Seti Institute members worked as a team and how, under extreme pressure, they manage to pull out such amazing content and quality work.”
Someone who wouldn’t quite make the cut yet, she says, is possibly the most famous musical astronaut on the planet, Canadian Chris Hadfield. “I think we would welcome Chris in the ISO no doubt about it. But we will also have to train him musically!” she laughs. “No, I think what he managed to do very, very well is to engage audiences with space exploration and the work of the astronauts up there. For me it is all down to sharing experiences with the public and there are many ways to do it. Chris went for one, and there are still many more to explore in the close future, so that is great but we need more.”
Disaster Playground represents the next level of her experiential designs. It’s probably partly inspired by all her work combined — all those places where human nature has been put to the test in the most extreme ways imaginable, and some unimaginable.
“It is a creative platform investigating the design of emergency procedures in the space programme,” she explains. “We explore what the space program would look like if we were to share its catastrophes and failures. If Neil Armstrong’s picture in Nasa’s official sites was replaced by the quirkiness, the failure, and pictures of problems that previously happened, what sort of human condition and emotions would that evoke? While the famous image of the ball of flame that is the Challenger disaster created a real public conscientious, it also reignited interest into the space program. Our interest for such mortal catastrophe can be identified as a perverse human curiosity. We believe that this perversity captures one crucial element of what the viewer wishes to see: how technology and humans can beautifully ‘fail’ and in turn, cause us to reflect on the making behind our discoveries.”
It also serves to make the situation more tangible, more real. A person might feel a life of an astronaut is unattainable and impossible, but in seeing the field’s human side, its failures or the dashed hopes of its makers, it somehow seem more possible. It’s a side that is typically kept from the public, perhaps a remnant of its historical beginnings when it was more about national pride and showing a Cold War enemy who’s the strongest, smartest and slickest than anything else.
But, says Ben-Hayoun, “as space scientists know, preparing for space is preparing for the unexpected failure. This is not often presented to the public so they are very keen to share that experience”.
The seed was first sewn for the concept in the beginnings of the ISO, in Chernobyl. Standing in the exclusion zone as a toxic tourist in 2011, looking at the nuclear reactor 4 encased in its concrete and lead sarcophagus shortly after the 1986 disaster, Ben-Hayoun started thinking about the human tragedy that befell the plant.
“Seeing the ruins of the Ukrainian power plant, where one wrong button-push caused unspeakable disaster, inspired in me the notion that control rooms were these places where intense human emotions can happen. This made me think of operatic form: putting tragedy into music.”
For Ben-Hayoun, her dreamer’s spirit is kept alive by the people she meets and the places she goes. Lucky for her, they are some of the most aspirational people and places in the Universe.
“Every time I go into the Seti office I usually get overly excited by all their amazing research and the new decoration they add to their offices, or pictures of their recent travels to the top of Antarctica. I also feel very lucky to share meals with the man behind the Golden Record, Frank Drake [phonograph records containing sounds and images of life on Earth launched onboard Voyager spacecraft in 1977] or Jill Tarter who inspired Contact.”
So next time you send a file using WeTrasnfer, take a moment to wonder about the conversations that were had in the background photos. And remember, nothing is ever as impossible as it seems.