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Face filters: the new way to consume contemporary art

9.6 million people visited the Louvre in Paris in 2019. 95 million photos are uploaded to Instagram every day. Even when we do go into art galleries, we’re taking photographs.

By Verity Babbs , written on February 24, 2021

From The Culture Desk

Since Snapchat’s launch in 2011, editing your photos with a filter has been a tap away, and these filters have come a long way from the dog ears and tongue first offered to us. Almost all social media platforms have some form of photo function with AR add-ons and image editability. 

Instagram now has thousands of interactive filters: quiz filters can give you a prediction of just about anything, from what you’ll be doing this Valentine’s Day, to which vegetable you are. While these are fun, filters also have the potential to have a significant impact on how we consume visual culture.

In recent years AR collaborations with artists have become increasingly popular. Acute Art, for example, has given us the ability to view sculptural works by the world’s leading contemporary artists via our mobile phone screen. Including big-hitters such as KAWS, Anish Kapoor, and Jeff Koons, Acute Art offers us access that might otherwise be impossible (say, in a pandemic).

 

The key thing the art industry needs to capitalise on is this: more people use face filters than go into art galleries.

9.6 million people visited the Louvre in Paris in 2019; 95 million photos are uploaded to Instagram every day.

Even when we do go into art galleries, we’re taking photographs. At any popular exhibition, you're likely to have your view of the art obscured by an influencer doing a photoshoot, or by bloggers holding up their phones to get a good Instagram story. Interactivity is a huge audience-pull for exhibitions. The Tate capitalised on this with Olafur Eliason’s retrospective ‘In Real Life’ in 2019, which included a light display that reacted to audience movement, as well as a corridor filled with a smoky orange vapour for visitors to journey through. Pictures taken in Eliason’s fog-filled walkway were a must-have profile picture for visitors wanting to signal to the world “I was there, I am cultured, and I am on-trend.”

UK digital artist Sian Fan emphasises the “personal experience between someone, their device and your work”  when creating Virtual Reality (VR) art. Our mobile phones have become extensions of our arms, and taking photographs is now as second-nature as movement. Fan's practice focuses on the "human experience in the digital age" and, with six Instagram filters under her belt (which can be found on her Instagram profile), she feels face filters are the perfect example of "augment(ing) the human body with virtual materials"

VR that incorporates the audience’s physical form is “intrinsically … about identity and how we interact with the world around us,” says LUAP, a British artist whose Instagram filter features his renowned ‘Pink Bear’ character.

What we put on our bodies (whether virtually or physically), and what we share on social media (especially with our own faces included) is intrinsic to our identity. Leanne Rule, a UK graphic designer who specialises in quirky 3D characters, says, “I think being able to wear the art makes it feel more personal, making something interactive always leave[s] a bigger impression.”

 

Collaboration with the audience is integral to making good art, and key for getting people to come and see your show.

Victor Castillo, the Chilean artist whose characters are recognisable by their early Disney-style blacked-out eyes and turned-up red noses, sees his filter as a way to continue a making/consuming loop. The artist draws inspiration from people, who are then able to view and - more significantly - physically embody his work: “it’s a perfect feedback [loop] because I make my work for people and [then] they are involved”. 

Art, as a dialogue between artist and viewer, needs audience participation. Sometimes this participation is as simple as looking, but with VR bringing art into our homes and phones, there are more ways to engage than ever. Painter Prachi Gothi’s filter wraps her colourful abstracts around the user’s eyes, forehead, and cheeks, “[giving] my audience a different and personalised experience in the way they [can] interpret, engage and collaborate with the painting.” Our face shape alters the art we are interacting with, and the backdrop is our chosen surroundings, creating a truly personal encounter with art.

Aylu Venus, a photographer from Buenos Aires, has created multiple filters for her Instagram page. Many of these incorporate imagery from art history such as the famous hands from Michelangelo’s ‘The Creation of Adam’, Renaissance cherubs, or the cut-out eyes from a painting of the Virgin Mary: “I was taking art history classes at the time I started learning how to use the software to create the face filters for Instagram, so I was strongly influenced by Renaissance art to create my first filter ‘Michelangelo’.”

Face filters are also a great way of injecting energy into our interaction with Classical art. The market for new technology to reinvigorate our connection with older art is exemplified by the craze in late 2018 for the Google Arts & Culture Selfie, an app that would find your art doppelgänger based on your selfie. I was paired with Hans Asper’s ‘Portrait of Cleophea Krieg von Bellikon’ which was mildly hurtful but accurate.

 

Face Filters are a brilliant leveller of access to art, and this goes beyond simply being able to see art you wouldn’t have the chance to see in person.

Galleries filled with oil paintings of the aristocracy and idealised nude models can be ostracising to anyone who isn’t white, able-bodied, or cis-gendered, and Face Filters give audiences the chance to see themselves in the art they consume.

Claire Luxton, a British multidisciplinary artist with over 131,000 followers on Instagram, found that creating her filter ‘Hope’ was a refreshing change from her usual self-portraiture practice: “instead of working to my face I was designing for everyone … I wanted to make it universal so it was able to be shared globally and inclusively”.

The filter, which attaches a sprig of flowers to the user’s cheeks using a Band-Aid with ‘HOPE’ written on it is cute but edgy, a perfect match for Gen Z’s aesthetic tastes. Luxton says she was inspired by “lockdown life” to make her filter, which has now been used over 500,000 times. During 2020/1 lockdowns and consequent gallery closures, we’ve been deprived of visual art’s physical reality. Viewing art online is not the same as viewing it in person. “I felt this was a way of using digital technology, through augmented reality to try and give my audience that same experience & physicality from home … I wanted to bring the artwork directly into their worlds,” said Luxton. Gothi similarly “wanted to respond to our current times of digital escapism”.

Filters are a great way for artists to generate traffic for their Instagram pages and disseminate their visual style through a captive audience of mobile users. The relationship between consumer and contemporary art is evolving, and the art world has a duty to rise to the challenge of adapting to audiences’ new needs and desires. This duty falls on artists and gallerists alike, but ultimately it is the latter who is most likely to suffer if they don’t adapt. Creating welcoming spaces for new audiences and opportunities for more meaningful interactions with art is the best chance physical galleries have for surviving in this strange new post-pandemic landscape.

Galleries must incorporate these digital developments into their DNA to keep up with changing trends, create innovative viewing experiences, and make engaging with art more accessible.

 

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