Face Filters for Instagram and Snapchat Are the New Frontier of Surrealist Art
Augmented reality is here. AR “face filters” — a mask-like augmented reality that adds virtual objects to an individual’s face—have become wildly popular on Instagram, Snapchat, and even video calling on FaceTime. But little attention so far has been given to face filters as AR art. Often seen as play, AR face filters can provide an engaging and personal art experience.
Traditional versus new ways of seeing
The most traditional way to consume art is through passive observation. Offline we stand in galleries and sit in concerts, and online we allow creative works to slowly and carefully infiltrate our consciousness. The passive experience permits us to think deeply and consider what we are seeing, but it also hinders our ability to actively engage, explore and create, and build onto existing works as creative collaboration. With many art forms, there is a distinct divide between the artwork and the viewer.
One way to change this is through computer-mediated realities, such as AR. AR works by taking a view of reality and placing virtual objects within that same view. In this way, you can mix virtual sculptures, text, or sounds with your pre-existing world. Instagram and Snapchat have been pioneers of this medium, allowing creators to submit AR experiences on their platforms which they can share through social media.
Instagram, Snapchat, and social media platforms, in general, have lots of detractors. The media bemoan our use of such platforms as a means of distancing us from art and other meaningful experiences. But the AR face filters from these same social media companies are themselves novel art forms. Since we often use social media tools to create AR art, then the creation is inherently a form of post-internet art: Art that is reliant on and created since the birth of the internet.
The unique power of face filters
Face filters work by detecting an image of a face and superimposing virtual elements onto that face via AR. The entire procedure happens instantaneously, and a new portrait is produced. As the subject turns their head or makes different facial expressions, they activate the AR experience. The user can activate some face filters by tapping on or pressing and holding the screen. These actions can trigger different animations or objects to appear. There aren’t always clear instructions for what a user needs to do to get the full experience. Exploration is part of the artistic process.
A unique aspect of AR art is that it’s virtual. Instead of artwork existing in a physical location, content can be made available in many places at once. An artist can place AR in a space, yet make no physical change to that space. AR face filters allow users to try on myriad physical possibilities that are impossible in everyday life. AR allows a person to make drastic changes to their appearance without any permanence or repercussions. This is different from traditional illustration, as it is immediate, reversible, and easily shared.
AR filters vary widely in how they warp, add to, or otherwise change a face. Most artists take advantage of AR by creating aesthetics and scenarios which would be physically impossible. Often futuristic, AR artists experiment with 3D makeup, render shiny and iridescent materials, or erase faces altogether. Ranging from the surreal and absurd to the comical and downright terrifying, face filters allow users to flirt with a variety of possible selves.
By making AR filters, artists are creating tools. Instead of creating a singular experience, an individual with access to AR face filters is able to express, collaborate, and share multiple versions of themselves at any time. This way of producing and sharing multiple selves on such a massive scale is completely new in the history of art creation.
The surreal, fantastical, and absurd
In Crystal Tentacles, created by the artist Omega C, glassy tentacles bend with the face as if the user is a sea creature with appendages floating in water. In Slinky Face, I created a multi-layered, caterpillar-like face, making the user appear as if they had several double chins. Mask-Off by Jon Han removes the face entirely and replaces it with a gradient of color. AR face filters allow us to rethink the mind and body. They allow us to enter dream-like, surreal states and explore humorous physicalities that defy biology.
In the 1924 Surrealist Manifesto, the artist André Breton outlined Surrealism as a movement and wrote about how reality and dreams could turn into “a kind of absolute reality, a surreality.” Traditionally, surreal art was a respite from the horrors of World War I. It was a welcome escape from a harsh reality — an endless bombardment of brutal news stories. It arrived at precisely the right time — a time that may feel familiar to us now.
Art responds to the time in which it is made. Surreal-type AR face filters capitalize on the chaos and political buffoonery of our time by creating an experience different from anything we could experience in real life. AR face filters allow us escapism, relief, comedy, and self-expression.
User as cyborg
Unlike Photoshop or other traditional photos filters, many of the available face filters do not serve the purpose of making the user more beautiful. Filters often depict the user as a cyborg by merging artificial and natural features. The first AR face filter to become widely popular was Beauty 3000, an effect by Johanna Jaskowska that gives the user glossy, luminescent skin. Love Machine, an effect by Marc Wakefield, opens up a user’s face entirely, revealing a hidden mechanical skull.
Face filters allow us to generate our own biofictions — interrogating what is natural and what is synthetic. They allow us to question how we represent ourselves and our lives on the internet. By walking the boundaries between the natural and the unnatural, AR face filters provide virtual mutations and a glimpse of future possibilities of what it means to be human.
Perhaps this is a step toward imagining what the world would be like with technological singularity, a hypothetical moment when minds and machines have merged into a single entity. For now, AR face filters can explore the aesthetics of how such a shift may alter our conscious experience.
The user as performer
AR is unique in that it swaps physical spaces and identities with virtual ones. In this way, we may freely experiment with our role as a performer. Mask wearing is a core aspect of AR face filters that may even enable the user to feel more confident. Like putting on a Halloween mask or engaging in other behaviors that hide identity, AR face filters may make people more likely to transgress traditional, mainstream social norms.
Face filters by digital artist Aaron Jablonski (also known as Exitsimulation) are a good example of the user as performer, as his face filters are dramatic and theatrical in style. Monologue, for instance, takes multiple copies of the user’s face and arranges them as if in conversation with each other. Here, the user can be in multiple places, playing multiple roles at once.
Sharing images is a major part of using AR face filters, heightening the sense of user as performer. Described by Adobe as a collective hallucination, AR face filters are a type of collaborative performance on a massive scale. As of December 2018, Snapchat’s AR face filters have been viewed a total of 15 billion times. Johanna Johwaska’s tagline: “There is no filter without you” rings especially true for AR face filters. A performer, rather than simply a viewer, is required for the artwork to exist.
The popularity of AR face filters
Face filters and other AR technology are being taken up quickly by younger people, with many users of AR being in the 18-24 age category. This may be because experimenting with identity is a particularly important stage of development for people in their early 20s.
From a neuroscience perspective, it makes sense that we are attracted to using face filters at any age because they visually tap into humans’ strong preference for faces. We see faces everywhere, and even imagine them in places they don’t exist. From infancy, we are attuned to faces and facial expressions—it enables us to survive. This is why portraiture as a medium has such a long history. What’s more, we are even more attuned to caricatures of faces. This may be why cartoon-style artwork and anime is popular, and why graphic posters that feature a face make such a strong impact.
Face filters fit into the contemporary understanding of visual processing. They take advantage of and exploit how our brains work. This keeps us engaged, and may make us more likely to use and share AR face filter creations with others.
The possible perils of AR art
Because AR face filters are usually free and accessible to most, they allow artists to interact directly with their audiences. They sidestep the eliteness of the contemporary art world and attract new audiences that might not have been interested in traditional art. That’s not to say that AR art doesn’t have downsides. AR face filters must abide by the rules of the platform on which they’re released. This can lead to “safe” art. Being mostly available on a social media platform also encourages you to upload an image of yourself, which of course, has its own potentially dark implications for privacy.
Currently, filters appear to be used to create singular, one-off experiences, rather than greater utilitarian or collective social movements. It is likely that this will change with time as the medium is developed and gains more widespread adoption. In the meantime, we can only participate as actively as we can, as we watch AR art bloom, along with the development of the internet.
The future of AR art
In the future, AR art might incorporate new technologies like blockchain, artificial intelligence, and the Internet of Things. These developments will allow people to share and reuse distributed AR spaces, in order to have AR experiences tailored specifically to a single user, and have AR interact with the physical objects in the world around us. Consider the potential of persistent AR, when an AR scene remains after a user has closed the app. This can be achieved by storing data on the cloud, for instance. This means that users can share and interact with the same AR objects in a scene while being in different places. Future AR could include some form of digital entropy: filters that change, grow, and decay over time. The creative potential for an AR filter is limited only by the person who uses it.
There is also room for the development of quieter, meditative, or spiritual experiences using AR. This type of experience is already being explored in virtual reality, which is naturally more immersive in its design. As processing power in mobile phones increases, longer experiences in AR which involve narrative elements will naturally emerge, creating a new form of miniature cinema. It is already possible to produce a music video where you take part in the creation of the content.
The future of art will be led by interactive mediums such as AR. It will radically change the very core of how we see ourselves, and how we engage with art as a whole.