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If I Use This Filter on My Selfie Enough Times, Will It Become Art?

Or just goop???

On the left, the author. On the right, the author as seen through the Cartoon filter in the Prequel app—she is more cartoonish, not unlike a Bratz doll.
Portrait of the artist as an increasingly demented cartoon. Savannah Cordova via Prequel

Occupants of a certain swath of Twitter will know that yassification is pretty much done. The dying gasp of Yassify Bot, an account that debuted last November, came on Jan. 4, when its edit of a Weeknd album cover earned just over 8,000 likes—not even close to the account’s greatest hits (see: yassified Peanut Butter Baby, yassified Prince Philip, and my personal favorite, yassified Robert Pattinson standing in someone’s kitchen).

It’s a perk of today’s memes that they tend to burn hot and die quickly, supernova-like. It’s even better when the progenitor of a meme recognizes this; Yassify Bot acknowledged from the start that it had a short shelf life. Still, from embers and ash a phoenix shall rise, and the kinds of picture filters that allow for meme replication at scale obviously aren’t going anywhere.

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So I was cheered but unsurprised to hear about Prequel—the latest in yassifying technology, or at least the latest to make waves on Twitter. The app has hundreds of carefully honed effects, but people have mostly been using its Cartoon filter, which predictably adds Pixar-like features and textures to your selfies—while also, more predictably, making you look super hot.

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Like a parrot in front of a mirror, I am mindlessly vain and shine-obsessed, so I had to try this one out. The app didn’t disappoint; having chosen a decent selfie, I came out looking like an anime goddess. I proceeded to Cartoonify another selfie … only instead of selecting a new photo, I accidentally chose the image I’d just saved, adding another layer of Cartoon effects atop the first.

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Thus an intriguing experiment was born. How many rounds of cartoon yassification would it take for my face to become unrecognizable? Or, to be more ambitious: How long until it looked less like a selfie and more like something that might generally be recognized as “art”?

Inspired by the seminal works of Jia Tolentino and Monster Factory, as well as the fact that it would only take five minutes, I decided to put my face through 10 rounds of Cartoon effect. The idea of doing something inane over and over for others’ mild entertainment came to me on Groundhog Day; I took this as a sign that I should not just share my dumb experiment with friends, but also write about it. I’m sorry.

Rounds 1-4: Disappointingly Humanoid

Two increasingly Cartoon-ified selfies of the author. Mostly normal looking.
Rounds 1 and 2. Savannah Cordova via Prequel
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Like one of those line graphs where the y-axis starts in a misleading place, this experiment would feel less credible if you didn’t know what I looked like. So I’m cheating a little on the “10 rounds” thing and presenting my human face as round 1.

For context, I am sitting in the backseat of a car, and because this car was in the U.S. and I live in the U.K., I did not have any data on my phone. Lacking access to Instagram, I was taking selfies to occupy myself on the hour-and-a-half-long drive. I think you can see it in my dead eyes and barely-there smile, which made this photo the ideal candidate to begin yassifying.

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Round 2, as you can see, makes grand strides toward the anime. Arguably unlike Facetune, which requires user input, Prequel’s automatic Cartoon effect seems designed to flatter—it keeps just enough of your features (hair, nose, general face shape) for you to think, “Wow, that does look like me.” But it also balloons your eyes and lips, adds eyeliner, microblades your brows, and—most promisingly, art-wise—warps the colors in your photo. Needless to say, I was thrilled to discover that these effects could be applied ad infinitum. On to the first mistake.

Two increasingly Cartoon-ified selfies of the author. Getting stranger.
Rounds 3 and 4. Savannah Cordova via Prequel
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Round 3 is still disappointingly humanoid, calling to mind a very saturated Bratz doll. But there’s progress! The eyes and lips are clearly overinflated (oddly, the Cartoon effect forces the upper lip to keep growing even as the lower lip stays the same), the eye makeup and brows have darkened, and other colors are now decidedly cartoonish. This is the last iteration I could reasonably use as a profile picture without anyone DMing to ask if I’m OK.

In other words, Round 4 is where we start to get somewhere. This one looks like the caricature it is—not from a genial amusement-park caricaturist, but from a political cartoonist who wishes their subject to look deranged. The tumor-like upper lip has vastly overtaken the lower; the nose has gotten smaller and redder, evoking the common cold. But look closely and you’ll see that the eyes are the real goldmine, as the colors have begun to bleed such that this anime girl appears to be in the early throes of possession. Let’s see what happens next!

Rounds 5-8: The Uncanny Encroaches

Two increasingly Cartoon-ified selfies of the author. Eerie.
Rounds 5 and 6. Savannah Cordova via Prequel
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As you may have guessed by my inclination to analyze even the silliest phenomena, I was an English major in college; in one memorable lit theory class, we read Freud and discussed the uncanny. It’s an expansive concept that has been co-opted to explain tech—hence why many people’s understanding of it stems from the idea of the “uncanny valley.” But to undertake Freud’s definition of the uncanny—“that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar”—is to know that some things simply have greater capacity than others to frighten us to our core.

This knowledge came rushing back to me upon rounds 5 and 6. Freud devotes much of Das Unheimliche to the unnatural terror of dolls and their relation to childhood disturbances. The images above resonate both for their resemblance to the dirt-cheeked, demon-eyed Annabelle and for the unsettling feeling that they might not be far off one’s own poorly rendered childhood self-portraits. The face also looms slightly larger with each round; ominous, indeed.

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Two increasingly Cartoon-ified selfies of the author. Minor body horror.
Rounds 7 and 8. Savannah Cordova via Prequel

The nice (?) thing about rounds 7 and 8, with their psychedelic discoloration and increasingly abstract approach to things like “nose” and “mouth,” is that they are on the downslope from humanity. As a result—and in accordance with widely accepted ideas of the uncanny, which I’d argue peaked in round 6—one feels less unsettled by them than by the previous images.

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Does this mean we’re on the verge of an artistic breakthrough? There’s one way to find out.

Rounds 9-10: Picassification, or Something Like It

Two increasingly Cartoon-ified selfies of the author. Could be a Gauguin painting.
Rounds 9 and 10. Savannah Cordova via Prequel
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With these final feedings into the chaos machine that is Prequel’s Cartoon effect, my objective has been reached: Rounds 9 and 10 are much closer to what you’d see in a museum (or at least a self-serious zine) than on Snapchat. Gaze upon the sunken disappearance of one eye; the other now blue, its eyebrow now fuschia; the breakdown of the nose into a teardrop flanked by semicircles; background shapes that have become unrecognizable as the inside of a car.

It’s not perfect Picassification. These images might better be termed Picasso-esque in the facial department, with an overall Munchian nightmare aesthetic. Of course, just because you can compare something to art, doesn’t make it art. Also, isn’t the resulting metaphor—something about the inevitable, horrific distortion of exponentially applied beauty—a little too tidy? Shouldn’t art make you think deeply about the nuances of creation and existence, and arrive at your own conclusions? And shouldn’t it take more than five minutes to create?

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These are the questions that make me wish I had majored in art history. I will say, no matter what you think about art (and controversial machine-generated art in particular), its creation and consideration certainly feels deeper than run-of-the-mill overthinking. And this sequence felt more like art to me than Tweeting, or even posting on Instagram.

It’s also just fun watching yourself go from regular person to watermelon watercolor. If you’re ensconced in ennui, as one so often is these days, such brief endeavors are at least a bit more uplifting and interesting than doomscrolling. Again, I’m no art history major, but maybe that’s what art is supposed to do after all.

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