Riposte interviews Nelly Ben Hayoun about the University of the Underground

February 2017, London UK

Riposte interviewed Nelly Ben Hayoun about the launch of the University of the Underground.

Words by Danielle Pender.

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The star of our first cover, designer of experiences Nelly Ben Hayoun, is one of those people who are capable of achieving the impossible. Creating dark energy in a kitchen sink? Done. Creating a volcano in a living room? Done. Recreating the experience of a sonic boom? Done. Directing an international space orchestra at NASA who perform with the likes of Savages and Sigur Ros? DONE!

In person she practically fizzes with an unstoppable energy – a passionate energy she invests into everything she turns her hand to. Often inspired by social movements and issues Nelly’s latest project is created in response to the increased tuition fees at universities and even for her it is a project of epic proportions.

The University of the Underground that launched last week will teach students how to engineer situations, to design experiences and events that best support social dreaming, social actions and power shifts within institutions, companies and governments. The Willy Wonka of design wants to inspire the next generation of researchers and designers, mythologists and makers of new worlds in their creative and political endeavours.

Courses will be led by a team of expert tutors including Pentagram’s legendary partner Paula Sher, Science fiction author Bruce Sterling, activist and feminist Jasmina Tesanovic and Prof. Rachel Armstrong. Our advisory board includes Dave Eggers, XL recordings’ creative director Phil Lee, Prof. Fiona Raby, the president of WeTransfer Damian Bradfield, the Vice President of Design at Airbnb Alex Schleifer, the Metropolitan museum’s associate curator Beatrice Galilee, Jurgen Bey and more.

We caught up with Nelly to discuss her latest creation and what she hopes to achieve with it.

What is the idea behind The University of the Underground? 

Three things drive us really, they are:

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. 

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, Sandberg Instituut is making 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.

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 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. As a result, this university is bold, ambitious, unapologetic and impolite.

Where did this thinking come from and what do you hope to achieve through the university?

These three drives are informed 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 positively challenge institutions and power structures. 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 about longer-term strategies.

There is a radical urgency about the university, is this inspired by the current global situation? Do you feel a palpable need to create new ways of thinking?  

Reading the news, picking up a paper, or being present on Twitter, it’s hard not to recognise the need for change in 2017. It’s not that alternative ways of thinking don’t exist it’s just that we need to offer pathways to illustrate that big productions and changes can be realised. The reason I work in education alongside my full on design practice is because I am constantly being blown away by my students. We need to show them that there are people out there who are willing to fight for them and to help offer them a route to making things happen. Yes, they can, and I am here with the University of the Underground to tell them that.

It seems that the programme very much relies on cross-discipline thinking. Is this focus - on sharing of skills and knowledge - influenced from your own experience of bringing together different people to make things happen?

In my experience the magic really happens when we are able to bring people of all walks of life together to create chaos and disorder. This has been the case on many of the projects that I have created with my studio including The International Space Orchestra and Disaster Playground (amongst many more). 

People can apply through the website, is that right?

Yes! If you want to apply please head to our website We are looking for creative soldiers, pirates, hidden creative agents of change, the Willy Wonkas of modern times, the contemporary Joy Division’s and Rauschenberg’s, The JG Ballard’s, Marie Curie’s action researchers and designers, mythologists and makers of new worlds, living below ground in the underground and connected above while surveying from space.

We want bold, very hard working and engaged students ready to jump on the rollercoaster and to experiment with various teaching disciplines in order to develop meaningful unexpected experiences. We encourage our students to challenge the rules of design. If that sounds like you – please join us!  And with regard to fees, we are delighted to say that, all students will be provided with scholarships to cover the cost of their tuition fees.

Where will it be based? You mention Village Underground, is that the HQ but the programme will be taught elsewhere at Sandberg?

The University of the Underground lives in the undergrounds within a hidden network of urban spaces. We will be based for 3 months in London but all the rest in Amsterdam, we are currently looking for our underground site in Amsterdam, it is very likely going to be a chocolate factory… but that is still to be confirmed!

Riposte is a magazine for bold and fascinating women, noting there achievements. They cover a broad range of issues including art, design, music, business, innovation, politics, food and travel. Riposte has been nominated for the Design Museum, Designs of the Year Award and was awarded a gold European Design Award.

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