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Designer Dialogues: Pleun van Dijk

24 November 2020

© Manon Vosters
The creatives of Sectie-C, an Eindhoven based design hub, initiated BLANK SPACE MAGAZINE, a magazine that portrays different creative makers in their workplaces while interviewed by colleagues. What fascinates, inspires and drives them to do what they do? Especially for, BLANK SPACE MAGAZINE edited the interviews into interesting short stories. This week, Anne Ligtenberg sits down with speculative designer Pleun van Dijk.
Pleun van Dijk
© © Manon Vosters

What are you working on at the moment?

I am currently working on a series of sculptures with the working title "Objects of Desire" in preparation for my graduation research. The project started a few years ago during my artist residency at the Spring House in Amsterdam where I researched the future of reproduction. More specifically, I wanted to find out about what our sexual organs will look like when we stop reproducing sexually and when reproduction would take place outside of our body. During the residency I made a series of drawings of shapes that our reproductive organs could take in the future. Last year in London I started translating this into 3-D forms.

In my work I explore the boundaries of what we can and cannot distinguish between what is human. Where does being human begin, where does it end? Where is the division between man and object? What is the sexuality of a product? Can we be attracted to objects?

How do the themes of sexuality and reproduction relate to the question of being human?

I’m noticing the sexuality of objects. Everything is designed with a certain sensuality, for example with the female body in mind. The headlights of cars, for example, also have something human through their shape and positioning. I am delving into this and investigating how this affects us. To what extent can you be attracted to something non-human? I would love to go to a sex doll factory. This is as close to a human production line you can get. At the same time, I wonder why people are represented in this way and not differently? What is it we find arousing? As a human being can you really feel attracted to a silicone object and is this also possible when it is not a representation of the human being? Where exactly that limit lies is the recurring question in my work. I often start with the human and then I stretch the definition until I reach the point where we think it has nothing human in it anymore.

I think it is also very much about language. What does the dictionary say about the word “human"? Humans are constantly evolving, so shouldn't we update that definition every so often? You can ask yourself, at what point are you truly human? Are you a human when you are a fertilized egg or only when you are eighteen years old and an adult by law? When does humanity end? If I have dementia at the age of eighty-five, how much of a person am I still?

© Manon Vosters

What if you only exist in memory?

Exactly, the concept is constantly changing.

I think that many of my questions stem from the fields of psychology and therapy that both my parents worked in. At home it was often about the inner world of man. It quickly became clear to me that I did not want to do the same work, but I share the endless fascination for humans. In addition, my interest is also a reflection of the moment in which I live. We live in a time in which the possibilities to change people are constantly increasing.

With all the possibilities now available, all kinds of ethical questions arise.

Indeed, and in my opinion we ask ourselves these questions too little. When ultrasound technology was developed, we could suddenly see the baby in the womb before it was born. That has brought about a crucial change. The emotional bond with the unborn child changed. This in turn had an impact on the idea of abortion. We also suddenly got the opportunity to map out certain deviations at an early stage. Do you want to have it removed or do you let it be born? In this way our boundaries are constantly being stretched. Science developed ultrasound because it was possible, but the ethical implications have not always been considered.

The purpose of speculative design is to ask questions about this, to show several scenarios, so that a social debate can already be conducted in advance. That's why I do the work that I do. Not to answer, but to ask that question: "What kind of people do we want to become?"

What is the freedom that speculative design brings you?

With speculative design you can work out different scenarios. In science, written research often remains very abstract. It remains difficult to imagine it. By translating the same information into form, a different dialogue is created, which can lead us to make different choices.

Who is your work intended for? Who should really see your work?

Definitely the scientific community. A few years ago I listened to a podcast episode about Deep Fake technology. The technical possibilities to develop this were there and the scientists got to work on it. In the podcast, the question was asked to what extent they had thought about the possible negative consequences of their work. The interviewee did not seem to have been very aware of this. What seems to be forgotten is that once a discovery is made there is no turning back. Suddenly new technology has to be developed to find out what a Deep Fake video is and what is really true. This is just one example where speculative design could have played an important role by holding up a mirror. By working out a scenario you can get people to look at a subject from a distance and ask them: "What do we think about this?" That is why I see a need here to translate research into form. In science, all kinds of choices are being made that can change our humanity enormously, but we have no idea how exactly.

What I find very interesting about speculative design is that it touches on very contemporary subjects that people like to pretend are not relevant yet.

My master's degree in London clearly distinguishes (science) fiction and speculative design. There is a very clear limit on what speculative design is and is not. It should be based on facts and not fantasy. As a result, most projects do not speculate about a world three hundred years from now, but about what the world might look like in, say, twenty years.

For me, speculative design is about visualizing the new options that we currently create as humans. The new developments generate many social and ethical issues that no one has answers to yet. We cannot fully see the consequences and we have to deal with them carefully.

The full interview with Pleun van Dijk can be found in the third edition of Blank Space Magazine. You can follow Blank Space Magazine here.

Interview: Anne Ligtenberg / Photography: Manon Vosters