Hole and Corner discuss the University of the Underground

February 2017, London, UK

Nelly Ben Hayoun has been interviewed by Julia Jarvis-Knell of Hole and Corner discussing the launch of the University of the Underground. 

Words by Julia Jarvis-Knell. 

To read the full article, follow this link. 

Nelly Ben Hayoun is an award winning Director and Design of Experiences. With a singular zeal, strategic methodology, deep curiosity, and a keen sense of humour, Hayoun creates narrative experiences using music and film to engage with some of the world’s most intriguing scientific bureaucracies from SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute to the UN and NASA in order to explore, reveal and challenge their structures.

Now, Ben Hayoun, with a multi-disciplinary team of  ‘dreamers of the day’ at the Sandberg Instituut in Amsterdam have created The University of the Underground, a funded graduate programme that empowers students to enter the realm of authors, directors, politicians, planners, dreamers, activists, mythologists and musicians and to use their work as a catalyst for change. 

Why set up your own course? 
Important to say that it is not my own course, I direct it and have developed the concept of it, but The University of the Underground is supported by a multidisciplinary team of 'dreamers of the day', dangerous, positive and inspired visionaries and tutors.  As per Lawrence of Arabia's text// The Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph// “All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake up in the day to find it was vanity, but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.” So we are a team there.

So in this context, there have been three drives really to the creation of the University of the Underground// all as important as each other:

1) I believe that it is most urgent to equip young designers with the learning that allows them to use their knowledge of the material world within the navigation of governmental systems, institutions and power structures. Students have rarely before been finally provided the tools and means to learn to understand their profession as the increasingly multi-faceted and malleable role it assumes in today’s world (which is ever changing and disorienting) – where designers enter the realm of authors, directors, politicians, planners, dreamers, activists, mythologists and musicians. We encourage students to use their own voice, style, tone and aesthetics as manifested in final outcomes of performative product scenarios, products embedded in the context of the built environment and the institutions, or the tangible experience and its implications, now and in the coming years.

2) The University of the Underground responds to the current trend of increased fees for postgraduate programmes by firstly proposing a business model in which every student is provided with a scholarship to cover their tuition fees.  By hosting the University of the Underground, the Sandberg Instituut makes steps towards a new, ambitious model for financing education. In the near future, scholarships are to be provided to students through the support of philanthropists (80%) and governmental grants (20%). As such, it aims to act as a model of what can be achieved through coordination, shared passion and belief in the next generation. The goal being to create many more of these educative structures worldwide on that basis 80%, 20%.

3) I am concerned with the modelling and physical existence of my students' dreams, beliefs and myths.  I want to support them in believing that they can achieve the impossible and I want to give them methods that allow them to produce and manufacture it. In the University of the Underground, we believe in social dreaming becoming the fuel for social actions. In the punk tradition, we believe that there are no more heroes and we wish to democratise the experience of the institution. The young generation deserves to reclaim their part in public institutions. We will work on making this happen. Our teaching team is composed of “Dreamers of the Day”, who believe that a positive inspiration and disturbance to the current cultural and educative system is required to best support the young generations in their creative and political endeavours. As a result, this university is bold, ambitious, unapologetic and impolite.
These three drives are informed, indeed, by my practice and what I learnt as a Designer of Experiences in institution such as NASA, the SETI Institute or the UN. I believe that now, more than ever is the time to create a network of creative soldiers who can challenge positively institutions and power structures the way they have been set and not questioned in the past. The University of the Underground is not a simple reaction to the current political, economic and sociological issues we are currently facing. We are thinking long term, we think in terms of countercultures and ethnographic tools too. We live at the nexus of multiple disciplines (film, music, design, politics, theater, ethnography) and that is where we are a permanent place for experimentation but also long-term thinking and strategies.

What do you find most discouraging about the education system at present? 
I would not say discouraging, I just think that postgraduate tuition fees are incredibly high and that other ways of supporting education need to be established.

I also believe that the students need to be positively encouraged to take on productions within public institutions, governments and companies. We believe in social dreaming becoming the fuel for social actions and therefore we value our students' vision when it comes to rethinking the purpose and structures of public institutions and democratising the experience of it. In order to achieve this, they are tasked with the design of an event (which can take the form of a film, theatrical re-enactment, artefacts, system thinking etc....) within the institution. (First year we establish a list of collaborators for them, while second year of their MA they pick their own institution or company).

Often the way that the bureaucracy is established in creative universities does not support such production. By the time a student has found blessing from his/her tutor and got the approval from his department that needs to get an approval from the university, you are down two months (if not more) and students have not even started the bureaucratic negotiation of their project/ production with the stakeholders themselves yet. What we do at the University of the Underground is that we bring the experts, the stakeholders and the institutions, directly inside the foundation and at the start of the projects. We designed a structure - the University of the Underground Foundation - to protect our students from what could be said as an intrusion of the institution inside education and guarantee our students' freedom of learning; but we have effectively cut down some of the time consuming process and have replaced it with a direct conversation about the project itself with the stakeholders. Some projects will still take a lot and a lot of time to develop but at least the conversation are taking place between the stakeholders, the institution and the students instead of the Student to the University, the university to itself, the university to the Stakeholders/ Institutions and finally the student to the stakeholder/institutions. We have cut down to one scheme.
In the University of the Underground, we say that you, the student, can model and positively change these institutions through your creative work, so we encourage and support our students' production. So the production of an outcome is essential in that process, not just the discussion. We support a can do attitude but also research through the process. This is just one example of what is done differently in the University of the Underground.
 How do you ‘teach’ someone to disrupt the system? 
I don't think that we can teach disruption. Disruption comes as a result of the groundwork and strategies established by the students in their design work. Indeed, we believe in a bottom up approach in which through the development of meaningful experiences and an holistic understanding of community, sociology and ethnography students can develop projects which will challenge power structures and possibly the message of an institution towards its public and its workforce.  What we provide our students with, are the tools to do this, to appreciate a multidimensional method (inspired by ethnographer like Edgar Morin for example) in the development of their designed outcomes. Now we believe that these tools needs to be multidisciplinary and that a designer is also a director and a producer etc. So our curriculum has classes and workshops on the theatrical, filmic, poetic, political, design and music practices.
What would you say is the first step to challenging the rules of design? 
I will need to know what you mean by the rules of design?
My first reaction would be, who makes the rules? Than we will investigate this and design a way to reveal this to the institution or political body who believe that these rules exist. By doing this, we act as mythologists of modern times, unravelling semiotics and power structures which for most have not been questioned for decades. Revealing power structures in order to possibly modify them is at the core of our teaching practice in the University of the Underground. We have a key focus on linguistics as much as we have into creative and experiential practices.
What do you hope to see in students at the end of their course that’s different from them in the beginning? 
As a designer but also an active practitioner, I will never dare to make assumptions on my students' potential futures, this would be very patronising of me, but also I like surprises!

Postgraduate studies are a fascinating place. Students join an MA either straight after a BA or after a few years in the industry. It is a journey for them. It embeds further research and development in the student's creative practice. The first year of your MA should always be like a 'total bombardment' of ideas, concepts, theories, you are to be confronted with all of this in a very short time period, and of course all of your BA learning is brought to question. In an MA we ask Why? Analysis is really the key to success of a MA (being able to combine both practice and research). That is a very difficult shift from a Bachelor degree, and so, a student, really needs to take risks, question the previous learnings he or she has had, fail a lot, and establish new grounds. Tutors are essential in that process, but they are only there to guide, as the creative choices have to be made by the student. 

For me, it is always about curiosity. I love my students' curiosity to expand through the process and during their MA, and to result in further social actions and social dreaming, but the forms for this can be endless and I would not want to be prerogative of it. I have my own understanding of what the Design of Experiences is, and a specific way of teaching it and practicing it, but again, I do know, and have no doubt that our students will challenge this in ways and forms that I would have never thought about. 

Can young designers change the world? 

I believe so. They have the energy, the passion, and most of all the curiosity and naivety that is required to do good work. I don't think there is an age limit however. In my case, I think that I am only getting more and more naive every year and that is for the best, as this allows me to take on massive scale productions without thinking twice about whether or not it is sensible to do this. With a deep curiosity as a leitmotiv, and the goal to reveal power structures in order to better challenge them, I believe that yes, we are on the right path for change. But again, as I said earlier, it has to come from a bottom up approach. I don't believe you start a project saying "I am going to change the world", I believe you start with a specific case and put together a strategy to support social actions and then if you have played the performance of politics well, change will take place (this can happen also on a long period of time).
In the simplest of terms, why is the University of the Underground so important right now?
The University of the Underground is most important now because it is putting creatives at the core of the political debate and forcing creatives into public institutions at the highest level of decision making, in charge of handling and revealing power structures. We are also saying that experiential practices are by definition multidisciplinary and they engage various scales of event, architectures and social practices. The designer of nowadays is multi faceted and should be taught this way in order to fully apprehend any given situations of action. 

Our role as designers should not only be just about adding new material things to the world, it should also invest ways in which we can reveal the way that things work, that power structures are established, to the general public. Therefore, we need to understand semiotics and languages used by institutions. Our teaching method, therefore, supports multi-disciplinary reactions to the current states of things.

It is important to re-iterate that we are not just short term, we do research too. We support unconventional research practices. With the launch of the University of the Underground, we have only started the development of a network of creative soldiers. We are here to stay long term and grow into governments and beyond. We come from the underground, like rats of the cities, to the untouched spheres of public institutions. Expect us on all of these scales.

The University of the Underground are seeking students for September 2017.  Apply here

Hole & Corner is a magazine and website that was launched in May 2013. It is a magazine about people who spend more time doing than talking, for whom content is more important than style; whose work is their life. It’s about telling stories of dedication. Hole & Corner is published quarterly, dedicated to stories of craft, beauty, passion and skill. It is distributed internationally, with stockists including Colette in Paris, MagNation in Sydney, Do You Read Me?! In Berlin, Athenaeum Niewscentrum in Amsterdam and 300 Barnes & Noble stores in the US.

To read the full article, follow this link.