In 2019, perfection (in the traditional sense) seems only an Instagram filter away, but not for Johanna Jaskowska, whose subversive and surreal Beauty3000 has so far amassed over 200 million impressions, and the numbers are still growing.
The Berlin-based digital artist has been transforming people into plastic cyborgs since the release of her arrestingly saccharine face filters Blast, Zoufriya, Beauty3000 and Turfu three weeks ago. And suddenly, it feels like everybody is dosing themselves in glittery augmented vats of virtual Vaseline, or dancing blobs of coloured light. Models Teddy Quinlivan and Jazzelle Zanaughtti are already fans. “The idea of a plastic, artificial beauty is especially relevant in today’s society,” Jaskowska tells us. “When I was creating Beauty3000, all I could think of was, ‘you want plastic? I’ll give you the real plastic’.”
But Jaskowska isn’t the only one turning out artificial looks. Across Instagram, user-driven face filters are having a moment. Seemingly out of nowhere, an entire wave of independent artists are serving lewk upon lewk of reality-bending, sci-fi realness – and people love it. Equipped with the latest face mapping and AR know-how, these young artists are using filters as a form of self-expression, begging the question, is the era of cat faces and perfectionist make-up transformations finally over?
“Platforms like Instagram have become a tool of self-expression where people can convey messages, atmospheres or emotions simply through curating and creating an online profile,” says Aaron Jablonski, the digital artist behind @exitsimulation, whose recent series of face filters has seen the 29-year-old’s follower count skyrocket to nearly 76k. The German artist has been giving selfies a surreal makeover since the release of his filter One earlier this month, which manifests itself in ghostly faces that hover around the user’s face like a spectral death mask. “Seeing themselves through shapes that behave in physically impossible ways, or hyperreal materials with exaggerated properties, gives (people) an image they have possibly not seen before,” he adds.
These two are at the helm of a new generation of user-driven designers whose distinctly unreal creations are creeping their way onto your social media feed. Characterised by an edgy, distinctly postmodern aesthetic, this new breed of digital artist would rather turn your face into a hyperreal alien mask or prismatic creature than a cute dog or Kylie Jenner. (Because, if you haven’t already heard, we’re living in a post-internet age.) “People expect to see an enhanced version of themselves but with us, they get something different,” says Jablonski, whose filters have received a staggering 34 million impressions. Sure, animals make us look cute in a thirst-trap kind of way, and make-up filters enlarge our pout and smooth our skin, but the numbers speak for themselves: it’s by subverting these very standards of traditional beauty that make filters like Beauty3000 and One so popular, and (let’s face it) cool.
You only need to scroll through Instagram to see what he means. Everywhere, people are posting selfies in creative new ways, whether it is performing experimental music while flanked by two unearthly copies of your face, or directing a short film with a fembot protagonist. It seems that these new filters are opening an entire world of possibilities for artists and users alike. “These filters can be used in creative new ways that partly break with the expectation of self-depiction on social media,” adds Jablonski. “Breaking fixed thought patterns on how we perceive gender and beauty is important and much needed.”
It’s no wonder artists are turning to filters as tools for self-expression given the unprecedented rise (and success) of computer-generated crossovers in media. Since the creation of virtual avatars like Lil Miquela (Dazed Beauty’s contributing arts editor) in 2016, and her subsequent iterations, the increasingly wobbly line between the physical and digital world has never been smaller, with luxury brands like Prada, Balmain and Balenciaga all jumping on the digitally-rendered, CGI bandwagon. Not to mention the dominating presence of social media in all of our lives, which is basically an extension of ourselves. “We are all partly virtual beings,” agrees Jablonski. “We spend so much time in front of digital devices that the identity we establish online becomes an integral part of ourselves.”
But what’s driven this sudden surge of Instagram filters, and their subsequent popularity? “Beauty on social media has become boring,” Jaskowska tells us. “I’m not making filters to follow what has already been done, I want to experiment and provoke.” Much of the aesthetic builds on an already thriving trend of transhumanism, facilitated by style icons such as alien duo Fecal Matter, and anti-aesthetic models like Jazelle, who are using make-up and fashion to transform themselves into semi-human, gender-blurring entities. Meanwhile, cyborg artists like Neil Harbisson and Manel Muñoz, founders of the Transpecies Society in Barcelona, are physically modifying their bodies into literal man-machines.
“I love the idea of a half-man half-robot,” says Jaskowska. “I am fascinated with the idea of building a perfect human being using technology.” Like the video for SOPHIE’s track “Faceshopping” (where the singer’s computer-rendered face wibbles and wobbles beyond recognition), the rise of CGI and AR technology is giving young people a new tool for shaping their identity, meaning that the success of surreal face filters couldn’t be more zeitgeisty.
Perhaps the popularity of these new filters can be interpreted as a move towards a digital kind of existence. The future might be fucked IRL but the online world serves as an antidote to the environmental and political shitstorm going on around us. Or perhaps it’s a reaction to the monotonous (and exhausted) narrative of traditional beauty, epitomised by the likes of the Kardashian clan, where perfection is but a nip, tuck and Facetune away. “I hope people will get bored of seeking perfection, maybe they already have to a certain degree,” agrees Jablonski.