This story is part of Next Generation, a series in which we give young makers a platform to showcase their work. Your work here? Get in touch and plot your coordinates as we navigate our future together.
Pleun van Dijk is a speculative artist/designer who investigates the intimate relationship between human and technology. By observing and analyzing moments of transition within society, she generates new thoughts and different perspectives. Her project Objects of Desire collaborates between the designer (representing the human) and a generative algorithm (representing technology). Based on a dataset of sex toys that are morphed into new visuals by a regenerative algorithm and then translated back into tridimensional shapes. The final shapes are undefined, anthropomorphic, human-like sculptures. By taking new ideas out of the abstract and giving shape to possible future scenarios, Pleun gives the viewer the opportunity to contemplate on the new developments in society. To realize that algorithms reflect who we are, they are made by us and therefore are as perfect and imperfect as humans.
Tell us about your project ‘Object of Desire’
Objects of Desire is an investigation into the intimate relationship between human and technology. With the current exponential speed at which technology develops, the thin line between human and technology will continue to blur and might eventually even fully disappear. This growing integration between what we define as human and non-human will confront us with ethical and fundamental questions about who we are and who we ultimately want to become.
Objects of Desire aims to translate some of these current developments into a tangible scenario by starting a collaboration between the designer (representing the human) and a generative algorithm (representing technology). While this collaboration could in theory be continued forever, the project for now focuses on the first three steps of this new method.
In step one, the first dataset was curated containing both realistic (representing human genitals) and abstract sex toys. These toys are objects we by nature have a very close physical relationship with and could also be seen as an example of (sexual) objectification. In step two, a pre-trained machine learning (ML) model was used to generate a collection of 1,000 new, non-existing shapes based on the initial dataset. In step three, the generated images were curated and translated back into a three-dimensional physical reality. This resulted in a series of undefined, anthropomorphic, human-like sculptures.
In Objects of Desire, human (the designer) and technology (the algorithm) collaborated in the design process of new hybrid forms, a method that exemplifies the ever-existing relationship between human and technology. The project confronts the viewer with a speculative scenario and leaves them to decide whether they perceive the outcome as human, non-human or something that exists in between.
Design could become a tool that helps us visualize (im)possible future scenarios and confronts us with the idea that our decisions today will fundamentally change our future
How does this fit into your curriculum on Material Futures?
The MA Material Futures is often described as a programs where science, technology and design collide. This crossover between the different disciplines and the different study backgrounds all students have is what makes the course so vibrant and interesting. When you look at the diverse range of graduation projects it’s hard to grasp what the course is about, what they all do have in common is the desire to reflect on the now and speculate about the future.
This is also where my project Objects of Desire comes in, as I try to generate a new perspective on the now, and speculate upon a future in which human and technology collaborate on a more far reaching level in the creation of new hybrid forms. Within this project, design becomes a tool that helps us visualize (im)possible future scenarios and confronts us with the idea that our decisions today will fundamentally change our future.
Why focus on sexual objects?
As mentioned before, this project started with me, collecting and selecting the first dataset that contains 1000 images of abstract sex toys as well as realistic representations of human genitals. The focus on these objects not only arrived from the aesthetic analysis of my earlier made sculptures but is also based on the idea that our reproductive organs often get objectified as they are one of the most replicated parts of our bodies. Through the use of these sexual artefacts we cannot only enhance our feelings of pleasure but also partly replace our interaction with other humans. Therefore these objects belong to a category of things that we are physically very intimate with.
To dive a little deeper into the question why I decided to focus on sex toys I will categorize them in two different types. On one hand we see realistic human-like shapes, on the other hand abstract non-human products. The shapes that are supposed to represent human genitals are often made of silicone and come in various skin tones. These toys can be seen as a literal form of sexual objectification, the human is reduced to its sexual organ and is despite its realistic appearance an idealized version of reality. Besides the accurate asymmetrical elements we see smooth skins, no pubic hair, no spots, no body liquids and the penis only seems to exist in its full length, as a static and non-living thing.
These toys can be seen as a literal form of sexual objectification, the human is reduced to its sexual organ and is despite its realistic appearance an idealized version of reality
The category of abstract sex toys contains products that refer to the human (and sometimes even replace the human) while clearly being objects. These are abstract shapes often made from glossy and shiny materials like plastic, rubber, or even glass. The color range is supposed to look playful and artificial. It stays far from any realistic skin tones and varies from pink to purple, light blue, pastel green, and black (when it comes to anal toys). In this case the shapes are not by themselves examples of body objectification but rather sexual objectification as they show us how sexy, desirable, and attractive objects are supposed to look.
What does your project reveal about our intimate relationship with technology?
My thesis as well as the project execution both investigate our entangled relationship with technology and the increasing grey area that exists in between. It zooms in on the blurring boundary — the anthropomorphobia this might lead to — and trigger questions like: where do we end? Where does technology begin? Should we promote or prevent a future merge into a hybrid form of being?
What we have to understand about this relationship is that our intensive use of technology is as old as the human. Through the creation of external body extensions we managed to cover our physical implications and improve our abilities. The production of tools differentiates us from other species and made us conquer our dominant position on today’s planet. In a way we thank our survival and current existence to our intense use of technology, and technology only exists because of us.
Our intensive use of technology is as old as the human
Due to this entangled relationship, analyzing the world of things, not only becomes a way to understand the integrations as well as differentiation but also becomes a mirror in which we find who we are. We should keep a critical approach and take the possible effects of technological developments into consideration, but we also have to understand that by copying ourselves and stretching our human abilities we define and redefine what a human being is. A long story short I guess the point is that we have to understand that there is this entangled relationship between human and technology and that one exists because of the other before we can start making decisions about their future integration.
How do you see your work? As sculpture, sex toys or technology?
The final sculptures are a combination of so many things that it becomes hard to put them in one box. They are based on a dataset of sex toys, selected and curated by me, morphed into new visuals by a regenerative algorithm and then translated back into tridimensional shapes. Because of this combination of things it becomes almost impossible to separate human from technology and a new shape language appears. So, instead of defining what the final shapes are I prefer to describe them as undefined, anthropomorphic, human-like sculptures. By doing so I try to leave enough space for the viewers to define and redefine what they are to them. Again it goes back to the idea that the project should trigger questions and not provide the answers.
We have to realize that algorithms reflect who we are, they are made by us and therefore are as perfect and imperfect as humans
Tell us about your design process.
In contrast with my previous projects, I started this project with a thinking-through-making approach which resulted in an intuitively crafted collection of one large and nine small scale sculptures. Once the sculptures were finished I used different object analysis methods to investigate the making process as well as the final artefact. Producing and analyzing the first sculptures defined the theme of the research and became in itself proof of the intimate relationship between human and technology, or in this case between me and my work.
The first research phase ended with the idea that everything we produce could more or less be seen as the result of a collaboration between human and technology. This concept was then translated in the creation of a new design method that simulates a scenario in which human and technology partner in the design process of abstract as well as human-like shapes. The human was in this phase represented by me as a maker, designer, and creator whereas technology was represented by an already existing algorithm. For now I just focused on the first three steps as described earlier but in theory this collaboration could be continued forever, which refers back to the idea that our relationship with technology is a never ending one.
How (and what) do generative algorithms add to your creative practice?
Looking back at this collaboration between me and the algorithm I realize it has given me a completely new role as a creative. From being the creator I almost transitioned into the curator of my own work. For the creation of the first dataset I scrapped different sex toy websites and selected a diverse range of 1000 images. Once this was done I gave it to the algorithm and just had to wait for hours before I could finally see the result. I guess this has been one of the best moments within the process because of the unexpected and surprising results. From there one I could take over control again and selected the first 7 shapes that were then transformed into physical sculptures.
The idea that you design the method instead of the final outcome is something that has been there in most of my projects. Even though I like to be in control of the shape language and the final presentation of the work I also like to allow things to appear. The final shapes therefore not only reflect me but also, the sex toys industry, the photographer who took the product photos, the programmer of the algorithm, me as a maker… and so on.
What does ‘Objects of Desire’ suggest about the role of algorithms in society?
I started this project with the idea to collaborate on an equal level with an algorithm. Early on in the process I realized that I was guiding, curating and in a way even controlling the algorithm through the input I gave it and the output I used. Reflecting on this process I think it actually might have been a good thing, the algorithm didn’t independently create a project for me, it has been a tool, a very useful, interesting and valuable one. Perhaps this is also the approach we should have within society. Algorithms can be useful tools but we have to control, check and guide them. More importantly we have to realize that algorithms reflect who we are, they are made by us and therefore are as perfect and imperfect as humans.
The possible outcomes and effects of technological and scientific developments might go beyond our prediction. This does not mean we should have an uncritical approach to its application. We have to understand the fear and confusion this might lead to and use these feelings as a guideline. Our own inventions will fundamentally change who we are and force us to reposition ourselves within the context of the world.