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Pleun van Dijk’s form philosophy

25 November 2021

5 min. to read

Pleun van Dijk © Boudewijn Bollmann
Large, attractive, amorphous forms executed in shimmering purple, black and pink colours. Artist and speculative designer Pleun van Dijk exhibited the series of sculptures entitled 'Objects of Desire' in Microlab Hall during DDW with United Matters. They are the outcome of her graduation research at Central Saint Martins in London. She completed her master's degree cum laude this year at the Material Futures department after graduating from the Design Academy Eindhoven in 2016.
Objects of Desire © Nahmlos // Bram van Dijk

For Objects of Desire, Pleun van Dijk thoroughly researched the intimate relationship between man and technology. She translated this into a working method of cooperation between humans (she) and technology (algorithm). "Initially, I wasn't even that aware of the fact that technology and people are inextricably linked. That technology is even in us," she says. "I try to make clear that we exist because of technology and that technology exists because of us. With the exponential speed at which technology continues to develop, the thin dividing line between people and technology will blur even more and in time may even disappear," she suspects. "That will cause what we now define as human and non-human to confront us with ethical and fundamental questions about who we are and who we ultimately want to become."

Fusion of man and technology

As a speculative designer and artist, Van Dijk poses questions about this and develops scenarios that allow people to think about the possible implications of such developments. In science, the written research often remains so abstract that it is difficult to imagine the consequences of specific social and ethical issues, she believes. That is why she translates her research into physical, three-dimensional forms that, in this case, literally embody the fusion between humans and technology. Someone called what Van Dijk does 'philosophy of form'. She finds that a fitting description. Her visually attractive 'talking objects' or 'conversation pieces' create new thoughts and make it easier to anticipate new developments even before they become a reality. "In this way, I not only offer the viewer a different perspective on the new reality but also hope to create a deeper understanding of the intimate and ever-existing relationship between man and technology," she says.

Algorithms and Machine Learning

For the first phase of her research, Van Dijk reversed the creative process. Usually, she first does in-depth research that involves a lot of reading and talking. However, she has now reached a point where she dares to let go because she trusts her knowledge and experience. Out of curiosity, she has now looked at what happens when she starts making sculptures intuitively. She bought a block of foam and began in complete freedom. This resulted in 1 large and 9 smaller forms. Then the challenge was to interpret the objects using different Object Analysis Methods. One of them is the method she added herself: she lets algorithms look at her sculptures. It shows how the objects manifest the relationship between humans and technology, more specifically: between Van Dijk as a maker and the forms that result from it.

In the second phase, she worked with a generative algorithm to create a second series of sculptures using a new design methodology. First, she curated a dataset with photos of both realistic sex toys representing human genitalia and abstract sex toys. Why sex toys? "They are the ultimate objects to indicate that twilight zone because there are both literal copies and abstract forms," Van Dijk explains. "It's not about the sex toys themselves," she says. "They are just a vehicle to show the intimate relationship between humans and technology and how both objects become human and our bodies become sexualised into objects." She then used a pre-trained Machine Learning (ML) model to generate a collection of a thousand new, non-existent sex toys based on her dataset. In the process, the algorithm created the shapes. Van Dijk then translates the generated images into a physical series of indefinable, anthropomorphic sculptures at the final step. In theory, this can go on endlessly.    

Relevance of speculative design

Van Dijk notices that people sometimes have trouble placing her. "Speculative design is still a niche within the design world, and I'm on the autonomous side of it," she says. To her satisfaction, she sees the field becoming increasingly important. She sees this reflected in the number of exhibitions and in the increasingly research-oriented approaches during DDW. "Speculative design may be a relatively small specific field, but its way of thinking is relevant to many other fields. Speculating about the future gives us a new perspective on the now and therefore on the ethical issues that are relevant today," she believes. "Humans, more than any other form of life, are able to think ahead. And yet we find it difficult to look beyond our own lives and think about the impact of our choices on future generations. I try to contribute to the dialogue so that we can develop long-term visions of the future of mankind. This includes evolution, reproduction and the fusion of humans and technology, as well as the dominant position we occupy in today's ecosystem."