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The Power of Vulnerability: Art in the Digital Woke Age

Erik Kessels, Destory My Face, 2020, Photograph: G. Lanting, Skate Hall Pier 15, Bredaphoto
Pascal Gielen examines the thorny issue of so-called ‘cancel culture’. Taking a step back and addressing the way polemics emerge – which Gielen sees as a phenomenon specific to the online sphere – this essay discusses the bipolarisation of opinions on social media. Gielen criticises the virality of online debates and their binary and peremptory style, contrasting them to live discussions.
Erik Kessels, Destory My Face, 2020, Photograph: G. Lanting, Skate Hall Pier 15, Bredaphoto

Moral Click

Following the social media storm elicited by Erik Kessels’s Destroy My Face (2020), the artwork in which an indoor skating rink was covered with women’s faces was prematurely removed from the BredaPhoto biennale in the Netherlands.01

 The Dutch photographer’s edited pictures of women following plastic surgery that left them beyond recognition could be read as an indictment of this trend. After all, in a patriarchal society, plastic surgery could be understood as women’s response to an imperative to meet a male ideal of beauty. The work pointed particularly to the risk of irreparably disfiguring faces with Botox. 02 Nonetheless some feminists fiercely protested the work including collective We Are Not A Playground, who, in an open letter, 03 noted that allowing an extremely masculine skateboarding world to roll over women’s faces would only encourage violence against women, and called for the removal of the work. On Instagram – where reasonable arguments are quickly supplanted by name-calling and hate posts 04 – and from all over the world, artists, skaters, feminists and activists began to join the discussion, with the troubled sponsors of the skate park ultimately killing  the project for fear it would damage their image.


The incident is yet another example of ‘cancel culture’ in which certain images, works of art or claims are deemed offensive and excommunicated. I do not want to get involved in a discussion about whether or not it is misogynistic or about the artistic quality of the work. What interests me in the first place is how and on what basis this ‘polemic’ was conducted. I deliberately put ‘polemic’ in quotation marks, since in the case of Destroy My Face there was in fact no real discussion – quite the opposite, We Are Not A Playground ignored BredaPhoto’s invitation to enter into a public discussion with the artist. Moreover, the collective had never visited the artwork in situ, thinking that wasn’t necessary either. After all, their criticism focussed only on the way the work appeared in social media. In other words, the lack, or even the refusal, of physical nearness strikes twice. Cancel culture is essentially an internet culture that may find it difficult to take root without social media.05A certain distantiation created by the digital seems to increase its effectiveness. To be sure, going viral world-wide does not only mean that you can quickly receive massive support. You also never have to face your opponents, let alone dare to look them straight in the eye. So-called ‘clicktivism’ needs no arguments. It certainly does not invite any response to critical statements. Protests on social media primarily derive their clout from the quantity (of public support) and not so much from the quality or content of a position. Digital comes from the Latin digitus, which means finger and refers to counting on the fingers. Perhaps it thus refers not only to this quantifying act, but also to the possibility of raising or pointing the ‘moral finger’. From an etymological point of view, ‘digitality’ seems to bring together quantity, judgment and blame. In the digital realm, quantity rubs up against morality and can generate a moral majority out of nowhere in no time.

Moreover, binary codes seem to simplify our real world and the discussions we have about it, reducing them to simplistic binaries: supporters and opponents, likes and dislikes, correct or incorrect, click or not click. With a reference to philosopher Herbert Marcuse, you might think that in this case, too, technology pushes us in the direction of a one-dimensional consciousness.6 We seem to be sinking more and more into a bipolar world in which every nuance or shade between 0 and 1 evaporates. It feels like we are forced to choose just one camp, left or right, good or bad, pure or impure, friend or enemy. Was media theorist Marshall McLuhan right in postulating that ‘the medium is the message’? 06In a binary world, there seems to be less room for gradation, intermediate position or ambiguity. Isn’t that the big difference between digital and analogue? Somehow, digitisation already seems to shrink the potential of multiple interpretations, shades and dimensions. A moral click is enough to wipe out the enemy.


Digitisation, however, exacerbates polarisation for another reason. It dematerialises or disembodies our social interactions, allowing us to get close without physical proximity. The internet brings the world to our home. Just like other telematic media, we easily encounter other persons and different opinions, while the real plurality of those opinions is reduced tremendously. However, this interaction is strictly mediated by audio-visual means. All possible other visceral information including that of the physical socio-cultural context is amputated online. A screen does not give any idea of ​​local smell, temperature, vibration, touch or timbre. ‘Digitality’ lacks physicality. 07 This also means that all possible visceral information is lost and, at the same time, a part of what constitutes human experience, too. The virtual world prefers to reduce the latter to a face or an interface. Moreover, a person online is easily reduced to just one opinion or at least to one side of the bipolar camp. The internet denies a colour palette of information and experiences not only for a person but also for a work of art. As a result, judgment is once again reduced to oppositions such as like or dislike, beautiful or ugly, good or bad. As we now know, this binary-coded choice is quantitatively controlled and amplified via algorithms. In other words, polarisation increases quickly and is therefore often exaggerated. The absence of a physical engagement in debates in which bodies can resonate with each other drives the opponents further and further apart. Anyone who attacks something or someone on the internet need not fear physical resistance, but the assessor is equally not hindered by what makes an opponent human: that is, its appearance and visual, auditory, visceral and sensitive modes of being present. In the live meeting we can notice that a completely different opinion or vision of a person is also marked by a unique life history and culture. The physical encounter reveals specific habits, feelings and therefore also vulnerability. In close proximity, secrets in which the complexity of another reveals itself are disclosed. In the same space the opportunity to recognise and acknowledge a person as original (literally someone with an origin) arises, and this independently of his or her opinions or moral statements. Physical nearness sometimes puts people in an uncomfortable state of ‘unconcealedness’, but in doing so it reveals a fundamental resemblance. We could call it ‘subjectivity’. On at least that one point the enemy doesn’t seem to differ. The fact that the person standing in front of us is also a subject commands respect. Being together in the same space demands mutual recognition of integrity. In physical proximity, a face, voice or opinion becomes a subject again, and pixels can become a work of art again. Even though that person is insufferable and that work of art is hideous, their proximity does not allow us to simply click them away. In a live discussion, words are weighed, sometimes a judgment softens, at least the tone in which it is pronounced. It may sound paradoxical, but physical proximity encourages detachment or rather, a kind of ‘distinguishing’. The statement or opinion of another is automatically accompanied by a context because of the simple physical presence. The body itself, the timbre of the voice, smell, facial features, the direction of the gaze, uncontrollable gestures, speaking hesitantly or perspiring all put judgment in perspective. They inadvertently add colour and shade. In short, physical presence commands not only respect, but also nuance.


The lack of physical nearness and even the refusal of it says something about our present-day relationship to our body. The discussion about Destroy My Face showed a refusal of exchange. This could be seen as a strategy of rupture, but the consequence was that no physical contact took place, while the representation of the body was at the same time its central focus. Today we also see this ambivalent approach to the body reflected in public opinion. The positive attention and confirmation of the (physiological) body can be found, for example, in the Body and Skin Positivity Movement. At the same time a taboo is placed on that body. Today not only critics and activists, but also governments and educators are increasingly encouraging ‘body-neutral’ wording.08 A language cleansing operation seems to have gained momentum with the current woke movement due to avoiding hurtful words or artworks that are thought to increase the feeling of insecurity among minorities or other vulnerable groups – a new vocabulary that also disguises specific body features. Language should be cleansed of certain expressions such as ‘black money’, ‘black riding’ or ‘blind spot’ because they discriminate against populations with these body characteristics and limitations. Paradoxically, however, there is a striking ‘absolutisation’ of the same body characteristics. 09 This came up recently in the Netherlands, for example, during the discussion about the translation of the now world-famous poem ‘The Hill We Climb’ by Amanda Gorman. According to the black curator and activist Janice Deul, it was unacceptable that the translation assignment would go to the white, non-binary author Marieke Lucas Rijneveld. Even though Rijneveld was Gorman’s choice and they are known for their fight for gender equality and an inclusive society, for Deul the assignment had to go to someone who shares the identity and experience of a black person. In other words, the translation assignment became a matter of identity politics. Wouldn’t a translator of the same colour make Gorman’s message of hope more powerful?

Amanda Gorman recites her inaugural poem, ‘The Hill We Climb’, during the 59th Presidential Inauguration ceremony in Washington, 2021. Photograph: Carlos M. Vazquez II. Courtesy Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff


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