On Instagram, Experimenting Beyond the Human Condition

The newest range of filters isn't about trying on a lipstick shade or a flower crown—but about becoming someTHING else entirely.

by Tatum Dooley
Nov 24 2019, 10:45am

In 2004, a Florida woman named Diane Duyser sold a piece of grilled cheese with the burnt image of the Virgin Mary on it on eBay for $28,000. An example of acheiropoieta, a religious icon made miraculously in nature, finding religious iconography in inanimate objects such as toast is seen as a sign of the divine. A new devotional cohort can be found on Instagram, where Instagram filters allow users to transcend their physical bodies. A person’s image can be imprinted onto a piece of toast, a toilet bowl or distorted into a galaxy-like blob with a few taps on a screen. Similar to the minds’ ability to see faces where they aren’t any as a symbol of greater meaning, Instagram filters allow users to view their image as something beyond their physical form.

Following Snapchat’s lead, in 2017 Instagram introduced a basic Rolodex of augmented reality (AR) filters—for example, puppy dog ears, a black and white film roll, gold glitter falling, and cat-eye makeup with red lips. In August 2019, Instagram began to let users create their own filters and things got much weirder. To unlock a filter, you need to follow the creator or otherwise save individual filters to your account. The filters range from lip injections and freckles, to a metallic sheet mask with blacked-out eyes. While beautifying filters remain popular—filters that elongate eyelashes and smooth skin—also popular are filters that conceal the human condition, rendering the user unrecognizable. These odd-ball filters range from transplanting a face onto food packaging to stretching out the sides of your face, turning you into a blob.

Robbie Carvalho, @conceptuel, a 21-year-old from Switzerland, started making filters in January 2019 (Facebook allowed users to upload filters prior to Instagram's crowdsourcing launch). Since then, his effect A N G E R Y, a gold robotic floating head that looks like it could be cast as an extra in Star Wars, went viral after the Spanish Youtuber AuronPlay used it. “I think these filters are popular because people can tell stories and bring a story totally outside the box,” Carvalho told GARAGE. “With absurd scenes like that, It can make an instant laugh at first impression and then people want to play the character they just created. I think it brings creativity to everyday lives,” they continue. The sensitivity of the AR means that the filter sticks to the user like glue, tracking the slightest movement. The result is a dissonance between what you’re seeing on screen and what you feel. Some of the filters I’ve tried out are so believable, I’ve subconsciously reached out to touch my face to see if what I’m seeing is real.

Most creators I spoke to mentioned the demographic using their filters is between 18 and 34, and the creators tended to skew on the lower-end of the millennial bracket. Annecy Kenny, @annecy.cornchip, a 21-year-old who lives in New York City, started making filters on Spark AR in March 2019 as a way to procrastinate on an EP they’re working on. Kenny’s filters include a giant eye replacing your head, heavy drag make-up and wig, a rat face, and three Teletubby-like creatures floating around the screen. Their filters have now been used over 2.1 million times. ‘I started using computers when I was 18 months old and started playing with Photoshop around age 4...I figured having photoshop and other computer-based skills like 3D work that I could learn how to make filters even if they were just basic and for fun,” they told GARAGE. “I surprised myself by quickly grasping the basics of Spark AR and the first day I played with it I made like 5 different filters,” they continued.

User-generated filters often have a DIY zine-vibe that differentiates themselves from the rounded corners of technology. “I really love David Lynch, [and] my favorite movie is the Wizard of Oz. I would love that stuff to be my real life. So, even just getting a taste of that through just an Instagram filter is fun,” said Kenny. “I believe it’s cool to see what technology can do and to see yourself as part of that, to have your own face be manipulated and such weird ways,” they continued. Donna Sgarbi, @d0nn4s, a 25-year-old student who lives in Argentina has a similar surreal outlook on creating filters. “I like to imagine me as an employer of an imaginary branch that I call SERVICE FANTASY. I mean to combine my love of magic worlds with the vision of the real and daily things as they are,” she told GARAGE over email. Sgarbi goes on to refer to technology as a “great ally,” allowing users to play with their vision of themselves and a joyful alternative to the downsides of reality.

These filters exist on the opposite end of the spectrum of filters that beautify. It can be tiring to look beautiful, even if technology ensures you don’t have to put any work in, since sometimes the flawless image projected isn’t representative of your personality or inner-thoughts. It can also be tiring to exist in your own body, especially if the body you encompass feels disconnected from how you feel. In this way, Instagram filters that distort can feel closer to the truth than a mirror. Filters, such as the ones made by Kenny, are rooted in the queer experience, with many of their filters taking inspiration from the drag community. “A lot of my filters are inspired by drag and inspired by queer art,” said Kenny, who went on to state their goal audience is the queer community. “I feel like I want to help with that kind of representation,” they continued.

“I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess,” wrote Donny Haraway’s in the 1984 Cyborg Manifesto. Filters that distort and turn the body into something absurd or inanimate, rather than a shiner, more beautiful version of the self, represents a technological praxis of Haraway’s statement: choosing to be a cyborg rather than a goddess. By choosing the image of a cyborg, there’s the hope of re-writing the misogyny and patriarchy attached to the contrived notion of gender. After growing accustomed to seeing our face on the screen, we now want to subvert our image through technological intervention. Perhaps this shift will change the nature of our relationships to our bodies and the societal binaries that police them. Just like our brains’ ability to see the divine in the mundane, these filters allow us to see ourselves as something more than the physical form we embody. Instagram as divine intervention, allowing us to be otherworldly.

Augmented Reality