9 July 2018 and I am (not) a monster

I wake up in a splendid mood. It is 4:40 am when I first stand up somewhere on someone’s bed- my cousin Hugo’s- bed, someplace in Lyon. I repack what I had unpacked the night before; but this time with a little euphoria as I close the case.

I have spent a lot of time in my suitcase, lately. When asked where I come from, I usually proudly reply that I am from nowhere and everywhere.

As a matter of fact, I am and want to be:…lost. My definition of freedom has slowly developed into one that wants to exist in between the structures others have built- namely institutions. A good way of seeing it is that I make my home in others. I am the monster of the architect, the lichen. Here in the face of each shiny facade, I sleep, curled up down below to best see the flaws. THIS is a precarious state.

So- you ask-where did this begin?

I am (not) a Monster Graphic_Copyright: I am (not) a monster LTD/Nelly Ben Hayoun Studios 2018
I am (not) a Monster Graphic_Copyright: I am (not) a monster LTD/Nelly Ben Hayoun Studios 2018

In the summer of 2016, I decided to change what made me really nervous about education: amongst other things; tuition fees, lack of diversity in leadership and higher education, lack of experimental practices, I recognised the need to build a programme that best supports social dreaming both within the workforce but also in institutions through experiences (i.e.events). I thought of this change as one that could exist afloat, perhaps even on a boat. A floating vehicle, with no government attached to it, no nation states- just one that exists in between territories, making its own democracy along the way. Everywhere and nowhere- a space I know a little too well…. So, I decided that this change had to be located in the basement, in the tunnels in the underground- reconnecting with our philosophical cave, our dirty past and establishing our origins, the ones of the dust. So it became.

The University of the Underground.

Launched in February 2017 it is a registered charity in Holland. It supports students through this charity that donates scholarships so that they can pay their tuition fees to our academic partner. The University of the Underground co-hosts the master’s programme with an accredited academic partner- and this was a solution found to support the freedom of learning.

Along the way, while commodity was meant to be the one thing we would not have to worry about, it became the essence- at least from the outset. Academics based in Holland, where we are currently established, as well as some students, reacted to us proposing this model in forms and shapes that I could not comprehend. They feared The University of the Underground, they did not like our name, they did not like our graphic design, they feared that we will change the government’s mind on education and its funding structure and that somewhat other educative structures will follow our example and it will be the end of the public service. We were ‘not ethical’ they say, it ‘was not about us’… but so it was. We got ‘asked’ to depart. It had been set- two years and gone.

As I was sinking in deep anger and financial struggles, I remembered Hannah Arendt’s writing on thinking and its power. So for a little while, I thought about this critique. I needed to understand their existence, the origin of them. Why is education such that no-one can touch it, that nobody can experiment with other formats and mechanics? Why is education headed by governments? Are governments the best representation of people’s belief? Are they accredited to be the ones and only body able to provide us with knowledge? How is knowledge and education connected to our cultural heritage- isn’t this junction really forced? Why should you study the history of French kings if you are born in France and not hear about the war of independence in Algeria? To be a ‘good’ citizen; does this mean to conform to one single form of education and location? Where does one start to unravel such equations? What is knowledge, who owns it and can we- really- make or create structures that support the freedom of thinking? How? The University of the Underground is one way of discovering this answer, perhaps in 10 years, perhaps in 100. Time will tell and meanwhile, I am a firm believer that universities are where all these alternatives, these ‘multiverses’ should be offered, supported, collided and discussed.

Yeek. I nearly missed the taxi to the airport. As I leave my cousin’s flat, I am disturbed by a little drawing framed on the wall. It is the one of a couple holding hands as the man’s left hand is holding a stick with a gun in his mouth. All of which made in a beautiful pastel palette. A strange and violent scene, I think.

In the taxi, discussing passports and Morocco where the driver is from, his education in computer science and the fact that he decided to drop it as he did not want to work for someone else other than himself.

At the airport, dropping my bag- knowing that perhaps I will return and have in my suitcase the alchemy which will grant and declare the freedom of learning in the basement at the University of the Underground. This magic mix, I will go and get from Egypt, Ethiopia, Japan the UK and more! What form and shape it has, I do not know, but I do want to find out what is knowledge and where it resides. Perhaps an impossible pursuit, but I will bring it back to my students.

Wondering into knowledge-land is just like trying to connect impossible geographies, history, facts and fictions. The way I see it- is that it is a nervous ‘blob’ we have created and which somewhat is animated by forces that none of us can understand or even see anymore. Slavoj Zizek, once spoke about the ideological narratives that shift the attention away from capitalisms cyclical contradictions. Knowledge perhaps is just mechanical in response to such factors?

So here is the premise of this project. Titled “I am (not) a monster, it is an expedition, a pursuit of knowledge and its mechanics, a multi platform project (feature-length film, short films, events, musical vinyl record, and exhibition) which aims to unravel one of the biggest questions  of  our  age:  who  controls  what  we  think? How do different ideologies shape our values and institutions and thus establish the reality of our world? And what be done about this, if these ideologies do not take our fancy.

Along the way, it is demonstrating the state of ideologies- their origins, formulation and power structures. It investigates the means by which knowledge is interwoven with the idea of cultural heritage while current development in Artificial Intelligence suggests a global notion of ‘collectiveness’. Trained by Noh theatre, Kabuki experts and Sumotoris in Japan, with Bunraku puppets in hand, I will reenact and question the writings of political theorist Hannah Arendt while talking to the world’s most influential thinkers accompanied by Japanese monsters known as Yokais. On this dynamic journey from Ethiopia and Egypt to Japan, Germany, Netherlands, the UK and more, I will also engage with families, students of alternative educative structures and Hannah Arendt’s students. Together, we will try to answer one of the greatest questions of our age: who owns knowledge and the act of thinking? In Ethiopia I will meet with our ancestor Lucy, in Egypt I will try and understand the importance of language and the relationship between beliefs and the sharing of knowledge, I will put diplomats under hypnotherapy to define the future of knowledge and education. I will even discuss human memories with one of Hiroshi Ishiguro’s humanoids in Japan and discuss politics and blame on Hannah Arendt’s grave.

I believe that everything is relevant, naivety, anger and curiosity will take me where I need to go next. Today, I trust that the mechanics of knowledge, to be unravelled, will need to be challenged by the non-linear, so I will be there, going round and round the earth, like a record, finding out what nickel and other rare minerals this is made of.

This is not a romantic voyage. It is all action.

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Dr. Nelly Ben Hayoun is an award-winning designer and filmmaker creating multi-dimensional experiential projects at the intersection of science, theater, politics and design. In 2014, she was awarded Wired inaugural Innovation Fellowship.Ben Hayoun directed two feature length movies. In 2015 she received The Arts Council England Exceptional Award for Disaster Playground and Indiewire recognized her as one of SXSW Highlights Women filmmaker where she was nominated for a Vision Award. Her roles include Chief of Experiences at WeTransfer, Designer of Experiences at the SETI Institute, advisor to the UN Virtual Reality Labs,founder of tuition free University of the Underground.