Disegno magazine

December 2014

Read the full article on Disegno magazine here

9 December 2014, Disegno Magazine

"It’s very different from a Bruce Willis,” says designer Nelly Ben Hayoun, telling me what happens when an asteroid is heading for Earth.

By “a Bruce Willis”, she means Willis's 1998 film Armaggedon, in which an asteroid is on a collision course with earth. But she also means Hollywood disaster movies in general. Ben Hayoun has used the term “a Bruce Willis” throughout our meeting, contrasting it to her own documentary film Disaster Playground, which is also about an asteroid striking an American city.

Although the scenario is fictional, the film (to be released in March 2015 following an edited version having been shown at Z33 in Hasselt earlier this year) has members of NASA and other such agencies re-enact their emergency procedures for an asteroid collision. It starts at the Minor Planet Centre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and follows through to NASA, the White House and the UN. ‘Here, you meet the real people at NASA, and watch them make real decisions under pressure," Ben Hayoun explains.

We’ve been speaking for an hour and, as Ben Hayoun runs me through her project – overcharged with ideas about design, space exploration, theatre and philosophy – it begins to feel like she's ready for lift off. The Disaster Playground, she explains, is not just a film, but a "critical platform". It looks closely at the design of emergency procedures such as NASA’s Near Earth Object Program, which studies the threat of asteroids and meteors to terrestrial life, but is also about how we, as a culture, deal with catastrophic global events, through institutions, governments and the media.

Disaster Playground is Ben Hayoun’s second project on the US space programme. Two years ago, she launched the International Space Orchestra, an orchestra composed of volunteers from space agencies in the Silicon Valley who, in the form of opera, re-enact the dramas of Apollo 11, the first landing on the moon.

“I was fascinated and frustrated by the dream of space, so I had to go to into NASA and discover it for myself,” says Ben Hayoun. “As a designer, I would never start a project without going into the field.” But the Disaster Playground, her biggest project to date, takes a different tone. “Apollo 11 has a happy ending,’ she explains, “this time, I wanted to focus on failure.”

French-born, but London based, Ben Hayoun describes herself as a “Designer of Experiences”. “It's a self-made job,” she explains, “merging all the different disciplines I work with.” As well as being a former student of Anthony Dunn and Fiona Raby’s Design Interactions MA at the RCA (from which she graduated in 2009), which encourages students to look at design as a critical outlet, Ben Hayoun has a background in textiles and the performing arts, all of which play a part in her practice. She teaches on Central Saint Martins’s MA Material Futures course (formerly Textiles Futures) and all of her projects involve strong performative elements: sending visitors to a project paddling through a tunnel lined with silver balloons is typical of Ben Hayoun’s work.

Ben Hayoun often collaborates with scientists and specialists to accurately reproduce a desired effect or situation. In an earlier piece, the Soyuz Chair, she worked with astronaut Jean-Pierre Haigneré to reconstruct the three stages of the Soyuz rocket (a Russian launch vehicle) lift-off, from a living room sofa. “As the audience you are bombarded with low frequency, you feel an out of body experience from the vibrations,” she says, throwing her arms at me to mimic the force. “It is a full-on, tangible and immersive experience.”

But doesn’t all design, like the surface of a chair, or the sound of a car engine, create a specific user experience? “Absolutely, but I am designing cultural interventions,” she explains, stressing the critical and political approach to her work. “I am engineering a situation within a specific context, whether it’s in institutions like NASA, or creating dark matter in your kitchen sink like I did for a project at the RCA, to encourage critical thinking about the subject.”

All of this is visible in Disaster Playground. The film follows space agencies re-enacting their protocols and procedures that follow an asteroid strike, but Ben Hayoun is less interested in the objects or machines of the space programme, than she is the architecture of hierarchies and bureaucracy. “The asteroid is spotted by the Minor Planet Centre, but it is NASA who decides whether or not inform the White House, and the UN makes a final decision on what action to take,” she says. The film traces the procedure as it travels through these institutions.

The film’s name comes from rescue team training grounds, such as Disaster City, a 52-acre facility in College Station, Texas. Here, emergency services can practice their responses to specific disasters, be they building collapses or terrorist situations. It is this facility where Ben Hayoun shot many of the scenes in her film.

“These are artificial landscapes of catastrophe, which are called ‘playgrounds’,” says Ben Hayoun and despite its serious subject matter, Disaster Playground is absurd and playful. A cowboy speaks through a giant red telephone, while toy dinosaurs adorn the offices of NASA executives. Drawing on her love of the performing arts, Nelly uses these props to “invade” her subjects' workplaces, putting them in unusual situations that will force them to act more instinctively. Here, she draws from the work of Antonin Artaud, a 20th-century French playwright who advocated highly ritualised and aggressive forms of theatre to produce strong responses in his audiences.

Disaster Playground is also in part an exploration of America. Using the Hollywood disaster film as a template, it is a journey from the American West to the White House that seeks to understand how a culture deals with apocalyptic scenarios. “Although I am looking at the emergency procedure, I couldn’t do this without understanding the culture of my protagonists,” she explains. The voice of French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, who wrote extensively on consumerism and the media in America, comes into the film to cast a critical eye on the culture of Bruce Willis, with characters in Disaster Playground responding to Baudrillard’s 1986 travelogue America. “Baudrillard believed that American culture could not understand catastrophe,” she explains and Ben Hayoun seems to align herself with Baudrillard, in part, because she is herself an outsider at the space agencies she works with, looking into an alien world that she wants to pick apart and understand.

I ask if Ben Hayound, like her favourite philosopher the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre (who she cites at least three times during our meeting), believes she is in control of her actions and destiny. She slams her hand on the table: “Yes! I just made a feature film!”

And what if an asteroid collides with earth? She is quick to respond “When the staff I worked with watched the film we made, they found flaws in their procedure which they are now addressing. So I like to think I’ve contributed towards a better solution that will save us from asteroids,” she says, “which is not what a critical designer is supposed to do.”