Imagine, if you will, that you wanted to take your kids to the local skatepark today. You get there, only to discover that the whole place has been papered with images of female-presenting individuals who’ve undergone noticeable plastic surgery. Images that have been doctored to the point of grotesque. Images that your children are now invited to destroy, to shred, to maim.
It’s hard to fathom, but this is exactly the situation that faced visitors to the Pier15 skatepark in Breda, Holland, over the last week. The question is, why?
Erik Kessels, the artist who created Destroy My Face as part of the 2020 BredaPhoto festival, insists he didn’t intend to glorify misogynistic violence. Instead, he says he wanted to promote a conversation about the role of plastic surgery and perfectionism in modern society.
“Plastic surgery has become something pretty normal in today’s society,” he explained. “However, when taken overboard, these surgeries can result in deformation and transforms mankind into monsters.”
Indeed, in defence of the work, his team point out that the images are not of real women, but rather of 60 individuals, generated by an algorithm (itself created by Kessels) that was fed 800 images of plastic surgery customers, including a small proportion of men.
What Kessels and the BredaPhoto team are now being forced to face up to though, courtesy of an outcry that saw thousands of individuals, skaters, art organisations and women’s rights campaigners join forces in opposition before the exhibition was withdrawn yesterday, is that however they were generated, the images appear female, and the resulting invitation to destroy them, however intended, presented to many as gratuitously violent.
“A widely made argument and well-meaning response towards this work are that it sparks ‘useful discussion’,” states an open letter, shared by the hastily formed pressure group We Are Not a Playground and signed by more than 2,800 individuals and organisations. “This argument does not hold up in today’s polarised climate: a climate where violent tendencies against women don’t just stop at being ‘problematic’ or somebody being ‘cancelled’ – but have very real and harmful effects on half of the population of this planet. It is no longer up to others to decide what female-presenting faces and bodies should look like or are used for, especially not men.”
The anonymously-led group, which says its aim in protesting the piece was not just to enforce its removal or highlight its problematic nature, but also to demand clarity on BredaPhoto’s “selection processes, funding and future plans”, points out that skateparks themselves are notoriously male-dominated.
“By placing this work in a public space like Skatepark Pier15, another insult to injury is added. Skateparks and other public spaces should be places that are open and free to use by all who wish to come, and where people should not be ridiculed or judged based on what they look like,” their letter reads.
The exhibition, unveiled last week, drew immediate criticism. And yet, one day in, Kessels posted gratuitous imagery of the damage wrought immediately on his work, captioning his Instagram post “Status after one day skating!” Thousands of outraged comments followed.
“Stay out of skateboarding, you’ve exhausted your welcome,” read one comment. “Just say you hate women and go,” reads another. A third added, “Like skateparks aren’t misogynistic enough.”
We are Not a Playground, too, insists that Kessels’ defence was insufficient to justify the exhibition’s selection in the first place. “Just because Kessels used an algorithm to create this work does not mean that he, as an artist and designer, does not have the responsibility to look at the outcome critically and think about the message that he is putting out into the world. Even though he says that the renderings were done on both male and female-presenting individuals, he completely disregards any of the social, cultural and/or patriarchal implications of why more female-presenting people decide to have plastic surgery.
“As somebody who has made a name for himself as somebody who knows how to analyse images critically, we cannot condone his blatant ignoring of sexist and racial biases present within (human-produced) algorithms. Instead of challenging these biases, or reflecting on them with care – he decided to stretch out their faces (without their permission or knowledge) and reproduce them to perpetuate the very same biases that caused them.”
Kessels, for his part, sought to calm the furore, issuing an apology to those who had been offended by the work, and seeking to reiterate his aspirations.
“The intention of this work is ironic and intends to evoke a dialogue about self-acceptance. Of course, it doesn’t mean to encourage violence against women,” he insists. “With this work, I never wanted to offend anyone, but when reading recent comments online, I understand I’ve done so and I apologise for that. In my opinion, the function of art in society is to start dialogues and I continue to believe in that”.
It was too little, too late. By yesterday, with more than 2,800 global signatories to We Are Not a Playground’s demands the work be removed, Pier15 relented, and announced it would be closing its doors to facilitate the removal of the work. “We understand the discussion of art, what art can be and what it can unleash,” it said in a statement. “However, first of all we are a skatepark. A skatepark where people can feel safe and be themselves.”
In response, BredaPhoto stated that it “aims to be a platform offering room for dialogues about current social issues through visual storytelling. BredaPhoto therefore regrets that the debate about Destroy my Face cannot be conducted in an open and nuanced way and that, under pressure from protests via social media, one of its partners future existence is threatened, which means that they were forced to decide to remove the work.”
The organisation sparked further anger, however, for refusing to apologise for commissioning the work in the first place. “What was intended as a work of art to enter into a dialogue about the feasibility of our current visual culture, turned out to evoke different associations. This was never our intention,” the organisers insisted. “The work by Erik Kessels is interpreted differently than the dialogue the work wanted to initiate. We have heard and understood the criticism and we take our responsibility.”
But while the campaign to enforce the exhibition’s closure has been successful, for the organisers behind the We Are Not a Playground protest, bigger questions remain – not least why BredaPhoto is still expressing regret, not at the exhibition itself, but at the public response.
“We know all too well how long it takes for a work to be greenlit, researched, conceptualised, produced and ultimately become suitable for visitors,” they say. “It therefore feels incredibly jarring that this conversation was not held internally. We think that this speaks volumes not only about Kessels’ practice but about the field he exists and functions in.
“Art and cultural spaces should not be used as an easy excuse to display the inconsiderate works of artists, as there are more than enough ways to create meaningful and empathic discourse around controversial topics that don’t include the continued marginalising and discriminating of other human beings.”