The Antidote to Snapchat Dysmorphia? Getting Weird.
AR-enhanced face filters are here to stay, and Ines Alpha is working to free them from tired beauty standards.
In a future fated to blur the boundaries between human senses and our perception of digital stimuli, does art have the capacity to alter evolution? The answer is yes according to Ines Alpha, a Parisian artist who transforms reality by digitally fabricating virtual materials we can perceive with our own eyes and interact with in real time.
“Reality is beautiful, but it wasn’t enough for me,” says Alpha, whose given name is Ines Marzat. “I always wanted to mix reality and digital.”
And while her work appeals to that sweet, tender spot in your heart that gushes over dystopian Blade Runner sets and other timeless sci-fi aesthetics, it carries with it a revolutionary spirit that revels in the destruction of analog ways of thinking and using our biological senses.
She brings her imagined visions of the future of beauty to life in digital photographs and videos by layering her otherworldly CGI cosmetic creations over portraits of real people accompanied at times by the super-terrestrial sounds of her musician collaborator Panteros666. Using unreal images and rhythmic sounds, she augments reality by building worlds that are meant to be experienced fully through the senses even though we can’t physically interact with them. These worlds remind us of our own desire to integrate biotechnologies and our willingness to alter the human species, giving new shapes and style to our visions of cyborgs and humanoids.
Weird is beautiful
Alpha recently collaborated with Grow Your Own Cloud, an organization that “works with data as a material and nature as a technology,” according to their website. Together, they created Interspecies Gossip, a 3D photography series that visualizes what our faces would become if we physically integrated with other species like sponges or fungi, becoming a psychedelic hybrid either through bioengineering, futuristic alien tech, or just a healthy dose of imagination.
These days, with rendered filter masks available on almost any device, anyone can pull up a 3D makeup look on their phone screen and wear it as if it were real. A Texas lawyer, struggling to figure out Zoom filters, recently testified as a cat in a Zoom court proceeding and famously called out, “I’m not a cat!” while trying to do business as usual sporting the adorable, though unwanted, filter. The makeup filters designed by Ines Alpha in collaboration with big fashion houses like Emilio Pucci and Dior push real world runway shows over into the digital dimension as models wear the 3D filters styled with traditional couture.
Imagine the endless possibilities of self-generated original beauty looks. From benignly decadent to downright sinister, AR-enhanced face filters are here to stay, and it is time to evaluate their social and mental health impacts. Modern medicine unofficially coined the terms “selfie and Snapchat dysmorphia” to describe the recent phenomena of people, usually between the ages of 20–40, who prefer their face filter look over their actual appearance and must heavily edit their own image to achieve it. This has led to a strange new age in which people today get plastic surgery to mimic those same beauty filters, a trend which many find troubling. In 2017, an annual American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery survey found that 55 percent of plastic surgery patients said the main reason for getting surgery was to make themselves look better to improve their selfies. But if the technology is new, the problem is not. It’s really just the latest evolution of a longstanding problem where people are driven to extreme adherence to societal ideals of beauty: big, rounded eyes; sharp, thin noses; high cheekbones; anorexic-like gauntness (like Kate Moss’s “heroin chic” look or Jack Dorsey’s extreme calorie restriction vibe); mirror-like right-left facial symmetry, and perfectly smooth complexions. For many people, these unachievable beauty standards are dangerously reinforced in the pages of celebrity magazines and drive them to the plastic surgeon’s office.
“My work can be feminist because I am trying to fight the beauty standards that are terrible for everyone. I am showing different kinds of beauty, weird ones. It is so far off that maybe people do not even understand how I am fighting beauty standards.”
The fact that people are being driven to plastic surgery today because of their preference for self-imposed digital facial features may be troubling, but it’s hardly surprising. As long as beauty standards exist, people will continue to face the psychological need to achieve them. But with the new technology also comes opportunity for empowerment. A burgeoning new crop of AR filter designers are proclaiming freedom from those old beauty ideals. Along with Ines Alpha, this online community explores surrealism and nature as manifested reflections of an inner beauty.
The more we stare into the swirling alien liquids and get lost in the cyber-glitter, the more clear it becomes that augmented reality can make technology feel personal and familiar—even fun. Alpha thought to borrow from her own childhood memories of scrolling through the pages of her parent’s Japanese fashion magazines, reading anime, and playing Final Fantasy when defining the novel appearance of her filters. She found a way of juxtaposing anachronistic and contemporary references taken from pop culture to create fully unique beauty filter designs that are somewhat familiar to users as well. When people interact with the work of Ines Alpha, they are able to organically explore their own twisted nostalgia blended with their surreal dreams of the future.
For Alpha, exploring the future means challenging our current ideas of beauty. In the immersive digital videos and photography created with the chain store Selfridges, she visualized what the future of beauty would look like. The simulated makeup looks were presented alongside advertisements for fast food and smartphones in a very 21st century sort of way.
“Three years ago, I tried to imagine how a digital beauty tutorial would look. We made codes inspired by very lively and dynamic beauty tutorials, and we used the codes to explain how to apply digital makeup on your face. I can very easily imagine it can be like that in the future,” she says.
Add a few icicles, thorns, and cotton candy crowns
In the recent project called Supermorphia, done in collaboration with artist and programmer Eliza SJ and Marpi Studio, Alpha finally achieved her dream of creating 3D digital makeup you can apply live, and as easily as real makeup. Using real-time facial motion capture technology called Hyprface, she was able to convert a person’s face into data and simultaneously pick up body motions while superposing her digital makeup. The result? Amoebas, cotton candy pebbles, metallic thorn roses, and glittering pixelated icicles all become part of the average makeup kit of a video game warrior character, like an influencer Princess Zelda. In the future, we will be distorting our faces instead of contouring and increasing brightness instead of applying highlighter to express ourselves.
“As an artist that creates something in augmented reality, it is great to think that it doesn’t exist without the people playing with it. It will exist differently every time someone plays with it. It will impact people differently, and the story will be different,” she says.
The idea of accepting virtual accessories, makeup, and add-ons as real demonstrations of evolutionary signaling—like poison dart frog markings or peacock feathers—is not so far off. This is especially true in our modern society where posting pictures of your adventures on social media can be more valued than the experiences themselves. “I think that why I transform the world we inhabit in a magical way is because I would love people to bring that magic into the streets. I want to encourage that,” she says with a satisfied smile.
At the end of the day, Alpha shows us that we do not need the latest iPhone update, genetic engineering technology, or machine learning algorithm to evolve ourselves. Her vision of a boundless evolution of beauty and self-expression prepares us to embrace both real and digital futures. Her art is connecting us to who we are now, who we could be through real or virtual transformation, and who we will potentially become.