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Designing the Spectacle

What makes a free design education program “radical”?

In December 2017, Nelly Ben Hayoun took the stage at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual day-long architecture symposium. It took a bit of time for her to set up her slides, dead air during which she shrugged and smiled. “Just a bit of a warning, I like to always say it, for those of you who haven’t already noticed it, I sound terribly, terribly French,” she said. A picture appeared on the screen behind her of Ben Hayoun in front of a French flag. She was holding a wedge of brie, and there were four frogs of various sizes hovering in the foreground.

As eccentric and disorganized as she seemed, the presentation was dazzling. Ben Hayoun explained that 250 students had applied to her new University of the Underground graduate program in design, which was held in the basement of what she claims is one of Amsterdam’s oldest nightclubs. (She compared it to Plato’s cave.) Of these 250, fifteen students were accepted, and thirteen would ultimately earn a Master’s degree in a design methodology termed the Design of Experiences, in addition to benefiting from an advisory board made up of Noam Chomsky, Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova, Dave Eggers, and other well-known figures. A fundraiser for University of the Underground had centered on the sale of X-ray records modeled after those used to smuggle music in the Soviet Union that featured unreleased material from musicians Massive Attack and Jónsi of Sigur Rós.

What she didn’t mention during this 2017 talk was that the program was already embroiled in conflict with students and faculty at the host university, the Sandberg Instituut in Amsterdam. Nearly three months prior, a Medium post titled “UUGH! or: Issues regarding University of the Underground” had appeared. The “UUGH!” authors took issue with the program’s funding, 80 percent of which came from private donations, while Sandberg itself was a state-funded institute. “Once the door to direct privatization has been opened, it is very difficult to close,” the concerned parties wrote. Furthermore, they criticized the use of the word “underground” itself and the program’s branding, which drew from the visual aesthetic of radical movements: “counter-cultural capital employed to promote a course which is principally funded by multinational corporations.”

“Once the door to direct privatization has been opened, it is very difficult to close,” the concerned parties wrote.

Nelly Ben Hayoun responded directly in a comment. “I find this post extremely disrespectful to both myself, my teaching team, and my students,” she wrote, breaking with the character I saw on stage at the architecture symposium. “There is no such things as ‘corporate’ influence inside a charity,” she insisted, refuting the accusation that University of the Underground is a neoliberal endeavor. Meetings organized by the Sandberg administration to mediate this conflict were tense. At least one reportedly ended in a shouting match.

Many of Ben Hayoun’s students were unaware of the controversy they walked into at Sandberg and how it would hinder their ability to socialize outside the program. “You didn’t know if it was going to be someone who was like, oh you are a capitalistic prick, you’re ruining public education for all of us,” says Design of Experiences graduate Malena Arcucci.

In the end, the disagreement led to the creation of Sandberg’s first student union and the decision to find a new host for the University of the Underground, Denmark’s Kaospilot (University of the Underground continues to run a research program in partnership with Sandberg)[*]. It also inspired the beleaguered Ben Hayoun to turn to the thinking of Hannah Arendt, prompting her to star in a documentary about Arendt with the pointed title I Am (Not) A Monster. Most importantly, the controversy regarding University of the Underground served as a microcosm of broader institutional disagreements about the future of radical design education.

Bad Money

As a PhD student at Royal Holloway, University of London, Nelly Ben Hayoun organized the International Space Orchestra, a group made up of sixty-six players who were nearly all NASA or SETI Institute employees. She used the success of this endeavor to create her own position at SETI: the in-house Designer of Experiences. The Design of Experiences now taught at Ben Hayoun’s University of the Underground is her own methodology, but it builds on the theory-based approach to design popularized in the late 1990s and early 2000s by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, who were Ben Hayoun’s teachers.

While the critical design taught by Dunne and Raby uses objects as a means to comment on consumer culture, the Design of Experiences seeks not only to critique but “[break] down power structures and [modify] social habits to generate the disturbance necessary for social action” by embedding designers in institutions. Learning how to create your own job description is at the core of the University of the Underground curriculum. In her position at SETI, Ben Hayoun conducted a second project called Disaster Playground, which used a fictional asteroid strike as the basis for a documentary that exposed weaknesses in NASA’s emergency procedures; there are claims that it led to the creation of NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office in January 2016. As she pressed her interviewees for answers about reacting to the imaginary crisis on camera, laying out miniature models of international presidents (some of which had been comically broken during a flight from Vienna), she drew on Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, in which he argues that “without an element of cruelty at the root of every spectacle, the theater is not possible.”

Some of this “cruelty” was directed at Dr. Sergio Camacho-Lara, the former director of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. “I, suddenly, and abruptly ask him to introduce himself. He obliges, I interrupt him, and gradually I add tactless items to the discussion,” she writes in her dissertation, of which the documentary was a part. “The interview reaches its crescendo. I stop Camacho, asking him more and more questions, violently interjecting that ‘his performance is not dynamic enough’ to the point of real discomfort” until he finally admits that “history will not forget” the UN’s lack of preparation for a potential asteroid impact.

“In order to trigger reactions and critical thinking, the Designer of Experiences proposes a violent, visceral and conflictual approach,” Ben Hayoun continues. “The designer becomes a figure that assumes multiple roles as a critique within the context of governmental and technological institutions. . . . It is therefore recommended to secure a role within the institution, but to acquire funding for the position from outside of the institution from independent, non-federal partners.”

When it came to the University of the Underground, it was precisely these non-federal partners that triggered the conflict at Sandberg, where Master’s courses are funded by the Dutch government, and a department officially termed the Dirty Art Department hints at the non-conformity of its graduates. “Of all the schools in the world to bring private funding into, the Sandberg is quite literally the worst one you could ever choose,” says Joseph Pleass, a University of the Underground graduate. Yet University of the Underground was not the first program Sandberg ran with an outside institution. Since 2011, the institute has welcomed two-year Temporary Programs, including one called Fashion Matters, which was supported by the denim brand G-Star RAW.

“I think mainly because it was Silicon Valley money, I think that’s kind of what pissed them off a bit because that’s the antithesis of what they’re going for at Sandberg . . . if it had been an arts fund, it would have been totally fine,” says Pleass. WeTransfer, a tech company based in the Netherlands, is listed among University of the Underground’s “friends and collaborators,” along with arts funds including the British Council, the British Film Institute, and MIT Press (Ed. note: The Baffler was distributed by MIT Press for several years).

“Of all the schools in the world to bring private funding into, the Sandberg is quite literally the worst one you could ever choose.”

When I interviewed Ben Hayoun this summer, Joi Ito was under fire at MIT, and the issue of Jeffrey Epstein’s money was being discussed among University of the Underground advisers. “I have [a] massive struggle personally saying that there is good money and there is bad money,” she told me. “If I was to receive money from a source that clearly is convicted of some law, then my focus would not be specifically on what people are saying about that specific person, but more about the system . . . and for me to figure out how that system can be challenged, and if it cannot be challenged, then possibly I will not be taking that money.”

While one of Nelly Ben Hayoun’s many titles is Chief of Experiences at WeTransfer, according to Arcucci, University of the Underground students “never heard from WeTransfer.” “WeTransfer never asked me to do anything,” she continued, “and the [Sandberg] students thought we owed something to WeTransfer because they were paying our tuition fees, but it was just a donation.” Design of Experiences graduate Alexander Cromer, who came to the University of the Underground after working in nonprofits in Pittsburgh that primarily served black and Latino children, saw shades hypocrisy in the Sandberg critiques.

Speaking of his years in Pittsburgh, Cromer says, “The way that I, we, always saw it, is, okay, we’re going to get our money from one group of old white men or another group of old white men. They’re both groups of old white men. So maybe it doesn’t matter who we’re getting our money from, just as long as we’re able to have autonomy from most of the sources.”

The Luxury of Speculation

Critics of the University of the Underground at Sandberg were concerned that the countercultural branding of a tuition-free school benefitting from the largesse of corporations cynically co-opted the “language of genuinely radical education models” such as “the UK Free School movement.” But Cromer’s more jaded perspective is more or less aligned with the views Jonathan Kozol espouses in Free Schools (1972), a record of his experience in the Free School movement in the United States.

Kozol devotes significant space to the contradictions of fundraising for the movement. “It does not require the reading of a left-wing radical polemic, nor even a particularly harsh and strident ideological position to look at the printed list along the masthead of the large or middle-sized foundation and to recognize there the names of just those men who plan our wars, control our armies, advise our presidents, govern our banks, hire our police and lay down the invisible demarcations of our ghettos,” he writes. “I think we should be cognizant of the kind of chess match we are playing. I think that we should move our pieces with the calculation that this type of confrontation calls for.”

Kozol was talking about primary education, and in particular the asymmetry between a largely white faculty wishing to remain ideologically pure and their low-income students; as such, his philosophy puts into stark relief the privilege on both sides of any debate about a Master’s design education, in which the credentials for participation include a Bachelor’s degree. Still, Ben Hayoun admits that Sandberg may have been the wrong place to launch her program. “I should have done my homework better . . . instead of coming in like a colonizer,” she says. But that’s about as far as the generosity toward her critics extends. “These people are the first people that would go if they were offered to have a solo show at the Tate Modern,” where up until 2017, BP averaged £224,000 a year in sponsorship, she claims. It’s true that ethical contradictions run rampant in the art world, but lately the tide has been turning, with successful protests against institutional ties to arms dealers and opioid pushers.

The entire field of critical design has a reputation for being divorced from reality. In 2013, Dunne and Raby’s project United Micro Kingdoms went on display at London’s Design Museum. The project modeled a future UK divided into quadrants: Digitarian; Communo-nuclearist; Anarcho-evolutionist; and Bioliberal. According to the project’s website, “Each county is an experimental zone, free to develop its own form of governance, economy and lifestyle. These include neoliberalism and digital technology, social democracy and biotechnology, anarchy and self-experimentation, and communism and nuclear energy. The UmK is a deregulated laboratory for competing social, ideological, technological, and economic models.” What the project fails to acknowledge is that these futures are mutually exclusive: a sovereign nation entrenched in neoliberalism that has reduced nature to nothing but an extractable resource negates all other possible futures. In fact, this negation is already happening. 

“The idea that design can be critical is a bit of a joke because it does nothing but serve under capitalism anyway,” says Pleass. Where the Design of Experiences differs from Critical Design is in its emphasis on action; a designer of experiences inserts themselves into an institution in order to reform it from the inside out. “I think this Design of Experiences really was an attempt to be non-designery, it was basically a performance course,” Pleass says. “That was the most radical thing about the course actually. Basically making us use our bodies which is the ouroboros product in a sense, isn’t it? It’s the most anti-capital thing to do.” Cromer says that the course “irrevocably changed [him] in multiple ways.”

The entire field of critical design has a reputation for being divorced from reality.

The Master’s students I talked to about the University of the Underground had no criticisms of the program as an incubator for leadership. Rather, many of them don’t aspire to institutional power at all. “Nelly’s way is not my way,” says graduate Juhee Hahm. “[Her] methodology . . . is really top down. You become a bit, I felt, like a spy, so you pretend you’re on [the institution’s] side and then when you are in a position that when you speak people listen, then you can turn your head and say, hey this is what I want.”

Ben Hayoun’s methods are connected to her interest in Hannah Arendt, who was herself an institutionalist, according to Arendt scholar Roger Berkowitz. Berkowitz argues that her belief that institutions could be reformed from within carried over into her philosophy of education. In his essay “Public Education: The Challenge of Educational Authority in a World Without Authority,” forthcoming in Hannah Arendt on Educational Thinking and Practice in Dark Times, he writes, “To prepare students to change the world, which is the highest aim of education, the educator must take the responsibility for the authority of the world and teaching the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. We educators must have faith in our students and leave the work of revolution to them.” He argues that Arendt’s understanding of education, as espoused in her essay “The Crisis in Education,” is simultaneously conservative and revolutionary. Conservative because it is a top-down approach, requiring a hierarchical classroom that allows for a plurality of ideas; revolutionary because in resisting the authority of their teacher, the students get their first taste of protest.

I asked Ben Hayoun if performing authority in the manner of Arendt was yet another character in her Design of Experiences repertoire. “Absolutely yes,” she says. “In the sense that I run the school, so I am the one impersonating authority. So that is quite clear [for] the students, that I’m not here to mingle, I’m not here to be their friend. I always try to keep my distance with them so that it’s clear that they can challenge it.”

And challenge it they do, according to Ben Hayoun. “They get together. They find a consensus system unto themselves, which is scary to me because of course I am here to witness the development of leaders. And what I witness is the development of consensus-driven groups. So suddenly I feel like I am talking to one brain instead of twelve,” she says. As the initial program faced challenges from critics at Sandberg, Ben Hayoun’s students began to question key components of the Design of Experiences. It was increasingly difficult to disentangle the methodology from the figure of Nelly Ben Hayoun herself.

Both Sides, Now

As the University of the Underground looked for new partners after Sandberg, the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard seemed like a logical fit. This summer, Ben Hayoun ran a month-long program in collaboration with Bard’s Arendt Center at the Overthrow Boxing Club on the Lower East Side. Much like the nightclub basement in Amsterdam, this location was symbolic: it is the old Youth International Party headquarters, and the boutique fitness brand that arose in its place borrows heavily from the aesthetics of rebellion and #Resistance. (At least one former Yippie isn’t a fan.) The classroom was painted with tributes to the Basquiat graffiti project SAMO and smelled like a locker room. Ben Hayoun taped up pages from an old issue of Brooklyn Rail to use as a whiteboard.

The theme of the summer course was “POST NATION-STATES,” and it culminated in a project about the future of the United Nations. I sat in on lectures by Berkowitz and UN scholar Stephen Schlesinger as well as a hip-hop workshop by recording artist and composer, rapper, and lyricist Billy Dean Thomas. Students also submitted questions to Noam Chomsky for him to answer via email because he “doesn’t like Skype.” At the beginning of the course, the students introduced themselves and said where they were from and what brought them to the program. “I hate institutions, and this feels like an anarchic push against that,” said one woman.

The Master’s students I talked to had no criticisms of the program as an incubator for leadership. Rather, many of them don’t aspire to institutional power at all.

Not everyone agreed. One of the invited speakers initially refused to participate in the course because Judy Pepenella, a founding board member of the Conservative Society for Action, had also been invited, though the speaker later changed his mind. (Pepenella was ultimately unable to attend due to a family emergency.) Ben Hayoun took care to point out that the invitation to Pepenella was made in the interest of pluralism. To her, consensus thinking and pluralistic thinking cannot co-exist. While Arendt scholar Berkowitz has cautioned that Arendt’s view of pluralism “does not affirm sameness or equivalency” between opposing viewpoints, it is often used to provide intellectual cover for American bothsidesism.

Some of Ben Hayoun’s former students were also uncomfortable with the course’s emphasis on authority. “Ideally the best thing you would do as a designer of experiences is . . . something that has a huge impact and a huge amount of change for good, but [there’s] also a huge amount of risk for it to do totally the opposite,” says Pleass. He compares Ben Hayoun’s methodology to Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle—except instead of revealing the spectacle of “the dominant mode of production,” you become it.

Arendter’s Insurance

“The moment you develop something new, then you are going to have to face this notion of being a pariah, being a monster,” Ben Hayoun tells me. In her film I Am (Not) A Monster, she dresses up as Hannah Arendt and grills various intellectual advisers about pluralistic thinking. To Ben Hayoun, the fear of corporations taking over education that was at the heart of the dispute between the University of the Underground and Sandberg students and faculty was “completely displaced.” “We have not planned any form of pluralistic thinking in case our government developed totalitarianism regimes,” she says. “That is what the fear should be. We need to find multiple alternatives” to traditional state-supported public education in the event of such a development, of which University of the Underground is just one example.

However, this analysis falls short without the recognition that many corporations now dwarf, or even behave as, nation states. “Apple’s market cap makes it larger than the GDP of each of 183 out of the 199 countries for which the World Bank has GDP data,” according to Investopedia. Amazon is richer than Qatar and Algeria. If states are vulnerable to totalitarianism, Silicon Valley certainly is too.

In 2017, Ben Hayoun wasn’t the only speaker at the Met to discuss free alternative design education. Benjamin Bratton spoke about an intensive post-graduate program called The New Normal run through the Strelka Institute in Moscow and funded through the school’s commercial consulting work in urban design. (He mentioned, during his talk, translating Dunne and Raby’s book Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming into Russian.)

Peter Zellner also gave a talk, having just turned over his non-degree granting, tuition- and salary-free Free School of Architecture, founded in Los Angeles, to its participants. The problem of funding is not unique to the University of the Underground, says Zellner. Writing in an email, he listed the three-fold challenges facing alternative or independent design education models:

1. Operationally it is difficult to find the resources to sustain these types of organizations without traditional revenue streams, assets, a fixed address or resources;

2. Organizationally it is challenging to impossible to move from a traditional hierarchical academic model to a flat or “non-hierarchical structure” as quickly as I had hoped;

3. Pedagogically it is often too easy to swap a structured way of teaching for the sort of free-for-all “open society” self-teaching model I found devolved quickly into paroxysms of whimsy, personal or tribal interest.

He learned valuable lessons, he says, about the “cult of personality” that can arise within the teaching environment, but ultimately comes down in favor of an authority like that espoused by Arendt.

Still, according to Ben Hayoun, the future of University of the Underground might look like satellite campuses started by former students. “There needs to be somebody very strong kind of leading that course, but I think it can exist without Nelly,” says Cromer. All of the students I talked to saw this as a possibility, though they noted the risk that not everyone was as adept at the theatrics that Ben Hayoun used to her advantage at NASA, as an authority in the classroom, and in the filming of I Am (Not) A Monster.

Over the course of my reporting, it was difficult for me to tell where Nelly Ben Hayoun the character began or ended. Was she in character when she told me that journalists like me only ever asked about money? Was she in character when she said she slept on friends’ couches for the duration of the New York summer school? Was she in character when she messaged me the day before our interview and asked if we could meet at The Standard, Highline because she was really craving their pancakes?

“I don’t know how she does it, and the more you see her talk, the more you realize she says the same things over and over again,” says Pleass. “She always apologizes for her French accent, she always talks over the end of the presentation. Everything is a method to instill this larger than life character, which makes people remember her. Which makes her authoritative in conversations, for getting into situations . . . she definitely tried to get us to do that as well.”

But getting “into situations,” as he puts it, requires faith in your vision and a belief in the ability to reform institutions from the inside. “What do I know about making things better?” asks Pleass.

[*] Correction: This article has been revised to reflect the fact that while the University of the Underground will be working with Denmark’s Kaospilot for its next term, it continues to run a research program in collaboration with the Sandberg Instituut.