The Other Volcano

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View of the explosion outside Nelly Ben Hayoun’s apartment. Credit photo Nick Ballon

Should you be interested in accommodating a small volcano in your living room, designer Nelly Ben Hayoun has one ready to cover your interior with dust and erupt gloop on your carpet. While the first prototype is still a fairly modest and manageable size, The Other Volcano aims to build a series of semi-domesticated volcanoes that would almost reach the ceiling and provide you with all the discomfort you can expect from this new breed of geological pet. The mini volcano would be housed for a couple of weeks in the living spaces of volunteers, long enough to generate a love-hate relationship between them and a ‘sleeping giant’ that promises domestic explosions and a range of visual effects that the owner of Xanadu himself would envy.

The designer, who benefited from the scientific expertise of Dr Carina Fearnley and the pyrotechnic skills of Austin Houldsworth writes:

With The Other Volcano I will try to question the domestication of nature for entertainment purposes.

How would you deal with a live volcano in the middle of your living room? 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? Would you invite people to see it, and switch it on at the end of the meal to create a ‘surprising’ effect? How will you feel when you will
climb on top of it?

The Other Volcano relates very much to my preoccupation with the juxtaposition of the epic with banal details, the extreme with domestic.

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Photo Nick Ballon, retouched by Christoph Bolton

The Other Volcano is currently gracing (if not endangering) the window of the Wellcome Collection on Euston Road, London. I wanted to ask Nelly a few questions before The Other Volcano moves to a more homely location:

You worked with the volcanologist Dr Carina Fearnley (Lecturer in Environmental Hazards at the Institute of Geography and Earth Sciences, Aberystwyth University) on the Volcano project. Can you tell us how this collaboration started?  And was she mostly a source of information or did her opinions modified in any way the original vision you had of the volcano?

Before meeting up with Dr Carina Fearnley, I think I have scared a few volcanologists! It all seems to be part of the process of my projects.

Before for the Soyuz chair, I managed to terrify some astronauts when I jumped on them after their lecture, with my ‘Cosmic Drive Rocket’ jacket, to ask them to be part of the project. Even worse was when I wanted to generate dark energy in my kitchen sink or when I decided to do a neutrino observatory in my bathroom!

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Valerie and the microwave gun – Did i Generate Dark Energy in my kitchen sink. Photo by Noemie Goudal

Only the bravest scientists usually answer me. So I usually expect sparklers and creative explosions from our meetings.
By the way, the new project will be about dinosaurs, any takers? Please do contact me!

Dr Carina Fearnley is a very dynamic volcanologist. I was so amazed by her energy when I met her the first time. She has been to a number of dangerous volcanoes such as Long Valley Caldera, USA, Mt Vesuvius, Italy, and Mt Unzen, Japan, this forces admiration. But this wasn’t all, Carina is angry, Carina is a revolutionary in her field. She was finishing her PhD at the Aon Benfield UCL Hazard Research Centre, Earth Sciences department at UCL, when we met up. Her research explored the issues related to standardising volcano early warnings systems, and how to understand and better manage uncertainty, risk and complexity in volcanic crises. She is mixing up mediums such as sociology, and anthropology to interpret data using a bottom-up approach. This has not been very well perceived everywhere! Many scientists don’t consider sociology to be a science and have difficulties to accept it as part of a scientific research.

I think our ‘hot blooded’ mix started from there.

She really influenced my thinking, as a designer, I now wonder what we have done in terms of a revolution? Paintings went over period of intense friction and conflict, with photography, BUT what about design?

I think this is one of the areas that the project tries to question.
‘This is not about making technology ‘sexy’ anymore’ like Dunne and Raby would say. So what is design about?
Industrial revolution is too much of an engineered revolution to be a design one, so what and where is going to be the scene for us to Act? I think this open lots of creative perspective and possible conflicts. We have a MASSIVE challenge there! Let’s take it!

So far I have explored in my previous projects and in Home chaos. The Other Volcano is still part of this context, it is for your living room. Now I wonder how much we can extend this? We shall see in the future projects…!

I contacted Dr Carina Fearnley with a fair idea of what I wanted to do already. I planned doing the project since December 2009! The project outline was there: in short: 
”In order to make myself recognized by the Other, I must risk my own life” said Sartre. The Other Volcano imagines a love-hate 
relationship, a ‘sleeping giant’ in the corner of your domestic environment, with the power to provoke excitement with its rumblings,
and also perhaps fear” which Carina answered by telling me: “I think you raise some interesting and powerful questions about peoples perceptions on the forces of nature, especially for volcanoes that can not only be beautiful and gentle like that seen Hawaii, but explosive and deadly like Mt St Helens. Volcanoes are fascinating because they provide life, yet also take it ruthlessly.”

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Home Chaos workshop in MAdlab. Carina Fearnley explaining eruption. Photo by Hwa Young Jung

Dr Carina Fearnley, made the experience tangible and much more precise, The other volcano is one of the type of the Mount St Helens and its ceramique (It is made of ceramic by the way, did you notice?) white aspect is borrowed to the most unique white volcano Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano, The white Volcano- altitude 2886 meters (9524 feet), is a unique and extremely fascinating volcano that towers above the East African Rift Valley in Northern Tanzania, just south of Lake Natron.  It is the only volcano in the world that sometimes erupts natrocarbonatite lava, a highly fluid lava that contains almost no silicone. Contact with moisture rapidly turns natrocarbonatite lava white because of chemical reactions that occur when the lava absorbs water.  

Mount St Helens is an active strato-volcano located in Skamania County, Washington, in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States. This volcano is well known for its ash explosions and pyroclastic flows.

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Home Chaos workshop in MAdlab, one of the participants’ work. Photo by Hwa Young Jung

I now collaborate with Carina on workshops such as the Home Chaos workshop at Madlab where participants were asked to rethink their domestic environment in a more ‘explosive’ manner.

Alongside working with Dr Carina Fearnley and learning more on the variety of explosive systems of volcanoes as well as warning systems, I worked with Austin Houldsworth, a designer himself, he knows a lot about making explosions! Maybe I should say ‘pyrotechnics’! This probably sounds safer!
This is how the first version of the other volcano came together.

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Austin Houldsworth installing the explosive system of the volcano. Photo Nick Ballon

Do you think it is going to be easy to find volunteers who would accommodate your volcano in their house?  

Well surprisingly, yes! After The Other volcano has been exhibited for the London Design Week along with projects from my studio mates in our little but dynamic Sunbury Workshops. I had offers from New Scientist to host it in their London offices and from many people around the world.

Unfortunately, this first version is rather….how can I say that….hmmm….unsafe….! When erupting we still didn’t fully control the explosion and it has a tendency to seriously burn the carpet more than creating dust. Austin Houldsworth knows more than I do on this, we recently added some magnesium to have more ‘flakes’ and dust appearing during the explosion.

The other volcano then moved to Dunne and Raby, Voss Street studio, where it stayed for a few weeks before setting itself up in the Wellcome Trust windows.
As Fiona Raby told me “The other Volcano was surprisingly quiet!” This was lucky!

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The Other Volcano at Dunne and Raby. Credit photo Raby and Dunne

I think that once we have it to a stage where it can actually be plugged in your living room with a socket, we will need to ‘prepare’ the participants to receive it, and here we will need volcanologists such as Dr Carina Fearnley to learn you what are the warning systems. Because you might want the thrill of the explosion but you might not want to change your furniture all the time, so ‘The other Volcano’ needs enough attention and interest as its effect can be destructive.

Having the volunteers to host it would help to figure answers on 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?
Would you invite people to see it, and switch it on at the end of the
meal to create a ‘surprising’ effect?  How will you feel when you will
climb on top of it? Can you become a hero of modern mythology while in
your living room?

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Blowing the volcano smoke away. Photo Nick Ballon

You did have an explosion of the volcano in your own living room, right? Can you tell us how it went and the consequences of this domestic exploding show?

Yes, we actually did the picture in my living room. This is another story in itself…

First I have flatmates, and even if they are very supportive of my work, it has been a serious decision taken all together. At that stage Austin Houldsworth and I didn’t know if this will create ‘smoke damage ‘or not…. Then my landlord’s office is actually a floor below my flat… truly a nightmare! The other being that the volcano will burn the floor and end up in my landlord office after creating a massive smoky hole on his ceiling!

He isn’t usually there but I didn’t know if he was going to turn up the day of the photoshoot or not…

Before this I installed this beautiful velvet carpet on the top on the wood floor and I was hoping that ‘the other volcano’ would not burn the house down.

Following this a very surrealist phone conversation happened with my local firemen, I told them that on that specific day I will be using ‘a smoke machine’ in my flat (I wasn’t going to tell them that I was having a volcano erupting in my living room, of course!). They told me that they can’t stop the calls coming in and if someone calls them they will be there with us… and the volcano…..

So this all was rather stressful …

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Blowing the volcano smoke away. Photo Nick Ballon

Finally everything went according to plan- see pictures of the making off taken by the photographer Nick Ballon.
Again Nick Ballon will tell you how thrilling and smoky it was. I have been working with Nick for nearly 2 years and it seems that I keep creating more and more extreme experiences for him to record! This one was a real challenge, and he went for it!

It is a miracle that we are all still here to tell the story. This photoshoot asked nearly 1 month of preparation.

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Marks on the carpet. Photo Nick Ballon

The day after the photoshoot, I was taking to plane…. To Tel Aviv, where I was doing a Petcha Kutcha‘s talk…. As you can imagine… my shoes were full of ‘pyrotechnic’ powder… The rest is a long story!

What all of this tells is that Design is also about taking risks, the process of making it, is often thrilling in its own rights.

What was the inspiration for The Other Volcano? If I remember well you were interested in volcanoes well before anyone had ever heard of infamous Eyjafjallajokull.

True! I wrote ‘The Other Volcano’ project in December 2009 initially to do a residency in Eyebeam. I was at that time exited by the idea of having a 9 meters high ceramic volcano in New York for people to climb on the top and have a swim in the lava.
Before that, I did the project Super K Sonic Boooum, this dramatically changes the scale of my project. I realized that even if a project seems seriously unrealistic, there is always ways to make it happens.
As you can imagine in the case of the Other Volcano, I opted for the most unrealistic experience. You and me in a living room with mount St Helen’s!

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Nelly Ben Hayoun in Super K Sonic Boooum Gold 2. Credit photo: Chris Foster

What more and more interest me is the way we can use design to confront ourselves with reality, and how actually the experience of it can explore areas of fantasy and science fiction.

I love Maywa Denki for this reason; his all company philosophy is based on Nonsense.
Well, when you look into our reality a lot of elements are part of this ‘infra-ordinary’. He explained it to me that way, what follows is a view on life that I think would have inspired Darwin if he was still with us: ” Life has nonsense spirit. Think about the fish and how some of them decided to climb up trees, this was nonsense! But some of them challenged it, they knew they will die because they had no legs but they went for it”.

The Other Volcano is part of this questioning, what can we do to generate that human challenge?
This is a question treated by Sartre, in the book “les Autres” which translates “The Others”, which is the main inspiration of the project. How can we live with someone that we hate and that we need at the same time?
You will find that most of my projects get their inspiration for literature, Balzac and the Human Comedy, is another of the influence. Mythology by Roland Barthes too and especially with this project which tries to explore modern mythology such as living with nature.

When the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull happened, I was still in the process to get funding for the project, which is an other type of reality for designers and artists ( it sometimes take a full year to get it!). It was terrible by its effects and also, because the project if he ever got funded after that, would have been presented in response to the actuality. Which wasn’t the case at all.
So I had to wait that Eyjafjallajokull calmed down and its eruption fade away in people’s mind to do ‘The Other Volcano’.


Photo credit: Nick Ballon

Your presentation text explains that The Other Volcano questions the domestication of nature for entertainment purposes. Do you have examples that show this domestication is already happening? 

Well, Cities are a form of domestication of nature. We use nature in billions of way to sustain practically our human’s activities. Now what the project actually questions more precisely is how concept such as ‘entertainment’ and ‘thrill’, which are part of our human culture can be explored using nature.
Brendan Walker in The Taxonomy of Thrill and Thrilling Designs gave us the formula of thrill (yes yes! there is an equation for it), I wanted to explore how nature can influence this formula.

Now I guess the logical future step would be to explore what actually is/make our culture? And at the very moment my messy head is telling me that to give an answer, I should learn more on dinosaurs, minerals and …. Shakespeare!

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Making off the other volcano. Photo credit Nick Ballon

Merci Nelly!

The Other Volcano is part of the ‘What If…?’ window exhibition at the Wellcome Collection headquarters on Euston Road, London. Curated by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, the window features several design works that attempt to inspire debate about the human consequences of different technological futures by asking ‘What If…?’
Also on show in the window: Police bees.