Our social realm is becoming more global due to digitalization and society’s exposure to images from all over the world. This means that our contemporary public sphere is subjected to change because of the rise of the internet and online communities. The internet as our main tool of communication and information gathering impacts not only how we interact with each other, but how we position ourselves towards and respond to the other. We are not always confronted with another person in real-life but encounter others through images in the media or on social media platforms. Images of suffering, abuse, violence, and inequality, are inclined to invoke a response in those that encounter them. In order to maintain a healthy public sphere, in which all individuals are involved in discussing issues that are common to all in society, we need to act sensibly and ethically.
On the one hand, visual images of suffering, as we see in the media lead to an “indifference to such media experiences” (Miller, 2012, p. 279). We are accustomed to seeing these images every day which affects our sense of compassion. On the other hand, Judith Butler argues that we need these specific overwhelming experiences to move us to action. “We only act when we are moved to act, and we are moved by something that affects us from the outside, from elsewhere, from the lives of others, imposing a surfeit that we act from and upon" (Butler, 2012, p. 136). Butler implies that individuals feel compassion towards other individuals which can convince them to take action when they see suffering. Both of these theorists show us that in our contemporary society, there is a tension between imagery, proximity, and distance, and searching for commonalities that inspire us to act ethically towards the other.
Artistic practices have the capacity to translate a person’s experience into an aesthetic, visual, and material encounter towards the spectator. But how can artists invoke an ethical response in those that encounter these images on the internet? In this paper, I will argue that art can connect us to ourselves, society, and the other. I will draw upon the discussion that rose after the placement of the work Destroy My Face (2020) by Erik Kessels and the response that was triggered by the interference of the activistic collective We Are Not A Playground. I will analyze how this discussion connects to the issues that align with online communities, and the need for individuals to respond ethically to images of suffering. Furthermore, I will argue that in this digital age we need material and face-to-face encounters with art and others, in order to maintain a healthy public sphere.
Destroy My Face
In September 2020, the annual photography festival BredaPhoto exhibited the work Destroy My Face by Erik Kessels in skatepark Pier15 in Breda. This work consisted of algorithmically composed pictures of people who have had plastic surgery. The emphasis on distorted features in the faces of these people due to the use of plastic surgery led to an image in which certain proportions were exaggerated (i.e. swollen lips and weird proportions in the face). The pictures were placed on the floor of the skatepark, which would ultimately lead to the skaters destroying the pictures as they skated over them. Immediately after placing pictures of the work on social media, immense critique arose. The work was said to promote violence against women, judge, ridicule, and objectify people.
The work was promoting violence against women, judging, ridiculing and objectifying people.
In an open letter to BredaPhoto and Pier15, an anonymous group, ‘We Are Not A Playground’ asked for the work to be removed due to its violent nature against women. What followed was an online discussion on multiple platforms that questioned issues such as cancel culture and autonomy of the artist. Ultimately, BredaPhoto removed the work, eliminating it from its material presence.
In the following analysis, I will apply the theories of Hannah Arendt, Judith Butler, and Vincent Miller to explain how our online presence influences how we respond to images online. By analyzing the work Destroy My Face by Erik Kessels, I will argue that art contributes to important contemporary discussions in the public sphere, as long as it will remain visible to us.
How do we respond to art online?
Sharing the world with others implies that there are commonalities in this world. These commonalities are exposed publicly when individuals share thoughts and experiences. For our public sphere to remain a space in which we can come to a consensus on these issues, we are in need of an inclusive public domain in which all can contribute to discussions regarding the important issues in our society. Hannah Arendt argues in her book The Human Condition (2018), first published in 1958, that:
“To live together in the world means essentially that a world of things is between those who have it in common, as a table is located between those who sit around it; the world, like every in-between, relates and separates men at the same time.” (p. 50)
Following Arendt's thoughts, the constitution of reality only becomes real when it can be perceived by others. Thus, our public persona plays an important role in the establishment of a healthy society. She mentions that:
“Each time we talk about things that can be experienced only in privacy or intimacy, we bring them out into a sphere where they will assume a kind of reality which, their intensity notwithstanding, they never could have had before.” (Arendt, 2018, p. 50)
Arendt perceives the term ‘public’ as being visible for potentially everyone with the widest possible range of visibility (Arendt, 2018, p. 50). This implies that shaping our private and intimate life for the public means that our most private life and feelings are “transformed, deprivatized, and deindividualized” (Arendt, 2018, p. 50) because most individuals will display their ‘censored’ self in public. Nowadays, sharing one's private life online for everyone to see has become the norm. The awareness that you might be seen by everyone everywhere underlines the tension between the public and private self.
Arendt explains how the deindividualization of personal experiences is most apparent in artistic practices: “the most current of such transformations occurs in storytelling and generally in artistic transposition of individual experiences” (2018, p. 50). Artistic practices have the capacity to transform abstract feelings towards a common reality which means that art has an essential role within our public sphere. Sensitive or private concepts might benefit from the artistic layers that are added when an experience is transformed into an artwork. Criticizing society and all occurring issues is inherent to the work of the artist. Lucy Lippard mentions in her book Get the Message?: A Decade of Art for Social Change (1984):
“Use your art to oppose the status quo and you run the risk of being shown precisely what we're trying to convey here: that artists are people, that the real world is closer than you think, that art and life are in the same place, if not in the same neighborhood.” (p. 312)
Publicity in the artworld gets a new connotation when it is spread online. The work is pushed out of the private sphere of the art institution or the artist’s studio and pushed into the public by the use of social media or websites. The implication here is that the work has the potential to be widely spread and seen by potentially everyone. This means the individuals who are confronted with artistic images online, constitute a reality based on their own and the perceived visible experiences they recognize within the images. These images might invoke a response in those who encounter them and thus, the artist should renegotiate the meaning attached to the work, and be aware of the consequences of spreading art online.
The artist should renegotiate the meaning attached to their work, and be aware of the consequences of spreading art online
In her essay Precarious Life, Vulnerability, and the Ethics of Cohabitation (2012), Judith Butler explains how we can respond ethically to images of suffering at a distance and what it means for our ethical obligations when we are confronted with another person or group, even when we do not speak their language or understand their culture. In other words, ethical responsiveness is important in the processes of cohabitation. Butler argues that we are constantly confronted with images in the media that require us to negotiate questions of proximity and distance (2012, pp. 134-136). She calls for responsibility and obligations towards the other, whom we should approach with sensitivity and cautiousness.
(Social) media play a large role in these conflicting feelings of ethics. In our information society, we encounter more images on a daily basis than ever before. Images of suffering, as we see in all sorts of media have a direct influence on our emotions and trigger a response. Butler discussess:
“Such images may appear on our screen, or we may flash upon them (or they may flash upon us) as we walk down the street by the kiosks where newspapers are sold. We can click on a site as a deliberate act to get the news, but that does not mean that we are prepared for what we see and does not even mean that we have chosen to expose ourselves to what impinges upon us visually or aurally.” (2012, p. 136)
Not only are we constantly confronted with suffering, but we are not prepared for when, or what images we come across while being online. Furthermore, online communities not only play a role in how and when we encounter images, but they provide a platform for which discussion information exchange is possible. When an individual is already online, sharing and responding to what they see can come forth out of feelings of the ethical.
This ethical responsiveness is not only the case for images from the media (i.e. photographs in newspapers or on social media) but can be triggered when art enters the digital sphere. Art is usually perceived inside the walls of the gallery or museum, but when the images roam online the recipient is not always prepared to negotiate the meaning of the work. Rather, an ethical response is triggered from the image they see, and the deeper layers and meaning of the artwork are not always taken into account.
The response from the collective We Are Not A Playground regarding Destroy My Face is a direct reaction to images that reflect suffering. In a letter written to BredaPhoto, We Are Not A Playground formulates several arguments as to why they think this artwork is problematic and why it should be removed. They express that they felt objectified and targeted by the work and explain how it promotes violence against women. According to the collective, a key issue with this work is that the pictures, despite being produced with an algorithm that should not define gender, consist of images that appear to be female. They explain how algorithmic bias has affected the work, and how socio-cultural issues regarding women and plastic surgery should have been taken into account by the artist. In this letter, they state that the artist is not free of responsibility even when an algorithm is used.
With current discussions about gender and equality, the work triggered a response in many people who claim that these images have no place in our modern society. It lacked subtlety. Addtionally, the work was created by a white male artist who discusses beauty standards while using images that appear to be female. This is potentially problematic. Following the #MeToo movement, the discussion around violence and sexual assault against women is more visible. Anyone who refers to this type of violence should be aware of the emotional triggers they provide for victims. The pictures that were used in making Destroy My Face present a direct reference to these issues and represent suffering through the destruction of the images. We can imagine that this triggers an ethical response and the need for discussion on topics such as the autonomy of the artist and patriarchal thinking. In the letter, We Are Not A Playground asked for responsibility of both Kessels and BredaPhoto for this work as they could have anticipated the response a work like this would evoke.
We Are Not A Playground statements are relevant and valid as the work seems to touch on all of the problematic content that they indicate as visible in the work. For example: biases regarding plastic surgery in society, perception of beauty, and beauty standards on social media. Though, by writing such a letter, additional issues arise: What are the boundaries within art?, Who is responsible?, And, is the artist autonomous in regards to his or her work? While these additional raised issues are valid - were they fully addressed by the removal of Destroy My Face? All that is left are images of the work and it cannot be seen or experienced in real-life anymore. This subtracts from the artistic capabilities of the artwork within our public sphere; the artistic layer could provide for a more sensitive encounter to this issue.
We could say that both parties search to discuss the same goal; the uninterrupted normalization of unreachable beauty standards and violence against women, whether direct or indirect. In Kessels' work, beauty standards are questioned by showing (although not very subtly) how extreme plastic surgery is related to the way we perceive beauty in our modern society. For We Are Not A Playground, the issue is that women have long been objectified and confronted with violence (verbal, physical, or psychological). Further, both seem to want to point to issues that women are confronted with, which makes the context of perception an important aspect of the interpretation of the work. For both We Are Not A Playground and Kessels, their private gaze towards the work initiated primary thoughts about what the work represents. This implies that the discussion that was held is not necessarily about the content or aesthetics of the work, but rather is embedded in the context of larger socio-cultural issues. Thus, we could conclude that this artwork is placed into the public sphere by placing it online, which affects the artwork’s meaning. The question remains, however, does the internet affect the way individuals acted and negotiated their ethical behavior regarding Kessels’ work?
Can we still act ethically when we are online?
A Crisis of Presence: On-line Culture and Being in the World, Space, and Polity (2012) by Vincent Miller, discusses the problems we encounter in our online presence. In times where being online plays a big role in our daily life, we become more disembodied, more anonymous, and more distracted. Miller follows Heidegger's ideas which entail that in western culture, our conception of being is metaphysical. Our thinking is based on our own thoughts and consciousness and is separated from the real world. This creates problems in the way we handle situations in a digital context concerning our ethical and moral behavior.
According to Miller, our ethical behavior is “about responsibility, about how people in contemporary (and increasingly online) life encounter the world and each other, and how these issues are related to geographical notions of presence, co-presence, and proximity” (Miller, 2012, p. 266). We are often overwhelmed and distanced from the suffering we see online and this prevents us from taking action or responding ethically. The solution to the issue of metaphysically being online can be to strive for more precarious digital encounters. Miller argues that, “We can even attempt to increase a sense of embodied presence and proximity through the creation of more sensuous digital encounters” (Miller, 2012, p. 281). However, the problem remains that most individuals on the internet will not consider their ethical responsiveness when they are triggered emotionally.
Miller’s ideas oppose the arguments of Butler, who argues that individuals respond ethically when they see suffering even if this suffering is happening to someone they do not identify with. However, both explain the complex situation that individuals are placed in when they are confronted with the enormous amount of images on the internet; on one hand, we take our distance from them, on the other, our emotional response triggers us to act. The notion that being online creates proximity and distance at the same time reflects within our need to respond ethically, but the issue to imagine an online individual as ‘real’. As we have seen before in the arguments by Arendt, the private individual transforms itself when they are presented in public. When we reconsider these arguments in the digital sphere, this de-individualization is transposed to an attitude that requires that we step away from the anonymity that the internet provides. Rather, in order to create sensible discussions on- and offline, we are required to think beyond the private/public dichotomy.
We Are Not A Playground began as an anonymous collective, but have since expanded their activistic practices. They are active on Instagram which they use to reach a larger audience and “reflect on institutional critique” (@not.a.playground, 2020) within the Dutch cultural sector. The complex situation that arose with the exhibition of Kessels’ work and the discussion that followed is intensified by the online presence of all parties. This is partly explained by the fact that the work was exhibited during the COVID-19 pandemic, which led not only to many online encounters between spectator and artwork but to the use of Instagram as a way to build an argument and convey critique on the work and the photography festival. It produced a situation in which a material encounter with the work was not possible and created the opportunity for the collective to operate solely online. Miller argues that: “the material, bodily, face-to-face presence of others is essential when we want to act ethically in our interactions with others” (2012, p. 280), therefore we could say that the discussion that followed the exhibition of Destroy My Face on social media and through an online artist talk, lacked an ethical response from both sides.
If being online is the problem, could we come to a solution by showing these works in an environment that creates more proximity to the work and others? When we are looking at images of suffering in the media, usually they are supported by text explaining the situation. I do not believe that art needs explaining, but in times where so much is seen online before it is experienced in real-life —and certainly, when dealing with sensitive subjects— we could find a different way of showing these works to the public.
BredaPhoto responded to the many shocked responses by ultimately removing the work. This was initiated because sponsors of Pier15 skatepark threatened to withdraw their support. In response, their website stated they understand that some people do not agree on the form or content of a work, but that discussion is possible (BredaPhoto, 2020). A potential solution could have been the creation of a space for discussion in real-life: after all, this could have led to a better understanding between all of those involved. The collective, however, chose not to participate in this debate. Again, we can see that due to the online presence, an ethical, sensible response is difficult.
The consequences of the work Destroy My Face by Erik Kessels have been huge. We can see that responding ethically has two sides: firstly, one could act out of emotion because they are triggered by an image they encounter, secondly, acting online brings complications that make responding ethically more difficult. The situation has shown us that the lines between public and private, that are visible in online communication are blurring. Regardless of how one feels about the work, we can question whether removing an artwork defies the point of friction and discussion. The artwork should have the capacity to use artistic layers to convey sensitive and private issues into the public sphere to start a discussion that will benefit society. However, the consequences of online communication have led to a situation in which certain groups felt obligated to show their activism and ethical response, while the work never had the chance to use its materiality to create an experience for the spectators. It shows us that in the digital sphere, art can easily become an image of suffering which consequently requires individuals to act to it.
Arendt, H., Canovan, M., & Allen, D. (2018). The Human Condition (2nd ed.). The University of Chicago Press.
Butler, J. (2012). Precarious Life, Vulnerability, and the Ethics of Cohabitation. The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 26(2), 134-151.
Huut, T. (2020, September 15). Skatebaan verwijdert foto’s Erik Kessels na online kritiek. NRC.
Lippard, L. R. (1984). Get the Message?: A Decade of Art for Social Change (1st ed.). E. P. Dutton.
Miller, V. (2012). A Crisis of Presence: On-line Culture and Being in the World. Space and Polity, 16(3), 265–285. https://doi.org/10.1080/13562576.2012.733568
Skatepark verwijdert kunstwerk van BredaPhoto 2020. (2020, September 15). BredaPhoto Festival.
We are not a playground. [@not.a.playground]. [Instagram profile].