Friday, 24 October 2014

Disaster Playground: The Edge of Space Fiction with Nelly Ben Hayoun

You might have heard of French director and designer of experiences Nelly Ben Hayoun from her past creative concoctions such as the International Space Orchestra and her musical collaboration in space with Beck and Bobby Womack. Designing immersive experiences is her forté and her latest creation, Disaster Playground, is no exception. This creative platform explores the theme of catastrophic asteroid collision – both in real-life and Hollywood movies – dancing on the edge between space and fiction through an immersive exhibit and a feature film. Disaster Playground questions the notion of disaster and investigates the human response and cross-cultural reactions to the threat of potentially hazardous asteroids. I recently spoke to Nelly about this exciting new project.
“I am looking at designing ‘extreme experiences’ for the public in order for them to question what the future of space exploration might be, how could they make dark energy in their kitchen sink, and other surreal experiences,” explains Ben Hayoun. She also incorporates real-life space scientists and thinkers in her work. “Disaster Playground is a critical platform that engages the main actors of the project to reflect on their practice and get members of the public to engage with what the craft of space exploration is, who are the people ‘making’ it, and where is this all going?”
Dr. Peter Jenniskens, meteor showers specialist at the SETI Institute, and Director Nelly Ben Hayoun
Director Nelly Ben Hayoun (center) with Dr. Peter Jenniskens, meteor showers specialist at the SETI Institute, during disaster communication training at Disaster City, TEEX, Texas (Credits: Nelly Ben Hayoun/Nick Ballon).

The Real Armageddon

Disaster Playground: The Feature Documentary is about the scientists monitoring and planning the deflection of hazardous near Earth objects (NEO). It addresses the complex decision-making process of protecting the Earth from NEO impacts and the associated challenges. The plotline of the film follows the progress of NASA’s actual asteroid impact procedure. It depicts the chain of command required when there are only a few experts who understand the technology needed to tackle the threat of an asteroid collision with Earth.
“It is about the design of emergency procedures, nailing down who is in charge, who defines the procedures when things go wrong, and according to which rationale,” explains Ben Hayoun.
Ben Hayoun was inspired to create this film in response to pop culture views of space disaster such as the portrayal in the blockbuster Armageddon. In the film, Hollywood relied on Bruce Willis and a giant drill to save the world. How realistic is this and what is really needed to save our civilization from the next major asteroid impact? This is where Disaster Playground picks up the story, in what Ben Hayoun has dubbed space fiction.
“We are looking at the pop culture as a start and then we engage with the reality of each event, the real people who are the real Bruce Willis – thus the term space fiction,” she says. “The film aims to get you to engage critically with the human condition in place in the space program, the craft, the real people doing it, their quirkiness, their sometimes imperfect reactions, and their successes.”
Cowboy on red phone from Disaster Playground
Who ARE the people on the other end of the “red phone” when disaster strikes? In Disaster Playground, we find out (Credits: Nelly Ben Hayoun/Nick Ballon).

The Stars of the Show

World-renowned space experts from NASA and the SETI Institute, as well as an all star team of composers, writers, and international collaborators, joined forces on this project. Names such as Dr. David Morrison, Director of the Carl Sagan Center and the SETI Institute; Dr. S. Pete Worden, Director of NASA Ames Research Center; Dr. Jacob Cohen, Chief Scientist at NASA Ames Research Center; and Dr. Jill Tarter, outgoing Director of the SETI Institute all reenact moments of discovery and key events from their research.
“Each of these scientists has a role in some form or shape with the chain of commands or the development of emergency responses…they informed the film and perform their role in the film,” says Ben Hayoun. “Basically, Disaster Playground is their film but it is directed to us. It is about sharing the experience of dealing with such decisions as: ‘Shall we send that asteroid there or there? Where shall we move it?’”
The Theater of Cruelty
Ben Hayoun has been called the “Willy Wonka of design and science” and her bold design practice has gathered the attention of many – including WIRED magazine, which awarded her its 2014 Innovation Fellowship. She carefully crafts creative modes of communication to explore the depths of design using the theme of space. She takes inspiration from French philosopher and socialist Jean Baudrillard and his text America, as well as dramaturges such as Antonin Artaud who introduced the concept of the Theater of Cruelty.
Ben Hayoun wanted to explore the moral ambiguity of using catastrophe to spark interest in space. The explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger, for instance, created an iconic image. That billowing stream of smoke and flame symbolized a horrific loss of life and severe misstep in the US space program, but it also reignited public interest in that program.
“Our interest for such mortal catastrophe can be identified as a perverse human curiosity,” notes Ben Hayoun. “We believe that this perversity captures one crucial element of what the viewer wishes to see: how technology and humans can beautifully ‘fail’ and, in turn, cause us to reflect on the making behind our discoveries.” She uses just that phenomenon in her work, exploring the situations created when existential danger threatens. “I believe that, by taking an extreme approach, you really get the audience to actively engage with a cause or an area of research and that is what motivates me when it comes to space exploration.” Ben Hayoun hopes that engaging the public will lead to increased support for space. “I want to see the next woman on Mars or on an asteroid, and without public backing that will not happen.”
Disaster City training on asteroid impact response
Disaster City training on asteroid impact response (Credits: Nelly ben Hayoun/Nick Ballon).

The Disaster Playground Media

The theatre in which Disaster Playground is exhibited blends the various media forms the project assumes: documentary feature film, book, and exhibition. A visitor walking into the exhibit experiences live reenactments, journeys through landscapes, and interacts with props ranging from model spacecraft to live goldfish. “Each of the media is connecting various audiences: the film audience, the digital audience, the academic audience, the scientific audience, the graphic audience, the design audience…each of these audiences is very different and so are their needs. This project is engaging the public at various levels with various outcomes and each are tailored for them,” Ben Hayoun explains.
These elements work individually and together to produce the final creative platform that isDisaster Playground.
Astronaut Rusty Schweickart catches a model asteroid Itokawa
Apollo 9 astronaut and B612 Foundation Chairman Emeritus Rusty Schweickart catches a model of Itokawa, the asteroid famously visited by Japanese probe Hayabusa, on set with Ben Hayoun (Credits: Nelly Ben Hayoun/Nick Ballon).

Reigniting Every Kid’s Dream

The importance of sharing the space program’s catastrophes and failures is the driving force behind Disaster Playground. Utilizing the perverse human curiosity and interest in mortal catastrophe is a beautifully twisted method through which we can learn from our failures and reflect on our discoveries.
Ben Hayoun’s primary goal is outreach. Whether as Designer of Experiences at the SETI Institute or sitting on the International Astronautical Federation Space Outreach and Education Committee, Ben Hayoun strives to engineer situations that generate disorder and critical thinking. She aims to reconnect the public with the dream and the vision behind space exploration – one experience at a time.
Disaster Playground was previewed at the Victoria & Albert Museum as part of the London Design Festival Digital Weekend event in September 2014 and will be part of Future Fictions, Exhibition at Z33, House for Contemporary Arts in Hasselt, Belgium October 5, 2014 through January 4, 2015. The feature film will be launched in March 2015.
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Written by Nikita Marwaha for Space Safety Magazine.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Canadian Autumn - SGC & IAC

Hello there! The last time I wrote a blog post I was in the middle of the US on what was the road trip of a life time - but more on that later :) Now that I'm back in London, I'm still recovering from an incredible 5 months in Canada. Having worked at the SSP14 and travelled around the continent, I spent my last 2 weeks in the land of maple syrup attending two very special space events. Get ready for a very  long (but picture-friendly) blog post!


This autumn, Toronto was home to two international space conferences  the 13th annual Space Generation Congress (SGC) and the 65th annual International Astronautical Congress (IAC). Having always wanted to attend, this year I finally managed to go and experience them for myself and share it with you in this post.

The SGC is an relatively young conference organised by the Space Generation Advisory Council (SGAC). This is a non-profit organisation which aims to give students and young professionals in the space industry a voice through which we can speak directly to the United Nations (UN), space agencies, industries and academia. 

I took part in the 'Ethics & Policy of New Human Space Exploration Strategies' Working Group. There were also the Working Groups of 'Entrepreneurship & it's Role in the Space Industry', 'On-Orbit Servicing', 'Cubesat Swarms' and 'Earth Observation for Maritime Services'.

As an SGAC member, I am able to attend the SGC and discuss key space issues alongside other young professionals and students in the space industry. It's a great way to network, collect ideas and trigger innovation. Projects produced here are then presented to the UN!

For the Closing Gala Dinner, NASA Administrator and former astronaut Charlie Bolden spoke to the next generation of space leaders in the unique setting of the Ontario Science Centre. As my first time at the conference, I met some wonderful people from across the world! Including NASA Associate Administrator for Education, Donald James. 

And it doesn't stop there.. 

The following week was the IAC, an international conference with over 3000 people. This year's theme was 'Our World Needs Space' - founded in 1951 by the International Astronautical Federation (IAF), I was lucky enough to attend as Accredited Press with  Space Safety Magazine*. 

 The IAC is known for its grand Opening Ceremony on the first day and this year was no exception. The Canadian-themed event was hosted by two Canadian Space Agency (CSA) astronauts David St-Jacques and Jeremy Hansen.

Canadian astronaut Cmdr Chris Hadfield provided a thought-provoking speech on human spaceflight and the nature of this innate human curiosity to explore the unknown. There were also performances from each province in the land, ice skaters, Cirque du Soleil as well as incredible singer-songwriter Peter Katz. He sang an inspiring song named 'Oliver's Tune' which beautifully reflected the message of the IAC. 


The main conference is comprised of technical talks given by some of the attendees on papers that have been submitted. This was a wonderful way to listen to our peers and hear where their passions lie. There were also plenary sessions such as the Space Industry Leaders Session which invited open questions from the audience to the heads of ESA, (CSA), JAXA and NASA

The final part of the IAC was an exhibition hall overflowing with space companies and organisations all willing to meet like-minded people and share information on the latest innovations in the industry. I even got to sit in the (extremely comfy) Tesla-designed seats for the Dragon 2 spacecraft by SpaceX and pretend to be an astronaut in the Russian Orlan spacesuit! 

All in all — both the SGC and IAC conferences were wonderful experiences meeting new friends and reconnecting with old friends from across the globe. They're great ways to network and exchange ideas with other people that also want to somehow influence the future of space in some way or the other. 

Whether it be putting robots on Mars, satellites in orbit or humans on the International Space Station (ISS) and beyond — the SGC and IAC are the places to be. Sharing the same location annually, both conferences will convene in Jerusalem, Israel next year. 

See you there!


*I wrote an article about IAC 2014 for Space Safety Magazine here.

(CN Tower photo credits: Remco Timmermans)
(Donald James photo credits: Lauren Lyons)
(Two Group photo credits: SGAC & Tanay Sharma)

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