Rise Above: The University of the Underground Mobilizes Beyond The Basements of UK Nightclubs

Sam Eye Am Photography

Dr. Nelly Ben Hayoun speaks in broad strokes about her big colourful ideas that challenge social structures through the design of experience. 

In Reykjavik for Iceland Airwaves, the University of the Underground founder is sitting in the top floor green room of IDNO, a house that’s been converted into a shared office space with a nightclub on its main floor. 

While the Björk-approved Icelandic singer and multi-instrumentalist Ólöf Arnalds is performing to a packed crowd downstairs, Hayoun is upstairs speaking to BeatRoute in a quiet corner about her many accomplishments that she’s achieved in her short but fast-lived 35 years.

Her resume is almost as bright and spectacular as the coloured fur coat she’s wearing. From founding the International Space Orchestra at NASA in 2012 to documentary filmmaking — her latest film, I Am (Not) A Monster, seeks to find the origin of knowledge — no dream is too big for Hayoun.

Founded in 2017, the University of the Underground exists in the basements of nightclubs in Amsterdam and London and includes board members and activists such as Noam Chomsky and Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot, Rose McGowan, McSweeney’s founder Dave Eggars and Ishmael Butler of Digable Planets and Shabazz Palaces.

In the punk tradition we believe that there are no more heroes and we wish to democratize the experience of the institution

This subversive tuition-free educational and cultural program is supporting plurality of thinking through free and transnational teaching in unconventional spaces.

Her latest endeavour with the University of the Underground is one of her greatest feats yet: a three-month residency program in Egypt, working with the nightlife in Cairo.

The University of the Underground is a free, pluralistic and transnational university and charity where students are taught how to use experiential event-based practices (music, film, design), political theory and linguistics to penetrate institutions with the hope of modifying them from within.

“I believe that now, more than ever is the time to create a network of thinkers and activists who can positively challenge institutions and power structures,” Hayoun says in her thick French accent. “The University of the Underground is not a simple reaction to the current political, economic and sociological issues we are currently facing. We are thinking about longer-term strategies.”

Participants need to have strong creative direction, independent working attitude, self motivation, lots of opinions and of course a very open mind to embrace the vivid peer to peer learning experience mixed with willingness to venture into new territories.

While the University is located in the basement of nightclubs — literally — its location choice is also practical in nature. 

“We are a small operation with very few staff members who are also practitioners and while there is heat, a library, a sound studio and other kitchenette, it’s far from a luxurious university.”

The University’s activation in Cairo, Turquoise Desert, is spread over three months and is composed of a symposium, mentoring, a research trip and an exhibition.

“In the punk tradition we believe that there are no more heroes and we wish to democratize the experience of the institution. The young generation deserves to reclaim their part in public institutions,” Hayoun says. “In my experience the magic really happens when we are able to bring people of all walks of life together to create chaos and disorder.”

The next project for Hayoun and the University will be the High School of the Underground, for 10 to 16-year-olds at their DeMarktkantine campus in Amsterdam. This effort will be managed by one of the University’s 2017-2019 alumni, Alexander Cromer.

For more information on The University of the Underground visit universityoftheunderground.org