Esmay Wagemans is a Dutch sci-fi-artist creating the unreal or, perhaps, the ‘too real’, in what she describes as her own “human laboratory”. Torsos, hands and faces are just a few of the hyper-real body parts that she’s experimenting with in her ongoing research and reflection on the digitalization of today’s society. We caught up with her and talked about cyborgs, censorship and humans as a species. 
“Are we still human if our bodies are enhanced by technology? Are we evolving to a new species, or should we reconsider what it means to be human?” These are some questions you introduce in your graduation project, New Humanity, from last year, where you compare your own face/torso with an artificially-made clone. Before we start, I’m curious, what do you think it means to be a human? What defines us as a species?
I don’t know. I believe that it’s life’s biggest question for most humans. It is one of my favourite questions though. On the question what us defines as a species, I would say that humans were created by chance and robots with a purpose. But I may think differently about it tomorrow.
As I’m sure you’re aware, we are quite big fans of your work, but can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself? How would you describe your work?
Thank you for the compliment! I really appreciate that. I’m Esmay Wagemans, 26 years old. Born in Jisp (The Netherlands), a small village in the countryside. I’m a sci-fi artist who graduated from the Willem de Kooning Academy in 2017. I have had my own studio in Koog aan de Zaan for a year and a half (feel free to drop by if you’re in the area). I create human-like, sometimes wearable objects based on futuristic theories, questions and stereotypes. I see all my work and objects as one big research and I almost always make my objects out of curiosity.
You rose to attention in 2015 with your project Second Skin, where you cleverly questioned Instagram’s need for censorship on women’s nipples with a piece of nude-skin clothing. Since then, the female body has been a common thread in your work. Why is that? What does the female aspect represent to you? Also, Instagram (and Facebook, of course) is still censoring the female body. What’s your take on that? Any other plans to keep questioning and fighting it?
I actually still add my questions and ideas about censorship to almost all of my free work, only most people just don’t notice it in the first instance. That’s because it’s not emphasized or not even mentioned in the concept at all. But in theory, it is actually more visible in some of my projects than it was with Second Skin. The design of this project was based on Instagram’s guidelines, where they say you can’t show nipples unless it’s a sculpture, which resulted in a wearable sculpture called Second Skin.
Even though the design is just the shape of the breasts and not even naked-looking at all, it got a lot of negative attention and critics – reading and hearing all the reactions felt like a self-fulfilling prophecy. So when I decided to make a copy of myself for my next project, New Humanity, I immediately knew I wanted to involve my upper body to test my audience. If Second Skin was already so shocking to people, my hyper-realistic torso had to be even more extreme.
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How was it like?
After all, you could see me much more naked in this project than in the rough flesh-toned latex tops – only this time, I focused on a different concept. The result was very interesting since literally no one said anything regarding the naked part. It felt like New Humanity completed Second Skin. Where I introduced the audience with normalizing the nipple in Second Skin through a statement, I secretly finished it in New Humanity. From this moment on, I decided to keep making naked sculptures to normalize it. Besides that, the female body is also just the most beautiful creation on earth – not in the universe because who knows what’s out there…
How does one go from studying autonomous hacking to creating breathing humanlike torsos?
Good question. I actually studied Lifestyle Transformation Design, which is a part of the commercial section at our academy. In the last year, you have to choose your minor, and I always knew I wanted to do an autonomous one. I actually first started Digital Craft but it felt like you needed to be an expert in programming, so I changed courses and chose Hacking instead. It was a very open-minded course with loads of freedom and no rules. The teachers were great and helped me to explore and ask myself about my own aesthetic preferences, which resulted in a research about sci-fi.
How would you say this influenced your current work?
Now, almost two years later, it feels like I can link all my work-related choices to my interests and influences from when I was a child. I grew up in a family watching Star Wars, with a father fascinated by technology and a brother who wanted to build robots, which probably gave me my interest in the future and technology. Besides that, I was somehow always fascinated by every weird, creepy, mental craziness, human-related things or subjects.
I also watched my first thriller at a very young age. I guess that explains the crave for weirdness in my work. And finally, as a person, I’m always very calm, sensitive and patient, which gives my work the softness it has – according to other people. Those three elements (sci-fi, human curiosity and my own soft-being) blended together are kind of my work, I think.
“I would say that humans were created by chance and robots with a purpose.”
In your artist statement, you see “the human as a social reality”. What does that mean exactly?
I see ‘the human’ as a creature of social reality as well as of fiction. This originated during the research for my graduation project, for which I read a book about cyborg theories. In the book, they explained how they see the cyborg as a fictional image that embodies our social and physical reality but also as an imaginative source, which I totally agree with.
Could you guide us a bit through how you work? What is your process like when creating this amazingly real human-like pieces?
To start with, you can create human-like pieces by sculpting from yourself or you can make moulds of existing human parts. I always work with moulds of myself or of other people since I think it’s a really interesting process. Making a mould of someone’s body or face is very intimate and personal and creates an interesting connection. Besides that, I really like the idea of transforming something that’s alive. It gives an object a deeper layer and feels as if something alive is in it.
But let’s get back to the process. So I first make a mould of a body part. Then, I fill it with clay, so I can transform or edit the body part. After that, I make a new mould, cast that with silicone and paint it with loads of different colour layers. In the end, it’s all in the technique, the precision and the patience you have.
Besides yourself, do you have specific ‘moulding models’? You really need to make a behind-the-scenes…
Well, it’s interesting that you say that because I just added that to my to-do list last week. I really strive for an all-round website and studio with workshops, videos, a store, a research centre, etc. About the moulding models, I don’t have them. I mostly use moulds of my own body since it still feels like that is the most interesting for my research. But sometimes, I like to use someone different. In that case, I ask people that I know well or I post an open call on Instagram since I don’t really like the idea of choosing people only based on looks.
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I have to ask: when it’s dark outside, late nights hours, and you’re in your studio working on silicone limps, do you ever pretend that you’re The Female Butcher?
Well, I do often call my studio ‘my human laboratory’.
In one of your most recent exhibitions, The Search for (Modern) Pleasure, at MIRA Festival in Barcelona, you describe humanity as being “analogue humans”, meaning there must be another side of the coin – digital humans. What is a digital human?
Yes, analogue humans in a digital world. I don’t always see or describe humans as analogue since I also often find them to be cyborgs. But I wouldn’t call those kinds of humans digital since that sounds more as if it’s based on a not living creature. But you can probably say digital humans exists, maybe Siri?
Speaking of modern pleasures, one of the inevitable topics is, of course, sex robots. What do you think about this evolving industry? How is it related to your own work?
I’m not sure about that. I haven’t done much research on that subject yet, but I do read quite often about it since I read everything that passes me and is about robots. I think that, for now, my answer will be that I see them as ‘women created in a tech men’s idealistic world’.
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As a sci-fi artist, what is your vision of the future?
Today, I see the future as a dangerous and joyful playground for possibilities.
I have peeked a little on your website and there appears to be an upcoming online store. Previously, you have experimented with creating fashion pieces. Is there a collection coming soon? Can we get some exclusive details, please?
Not particularly a fashion-related collection. Not yet. But doing a sci-fi show is definitely something I’m considering. But that’s still too early for now. But I will drop a collection of transparent masks for the online store this spring.
Which project(s) are you most excited about these days?
Future Faces.
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