Nelly Ben Hayoun - Designer of Experiences
Dr. Nelly Ben Hayoun-Stepanian is a designer of experiences. She makes it possible to become an astronaut in your living room while dark energy is being created in your kitchen sink and a volcano erupts on your couch. She runs a leading interdisciplinary design agency which devises subversive events, experiences, and feature-length films, working with everyone from NASA to Lego, MOMA to Mattel.
Nelly is the founder of the Underground University where she leads with board members including Rose McGowan and Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova, and she launched the International Space Orchestra - a musical group of astrophysicists, astronauts and other space scientists who have worked with Prodigy, Avalanches, Sigur Ros and others.
Dubber Hi, I’m Andrew Dubber. I’m Director of MTF Labs, and this is the MTF Podcast. So this is one of those episodes where introducing the guest might end up taking longer than the podcast interview itself, if I’m not careful, because Dr Nelly Ben Hayoun-Stepanian does an awful lot of different things that all require some explaining but could, in short, be broadly categorised as the creation of experiences.
She’s a filmmaker, artist, designer, founder and namesake of one of the world’s top design studios, founder of an underground university, of an international space orchestra that’s worked with Prodigy, The Avalanches, and Sigur Rós. She works with NASA, the European Space Agency, Singularity University, Mattel, LEGO, Airbnb, Google, The Guardian, the SETI Institute, the BBC, Red Bull, WeTransfer, XL Recordings, MoMA, Victoria and Albert Museum, the National Museum of China… You get the idea. She has, she reckons, thirteen jobs, more or less - probably more - and at one point was so in demand for public speaking engagements around the world, she employed doppelgängers, look-alikes who she trained to mimic her mannerisms and delivery style so she could literally be in multiple places at once.
Dubber Dr Nelly Ben Hayoun-Stepanian, welcome to the MTF Podcast. It’s nice to see you again. How are you doing?
Nelly Yes. It’s so nice to see you, Andrew. Hello listeners.
Dubber It’s great to have you on. You do pretty much everything, and I feel like I’m just going to say “Tell me about this project. Tell me about that project. Tell me about this project.” because there are so many things that you do that are so much of interest to the people who listen to a podcast like this. So you’re more or less an experienced designer, but that doesn’t even begin to cover it. How do you describe what you do?
Nelly Well, actually, I don’t describe myself as an experienced designer but as a designer of experiences, which basically means that, suddenly, when you start to speak about experiences, then you allow yourself to look at multiple different fields because if you want to make a meaningful experience for members of the public, then you need to know a bit about music, know a bit about architecture, know a bit about design, know a bit about academia, film. Basically all of the different realms of things. So if you want to say what I’m doing, I design experiences for members of the public to experience a rocket lift-off in their living room while dark energy is being produced in the kitchen sink, sonic booms are erupting in your bathtub, and then, as if it wasn’t enough, you have a volcano that is literally right there in front of you while someone is… I don’t know. Your auntie is experiencing stage one, two, and three of the rocket lift-off, the Soyuz rocket. That’s what I do.
Dubber Okay. So I have to ask the question, why do you do this?
Nelly Why do I do this? I do this because I feel like there is a part of our realities or part of science as we know it or part of the mystery of our world that a lot of us don’t have access to because we don’t have the right degree. If I’m too small, too fat, if I don’t have the right PhD, the chances that you’re going to make it to become an astronaut are really small. I found this so unfair. There is 250 astronauts up there. Why is it that you or I cannot go up there? Why is it that we cannot experience a bit of the magic of going in outer space?
So in order to give you that kind of magic experience or to give you access to that sublime that is a part of our world then I have to design a meaningful experience. I need to actually find a way to give you it as close as it can be experienced. So I’m not lying to you, and I’m giving you that as close as it can be experienced, but it’s not exactly like being an astronaut. But it’s working with an astronaut to actually give you the experience of a rocket lift-off in your living room. So that’s exactly my process when I work, Andrew. So I will develop this plural-disciplinary team that allows me to actually make an experience for members of the public that is as close as it can be to the reality.
And then I started to work in nightclubs, very much so, because I love nightclub and nightlife audiences because they’re the most difficult. The most critical, in fact. They will criticise everything that doesn’t belong in the realm of entertainment and education, because they want to be educated, as well, as they have a good time.
Dubber Nightclub audiences want to be educated? Is that why they go to nightclubs?
Nelly Well, I think when you go in a nightclub, you want to have fun, but you also want to learn something, whether it’s learning something on the dance floor with a new move or whether it is about learning about love and having your first sex experience in the toilet. I don’t know what that might be. But what I’m saying is, when you go…
The nightlife audience is the most difficult to please because there is so much out there. It’s such a brilliant innovative scene. I’m sure your listeners might know all of this, but I think a lot of policymakers and people from politics don’t understand that nightlife is really where it’s at when it comes to innovation, when it comes to new materials, when it comes to new techniques, sound system, experiential. Every single bit of innovation really happens inside this specific time of the day.
Dubber Sure. And there’s a lot competing for attention when you’re in a nightclub, so you have to make an impact.
Nelly Absolutely, yes. And you better not lie to a member of the audience, as well, during a nightlife experience. So if you tell them they’re going to experience something like a rocket lift-off then you need to bring them the astronaut, live, as part of the experience.
Dubber Yeah. And you’re not just talking about astronauts. You’re bringing in NASA, and you’re working with actual people who do go into space.
Nelly That’s correct, yes. That’s coming back to the fact that when I design a meaningful experience, it has to… The meaning comes from bringing this plural-disciplinary expert because, let’s face it, I am not an astronaut. I don’t know what it feels like to be inside the Soyuz rocket, which is a Russian rocket. It’s a very specific type of rocket. I don’t know the detail of the techniques and so forth, so I need to surround myself with the people that can provide this. Or when I tell you you’re going to make dark energy - which is five percent of the universe out there. We don’t know what sort of energy can allow the universe to be in permanent expansion. This dark energy - if I said to you “You’re going to produce it when you’re eating your pancakes.” or “You’re going to produce a bit of the unknown while you’re making your pancakes.”, who am I to actually produce dark energy? What does that even mean? I need to bring the best physicist in the world around me to design this thing so that you can then make your pancake face-to-face with the unknown. And that means finding myself in places where there is Nobel Prize for physics or at the Super-Kamiokande in Japan or the Large Hadron Collider, which is a place where they bombard protons at the speed of light to recreate the first second of the Big Bang. But all of us members of the public, often we don’t even know these things exist. We don’t even know that there is sixty worldwide scientists down below, a hundred meters underground, colliding protons at the speed of light. Think about it. The speed of light. Faster than the speed of light. So it’s all about giving you that experience.
So that’s one side of the story, Andrew. The other side of the story is also, for me, there is something extremely frustrating about systems. Politics, economics, sociology. Everything that comes within the mainstream or comes within the status quo of what you should do or what you should be or what is the right thing to do or not the right thing to do, and how politics or top-down approach or hierarchies or… All of these kinds of systems, for me, they are there to be challenged. And so, more and more so, my work is actually about developing collaboration within institutions, whether they are military institutions, whether they are policy-making institutions like the United Nations, NASA, you mention, but many others, and actually find ways and means by which I can design an experience, an event that is going to bring in critical thinking to that specific audience so that they don’t produce space the same way or so that they don’t do the work they’re doing the same way, or so that they start to think about borders differently or that we can start developing new visions for what the future of humanity might be.
Dubber Not everyone can just dial up a Nobel-Prize-winning physicist or the United Nations or the military or a group of astronauts just to invite them onto a project. How did you go about setting up so that you were in such a position to be able to do something like that?
Nelly To be really frank with you, I never got myself set up for anything, and I think that’s the beauty of it. So my mum is Armenian. My dad was born in Nigeria. They both coming from a family of immigrants that either survived… Have gone through the ill of colonisation or have experienced Armenian Genocide. And so when they arrived with absolutely nothing in France, they had to build it all from scratch. The more I think about it, the more I think I get my perseverance because it’s what it’s about, at the end of the day. It’s about perseverance.
I think most of us, our ultimate way of dealing with things is if someone tells us no or if an institution tells you that you cannot do this thing, then you’re going to be like “Okay. Well, if it’s no, it’s no.”, and then you’re going to move to the next thing. For me and for my family in general, it’s never been a situation that we could just say “Oh, yeah. Okay. Fine. Yes, okay, there is absolutely no Armenians in politics because Armenians are immigrants, and they don’t really belong to politics, or they don’t have the authority to be in politics.”. But for my grandad, for example, it wasn’t like that. He started in textile like most of the Armenians when they arrived in France, and then he thought “You know what? I’m going to get in politics.”. And then he became a maire adjoint to… And then he started to go in politics and started to… Actually got the Armenian Genocide recognised in France. And it’s like he came out of nowhere land. And I think this is something that I learned from him but I learnt as well from all the family in general, is you just have to persevere.
And I wasn’t set up to meet with Nobel Prize for physics. I’m not set up to meet with any astronauts, but one thing that I think is very important to me is that I don’t give up. So it’s not about stopping with one astronaut. There is 250 astronauts, so you just have to email 250 astronauts until you have one of them that’s a yes. It’s statistics, at the end. It’s mathematics. The more you seed all over the world, the more there is chances that you’re going to get an answer.
So that, I pushed to the gimmick aspect or to the… I will say the satire aspect, to some level, because I started to work for many different companies. I have more than thirteen different jobs, as you mentioned, whether it is working at WeTransfer… WeTransfer, sharing files all around the world. I hope all of your listeners are sharing files on WeTransfer, the best company in the world. But since 2012, I’ve been working at WeTransfer, and so I will either email through my WeTransfer email or I email through my United Nations email or I email through my SETI - Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence - email or I email through… I have about thirteen different jobs, thirteen different emails, and then I go at it on every single email, every single border.
And it’s the same with the agency, with NASA. When I started going there… I never went to the USA. I had no idea. I was twenty-three. I’d just graduated. My English wasn’t even good. But between that time and the moment where I turn up uninvited at NASA Ames Research Centre, I emailed for seven years, consequently, every single person inside this agency because it’s a public-funded agency, so all the emails are online, so you can go and start finding and understanding the organigram or the politics of that institution online and actually start to email every single person in every single department. So by the time you turn up uninvited and you say “I’m the director of The International Space Orchestra.”, which is an orchestra I then got to set up, then the door is open because they’re like “Oh, this is the crazy French woman that’s been emailing every single department.”.
Dubber Tell me about the Space Orchestra because that’s absolutely interesting.
Nelly So The International Space Orchestra was set up in 2012, and since then it’s still going. It’s a team of NASA scientists, but it’s also Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute scientists - basically, space scientists - and together, they are performing music. But they’re not performing just whatever random music. They are either re-enacting the drama of being a mission controller at this point in time or they are re-enacting everything to do with failures, everything that goes wrong in Mission Control. They are actually sharing, I would say, the humanities behind any form of impossible mission like sending anything into outer space.
And so since 2012, we’ve been performing with many different artists, whether it is The Prodigy, The Avalanches, Sigur Rós. They’ve been doing Hollywood Bowl, 17,500 people, sold-out show. So they are like NASA scientists become rock star. But they sound pretty bad, and I think this is the beauty of it.
We made a movie about it, about the entire process of doing it. And initially, they all sung horrible, but I think it’s a lot… After two months of intense training, they sound absolutely harmonious, and I think it’s a statement as to how this agency, NASA, functions, where when someone in a team or in Mission Control doesn’t perform well, you don’t just let them down there. You actually all, as a group, lift that person to actually achieve their goal or the mission or… And I think that is very visible from that documentary where you see the full story of The International Space Orchestra, but I think it’s also a statement to them, as in how they organise as an agency and as people in general to actually support each other in achieving something together.
And every single time, for me, every single year, it’s… We had our five-year anniversary barbeque at NASA, with sausages, performing during the total eclipse. But every time I watch them and every time there is a performance taking place, whether it is at Savages or when I get them to sing in Russian or in Icelandic… They’ve sung in every single language that is on this planet, pretty much, and every time I come up with the most insane challenge just to see if they can do it. And it’s always a statement to their endurance but also to their incredible beings that they actually always manage it toward the end, and that’s… But it never starts smoothly. And also, I’m lucky because I’m working with Evan Price, who is the musical director of The International Space Orchestra, and he’s a master of the story. Me, I’m the one shouting and [clapping] getting them in action, as you can hear. But Evan Price is very much the reason why they sound good.
Dubber And in a way, you’ve turned a bunch of scientists into artists, which leads to another film that you’ve made which posits the idea that everyone is an artist. Are you, in fact, a monster?
Nelly I don’t know if I say that everyone is an artist in ‘I am (not) a monster’. ‘I am (not) a monster’ is about the origins of knowledge. So it’s about trying to understand where knowledge comes from and what does it mean to think at this point in time, in this story where we had Trump at the time, where we have Putin, where we have many totalitarianism regimes around the planet, and where obviously there is a resurgence for the far-right all over the world, with popularism being the norm.
So this film is trying to unravel that and trying to understand from the perspective of a philosopher called Hannah Arendt, who is a political theorist that died in 1975 and survived the Second World War, and she survived, obviously, Hitler, and she survived Nazism. And so she wrote ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’, and she tried to actually depict “What is a totalitarianism regime, and what does it mean in terms of critical thinking?”, and how as a society we’ve managed to actually stop members of the public from thinking so they can get indoctrinated into someone’s ideology.
So this film is actually trying to understand, at this point in time, why we are seeing the resurgence of such doctrines or such ideology. And because I was completely baffled by it, I thought I needed to actually take her writing into action and actually go all around the world to interview every single thinker or makers that I knew and actually ask them “What does it mean to think at this point in time in history?”.
So I’m not saying that everybody is an artist, but what I’m saying is that we are all capable of thinking, and what stops us or what could potentially stop us from thinking is systems and the way we have developed systems for ourselves and bureaucracy for ourselves. So basically, what I’m saying is we need to actually go and enter these institutions and actually completely reshuffle bureaucracy and the way we develop things. But not only that. The film is also saying that there is no such thing as nation states, and everything to do with borders or everything to do with ideology in general is just going to perpetuate history again and again and again until we break that altogether.
Dubber Fantastic. Tell me about University of the Underground.
Nelly University of the Underground. Well, look, I don’t know when your podcast is going live, but I will say to all of your listeners that we have, currently, a programme that is coming to an end which is a New Politics and Afrofuturism programme which was made and led by the political activist and former Lord Mayor, Magid Magid. And Magid has been running this programme which is really calling for black radical imagination in institutions and beyond.
But, having said that, the University of the Underground is a charity. We are free. We are pluralistic. We are cross-national, so we exist beyond borders. And plurality is really one of the core tenets of the University of the Underground in that we believe that we need to start bringing every single mindset around the table. We need to bring people that we agree with. We need to bring people that we don’t agree with. We need to go beyond this very bipolar way of thinking that is currently very much the norm in universities and in education and in the public opinion.
So we’re quite controversial for that reason because we will invite, for example, the co-founder of Tea Party, who is obviously a very populist party and I think it would be fair to say racist party as well, together with the leader of Occupy Wall Street and the leader of Black Lives Matter. We will invite all of these people on the same table to actually speak about their vision as to “What is nation states?”. So that, to me, is very important to the freedom of thinking, and so that’s the way that we also teach.
And we teach the students how to actually go into an institution, work with an institution, and try to modify them from within through events. So they design events, they learn how to make an experience happen, and then they bring that world of the experience - music, film, design, politics, and so forth - into the institution to actually challenge them from within, so build their own jobs doing all of that, write their own storyline as part of this institution, and actually pitch themselves in it.
Dubber It’s interesting that in trying to give as broad a representation as possible, you give a platform to people that ordinarily wouldn’t get a platform in something that is professing to be diverse and inclusive and so on. How do you… Justify is the wrong word. How do you explain, for instance, bringing on somebody that you identify as racist into an environment like that and give them a platform to state views that you might not necessarily agree with?
Nelly Well, I think you have to remember that when Hannah Arendt - who is this political theorist that I mentioned - when she wrote ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’… She survived Nazism. She survived Hitler and his ideology. But when she wrote ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’, she went to read ‘Mein Kampf’. She had to go and read the thing. And throughout the entire book, she is making reference to the view from Hitler to actually build up an argumentation and actually explain why this is materially hell and why is there that this lead to the totalitarianism regimes.
So in order to break down systems and in order to bring down ideology the way that we know them, you need to actually unravel the things that make it happen in the first place. I think it’s so wrong to just say “Oh, that’s wrong.” and actually not look at the reason why it’s wrong and how this got to be there, because if this got to be there, it’s probably because there is a system there that allows for this to happen. So, therefore, in order to change it and in order to actually build change for good and rethink politics the way you know them then you need to be able to actually unravel what is wrong about the totalitarianism regimes or racism. You need to understand why systemic racism exists in order to break it apart.
Of course, one view - which is a utopic view which I wish would be the truth - is to say that racism never existed. But the reality is, right now, there is racism, there is systemic racism, and I think in order for us to fight it and in order for us to make it that it’s not part of our future history then you need to be able to acknowledge it and you need to be able to actually know who are the main leader that actually bring in that sort of ideology to members of the public. And once you have identified that, then you can start going into it, them, and their systems and actually break them apart. That’s the way we teach at the University of the Underground. That’s the way we function.
I think it’s very important, as well, to me to say that I’m not giving them and I’m not giving racists a platform to speak at all. For me, education is about… And that’s where I speak about plurality, because plurality is at the core of the thinking. In order to not maintain totalitarianism, in order to not maintain ideology, you need to allow for plurality to take place. Whenever there is one idea that rules it all… So whenever you, Andrew, define the rule or I, Nelly, define the rule on my own, there is a problem. So we should always have places where all of these ideas can be discussed. And they can be extremely uncomfortable, and I’m not saying racism is right, obviously, but I’m saying we need to actually find it and take it apart before there is a replication of what is basically happening right now in other territories like the moon, for example.
Dubber Well, I guess these people who are invited know that they’re being invited to be taken apart.
Nelly Well, if you come to take part in a panel discussion at the University of the Underground, by definition you already know - given the people there are on the board - that it’s going to be a challenging conversation. Yes, for sure.
Dubber And you’re probably not going to convince anybody of anything while you’re there.
Nelly Well, as in getting them some new followers, for sure not.
Dubber It makes me wonder what the incentive is to turn up.
Nelly The way we do things is there is always a panel, so it’s not just them being on their own to talk about…
Dubber No, no. For sure. But I do wonder why they agree to come along and join the panel.
Nelly Well, it’s a very good question. I think that’s a question to ask them, right?
Dubber Yeah, I guess. Maybe there’s some sort of psychology in there that I’m not familiar with. But, yeah, it’s interesting.
But the University of the Underground, is it a place? Is it distributed? How do people go to it? How do they enrol? And what do they get when they’ve completed?
Nelly Well, okay, so the University of the Underground is basically based in the basement of nightclubs. So you have, in Amsterdam and in London… So we are based under one of the oldest, actually, nightclubs in Europe called De Marktkantine, and then the other nightclub where we are based is called the Village Underground in London.
But we are currently online, and I think - like many universities - we had to make that shift happen because of the current situation, which, in a way, has been really interesting to us because one of the other tenets of the University of the Underground is to be transnational. So to actually see beyond borders.
So when you think about knowledge and when you think about knowledge beyond borders, so beyond the systems of nation states and the way that this political format ruling all governments and defines the agenda for education and so forth, if you start to develop a platform that is meant to exist beyond that, then, actually, the internet is a really interesting place to be because… But then, of course, you could argue that the internet is also having their own borders in the sense that we all know that the internet is far from being a free space, so there is quite a lot to be unpacked there. I don’t know if you want me to go in great detail about freedom of information, data, and all of that, but…
Dubber I think that’s one of many topics that we could spend an awful lot of time on if we gave it the…
Nelly But you see, this is the thing, Andrew, that is fascinating about university in general or knowledge in general, is there is no such thing as a simple answer. There is not a yes or no. There is a plurality of views, and there is nuances all over it. So ultimately, yes, we do have zero-tolerance against racism and everything that is extremely problematic about our societies, but we will invite people that have really controversial views that you could say are racist, even though they have not been taken to court for their belief systems, obviously. But one thing I’d say to you is, for me, it is important to have these conversations. That’s what is fascinating about that, about knowledge.
Dubber Yeah, of course. And there is clearly a political dimension to what you do. Is it to a political objective? Are you trying to achieve something politically with all of these projects that you do? Is it collaboratively to achieve an end?
Nelly Yes, definitely. The University of the Underground is obviously supporting students to define their own political agenda in their work and actually to bring it to life. So it’s about empowering others and counter-culture to actually exist within the realm of the institutions and actually modify them from within and rethink, completely, systems. So that’s one thing.
But then on a personal level, for the past ten years, I’ve been working in the space industry. I’m the vice-chair of the Cultural Peaceful Use of Outer Space Committee at the International Astronautical Federation. I’m doing a lot of things to do with actual decision making in terms of… Or I’m being involved with a lot of, I will say, platforms that actually will decide in the next two/three years what the moon might look like in terms of human settlements and so forth. So for me, there is definitely a political agenda that is one that I might not be able to see but the next generation will definitely see, which is the next generation of humans going into outer space and having this new cohort over there. And it’s an opportunity… At least space is an opportunity for me to engage members of the public with the urgency, as well, of rethinking completely what we could do but also acknowledging what we have done here on Planet Earth, and I think that kind of connection between Planet Earth and space is not often made.
But, ultimately, the people that are currently leading the next endeavour in space are the same people that are currently leading all across the board with technology or in politics across the planet, and these are… Sorry to… But white, heterosexual men, and for most I would say well educated as well. So there is an opportunity for us to start saying “Okay, well…”. I’m not against, obviously, white, heterosexual men, but what I’m saying is it’s a point in time where we realise that there is obviously a lack of diversity or plurality in all of the leadership, so, therefore, that is very much clear as well from the visions that are being brought to life as to the future of humanity in space and beyond. And that’s the real problem because, ultimately, we’ve not even figured out how to deal with colonisation, and post-colonisation is not even something that is being acknowledged, and it’s just… This world of decolonisation is only starting to be put into action, and, right now, it’s mainly a political word that is being used, but it’s not actually being used in action.
I will say that in a lot of community… And I work from the community. I do both works. I work in communities, but I also work on decision making and in politics. So ultimately, I have these two hats. And I can tell you that in the community, we are in a really good place where these shifts are starting to take place. But, obviously, on the top level, it’s still to be seen in terms of changes and there being a different voice. I’m working really hard on trying to bring the first drag queen or transgender or… The first person that does not fit the norm as per what a space scientist or a space decision-maker or policymaker looks like into the table, and it’s still to be seen when that’s going to happen.
Dubber Well, speaking of political action, there’s none more visible on the world stage as Pussy Riot. Everybody knows who that is, but you work closely. Do you want to tell us a little bit about what that relationship is?
Nelly With Nadya of Pussy Riot? Yes. Look, so Nadya is one of our board members of the University of the Underground. Her and I met in a conference, actually, and she was in a room surrounded by heterosexual white male politicians that basically were discussing with her about the future of politics in Netherlands, and she was stuck there, and they were throwing at her a lot of statements and not letting her talk. And this is where we met because I just happened to go and look for a bit of water backstage in that conference place, and this is where the meetup happens. And I was dressed up at the time with a big bomber jacket, black bomber jacket, and I think people thought that I was the security of Nadya of Pussy Riot, so that meant that I actually… We left that room, and I was like “I’m sorry, but…”, and then she came with me, basically. And then I took her to the University of the Underground. This is where she met the students. She started a jam session with the students because the students, they also do music and a lot of different things. And so that’s how I will say our friendship started.
So that was about three years ago/four years ago. And then through the years, I think we’ve met in different opportunities and through different projects, and then everything she does, I try to support the best I can. I think she’s a very special and unique human that deserves to be protected, loved, and her work is absolutely most urgent and most important. And I think if any of your listeners are aware… Like right now, as well, one of the co-founders of Pussy Riot, Masha, is currently under house arrest in Russia, and so we do a lot… We’ve done some events at the University of the Underground to try and share the message about that and also Navalny arrest. Navalny, who is also one political activist there in Russia, where obviously the regime there is what I would call a totalitarianism regime as per the words of Hannah Arendt.
And so, for me, there is a duty to support people like Nadya and others for the work they’re doing to fight against totalitarianism regime and ideology. And I think she’s doing it in a very unique manner. She’s using music. She’s using the popular culture to try and share a very complex message. And, in a way, she managed to annoy Putin pretty heavily, which is why she actually got put in jail for two years. So I have a lot, a lot of respect for her and for people like her.
Rose McGowan is also someone that I extremely respect and love dearly who is also on the board of the University of the Underground, and she’s one of the person that was a part of the Me Too movement. She’s the person that break down Harvey Weinstein. The reason why Hollywood is slowly, slowly changing. Many of these people, I think they’re just… They’re really courageous.
Dubber I love that you were mistaken for her security, for Nadya’s security, because I was listening to your Worldwide FM show, and one of the things that you said was that you are a designer of experiences and a boxer, and I can absolutely picture it. And it makes me wonder, what sort of kid were you?
Nelly Just like that.
Dubber Were you a scrapper?
Nelly As a kid, I think I wanted to do every single job. Sometime when you’re a kid, you say “I want to be a vet. I want to be…”, whatever. In my case, I wanted to do everything. I wanted to be a librarian, doing library. You know, the beep beep. When you beep beep when you go and take the library. I wanted to work in a shopping mall. I wanted to put tiles on the floor. I wanted to paint and be a painter. I wanted to do all of these things, and actually, I realise that I have been true to my younger self to this point because I actually have given her what she wanted to do, pretty much. It’s like if everything was written straight from age three, I knew I wanted to do all of these things, and that happened.
But, yeah, boxing is a big part of my life at least now, and I think, again, because I think it’s… Everything about boxing I find fascinating. The way that it is a choreography on the ring, the dance elements, the… If you’re talking about thinking in action, I think there is actually a lot of thinking involved with boxing. Some people might not know that, but it is. You need to make points in order to win, so use your jab, move around, try and assess how your opponent is and might be in the ring. And it’s also reconnecting with something that is very human, like fighting. As far as I’m aware, from day one we’ve been fighting for survival, for… So it’s allowing me, at least, to reconnect with that much more I will say animal side of myself.
But at the same time, also, I think it’s for the work I’m doing. You have to understand that because of the different jobs, the pressure level I can go through at some point in time can be extremely intense. Yeah, maybe we can say entertainment is not… But when you entertain someone or when you do a show with seventeen thousand people or whatever, health and safety, contracts, the stakeholders, the financial aspect of that… Even when you do a movie. The number of people, the teams, the responsibility you have. And with your students too. It’s sometimes really overwhelming, and boxing has been, for me, as well, a way to release that pressure too.
Lots is happening in this sport beyond that, whether it’s also trying to… We did a project with the University of the Underground where the students worked with Gleason’s Gym, which used to be Muhammad Ali’s gym. It’s one of the oldest gyms of the USA, and it’s based in New York. Gleason’s. And we were looking at sports and how sport can build new politics. So we were actually trying to figure out if there could be a new sport that could be developed within the United Nations to actually get diplomats to start thinking about political borders differently. And that, to me, is really interesting, is when these disciplines like sports and others - music and so on - leak into other disciplines where you don’t expect them to be. So “What if the rules of music start to define the way that politics are taking place?”. Then you start to develop innovative formats and new formats, and that’s what I found fascinating and I’m excited about.
Dubber And speaking of things that you’re excited about, I was going to say “What’s next?”, but we know what’s next. You’ve got a film coming out.
Dubber In 2022.
Nelly It’s called ‘Red Moon’, which is probably going to lift off or be coming to life at the same time as the first woman is going to make it to the moon to start the next human settlement. The Artemis mission, which is the NASA mission to launch this woman in outer space. So this film, ‘Red Moon’, is actually saying… And that’s part of also what I was saying to you, like being a part of the Astronautical Federation and realising that there is a whole side of history that is completely not acknowledged. And I don’t know if it’s to do with the fact that people ignore it on purpose or whether it is to do with the fact that the people that survived or have experienced colonisation or the ill of wars and so forth are just not being represented in this field and in these places where the field of space is being defined.
So for this film, ‘Red Moon’, what I’m doing is, basically, I’m reconnecting with some of my family heritage in Nigeria and in Armenia, and I cast two doppelgänger family of my family in France, and they really look alike. We all look like each other, so it’s quite confusing. It’s a documentary, so it’s not fiction. We all look like each other. Obviously, we are not the same people. And we are all tasked with trying to define the next human settlement on the moon. And one of the hypotheses of this documentary, which of course will reveal itself to be true or not, is that people that have experienced colonisation or people that have experienced genocide or wars, like in Armenia, will ultimately come up with a different vision as to what the next space or next realm of humanity in space might look like. And so that’s what ‘Red Moon’ is, in itself. That’s basically this experience that these three families are going to go through and we’re going through together. And it’s also about writing, as well, at the end of that, a paper that we will be presenting to scientists with the hope that, of course, history will not repeat itself.
Dubber Sure. Because when you hear people talk about going to the moon or going to Mars or whatever, the language of colonisation is a really big part of that. And colonisation doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing to everybody who’s in the conversation, so I guess that it carries with it effects if you say “We’re going to go and colonise Mars.”. The colonised are going to bring something different to that story.
Nelly You are absolutely right that I think at this point in time and also for the past few years, colonisation has been used again and again and again specifically in terms of the next space plan. And the one thing I’d say to you is that this word is being less and less used because of the connotation and because now the public opinion is saying “Colonisation, don’t use that word. You will be slammed as an institution if you do that.”. But the reality is it’s still happening. Even if you don’t call it colonisation, the visions that are being proposed as being the mainstream as to what we’re going to do in outer space are to do with colonisation. Even if you don’t use that word, the plan is to go on the moon to mine it for its resources to bring back the resources. And of course, these will be valuable resources because the metal that is there regularly, it is actually really rare on Planet Earth, so you build this… It’s like gold, pretty much. So it’s exactly the same system and the same reasoning behind colonisation in the first place. When the colonsists went all over the world, whether it’s in India or whether it’s in Africa, they went to dig the minerals, take the oil, whether it’s in the Middle East and so forth.
So there is this imperialist idea that is there and has never moved or been questioned and discussed and challenged, and everybody is chill very much is at my side. And when you ask any space scientist or anyone in the space industry “What’s the next vision in space?”, like “Who is, to you, the person that represents the most visionary in this realm of space?”, people are going to reply Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos, the guy behind Blue Origin and Amazon. And what is their vision, exactly? Tell me. What do they propose that is currently not what we have already done on Planet Earth and what we are currently having to deal with right now?
Dubber Yeah, for sure.
Nelly So what we are trying to do with that film is to try and define new visions. And for me, they come down to actually giving the voice to people that have actually experienced the stage one of this imperialist endeavour that has been set up for the past hundred years.
Dubber It’s interesting that you’ve deployed doppelgängers in this because it’s something… Last time we spoke, you were telling me about how you’ve sent doppelgängers to go and give public speeches as you, and for some reason, that doesn’t surprise me in any particular way because you strike me as somebody who needs multiple versions of themselves to go out and have these sorts of conversations. How do you go about doing something like that, and what was the thinking behind it?
Nelly I’m someone that doesn’t believe in nation states. I don’t believe that borders should be defined by politicians or by a piece of paper or… I don’t believe in that, and probably because my family has always been into movement. They’ve been crossing, pretty much always, lands before they eventually landed into France where they eventually got their papers there. But I think this idea to be stateless, which is very core to the philosophy of Hannah Arendt as well, to always be a migrant wherever you go, and this idea that… That, to me, is the freedom of thinking.
We use the doppelgängers. And with this film, my hope is that to some level, because we look alike, the viewer… And I don’t know if this is going to work or not, but the viewer might actually get lost into these places and actually not know when I am in Nigeria and not know when we are in Armenia and not know when… And actually perhaps question, as well, this idea of borders or this idea of connection between people, and that’s something I’m investigating in this film. So that’s why, for me, it was important to have these doppelgängers in the film.
But then also, in general, I find this idea that you can be one person and at the same time many others absolutely fascinating and something that actually excites me a lot about life. The idea that maybe there is another person of yourself. It just makes it way less human-centric and egocentric. When you start to think that there is no such thing as nation states, then if there is no such things as nation states, if there is no such things as politicians as we know them, if there is no such things as all of that, then what is there? There is territories. There is geographies. There is species. Animals. There is sounds that connect different animals together, like whales communicating between each other. There is the wind. There is the sand. There is a complete new realm of things that is non-human-centric, and that, to me, is where… That’s where the future is and where the future has always been, in some ways, maybe, but we’ve never been smart enough to see it.
Dubber Well, you strike me as someone who is smart enough to see it, and you strike me as multiple people with multiple, multiple jobs, so you seem to have achieved your objective. Nelly, it’s been an absolute blast. I hope we get to do this again soon. Thank you so much for being on the podcast.
Nelly Thank you so much, and thank you to all of your listeners. Bye-bye. Thank you so much. Have a lovely day, you all.
Dubber That’s Dr Nelly Ben Hayoun-Stepanian, and that’s the MTF Podcast. You can check out all of her many activities at www.nellyben.com or follow her on Twitter @NellyBenHayoun. My name is Dubber. You can follow me @dubber on Twitter, and MTF Labs is @mtflabs pretty much everywhere. Click whatever button you need to click in order to keep getting these each week, and press on the thing that shares it with other people. Thanks very much. Cheers to the team - Jen, Mars, and Sergio - to Bamtone and airtone for the music, and Run Dreamer for the MTF audio logo that you’re going to hear in just a second. Stay safe. Talk soon. Cheers.