Nelly Ben-Hayoun's Domestic Volcanoes


Written by Natasha Hoare
Photos and illustrations by Nick Ballon
20 Wednesday 20th April 2011

“Would you be more popular if you had a volcano in your front room?” asks young designer / artist / mad-scientist Nelly Ben-Hayoun. With the recognisably ambitious "well, why not?" attitude that's becoming signature to the Royal College of Art's new Design Interactions course, Ben-Hayoun tackles the (presumably legion) practical issues with simulating an ultralocal tectonic shift in her lounge and creating dark matter in her kitchen sink.

Volcanoes in people’s front rooms! Would you describe yourself as a quiet person?

Ha ha! Very good question! I think I am the opposite of quiet - which usually put me into trouble, especially in England where things are quietly said and usually said by metaphors. 

You worked with an explosives expert - did you get background checked first?

For Other Volcano I worked with explosive expert Austin Houldsworth and Dr Carina Fearnley, volcanologist. Both were very skilled and knowledgeable.

The first volcano is in my flat which is a story in itself. Firstly, I have flatmates so it has been a serious decision taken all together. Secondly, my landlord's office is actually a floor below my flat - truly a nightmare. We didn’t know if the volcano would burn through the floor and end up in his office! 

Unfortunately, the first version was rather unsafe! When erupting, we still didn't fully control the explosion and it seriously burnt the carpet. So we’ve added magnesium to make more 'flakes' and dust.

Having the volunteers to host the volcano hopefully provides answers to questions such as - how would you deal with a live volcano in the middle of your living room? Would you ignore it? Would you wrap it up? Would you try to destroy it? Would you just disconnect it from the mains? Would you be more popular because you share your life with a volcano?

The Other Volcano has moved across a number of locations and it is now in display at Space in Between.

The Other Volcano

What role do you believe art should play in people’s lives?

I am not here to decide for everyone else, but I do think that art shoould mean experiencing something that is part of the 'infra-ordinary', something which is half real, half science fiction. If art, design, literature can give us a real access to our fantasy then I think their role is essential. I think passion for me is actually what comes before art.

If you had unlimited funds what would you construct?

If this was to happen, I think I would create the ‘Unlimited Funds Institute’, I will make it so artists and designers can do their work, without begging for money all the time. This is the only job where everyone thinks that we can do everything with £1! Obviously the ‘Unlimited Fund Institute’ will be part of an attraction park which will sit between the moon and Jupiter and that we could access with a lift covered in blue velvet. There you can experience weightlessness while eating with yetis, talking to stone marten, swimming in the lava, blowing up some concrete bubbles, riding a cloud and flying like Icarus on the latitude zero degrees!

Is the Large Hadron Collider sabotaging itself from the future?

Or do you mean that the Large Hadron Collider is trying to remake the future to be back in the past? Well I think that nobody knows really. They are trying to do something fantastic - recreate the first second after the Big Bang!

Believe it or not but most scientists’ work is based on speculation. I think that to be a physicist nowadays you need to be able to stretch your mind as much as possible and be inventive to figure out questions like, ‘what is the ‘multiverse’?’, and be able to explain it to the public. Designers and physicists can understand each other very well as we are working in the same language of faith and trust. We both follow creative instincts and keep looking and building huge experiments to study. For me, the meeting of these two worlds makes perfect sense as we share a fascination of the unknown.

What is Dark Energy, and how can someone make it in their sink?

At the moment, astronomers only know 5% of the universe; 23% is made of dark matter, 73% is made of a completely unknown form of energy – ‘Dark Energy’ or the energy of nothing. Dark Energy is believed to be responsible for the permanent inflation of the universe. Fifty years ago a Dutch physicist (Hendrik Casimir) predicted the existence of Dark Energy and created an experiment to prove it. I wanted to perform the impossible by remaking his experiment in my kitchen. 

So what do you need?
~ Salt water
~ Two pieces of metal (here I took pigeons’ eggs that had been gold plated)
~ Microwaves made by extracting the magnetron from a usual household microwave

This project tries to deal with the surreal aspect of generating the unknown in a kitchen. I wanted to engage in a discussion about the boundary between science fiction and ‘hard-core’ science - a platform where the extreme experiments of amateurs can make the physically ‘impossible’ happen.

Are you for or against space tourism?

I am for space tourism but for free! Virgin Galactic is just really too expensive to be the solution. But truly I think you can do a lot with your imagination while in your living room!

Super K Sonic Booooum

Do you consider yourself a director, designer, artist or scientist?

It depends of the scale of the project really, but definitely not a scientist! When you do a large scale project like Super K Sonic Booooum or Micronations Revolution you need to make sure that everything is moving the same way it's about management and creativity.

As a designer, I think that design must be engaged. I build installations as a set to facilitate and encourage surreal interactions. I consider all the work I am doing as experiments, each is 80% risk. I never know if I will be able to give a valuable experience to the public until the day they are all there and we switch on the light.

What’s next?

Hmmmm… I hate to talk about things, which aren’t there yet. But I can tell that the new project has to do with opera and control room!

Micronations Revolution


The Other Volcano by Nelly Ben-Hayoun runs at Space In Between until 30th April, 2011. For more info see

For Nelly's official website click here. More details can be found on the projects, Super Sonic K Booooum here and Micronation Revolution here.

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