Arts

Beyond Beauty3000 and puppy face: How artists are shaping the future of Instagram AR

This summer, Instagram opens their AR software to the world. These Canadians are already using it. So what are they doing to shake up the app?

This summer, Instagram opens their AR software to the world. These Canadians are already using it

The future, it is shiny. These Instagram filters, as captured in the wild, were designed by Canadian artist Fvckrender. (Instagram (@fvckrender, @madamlenna, @cleitonkasar, @karyrowe))

If you've been watching HBO's new sci-fi series Years and Years, there's a totally believable invention (one of dozens, really) that pops up in the first episode. Apparently we'll be wearing AR snouts and whiskers by the year 2024. Though really, we might as well be already.

Augmented reality is already the actual reality for anyone using social media. Snapchat, birthplace of that (passé) puppy-face look, has 186 million daily active users. Over on Facebook/Instagram, hundreds of millions of people fire up the apps' AR filters every month (according to the official company line).

But it's still possible to blow someone's mind with real-time CGI effects, it turns out — as Diana Lynn VanderMeulen discovered the other week.

Did you see this?!

VanderMeulen's a Toronto artist, and earlier this summer she shared an Instagram story featuring a filter called In Bloom. (Click to try it.) When activated, it conjures a swirl of retro-futuristic daisies. So, a reasonably familiar concept for anyone who's ever tried on a virtual flower crown.

"I think a lot of people have been really surprised by it," says VanderMeulen. "They're like, 'How did you do this?! How is it possible that you were able to upload to Instagram?'"

The short answer is Spark AR Studio — that being the name of Facebook's proprietary AR software. And unlike the overwhelming majority of Instagram's 1 billion monthly active users, VanderMeulen's the co-author of her very own filter — an effect designed in collaboration with another Canadian artist, Cat Bluemke.

Diana Lynn VanderMeulen shows off In Bloom. (Instagram/@dianalynnvdm)

Spark AR Studio was originally launched for Facebook's in-app camera. Free to download, the toolkit allows anyone to craft their own AR visuals for the app. But in spring of 2018, the company announced a closed beta group for creating Instagram filters. Bluemke — who's regularly collaborated on AR projects for artists — applied to join, and she estimates more than 7,000 other folks are currently part of this inner circle. (When asked, a rep for Instagram would not confirm the number.) Instagram plans to open things to the public later this summer, though an exact date is TBD.

In terms of the filters that have been coming out of the closed beta group, a few have become breakout hits already — adopted by celebrities and savvier members of the public. Beauty3000 is arguably the best known of the bunch. The effect, designed by Berlin-based artist Johanna Jaskowska (@johwska), buffs any selfie to an impossible prismatic gloss. "You want plastic? I'll give you the real plastic," Jaskowska told Dazed earlier this year. So while it might be read as a low level burn on narcissistic Instagram influencers — and the age-old pursuit of artificial beauty ideals — it's undeniably pretty in the way bright and sparkly things often are.

How to use the new Instagram filters

Beauty3000! (Instagram/@johwska)

To add a DIY filter — Beauty3000 included — Instagrammers have to follow the creators who made them first.

Once you've clicked that follow button, effects can be found through the in-app camera.

So if a creator's popular, their follower count could go nuclear. Jaskowska's boasting 792k followers as of writing. Her entire catalogue of filters taps into a shiny — and maybe not so happy — posthuman aesthetic that typifies most of the breakout stars: folks including Mate Steinforth (320k followers), Exitsimulation (342k) and Jade Roche, a.k.a. @ramenpolanski (621K).

Lianne Tokey, an artist from Oakville, Ont., is betting on Instagram filters to reach a wider audience, including future clients. "I'm all about the individual creator being able to capitalize off this, for sure," she says. When she joined the closed beta group, her Instagram was at 1,300 followers. "After a couple influencers used some of my effects, it just skyrocketed. I'm at over 100,000 now."

A whole new opportunity?

A professional illustrator and letterer, Tokey's filters have so far doubled as a sort of virtual business card for her 2D work, and she happily plays to the crowd. Learning that a ton of her fans are in Brazil, she released a special filter for Carnival. One of her biggest hits, "Dollface," tapped into the viral "Bratz Doll Challenge."

And while creators in the closed beta group aren't allowed to publish original filters for brands — not yet, anyway — Tokey sees herself translating exposure into future gigs. "My focus switched from wanting to promote myself to actually being able to use this as a new skill set that I could present to brands," she says. "It's a whole new career opportunity, really."

Lianne Tokey's "Dollface" filter was her take on the Bratz Doll Challenge. (Instagram/@liannetokey)

But exposure isn't a given — or even necessarily a good thing.

"Oh, I don't think it has helped me," says Frédéric Duquette (a.k.a Fvckrender), a 3D artist who's done client work for major brands (Dior, Red Bull).

Barely more than three years ago, he was teaching himself the basics of Cinema 4D at home. And the popularity his work has enjoyed on platforms like Instagram has certainly been a factor in his rise. (Recently relocated relocated to the West Coast from Montreal, Duquette's work appeared in a video for Lil Nas X and Cardi B's "Rodeo" just last month.)

"Self Help" by Fvckrender. (Fvckrender/H+ Creative)

Client projects, like his personal work, share the same neon vision of the future. There's a self-care vibe to several of his filters, and Duqette says his interest in self-improvement and mindfulness is a point of inspiration. Crystals appear a lot. Same with chains and chrome androids — who might be the grandchildren of T-1000.

His filters, which he began releasing earlier this year, run with the same motifs. One, called "Self Help," is like a hug from a robot — a robot that also prevents you from sharing yet another selfie. (The effect literally looks like four crystal gloves that block your face from view.)

"That one has like 20 million views, which is pretty crazy," he says. "It's my best hit, for sure." Brie Larson might prefer his "CRYST//" filter. Captain Marvel herself posted Instagram stories using that one. (It glitter-izes your complexion while crystal shards hover in front of your face.) Grimes has been trying on his filters, too, and she's popped up wearing them in video demos for new tracks.

Influential accounts have boosted hype for his filters — but as an artist with a reasonably well-established profile, Duquette says that their popularity has effectively split his audience. And he says that comes at a cost. The reach on his feed posts has suffered, he says, meaning fewer people on Instagram are seeing his new artwork.

"Now people follow me for the filters, and since I don't post filters every day — I post art — the people who follow me for the filters don't really give a shit."

Captain Marvel herself tries on a @fvckrender creation. (Instagram/@brielarson)

Duquette takes that in stride, but he also doesn't think of his Spark AR Studio know-how as a marketable skill — at least not the way others might. He says he's received outside offers to create Instagram filters, but when the time comes, he doesn't want to be a "technician" for hire. He's currently more concerned with pursuing his own creative vision than filling someone else's brief.

But he does want to share his Spark AR skills with the public. In anticipation of Spark AR Studio going wide, he's launched a Patreon page where you can sign up for introductory tutorials.

"I just do it for myself," he says, explaining why he started producing AR for Instagram. "There's no deep meaning [to my filters] — it's just for fun and exploration."

So, what's next?

Where Duquette is purely interested in the aesthetic side of things, other artists are already poking at Spark AR's potential for conceptual projects. Maybe Fvckrender's "Self Help" isn't some stealthy middle finger to Instagram's data-collecting policies. That's cool. Sometimes, you just want to accessorize your #OOTD with a ton of CGI fists. But there's definitely space for artists to make filters that explore conceptual ideas, political ideas — ideas that might even be critical of the app itself.

In VanderMeulen and Bluemke's case, they released In Bloom as part of a larger art project. The filter acts as a sort of extension of to one of VanderMeulen's video installations — like a version of the piece you can carry around in your pocket.

I just want to be able to connect with people. That's the tool right now.- Diana Lynn VanderMeulen, artist

"My art is about creating environments and atmospheres and landscapes," says VanderMeulen, so translating it to AR and VR made sense. Plus, a filter lets her share — and re-mount — work that's usually gone in a flash. That's one of the challenges of installation work, she explains. Plus, she adds: "A lot of my work doesn't really photograph well." But a filter? It drops the viewer right in the middle of the visuals. And it can reach infinitely more people. In real life, In Bloom's appeared at one-night-only events like the Gardiner Museum's Smash party in June; online, it can be seen for as long as Instagram supports it.

And being able to reach people where they already are (in this case, Instagram) eliminates another barrier of entry. There's no pleading with anyone. ("Download my app!") Creators can skip the bureaucratic and financial hassle of navigating the app stores, too. So when Spark AR Studio for Instagram eventually goes public, Bluemke can only imagine more artists will learn the software — just as they have on Snapchat, where that platform's proprietary toolkit, Lens Studio, is already open to all.

"I love the idea of people experimenting with things that are popular — available to a mass audience — which is what initially drew me to augmented reality," says Bluemke. (When the Pokemon Go craze hit in 2016, she began exploring the technology.) "Oh, this is art people can see on their phones versus in a gallery. That was exciting to me!"

"The In Bloom Filter — I wanted to make something fun. I wanted to use this software [Spark AR Studio], and I wanted people to enjoy it," says Bluemke. But she often comes at AR work from a different perspective — one that's influencing the filters she's likely to publish next.

If you're an artist interested in working with this cutting-edge proprietary software, there are questions it raises. What is their labour practice?- Cat Bluemke, artist

Tech and labour have been Bluemke's go-to topics since she was studying at OCAD U earlier this decade. Think topics like the gig economy — something she actually tackled in this video game project, GIGCO, which was developed with fellow members of SpekWork Studio collective.

So her interest in Spark AR Studio isn't so much about mastering the keyboard shortcuts. "It's conceptually very interesting as a medium to me," says Bluemke. "Long-game wise, if you're an artist interested in working with this cutting-edge proprietary software, there are questions it raises. What is their labour practice?"

"There are so many people — so much energy being poured into this that is completely unpaid," she says, referring to the closed beta group, which is effectively helping Instagram test their software before it goes public. "And how are artists' creations — the filters — being used by the companies that host them?"

"If artists are beginning to move into this area, they really have to reconcile are they making something for audiences that is inevitably going to make their audiences part of this moneymaking machine for Facebook."

"But if people are like, 'I want to make fun stuff,'" she laughs, "I don't think there's anything wrong with that."

Filters by Fvckrender. (Fvckrender/H+ Creative)

Whatever filters people design, actually getting them in front of Instagram's global audience isn't a given. The ones that have already been published by the closed beta group aren't promoted within Instagram. Users discover them through old-fashioned word of mouth. (There's a helpful little "try it" button that automatically appears whenever anyone posts a story, but that's no guarantee a filter will spread.) For every Fvckrender, there are presumably thousands of other Instagrammers experimenting in obscurity, and the swamp of filters to search through will only swell. 

Despite mixed opinions about his personal experience, Duqette says that designing filters is going to be a major opportunity for artists once Spark AR Studio opens wide. "In general, it's for the best that everyone will have access," he says. "It's a really good tool for developing a great audience on Instagram. In this world, when you have a lot of followers, you have a lot of business, and we cannot deny it."

Says VanderMeulen: "I just want to be able to connect with people. That's the tool right now."

About the Author

Leah Collins is the Senior Writer at CBC Arts.