A conversation with Nelly Ben Hayoun-Stépanian

Hannah Arendt meets Pussy Riot.

With I am (Not) a Monster, Nelly Ben Hayoun-Stépanian looks for the origin of knowledge, and the state of ideology in our contemporary society. To this end, the French-Algerian designer researches the legacy of the writings of Hannah Arendt and contemporary forms of activism.

 – Elien Haentjens in conversation with Nelly Ben Hayoun-Stépanian

“It is especially important to continue to accept the plurality of knowledge and knowledge distribution.”

In her project I am (Not) a Monster, London-based designer and filmmaker Nelly Ben Hayoun-Stépanian investigates what knowledge is, and who controls that knowledge. “In times when Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump are so popular, those questions have received a new urgency. It is necessary to understand why such people do well, and why people tend to return to authoritarian regimes every time. That is why I take the writings of the German philosopher Hannah Arendt as the starting point. Although, differently to her, I consider knowledge and thinking as the same, and I pay attention to cultural contexts all over the world. ”

The fact that Hannah Arendt is regarded as the most important political philosopher of the twentieth century is due, among other things, to her analysis of totalitarian societies and her characterization ‘the banality of evil’ as a result of the Eichmann’s trial. “By this she meant that one can become a monster the moment where they stop thinking”, says Ben Hayoun-Stépanian. “In re-enactments with traditional Japanese Bunraku dolls I bring her ideas back to life.”

“Through interviews with experts all over the world, such as philosophers Noam Chomsky or Nadya of Pussy Riot, the project is a search for the origins of knowledge. For example, I examine the boundary between education, where different tendencies and opinions are addressed, and ideology, where one idea prevails, but also the way in which theory can lead to political action. For example, I am looking at the role of activism today, as practiced by, among others, Pussy Riot.” On the basis of this research, Ben Hayoun-Stépanian finished the I am (Not) a Monster feature film which is currently on the film festival’s circuit. “In addition, the project has led me to the production of a vinyl record and also takes the form of events, talks and performances. Through these different layers I want to capture and convey the content to as many audiences as possible. Because in the way we process information, fear and questions, it is especially important to continue to accept the plurality of knowledge and knowledge distribution.”


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Elien Haentjens

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