The University Teaching Its Students How to Actually Change the World
We spoke to Nelly Ben Hayoun about her postgraduate programme, The University of the Underground.
(Top image courtesy of University of the Underground)
It would be an understatement to call Nelly Ben Hayoun's CV intimidating. The award-winning French director and designer holds diverse credits that include Designer of Experiences at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute; member of the Space Outreach and Education committee at the International Astronautical Foundation; WeTransfer Chief of Experiences; United Nations Advisor to the UN VR labs; and consultant for NASA. She even assembled and directs the International Space Orchestra (ISO) – the world's first orchestra of NASA space scientists and astronauts. Put simply: she puts me and you and everyone you've ever met to shame.
For her latest project, Ben Hayoun is setting up The University of the Underground (UoU), the world's first postgraduate course based in subterranean urban spaces – the London arm of which will be based in Shoreditch's Village Underground, which has committed to a 100-year partnership with UoU, hosting the programme for a maximum of three months a year. The whole thing is a postgraduate programme run in collaboration with Amsterdam's Sandberg Instituut, and will provide students with scholarships to cover tuition. WeTransfer has committed to "100 years of education" with UoU, so the programme is set for at least the next century. Once on the course, students will be taught "how to engineer situations, to design experiences and events to best support social dreaming, social actions and power shifts within institutions, companies and governments".
I spoke to Nelly Ben Hayoun to find out more.
(This interview has been edited for length)
VICE: When are you starting the programme?
Nelly Ben Hayoun: We just released the news that we're open for application until the 1st of April. It's kind of like, if you miss your window you have to wait until 2019. We do it as a biannual, and it's an MA programme, full time. We support your tuition fees – that's a part of the discussions. We start the classes at the end of September and then you're on for two years. The plan is to grow, to go to New York and San Francisco and then to open what we call the Unconventional Practices Research Department, where we can actually host PHDs.
We're really specific to postgraduates – that's the outlet that we decided to focus on. We found that, with postgraduate studies, there is a need for scholarships and support and getting students interested. The topics we're interested in need... not more maturity, but they need to have done their BA first. They need to have an awareness of what their practice is about to come into an MA like this, where we are talking about social dreaming, social action, institution, design of experiences. They are all concepts that you will have more of an understanding of once you've done your BA and know where you sit a bit – where you've engaged with social action and social dreaming in your own practice and experience.
So what is design of experiences? What does that cover?
The way we define it is just encompassing all of these disciplines that we wanted to offer the students, basically. It encompasses music practices, political practice, power structure, how you can modify power structure from inside institutions. There is design practice as well; film practice; we also speak about literature. The design experience encompasses all of that, so to say a designer is not just a person making a product like chair or tables, but someone who is able to become a producer or director. Someone who is going to be nurturing their own job or own outlet inside an institution. It's very much about the experience, about the event, so putting up events that will modify the way an institution thinks about themselves or communicates with the public. The way we have designed the curriculum is to make sure that the students touch on all of these different aspects.
Why did you create the University of the Underground?
We created it to respond to three things, really. The first one being the fact that, mainly in postgraduate studies, there is a trend to increase student fees, so we wanted to figure out a way we could design a new financial structure that supported education and students. What we've done is looked at a business model which is being used in most cultural institutions, like museums, where you have 80 percent coming from philanthropy and 20 percent coming from government. So we replicated this model – we created a foundation which is separate from the place where we're going to get the degrees from. The foundation has its own advisory board, like any foundation which is non-profit. We recruited, we get donations from philanthropy and from tech companies. People like WeTransfer or Airbnb. Those supporters come in and they are inside the foundation – but are separate from the students – and we have a collaboration with the Sandberg Instituut, who are providing us with the degrees, so we can give proper MA degrees in design.
The second reason is of course we wanted to define a new programme in which we say that design is not about chair and table; it's about encompassing the broad new figure of things, where a designer is now a director or a producer, and actually supporting cultural entrepreneurship. We tell them they can become whatever they want within institutions and we need to support that. We tell them the programme is about multidisciplinarity and supporting all these elements.
Finally, we wanted to create a network of creative soldiers. So students and designers that are there to make positive change in institutions and do that through design of experiences and experiential practices. It is to say that creatives have got a role in politics, and is to say that they should be at the table of decision making. The ultimate goal would be that one of our students becomes president or becomes the director of the United Nations.
Do you hope other people will take on your model?
Yes. We're going to make all our finances available to the public after two years. All of our reports – the way we have used our finances, what we found – will be available online. I think it's important that we want to encourage other places and institutions to be bolder in the way that they think about education and the future of it. We can't just keep on living in a scheme in which students have to pay £16,000 to pay a Master's unless you have really rich parents. It removes that nepotism that is inherent to all disciplines, and specifically in the creative realm right now.
How did you find the right teachers for this project?
We call them "dreamers of the day", which is from Lawrence of Arabia. There are two types of people: the people that sleep at night and don't remember that dream because it's in the recesses of the night, then the dreamer of the day, who are adventurous people who make the impossible happen. We have recruited a teaching team which is like that – people who are positive and supporting the students. We have disciplines that we are passionate about: music, politics, design. In the second year students are finding the institution of their choice that they want to work with. We impose the institution to work with during first year – total bombardment that gets you all of these different places in a short time – but second year is when you get a chance to say, "Okay, I want to work with the jail system," for example; "I want to work with that specific jail and think about how I can modify some of the ways that the community is thinking about this." It can extend from a company to an institution, but it's important that the student showcases the system he's trying to challenge. The only way you can challenge a system is by fully understanding what it is made of.
What would you say to someone who wanted to apply?
Potential students should keep on looking at our website, because we will keep announcing new board members and new teachers. We'll be revealing our site in Amsterdam pretty soon, too. These things will be developed and revealed in the coming weeks. We invite all our students to apply, and they have to define social dreaming and action for themselves. What does it mean to be doing experiences, designing experiences? They can have their own understanding of it. For your generation, designing experiences may not be theatrical – it may be VR. I want to know how we can tailor or make a programme that is responding to the needs of our students, but not forcing them into a realm they don't want to go.
How many students are you taking?
Fifteen. Every city we will go to, we will always have 15 students. From now we only take 15 students in 2017-2019, and then again. We will open up fully the part in the US next year and that will be 15 and so on. You grow, it's a nebula. We are creating a nebula of potential chaos.
And that's ultimately what you want, for your students to create real change?
Yes. We go from the bottom, and you keep on climbing all the way through the entire scale of each of the disciplines and each of the social systems and all of the barriers that are inherent to any jobs to actually make it to the top. Our mantra is "nothing is impossible". Get your creativity out there and actually impose yourself. The other thing we talk about quite a lot is the Theatre of Cruelty, which is a theatrical practice from the 19th century which says that it's a violent collaboration between the stage and audience. It was created by Antonin Artaud and he would throw blood in the face of the audience to create some very strong reactions from them. He believed that the only way to get a member of the public physically engaged with any research or any topic was to be violent with them, either with music or with light. If you take that model and apply it to innovation then we also believe that we need to force our way into things. We don't wait for the door to be open, and I think that's the kind of can-do attitude that we are supporting.