From Iceland — Alert - Power Modifying: Dr. Nelly Ben Hayoun Uses Experiences To Drive Institutional Change

Alert – Power Modifying: Dr. Nelly Ben Hayoun Uses Experiences To Drive Institutional Change

Published November 4, 2019

Hannah Jane Cohen
Photo by
Nick Ballon

Dr. Nelly Ben Hayoun talks at a rapid-fire pace. Her ideas glide from topic to topic, using language so intricate and nuanced that listening to her feels like watching an academic paper performed like a theatre piece—she’s, for lack of a better term, fascinating.

A self-proclaimed “Designer Of Experiences,” her work runs such a vast gamut that distilling it down into a sentence seems rather impossible. At this year’s Iceland Airwaves Pro music industry conference, she’ll attempt to distill her knowledge into a concise address as one of the keynote speakers.

A Renaissance woman

“What I do is design experiences,” Nelly says. “For me, it’s a multidisciplinary practise involving modifying power structures in institutions by making use of events and installations. ‘Event’ is a broad term to address multiple disciplines—film, music, design, politics, linguistics, theatre—I make use of all these different disciplines and that’s why you find me in all these different places. It makes it hard to pigeon-hole me, but if you are going to design an event or experience you have to be a bit of a Renaissance person.”

For those not familiarly with Nelly’s work, what she does is probably difficult to visualise. How does one modify power structures through events? It’s easier to understand through examples, and there’s really no better one than the International Space Orchestra (ISO), of which Nelly is the creator and director.

Going to Mars

The ISO is the first orchestra comprised exclusively of space scientists; the majority from NASA and SETI. “It has a specific function,” Nelly explains. “It acts as a place for critical thinking inside a federal agency. Say you’re the head of NASA and I’m the guy who just started. It’s really hard to tell you that I don’t think we should go back to the moon, or I don’t think we should go to Mars. But because you are playing the dobro and I am playing the trumpet, we can engage in much more free conversation.”

To distill it down: By putting everyone—regardless of their specialty or position—on the same playing field, power structures are dismantled and the scientists feel more comfortable sharing their ideas.

The orchestra also allows the scientists to use art to understand their field in a more profound way and gives them a chance to be rock stars—they’ve performed with different musicians worldwide, including Beck and, of course, Iceland’s Sigur Rós.

The origin of knowledge

Nelly’s most recent project is, however, radically different. It’s a film, entitled ‘I Am (Not) A Monster,’ which premiered earlier this month at the London Film Festival. The picture puts Nelly front and centre disguised as the late philosopher Hannah Arendt, best known for her concept of pluralism.

“The film is about the impossible pursuit of the origin of knowledge,” Nelly explains. “And it introduces you to important concepts like the plurality of thinking. One of the big takeaways [of Hannah Arendt] is that if you want to fight totalitarian regimes, you need to be able to think beyond ideologies.”

The pearls

Nelly might be journeying to Iceland for the conference, but she plans to take full advantage of Iceland Airwaves. She’s most excited to see JFDR and Madame Gandhi, among others.

“I’m looking forward to being surprised. In general, I find that if you go anywhere at 15:00, you’ll see these bands that nobody knows,” she says, a smile brightening her face. “That’s where you find the pearls.

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