Protein Journal

Autumn 2013

Special Feature on Nelly Ben Hayoun on Protein Journal_ the City Issue_ Autumn 2013.

Read the full article online at Protein

Extract from the article, Words by Joe lley:

Most people tend to avoid things they don’t understand. Fortunately, Nelly Ben Hayoun is not most people. The young, French,
London-based designer’s portfolio is as lengthy and impressive as it is bizarre. With a roster of clients – such as NASA and the SETI
Institute – that reads more like a list of set locations for a sci-fi movie, her work has led her down some peculiar paths. “What drives
me? Manufacturing the impossible,” she says. Nelly’s personal fascination with science has led her to create work as diverse as building
volcanos in people’s living rooms to making exploding armchairs and underwater canals dotted with balloons representing sonic
boom-blasted subatomic particles. But her ideas are about more than simply helping people understand scientific ideas – they’re
about cultivating a sense of passionate fascination for the subject matter. “As a designer, people expect you to make
product, or to make chairs or tables; things that make people’s lives easier in some sense,” she says. But where most designers will
work to make a space or an object desirable, practical or simply better, Nelly has a different agenda: “I design experiences,” she says.

Her specific focus is on engaging with people through events, performances and interactive installations. The nature of these projects has
led her to collaborate with an unusual bunch, including California’s NASA’s Ames Research Center and SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial
Intelligence) Institute, where she has recently become Designer of Experiences.

Nelly’s latest project is the most ambitious to date. Over the past two years, she put together and trained a team of nearly 50 space
scientists to create The International Space Orchestra (ISO), a choir and orchestra that has performed all over the United States. A film of
the project is currently touring the globe. “The project gets you thinking about how it all functions and who the people behind the
missions are,” she says. Ground Control: An Opera in Space is a 27-minute-long composition that conveys the drama and tension felt during the Apollo 11 mission through a musical performance – a medium that everyone can engage with. From flight directors to synthetic biologists, the orchestra is made up of individuals from NASA’s Ames Research Center, the SETI Institute, The Singularity University (SU) and The International Space University (ISU). Part-theatre, part-opera, and with luminaries such as Damon Albarn and Bobby Womack, Japanese pop star Maywa Denki, Arthur Jeffes of Penguin Cafe and science fiction author Bruce Sterling all on music composition and lyric-writing duties, the ISO is a perfect
example of Nelly’s objective – to create something that reaches people on an emotional level by striking a balance between suspense, fun and wonder. Or, as she puts it, “the human element behind space missions, the emotion; that’s what the International Space Orchestra was about.” So how does Nelly manage to persuade such prominent and distinguished names to be involved in a project this unusual? “When someone tells me ‘no’, I come back and keep coming back again and again and again,” she laughs. “I will never ever stop.” Ground Control was performed at a variety of unconventional global locations during 2012, including in the world’s largest wind tunnel at the Ames Research Center and at San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall, which included a one-off performance with Beck. And the opera shifted into an even higher orbit this year: in
August, a recording of the performance was put in a rocket and – rather appropriately – was launched into space to the International Space
Station (ISS). A special film screening about the orchestra will also be shown at London’s V&A museum this September.
“I guess I am just very curious, and science intrigues me,” Nelly explains, regarding her motivation. “The scientific quest for knowledge, to me, means scientists are real explorers.” However, she stresses the importance of maintaining a balance when working with scientists: “I don’t believe that a scientist is a designer and I don’t believe a designer is a scientist.” Though she believes they both share common ground when it
comes to outlandish thinking, “scientists are able to stretch their minds and their research enough for something that is of a mega-scale,
but then summarise it into one experiment,” she says. Nelly shares this flexibility of mind with the scientific community – as well as
indomitable enthusiasm. “I’m just excited by everything that’s around me,” she laughs.

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