Fictional Journal interviews Simone C. Niquille

(…I Contain Multitudes)

The futures of our identities are interlaced with the construction of our digital selves. Fictional Journal discusses with designer and researcher Simone C. Niquille.

As imaging and capture technologies become more accessible and render the human body at a speed and resolution never attained before, standardized measurements of the human body are used to define what passes as ‘human’. Permeating, albeit somewhat invisibly, all the way through our daily lives, from industrial design to architecture, identity recognition to computer games, the futures of our identities are interlaced with the construction of our digital selves. Could digital bodies create space for new imaginaries and ways to rethink what is considered ‘real’? How should designers interact and shape with computational technologies? Fictional Journal discusses with designer and researcher Simone C. Niquille.

Hillary Clinton impersonator Teresa Barnwell getting 3D scanned in October 2016. Still frame from The Fragility of Life. Simone C Niquille/Technoflesh. 2016/2017.

FICTIONAL JOURNAL: The invention of anthropometry has bled into a multitude of disciplines, as you discuss in your essay SimFactory. From an everyday use perspective, what kinds of objects and systems has this affected?

SIMONE C. NIQUILLE: The translation of the human body into numbers has been used for a multitude of applications ranging from registering anomalies for identification or interpretation, to the very opposite by ignoring the individual in favour of calculating an average. In fields of design where the body is central, different systems of body standards can be observed throughout history. To some extent these standards are defined by the market and a design’s intended audience. In that case, comfort and efficiency are the main concerns. Industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss is well known for his work in ‘human factors design’ in the 60’s during the boom of material innovation and mass produced products, for the office, household and factory. He devised two avatars, Joe and Josephine, as guideline for the ‘average American’. In his book Designing for People he describes the process of defining these model citizens: “Our job is to make Joe and Josephine compatible with their environment. The process is known as human engineering. From mountainous data we assembled, sifted and translated, we filled the gaps between human behaviour and machine design.”1 In an everyday scenario, anthropometry is encountered by most where there is no friction. It can be seen as facilitating comfort, efficiency and safety to everyone that doesn’t realize it’s existence. An average body can pass effortlessly. The measurement of the human body, or anthropometry, is a means to control corporeality and define who does and does not pass as human.

1 Dreyfuss, H. 1955. Designing for People. United States: Simon and Schuster.

Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, 1855

FJ: Masahiro Mori’s concept of ‘uncanny valley’ perhaps no longer exists, if we look to the example of CGI influencer Lil Miquela. Quite quickly after her first post in 2016 she was communicated in the press as a ‘fake’ body, yet social media users interact with her fictions (she has 1.4 million followers), while her ‘designers’ supposedly profit from using her for product placement. I wonder, what is the future of these kind of ‘fake’ bodies’? Are they trend, or something more?

SCN: The synthetic body does not exclude interaction or narrative, on the contrary, it invites a collective imaginary. There are two things at play in the Lil Miquela example: technology and narrative. Technology will undoubtedly progress towards increased resolution, speed and complexity. Google’s new Pixel 3 smartphone includes machine learning as part of it’s photography to produce a self-learning synthetic depth of field. Photography is now computational and arguably as much CGI as an image rendered in a 3D software. The construction of the image is different but they are similar in that they rely on computational processes rather than being a ‘reality-capture’ as one would describe traditional celluloid-based photography. Lil Miquela can be replicated with readily available software, as a video on New York Times’ The Cut demonstrated. Rather than dread a loss of ‘the real’, open-source and distributed tools for image creation offer the possibility to create narratives and publish them to a large audience quickly. Authenticity of the body displayed is less important than the story it carries. Lil Miquela ‘tested’ as human rather than a bot based on the language used in the image captions and comments, not because of the image quality. As a constructed container for story, Lil Miquela is more than the rendered body on display. With more software and computing power becoming available to a larger public the possibilities for disseminating narratives hopefully spreads beyond a marketing incentive and makes possible layered, complex, alternative imaginaries.

FJ: In the early 90’s Microsoft embedded ‘office assistants’, like Microsoft Bob and Clippy, to guide people through the use of new software’s. How do you think designers should practice with tools which allow for possibly violent abstractions? Do we need a contemporary guide?

SCN: Whose ethics did Clippy embody? In my own practice, it is important to use the tools I challenge in order to understand them. It is an attempt to explore fringes of functionality and through that exploration question the expectations placed in this said functionality by the tools creators. A software’s default settings reveal a lot about its maker’s intentions and cultural context. Which keyboard shortcuts are pre-programmed, what typeface selected on start-up, which scale figure placed.

A built-in ethical watchdog would come with similar questions as the software itself. Who are the makers and what rules and regulations are encoded within? As mentioned earlier, I believe it isn’t about refusal; refusal of fake images, proprietary software. Rather I am interested in how far and thin the use of these tools can be stretched. In practice this means to remain sceptical and refuse computational technology as a singular answer, a silicon solutionism, and instead regard it as one of many__

Text by Sophie Rzepecky


SCN is a designer and researcher based in Amsterdam NL. Her practice Technoflesh investigates the representation of identity & the digitisation of biomass in the networked space of appearance. She holds a BFA in Graphic Design from Rhode Island School of Design and an MA in Visual Strategies from the Sandberg Instituut Amsterdam. She currently teaches Design Research at ArtEZ University of the Arts Arnhem. She is a 2016 Fellow of Het Nieuwe Instituut Rotterdam and is recipient of the talent development grant by The Creative Industries NL 2016/2017. SCN is commissioned contributor to the Dutch Pavilion at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale.