Like a lot of people I spent the other weekend staring at my phone’s camera infatuated with a newly discovered application. The Google Arts & Culture app climbed to the top of the charts overnight and it infected all corners of social media, so I naturally had to check it out.
The app, which has been around since 2016, is a gigantic database of culture articles and interactive artworks that make museums accessible. But it wasn’t until this month that users could take a selfie and be matched with one of the app’s cataloged portraits based on facial recognition.
My result wasn’t exactly flattering and I quickly became envious of those who matched with famous portraits of Napoleon or members of “The Night Watch.” No matter the angle, lighting, state of my hair, presence of a 5 o’clock shadow, bespectacled or not, I was almost always paired with a blonde sleeping baby from an untitled 2001 Carlos Basto painting. I’m glad I wasn’t compared to a Pablo Picasso work, but it’s not exactly the classical masterpiece I was hoping for.
Upon opening the app the user is greeted with a message saying it doesn’t record the biometrics, yet even if it did we’d probably still use it. We’re human. There are only nine species besides us that recognize themselves in a mirror. Our face is not only the foundation of our identity, but each dimple, jawline and eyebrow tells the personal narrative of our ancestors. How many times have you heard “You have your mother’s eyes” or “father’s nose”?
Google Arts & Culture’s 15 minutes of fame shows why it’s no wonder Snapchat is the app of the young. Though I never use it, I can appreciate the technology behind knowing exactly where to place those puppy ears and other filters. Facebook knows this too, which is the reason it copies every feature imaginable with Instagram.
Before this app there was the craze of Meitu in 2017 when the public transformed their selfies into anime-like characters with large eyes and sparkle effects. However, it didn’t last because that app saved more than just facial data, compromising users’ privacy. Since 2013 people have been swapping their faces with those of friends, loved ones, animals and statues.
Getting a new Macbook as a college gift meant opening up Photobooth as soon as possible to fiddle with effects that turn your screen into a funhouse mirror. Scroll through anyone’s Facebook albums back far enough and you’re guaranteed to find an Andy Warhol-like pop art profile pic. While the American mall may be on the decline, one can find real photo booths still there waiting to mark even the most mundane occasion.
Before smartphones were everywhere kids and teens digitized their faces with the Game Boy Camera. Using a 128x128 pixel sensor, the four-color pictures were crude yet identifiable. It was capable of panoramas, timed shots, editing with stamps, animating a series of photos and printing to thermal paper. But, because it was attached to a game device, the selling point was seeing your face on a stick body running and juggling or flying a space ship to blast away a boss that looks like your father.
Character creators are still immensely popular, appearing in various sports games, role-playing games and simulators. When Wii conquered the casual gaming space everyone wanted to see their cartoon caricature bowl and golf.
Brothers Justin and Griffin McElroy from video-game site Polygon tapped into our fascination with faces for the “Monster Factory” web series. What started as a simple gag of hitting the “random” button for a character’s face quickly evolved. Commander Shepard’s skull in “Mass Effect 2” became so distorted cut-scenes didn’t work, an uncanny Bart Simpson appeared in “Black Desert Online” and “Second Life” elected a boy mayor unlike any other. They turned sculpting magnificent and horrifying visages into a hilarious art form.
We are all Narcissus staring into the pool of water, unable to look away.
The saturation cycle shrinks constantly in the social media world. We latch onto the next cool thing until it becomes stale. Google Arts & Culture still has useful info like an article on Indian cinema or roundup of New Zealand public art, but it’s been a few days since I opened it.
I’ll likely delete it soon or dump it in a folder where it’ll start collecting virtual dust. Let’s be real, it’s only January. There’s bound to be another app on the horizon waiting to vie for our attention and the portraits will be a faded memory. When that app drops I’ll be there to download it.