Nelly Ben Hayoun Studios launches University of the Underground – a radical rethink of design education

2 February 2017

Today sees the launch of The University of the Underground, a masters course like no other, that will offer 15 students fully funded scholarships to radically shake up design thinking and practice. With a list of guests tutors including Pentagram’s legendary partner Paula Sher, science fiction author Bruce Sterling, activist and feminist Jasmina Tesanovic and professor Rachel Armstrong, and an advisory board that includes Dave Eggers, Professor Fiona Raby and Jurgen Bey, the school promises to offer an uncompromising and critical education in design. Here, founder of the University of the Underground Nelly Ben Hayoun explains the vision for the school.

As I write, President Trump has shut down the borders to refugees and legal “aliens” from seven largely Muslim countries. It was a move which happened following his orange hand-holding session with UK prime Minister Theresa May. Political systems have shown their limit with the election of a president, who did not gain popular vote but still was elected. And similarly for May, who did not get elected but grew from the ashes of the Brexit vote.

As a designer, I always felt that objects could not properly respond to the emergencies of our world. Objects and products are essential to any social actions — banners and musical instruments often used in protests are a part of that category. However, design as a discipline did not render visible what I was most passionate about: revealing power structures and supporting the performance of politics and power shifts in institutions.

For a long time I tried to connect human narratives, the performance of politics and artefacts. It was an impossible equation that I was trying to elucidate with no success. Prior to learning about critical design at the Royal College in Design Interactions, I trained in painting and textile and was always reminded that textures, tones and colours are also a big part of our daily experience now and in the future.

I indeed believe in another form of education, one in which you learn how to navigate systems and how to best disturb them from the inside. Where design supports the modelling and physical existence of your dreams; this is where the University of the Underground will focus its energy.

I was not on my own in this belief, other dreamers of the day joined the effort. First is Jurgen Bey, Director of the Sandberg Instituut in Amsterdam. Jurgen leads the postgraduate programme of the Gerrit Rietveld Academie. All programmes are officially licensed and funded by the Dutch Government and are leading to the Master of Arts degree. Jurgen joined me in creating the University of the Underground Foundation, currently in Amsterdam and set as a non-profit. We found lots of supportive souls and they joined us as board members. A full list of our partners in crime is available online.

With the aim of teaching students how to engineer situations, to design experiences and events to best support social dreaming, social actions and power shifts within institutions, companies and governments, the University of the Underground exists at the nexus between critical design, experiential, theatrical, filmic, political and musical practices. Its result is the design of experiences. We support forms of deviance in creativity. The non-established and the unconventional, revolutionary practices, theatres of cruelty and musical concerts will be celebrated as we manufacture countercultures, radios, pirates, utopias and experiences for power shifts.  

I believe, like many others, that it is most urgent to equip young designers with the learning that allows them to use their knowledge of the material world to help them navigate governmental systems, institutions and power structures. I am concerned with the modelling and physical existence of my students’ dreams, beliefs and myths. I want to support them in believing that they can achieve the impossible and I want to give them methods that allow them to produce and manufacture it. In the University of the Underground, we believe in social dreaming becoming the fuel for social actions. In the punk tradition, we believe that there are no more heroes and we wish to democratise the experience of the institution. The young generation deserves to reclaim their part in public institutions. We will work on making this happen.

So, this is where we live at the moment, under the earth, close to volcanoes. The University of the Underground will support unconventional research and design practices. We play and reenact the performance of politics, which is how we learn and teach. We will explore and challenge the full scale of things, from the bottom of the sea to the highest altitude of our universe, and I wish to share this with all the enrolled students and give them the same opportunity and passion for life and the world than I was brought up with.

Let’s do this and let’s do this together, now is the time to create the network of the creative soldiers worldwide.

Apply until 1 April 2017 and join us in this effort, we are looking for 15 creative soldiers to start their MA full time in September 2017. We will be drawing on the expertise of guests tutors including Pentagram’s legendary partner Paula Sher, Science fiction author Bruce Sterling, activist and feminist Jasmina Tesanovic and Prof. Rachel Armstrong. Our advisory board includes Dave Eggers, XL recordings’ creative director Phil Lee, Prof. Fiona Raby, the president of WeTransfer Damian Bradfield, the Vice President of Design at Airbnb Alex Schleifer, the Metropolitan museum’s associate curator Beatrice Galilee, Jurgen Bey and more.

A full list of the advisory board and guest tutors is available here.

We are here to stay. Creative soldiers all around the world, join us in creating new forms of interactions with federal power structures.

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