Face Filters for Instagram and Snapchat Are the New Frontier of Surrealist Art

Augmented reality masks for the masses

Credit: Ines Alpha

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.

“Echo Face” by the author, Jess Herrington. The user’s face is replicated simultaneously in gigantic and miniature.
“Internet Dream” by the author, Jess Herrington. A digital, colorful version of the user’s face is recreated as if existing in a video game.

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.

“Split” by Exitsimulation. The work splits and duplicates a “ghost” image of the user’s own face.
“Hole in the Head” by Marc Wakefield. A metallic hole is created in the user’s face.

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.

“Crystal Tentacles” by Omega C. This filter attaches translucent tentacles to the user’s face that move as the user moves.
“Slinky Face” by the author, Jess Herrington. This work uses multiple images of a user’s face at once for a surreal, caterpillar-like effect.
“Mask Off” by Jon Han. The filter pictured removes a user’s face, revealing a new identity underneath.

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.

“Beauty 3000” by Johanna Jaskowska. The filter pictured applies a shiny, luminescent skin to a user’s face.
“Love Machine” by Marc Wakefield. The user’s face is opened to reveal a robotic skull underneath.
Augmented Reality Face Filter, “Vision_X90” by FVCKRENDER. The user’s face is replaced by a futuristic mask.

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.

“Monologue” by Exitsimulation. The work creates multiple copies of the user’s face and arranges them as if in conversation.
“Scramble” by Exitsimulation. The work creates scrambled fragments of the user’s face and arranges them as if in conversation.

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.

“Badland” by Johanna Jaskowska. The filter places red lighting over the user’s eyes acting as a mask.
“Sci-fi Liner” by Ines Alpha. A linear mask is drawn onto the user’s face.

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.

“Silver Disks” by Omega C. Bendable metallic slivers are placed into the user’s face.

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.

“Future Gloss” by Ines Alpha. A glossy line is drawn over the user’s face.

AR | VR | XR. Cultural + Creative computing. Visual neuroscience. PhD candidate at the Australian National University. www.jessherrington.com

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