Disaster Playground in Akimbo

Canada, March 2014

Disaster Playground in Akimbo, Canada, March 2014

Read the full article by Michelle Kasprzak here

Otherwise known as the Willy Wonka of design and science, Nelly Ben Hayoun is not one to rest on her laurels. Coming off the success of the International Space Orchestra, which gathered NASA scientists together to perform a tribute to Neil Armstrong accompanied by an original musical score (it subsequently became a documentary film with a soundtrack that is currently orbiting the globe on a Japanese satellite), Ben Hayoun is now hard at work on Disaster Playground.

This new project will also result in a documentary film, one which aims to reveal "...the jarring, absurd, and at times funny juxtaposition of globally significant events (asteroid impacts, alien civilizations, space disasters: Challengers and Columbia) with the small offices in underfunded, 70s-looking, American institutes inhabited by eccentric people who are the ones that will deal with these events if and when they arise." An exhibition showcasing the early stages of this project is currently on view at MU in Eindhoven. For those who can't make it to the Netherlands in time, there is a video trailer available here.

The exhibition is necessarily minimal given the early stage of the project, but the opening event definitely featured some of Ben Hayoun's distinctive penchant for performance. A strange guest in a Hazmat suit strolled through the space while a large cake shaped like a space shuttle was cut and handed out to guests. Elsewhere in the gallery, large props on wheels representing various characters in the Disaster Playground world could be moved around the space by visitors. Scenario suggestions could also be assembled on the walls by the visiting public.

Disaster Playground is another element in Ben Hayoun's oeuvre that adds to her already strong reputation as a designer who tackles serious people and subjects with a slight twist of absurdity and considerable humour. Astronauts, scientists, potential natural and man-made disasters are her material, and a down-to-earth, human-centered approach is her signature. While theInternational Space Orchestra highlighted the overtly creative side of scientists that is not often seen (capitalizing on their ability to play musical instruments and perform live), Disaster Playground shows them at their actual jobs anticipating the worst that could be unleashed on humanity.

We've all wondered what goes on behind the scenes. Who's prepared for an asteroid strike? How do they even prepare for such a thing? Ben Hayoun's natural curiosity makes her the ideal person to pursue such questions. While some of the stereotypes are true (the yellow contamination suits, the red telephone), the bulk of the action is more banal than we might imagine. Don't be surprised to see someone compiling software or looking over spreadsheets while sitting in their cluttered office.

This version of the exhibition at MU shows the spark of what's to come for the project as it gains momentum. It gives us a taste of its eclectic themes – including worms that survived the Challenger explosion and extraterrestrial signals. If anyone is up to the task of taking the endless rehearsals and mind-numbing data crunching required to keep humanity safe from aliens and asteroids and make it into a compelling and watchable documentary, it's Ben Hayoun.

MU: http://www.mu.nl/uk/
Nelly Ben Hayoun: Disaster Playground: A Pre-Enactment continues until March 30.

Michelle Kasprzak is a Canadian curator and writer based in Amsterdam. She is a Curator at V2_ Institute for the Unstable Media and the Dutch Electronic Art Festival (DEAF). In 2006 she founded Curating.info, the web's leading resource for curators. She has written critical essays for C Magazine, Volume, Spacing, Mute, and many other media outlets. She is a member of IKT (International Association of Curators of Contemporary Art). She is also Akimblog's European Art + Tech correspondent and can be followed @mkasprzak on Twitter.