A NASA Scientist, Lung Doctor, Performance Artist and a Beatboxer Walk Onto a Stage.

A threat to the status quo and an asset to expanding the limits of design, Dr. Nelly Ben Hayoun has an effusive enthusiasm and acute persistence that shake traditional logic and established structures of the design world. She is a catalyst for change, wielding belief in chaos.

We are halfway through the year long seminar series Homo Sapiens, I Hear You, based on debating and reframing Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Curated, and emceed, by Ben Hayoun to include elements, such as sustainability and feminism, not considered in the original hierarchy. In her words, she is, “challenging usual design conferences that are usually a man telling you about how he has made his chair.

One of her main goals is to make sure the conversation is a “fair representation of diversity.” So far the seminars have included speakers with a range of backgrounds and expertise such as Fire Fighter Regina Wilson, Curator Paola Antonelli, and VR filmmaker Gabo Arora. By broadening the scope of who is participating in the discussion the considerations are more inclusive. “Suddenly you can address something like colonialism in design,” or other contentious subjects such as violence and power. Although they can be confrontational,  these are meant to be critical discussions. As she sums up, “Some of these questions we don’t want to have but we should have.”

The seminars can feel wild and chaotic for all parties involved but it is all part of Ben Hayoun’s considered and cultivated approach. Based on the theory of the Rhizome coined by French theorists Deleuze and Guattari, there is no hierarchy or pre-established linear path. The conversation is left to flow organically and continuously without set resolution. Immersive, inclusive, and always surprising, stepping into one of the Homo Sapiens, I Hear You seminars is a collective journey. To fully engage, one must relinquish preconceived notions of authority and be curious and willing to see what happens next.

Ben Hayoun admitted it took a little while for the team and the audience she is working with to get used to the structure of the events, and even though they are finding a groove she reflects, “I am a fervent believer into always looking for the challenges as opposed to looking for comfort .” This commitment to challenge means Ben Hayoun and her team are often experimenting and learning alongside the panels and the audience rather than preempting how things might emerge, “With the seminars we have been able to strike a balance of preparedness and structure while leaving space for experimentation. Just pure collaboration to happen and to nurture.” Over the course of the seminar she has watched and experienced as A/D/O has acted as a hospitable place where those new ideas and collaborations can be explored.

Part experiment, part immersive classroom, and definitely entertaining, ultimately her curriculum building becomes the design itself. In the first half, conversations between professionals that are unlikely to meet in any other environment collide to marvel at one another, debate, and learn. In one seminar, a NASA Scientist, a Lung Doctor, a Performance Artist, and a Beatboxer all shared the stage to talk about air. The audience watched the mix of admiration and exchange on stage and then was invited to participate in a sort of artificial lung aria.

Ben Hayoun notes that one of the surprises of the program is the readiness of the audience to actively interrogate the topic and be part of the immersive experience. She thought of New Yorkers as being a “rather difficult” audience yet they are willing to appear on stage and even lead elements of the discussion. It is the least controllable variable and the whole model is contingent on audience engagement. Members of the public are asked to be speculative, imaginative and tasked to develop their own version of the specific topic as it exists in the next five to ten years.

Many of the speakers talk about macro scale environmental issues and Ben Hayoun wants the participants to begin to think about needs beyond our species. “I want people to leave the place actually thinking about other models that aren’t so homocentric. Although it is called Homo-sapiens, I Hear You, the idea is to start looking at everything else that is around homosapiens beyond the set of homocentric views.”

When developing the series, she set out  to make a “real research contribution developed as a part of the program but at the same time to bring the Willy Wonkiness element of manufacturing the impossible and the Nelly Ben Hayoun Studios side of things.” Ben Hayoun has really achieved a mix of immersive performance, critical ideation, and dynamic discussions. However, true to her philosophy, the seminars themselves are not resolved when the audience leaves and she sees it taking another five to ten years to develop something that is truly meaningful for the long term.

“You don’t figure out if you are alone in the universe in one year. You try to discover your surroundings and the multiverse that is.”

Text by Lily Saporta Tagiuri.

The year long research program Homo Sapiens, I Hear You is a collaboration with Nelly Ben Hayoun.