Experience Designer Dr Nelly Ben Hayoun’s “Homo Sapiens, I Hear You”

Dissecting Maslow's hierarchy of needs in a series of workshops at Brooklyn's A/D/O space

In her continual quest to bridge narratives, future-thinking and science in unconventional settings, the extraordinary experience designer, Dr Nelly Ben Hayoun is unravelling Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in a year-long series of workshops at Brooklyn‘s multidisciplinary creative space, A/D/O. Composed of 12 classes and associated programs, hypnosis radio sessions and other sublime experiments, the workshops—entitled “Homo Sapiens, I Hear You”—are framed as an expedition, or a live encyclopedia, that interrogate and criticize the egocentric model while proposing a new one at the end of the series. After hearing legendary filmmaker Douglas Trumbull, economist Graciela Chichilni, a transcendental meditator from the David Lynch Foundation and a celebrated hypnotist break down the fundamental need of sleep in an interactive presentation last month, we asked Ben Hayoun to tell us more about the series ahead of tonight’s seminar, which will focus on eating.

The series is titled “Homo Sapiens, I Hear You.” What is it that you feel humans are saying?

For someone who is working within the design field but also at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute as a designer of experiences and at the International Academy of Astronautics, I have always been fascinated by the way we communicate as a species, but also the scale of communication we can develop from the very, very far away (the scale of the universe) to the the scale of the microcosm (extremophiles and other living forms on our planet). The SETI Institute was created in 1984 with the purpose to define whether or not we are alone in this universe. Looking for signals coming from other potential civilizations but also trying to figure out how we could communicate with them through the design of languages, like the Arecibo message, for example. Since Drake and Sagan’s attempt to communicate our humanity in the shape of the Golden Record, we have been clueless at defining what makes us human—or to say the least what we should send on to potential extraterrestrial intelligence.

To be fair to those of us who tried, it is not an easy task. Indeed, by the time the message we write reaches potentially “intelligent” planets, we will be long gone. So clearly beyond the complexity and mechanics of the message itself (ie: which language shall we use?), it is also complex to think now on behalf of a future that is a million and more of light years away.

So when you take this as an example you understand that in order to be relevant now and in the future, we need to consider every topic, as designers and creators, in all their multiplicity. That is where philosophy comes in and many other disciplines, and that is what we present at the research seminar. A live form of rhizome, a concept developed by philosophers Guattari and Deleuze to consider knowledge as a part of a larger network and combination of disciplines.

What fascinates you most about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs?

Using Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in its pyramidal shape helped us to define a framework and the basic points for the research seminars. So the three first months are on the basic needs (Sleep, Eat, Breathe) and as you keep going you interrogate friendship, spirituality, etc. This is how we selected the topics. After that, it is a matter of texture and alchemy, getting various viewpoints and workshop to inspire curiosity, and perhaps even new work from members of the public.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is not new, and he is a man too, which I normally try to avoid when I choose reference points; following instead the work of feminist academics like Professor Donna Haraway, for example. However this model allows us to question fundamental questions such as, “What makes us human, what defines us as a species?” and bring in temporality to the debate: “Are we the same people than before, what will we be in the upcoming 100 years to 100,000 years?” It is a very egocentric model and very linear and it omits key cross sections such as sustainability, feminism and others. So with our non-linear, multiplicity-focused programming we hope to perhaps burst the pyramid and turn this into a multiverse and nebula for designers and creators to reinvestigate their practice away from pure egocentric terms.

What do you hope the audience takes away from these experience?

We want to inspire curiosity and even perhaps trigger new works from members of the public. Our format, which allows for experimentation and unknowns, is non-linear, so you have opportunities to actively participate, perform and rethink your practice as a part of it. I expect the audience to “digest” their learning and their experience within the next six months of the classes, as the simulation can be quite bombastic when you see an hypnotherapist, a Nobel prize of economics and a academy award winner special effect master together with a transcendental meditation expert. The links don’t appear straight away and perhaps you might feel lost, but these are seeds for thoughts and critical reflection, and as an educator I strongly and firmly believe in this unconventional format as it requires active thinking from the audience and participants. We are so used to reading and learning through the length of other mediums that edit raw informations for us that we are becoming lazy over the years in our learnings. I like a more schizophrenic approach to learning where you are given all multiple formats and you encounter multiple disciplines and you—the participant—have to actively connect with the speakers together and build the answer to the equation and situation that has been engineered for you. What happens when bacterias meet linguistic experts meet absinthe-makers meet Greek performance of the Bacchae and what new knowledge can come from these unexpected meetings?

Why is A/D/O the perfect place for these workshops?

To start with the full story, I came to A/D/O in May of 2017 as a speaker in the “Common Sense” design festival, and that visit turned into a much longer conversation with the team about the current design discourse and how we could add something new, fresh and frankly, needed. The A/D/O lens is all about “The Future of Design” and it’s a hand-in-hand fit with some of my academic background in critical design, as a previous student of Professor Anthony Dunne at the Royal College of Art. What we’ve envisioned, together, is a dialogue on the practice of design and this is achieved by looking outside of the traditional design community and bringing in “non-design” experts, inputs and inspiration. That is why we have filmmakers sharing the stage with hypnotherapists, scientists, economists and designers for each session so we can collide all these viewpoints and question them as we go along.

Once the format was there, “the texture,” it was missing what is essential to any mission: the crew. We decided to expand and to draw from the expertise of both international and local collaborators. As a designer, I have been greatly inspired by Cabinet Magazine; a Brooklyn-based publication that publishes quarterly on one theme through various viewpoints and genres. We contacted them and asked them to join and define an editorial line alongside the classes so that we can share our monthly theme through their eyes. We also contacted locally-based radio host Elle Clay to produce a podcast each month on our research theme with exclusive interviews with our speakers and immersive narratives, Radio Wolfgang are working on the dissemination of that content and Amsterdam-based graphic designers Our Machine have developed the graphics for the projects.

The same goals: to inspire and trigger curiosity and critical reflection on our plausible futures

How will the radio program differ from the A/D/O series?

Each month we are developing a situation where all the speakers meet, Elle imagines an architecture for it and narrates her experience of navigating the data that our speakers give her. So for example the first episode is taking place into her dreams, the next one is taking place at a dinner table inside the kitchen, etc.

It is very exciting as this radio format also allows for a dissemination of our approach to learning. It is different from the class since all speakers are interviewed separately and since it relies more on storytelliing than stage design and situation engineering, but it brings more chances to hear in-depth about our speakers expertise. The class and the podcast however, while this is a different approach, have the same goals: to inspire and trigger curiosity and critical reflection on our plausible futures.

Seminar 02: The Last Supper at A/D/O will feature artist Daisy Ginsberg, MOLD magazine founder LinYee Yuan, absinthe-maker Kevin Henderson and more. Tickets are available online for $20.

Images courtesy of A/D/O