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Erik Kessels, ‘Destroy My Face’, Pier15 Skatepark
Erik Kessels, ‘Destroy My Face’, Pier15 Skateparkvia BredaPhoto

An open letter calls out art encouraging skaters to destroy images of women

The artwork by Erik Kessels, titled ‘Destroy My Face’, encourages visitors to Pier15 Skatepark to ‘interact and interfere with’ photos of female-presenting people that have undergone plastic surgery

In the last week, images posted to Instagram by the Netherlands-based BredaPhoto and Pier15 Skatepark have shown the installation of a new artwork by the Dutch artist Erik Kessels. Titled “Destroy My Face”, the artwork features blown-up images of women that have undergone plastic surgery, rendered by the artist via an algorithm and plastered over the skatepark.

As suggested by the title, the idea is for skaters to ride on the “interactive” installation and shred it to pieces in the process. “Status after one day skating!” reads a post from Kessels, showing close-ups of the damage already done.

However, the images have faced significant backlash, and in a recent open letter addressed to the board of BredaPhoto and Pier15 Skatepark, a group of artists, designers, photographers, and other creatives criticise “Destroy My Face” for its apparent endorsement of violence against women, calling for an explanation.

The authors of the open letter acknowledge that provoking an outraged response – which can be seen in the comments on Kessels’ Instagram photos of the piece – is probably intentional, given the title. But, they state, the widely-made argument that the art “sparks ‘useful discussion’... 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.”

“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.”

“This action on BredaPhoto’s and Skatepark Pier15’s parts reflects poorly on the position that they take as cultural institutions within today’s climate of sexist behaviour and violence against women.”

The letter, which has gained a long list of signatures including the curatorial duo The White Pube and various skateboarding collectives, also covers Kessels’ claims that, since an algorithm rendered the images, the work is “democratically chosen”. This point, the authors explain, fails to acknowledge that algorithms are rarely, if ever, neutral, often reflecting the biases of their creators.

Moreover, the letter reads: “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.”

In a list of suggestions for BredaPhoto, the letter’s authors recommend removing the work and explaining why the project was financed and executed in the first place, plus being transparent about how it will move forward. “Take responsibility for your own (institution’s) faults, and fight for structural change sector-wide,” they add. “A climate needs to be created where criticism is not met with a default, defensive response but with reflexivity, accountability and self-work.”

Read the letter in full – and add your signature – here.

Update (September 15): Pier 15 has released a statement, announcing its decision to remove the artwork from the skate park. “Since the opening of Breda Photo, the installation of Erik Kessels has evoked different reactions than we anticipated. Sadly, the association with misogyny has been predominant on social media,” read the statement.

“During the development of this project Pier15 has given its consent for the installation of this artwork in the skatepark. What was meant as an artwork to start a dialogue on the manufacturability of our current visual culture, turned out to evoke different associations. This was never our intention,“ it added.

“We see that the work of Erik Kessels has been interpreted differently than the dialogue that the work was meant to start. We heard you and understand your criticism and fully take responsibility.”

Read the full statement here.