Erik Kessels (Amsterdam, 1966) is an artist, designer and curator with a particular interest in photography and images that express his personal passions, whether they are a collection of found photographs, short stories or a celebration of unusual artworks. He likes taking risks, a constant in his work since he established KesselsKramer in 1996, an independent communication agency based in a 19th century church in the heart of Amsterdam, where they work for clients like Nike, Diesel, J&B, Oxfam, Ben, Vitra, CitizenM, or the infamous Brinker Hotel (the worst hotel of the world).
Kessels has gained the respect of his colleagues and clients by going always on his own direction. Who can say no to a brand that represents the 60% of the income? And what about firing a client? KesselsKrammer did it, shocking everybody and being featured in a trade magazine for that reason: “The week we were in the news, four or five people from other advertising agencies called me to ask if they could contact this client, as you know it’s a very opportunistic industry. People working there is very nice but there are not many companies with balls, you know. It’s a fight. You have to reinvent yourself constantly”.
He was honoured with the Amsterdam Arts Award (2016) and he is considered the most influential creative in the Netherlands. As an artist and curator, he has published more than fifty books with the images he finds mainly in flea markets: vernacular, anonymous and amateur. “We are submerged in slick, beautiful, highly-produced creative work. But perhaps, even more inspirational than this, are examples of ordinary people’s creativity. Their mundaneness makes them no less worthy of attention. After all, art inspires, regardless of whether it appears on a mantelpiece or a cinema screen.” Some of these titles are Missing Links (1999), The Instant Men (2000), In almost every picture (2001-2015) and Wonder (2006).
Kessels has also been editor of Useful Photography magazine since 2000 and worked with Marlene Dumas and Candice Breitz for the art project DVD Loud&Clear, and also taught in the Academy Gerrit Rietveld (Amsterdam), Écal (Lausanne) and in the Architecture Academy of Amsterdam. He has exhibited Loving Your Pictures, Use me Abuse, 24HRS of Photos, Album Beauty, Unfinished Father and The Many Lives of Erik Kessels.
Last week, Kessels visited the Spanish capital to participate in the IV edition of Design Fest: a festival of street art, live music, food design and talks at IED Madrid, a hotspot of creativity that proposed different activities and workshops in the historic Altamira Palace. Before attending his masterclass, Fascinations and Failures, we had a long talk about how failures can help us find new ways of thinking and innovative solutions, taking the fear out of failure and encouraging experimentation.
Erik, what would you like students to keep in mind after your master class?
The whole topic of these failures is often misunderstood because we all make failures every day in our work or in private life, but that’s not what I mean. We work with so many perfect tools like computers, phones, cameras, 3D printers or navigation systems that everything is perfect in a way. But for creative people, it is quite good to go deliberately in the wrong direction: make a mistake on purpose to find something new, a new innovation or a new idea. People often don’t dare to do that. Sometimes, your thoughts need to be a bit disruptive, dark or ironic. That’s also what I call creativity. Otherwise, if you make something everybody likes, nothing more than that, I think that’s not really creative.
So you think creativity is fuelled by difficulties, imperfection.
Yes. I often compare it to a house: there is a back garden and a front garden. Nowadays, a lot of young professionals stay only in the first because it is the place where you show yourself to people and it always looks beautiful; but the back garden is something quite horrible, a place with a lot of garbage, unfinished projects, with a fence around it, etc. That place is a metaphor for where you can fuck things up, where you do things wrong and where you really have to struggle to find something creative. Once you have it, you can take it to the front garden and show it.
This concept of the back garden may apply to all industries, from fashion to art to architecture. I think of Herzog&De Meuron, Vêtements, etc. Do you think our minds are being reshaped now? Are we more open to embrace this new approach of imperfection or unexpected beauty?
I think society is not very open to failures. Most people are quite comfortable with perfect things, as society has been injected with the idea that failures are something bad. But it’s exactly what you say, this designer is making disruptive things and fantastic, strange, uncomfortable, new collections; that also predicts where to go. And in architecture, you see it as well. The tools we have, like renderings, are so perfect. I mean, when architects present their idea, it looks real – even better than in real life. The advertising industry in general is doing it also: the tools to make perfect sketches for advertising campaigns are fuelling this perfection. But if you have a good, strong and basic idea and you can explain it to the client without even showing it, that should also work.
You’ve been celebrating failure since 1996, when you established KesselsKrammer. I think, for example, in this brilliant campaign for The Brinker Hotel, the so-called ‘The worst hotel of the world’. Do you think being irreverent is the best way to be relevant?
There are different ways of doing it. For The Brinker Hotel, for instance, to be that extreme was necessary because, what other chance did we have? This campaign was aimed at students and backpackers, so this kind of advertising and irony works very well with them. Not everybody has to go to that hotel, and for other clients you can use other things: you can be honest, human, humorous, ironic; but these are all things that are a little bit of the outside of what’s ‘normal’. However, we also make things that are very meaningful, like for example, we did a lot about immigration for this mobile phone company in Holland.
You mean it depends on the client’s positioning?
Well, yes, but there is also a wrong thinking. For instance, when you start to work for a client, the first thing you have to do, which is very important, is to engage in a relationship, tell them who you are, about your fascinations, your passions, show them some works that you really like. You have to invest a lot of time in that. And if you click, it’s like a relationship – without sex, of course –, but you have to work together and be very strict with that. When the person on the other side of the table is an asshole, for me there’s no point in doing it because I know I will not get the best out of it, and for them is the same because I’m not motivated. So what’s the point in working together?
But if you like each other… If I look back, the best relationships I’ve had with clients resulted also in the best work. So it’s also about playing table tennis together. And in the end, it is also economically very successful for them because you try something different and you dare to go in other directions instead of making compromises. And when you make a mistake or a stupid remark, you should also be honest about it. I mean, agencies often forget that the person on the other side of the table has hired you to come up with something for them, so you can hold each other’s hands. Creatives are less good when they work on shitty deadlines or for clients they don’t like.
Is that the reason why you don’t have account executives in your agency? I’ve always thought creatives didn’t want to talk to clients.
Yes, we don’t have that role. We have strategists and creatives. I’d worked in different agencies before starting KesselKrammer, and I hated the fact that I was never on the table with the person who had to decide, to say yes or no. So when we started, I was always in the meeting; I could see if it wasn’t going to work out or if something was wrong. It’s much easier being there to see instead of someone bringing me the bad news.
I think account executives can also take more out of themselves. They might be good with strategy or might have a fantastic idea, so why should they only intermediate if they can be involved in the project? This also has a lot to do with being very stubborn. In the beginning, when we started, we also said a lot of noes to clients because we liked them but the briefing was impossible or the tasks were not so good. So I said, I can’t do this, sorry. We need trust with the client and if the work we make for them is groundbreaking, it is because we are together.
Talking about creatives and taking risks; you made this exhibition, The Embarrassment Show, where you expressed the idea that making failures is the best way to progress. You’ll explain the same idea over your book, Fail It.
Yeah, it has also to do with the backyard and the front yard we talked about before. I do this kind of therapy with students, which is quite methodical and intense because they have to sign a release. I’m going really into them and ask them about their deep embarrassments, like a guy who was a kleptomaniac or a girl who had bulimia, or other people with different phobias. It’s all on the table and I’m going to work with them on their topic, and then they have to make a work out of that.
You blur the lines between commerce, culture and content. When did you discover creativity?
When I started, I was drawing and making some graphic design works. Nowadays, time is shorter. I mean, if you are sixteen now it’s easy to learn something; it’s democratic, you have tools. But by that time, it was more like a craft. The first five or six years that I worked, I was too impressed that what I did was used for a commercial, a poster hanging on the street, etc. I was quite impressed by it. Not even thinking of what the actual thing was. There wasn’t a lot of consistency. Sometimes, I think of 1994-96, when I worked in London with my partner and we started to make things that felt very uncomfortable and shocking. We started to think, ok, let’s continue like that and let’s forget the easy way.
You are also a collector of images.
It had to do with the fact that I worked as an Art Director, as I work a lot with photographers and with images. In advertising, they also need to be perfect, so I was experimenting a lot with trying to make them imperfect because they were more interesting. I experiment with them. I find them in flea markets.
We finish the conversation going through some of these collected images published in Fail It, like the one of a dark dog: a story of love and bad light through the obsession of someone who, year after year, tried to take a picture of his beloved black pet failing each time. The perseverance of this man resulted, finally, in an honest and funny testimony. Or the example of this huge and fantastic billboard that was displayed the other way round, crabbing much more attention that way. Different images, ironic and touching at the same time, that express what Kessels remarks: “Look for imperfection; the unexpected and the surprise are much more unforgettable than perfection. That is the beauty of the spontaneous mistake and the art of failing”.