Nelly Ben Hayoun in Disegno

Disegno Magazine, August 2016, UK

Nelly Ben Hayoun has been featured online on Disegno Magazine.

read the full article here

Nelly spoke with Anya Lawrence to discuss her new role as Advisor to the UN Virtual Reality Labs and how this position works with her current practice.

Disegno is a magazine, website and salon covering international architecture, design and fashion.

In late-July, the United Nations Virtual Reality Lab announced that it had appointed the designer Nelly Ben Hayoun as an advisor. 

The Virtual Reality Lab was founded in January 2015 by film maker and director Gabo Arora. Based in New York, the programme seeks to explore the potential application of virtual reality as a tool to instigate change in places experiencing humanitarian crises. The lab's virtual reality films are designed to show a human perspective, creating empathy with the aim of persuading UN diplomats to make decisions of maximum beneficial impact for the areas and individuals at the centre of humanitarian crises. 

In her advisory role, Ben Hayoun plans to foster debate on immersive experience and its role in politics, engaging diplomats and the public through an events and talk series at the United Nations. Her talk series is scheduled to commence in April 2017. Although the Virtual Reality Lab is based in New York, Ben Hayoun will remain located in the UK, travelling across the Atlantic several times each year to develop the programme.

Ben Hayoun describes herself as as “designer of experiences” and as such, her work is difficult to categorise. Her past projects include The International Space Orchestra, an orchestra composed of volunteers from space agencies in the Silicon Valley who used opera to re-enact the landing of Apollo 11. Another project, The Other Volcano, comprised a series of "semi-domesticated", obstructive volcanoes that were housed for several weeks in the living rooms of volunteers. Ben Hayoun also teaches at various London-based universities including the Architectural Association and Central Saint Martins and has just completed a PhD that examines design of experiences, political philosophy, and power structures in government institutions. 

Virtual Reality Lab is still in its infancy, but since its founding last year several films have been released under the programme: Clouds Over Sidra, released in January 2015, tells the story of a 12-year old Syrian refugee living in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, while Waves of Grace, released in July 2015, communicates a young woman’s struggle living amid the Ebola epidemic. 

In the below interview, Disegno speaks to Hayoun about her appointment by the United Nations, the potential of virtual reality as a persuasive tool to instigate change, and the wider role of design in politics and social activism. 

How did the advisory role come about? Did the United Nations approach you?

I first met Gabo in 2015 at Sheffield Doc Fest. He was showing his film Clouds Over Sidra and at the same time I was releasing Disaster Playground. I was fascinated by the way he was thinking about virtual reality but also by the way that he was quite critical about it. The way he speaks about virtual reality is in a very experimental sense: “we are just starting to use this tool.” I was really intrigued about what Gabo was doing so I paid him a visit at the UN in New York. I basically started looking at how we could work together to create a series of talks and events to get members of the public to think about these issues: how design can be used in the context of politics and how immersive experiences can be used in that context too. It then happened quite organically, we realised that we could make things happen and that is how my advisory role came about. One of the projects is going to be a talk series that will be developed at the UN with diplomats and also translated on social media. That is how we will start, but there are many more plans to look at the specific issue of politics and immersive design and immersive experiences. 

Virtual reality is an interesting way to approach humanitarian crises. Why do you think it is such a powerful communication tool?

I think virtual reality is currently a bit too much of a trend so people do not engage with it in a critical sense. That’s why the approach that is being applied by Gabo is so interesting. Virtual reality can be a used as a way of developing empathy, and as soon as empathy is formed then you are more likely to be able to communicate your feelings about a particular humanitarian cause. If I was to use it myself, it would be more in the context of the world that I work with – it is not humanitarian as such but it is more about power structures and how we get people to think about being a part of a whole discussion.

The films created as part of the Virtual Reality Lab are intended to be shown to people of power as a commutative tool. Will this programme that you are developing branch out to the public or is the focus very much the diplomats that have the power to make decisions?

When Gabo initiated the programme he was looking specifically at diplomats and how he could shift their thinking by showing them the human side of what they are actually talking about at their conferences: visually transporting you inside a shelter in a refugee camp. For us it is very important to share the learning and it is very likely that we will speak to social media platforms that will be interested in supporting that. I don’t want to go into too much detail because at this stage it is probably too early to discuss.

There is a roster of new technologies that could be used to have a similar effect as virtual reality. Why did working with virtual reality particularly appeal?

I think at the moment virtual reality is very much a tool for the few. Gabo has been very clever about positioning it towards decision makers, so the impact can be stronger or at least have the impact that he wants. Of course, there is the question of what happens when virtual reality goes mainstream. For me it is important that if it does go mainstream, we make sure that virtual reality is driven by social action. It is about looking at virtual reality as a porthole to social action.

As a designer, why is it important to engage in projects of social and political importance?

What I find really frustrating is the lethargic approach that our society is shifting towards. Where everything is just accepted, where there is no meaning, and where nobody is reclaiming their way of thinking and instead just hiding behind others. Thinking is almost becoming a taboo. It is something that is very much supported by the technological and the digital world. The fact that when you are googling a tree, for example, you are just given a picture of the same tree that everyone is clicking. In digital terms, there is a physical representation of our society that is totally inspired by somebody that you don’t know. It is not even someone, it is artificial intelligence. It just adds a crazy layer of complexity to something that can be very simple. I am giving you a shit example with the tree but my point is that we are moving into a society of lethargy: we just accept that this is the way that it is. I find it really frustrating because for me it has never been about just accepting things, it has always been about challenging them. 

How does your work feed into that?

I want to make sure that design doesn’t fit into this lethargy. I think that this is the moment when creativity specifically is very key and important because through design we are able to inspire. Design is really powerful. I don’t think it is my place to just remain quiet, we all need to be a bit more vocal about what we think. It doesn’t stop people making their own critical choices but it is about saying “let’s not just hide behind these algorithms and let’s not just be anonymous”. I think this is where the problem lies, in the way we share knowledge. If we were all to share a little more, and reveal the power structures behind the place where a decision is being made, I think we will get to a better place. A place where members of the public feel more connected with the reality that is imposed upon them.

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