Exploring augmented reality in the online social spaces with Christian Venables

British augmented reality artist, Christian Venables, discusses his practice, its application as social media filters, and its possible future in the cyberspace.

by Manu SharmaPublished on : Sep 02, 2021

Instagram, as a social media platform, is quickly becoming an increasingly popular destination for digital artistry. This manifests itself not only within the images and videos that users post on the site, but also in various message and media augmentations such as stickers, or more pertinently, filters, that allow for an unprecedented level of access between the artists that create these, and their audience of users that can potentially run into the millions. Christian Venables is one such artist who has created a fair few Instagram filters that have seen widespread usage across the platform. However, while the bulk of Instagram filters are somewhat rudimentary, and are primarily geared towards adding a bit of personalisation to people’s selfies, Venables’ filters are far more abstract, with some of his constructs appearing decidedly alien. This fascinating and very niche practice is undoubtedly a product of his natural inclination towards art and especially sculpture, which goes back to his school days; a period one must explore in order to fully understand the artist’s creative preoccupations.

One of the artist’s complex forms, before it appears in-app | Riccardo Christian Venables | STIRworld
One of the artist’s complex forms, before it appears in-app Image: Christian Venables

The artist is currently based in the Leeds-Sheffield area in the UK, and has a background in architecture from Lincoln University. He tells STIR, “Before the architecture, I was more of an artist. In high school, art and design technology were my two favourite subjects. I loved the drawing element of art that eventually fed into my architectural work, but also enjoyed the sculptural aspect of art as well. I specifically, really liked sculpting with clay.” He continues, “For my A level exam, I was lucky enough to have a real tiger skull in the art studio I worked in, and I used it as a 1:1 reference, in order to create a clay sculpture that was the same size as the tiger skull. It was wonderful being able to take the time to mimic the form and the shape of the object.” Unfortunately, Venables’ moulded tiger skull was too big to fit in the kiln, and the next day, ended up cracking and turning to dust. This, of course isn’t a problem he has any longer, as his constructs exist purely in the cyberspace, and are therefore, free from breakage.

01 min watch An otherworldly form, conjured out of thin air | Christian Venables | STIRworld
An otherworldly form, conjured out of thin air Video: Christian Venables

As of now, the artist has over 50 effects that he has created, which have seen 70 million impressions over the last three years, and have been used by 30 million people. However, his beginnings as a filter artist were rather humble: Venables was using augmented reality in his architectural work until Facebook invited him to work on a closed beta for Instagram. His first project for Instagram yielded a face filter that the artist describes as “Phantom of the Opera meets Venom”. He says, “Nothing really happened. And then I created this second filter which featured light coming out of a user’s eyes and mouth, which didn’t gain much traction either. Eventually, I got tagged in a post by an influencer who had over a million followers I think, and my impressions just went through the roof. That made me think that there’s more to working with AR on a social media platform.” Venables highlights the potential for an actively engaged audience in cyberspace, and continues, “If you use it in an architectural project, only the clients get to see it, but if you use it on social media, it could potentially be seen by millions and millions of people.”

Untitled | Christian Venables | STIRworld
Untitled Image: Christian Venables

An issue worth mentioning with regards to using augmented reality (AR) in social media spaces seems to be that the relevant technology is still developing, and often, ends up adding more of an uncanny valley quality than anything else. This is particularly noticeable in the many face filters that Instagram users currently have access to, and their usage seems too often imply a certain tongue-in-cheek sense of humour in and of itself. No doubt, this would have been noticeable in Venables’ earlier works as well, however, of late, his practice doesn’t encounter this technological handicap nearly as much as it might, owing largely to the fact that he is chiefly creating complex 3D forms that, as it was mentioned earlier, wilfully tap into their own alien-like quality. These constructs manifest themselves on users’ Instagram feeds like artefacts created in another world, and one cannot help but think of the amount of effort that must have gone into crafting them. Discussing technique, the artist tells STIR, “One thing I am enjoying a lot these days is sculpting in virtual reality (VR). I love being able to put on a headset and just work in zero gravity, with my work floating in front of me. Sometimes I’ll put some music on and start sculpting whatever comes to mind. There’s an unmatched sense of fluidity, where you can spend hours working on a piece only to cut off half on it and treat the other half differently. A lot of my works begin with me working much the same way one would scribble, and eventually I’ll step back and say, “oh, that’s actually quite nice!”

01 min watch Untitled | Christian Venables | STIRworld
Untitled Video: Christian Venables

The way Venables is integrating VR, AR and social media must be highlighted. He treats Instagram as a dissemination tool and a portfolio more than anything, and the pipeline between these three key elements of his practice is now smoother than ever. The time, then, is perfect for the creative majority to follow the technological vanguard he represents, and to begin working with AR in social media spaces, and the more practitioners that add to this larger, almost communally-shared body of work, the faster and more imaginatively pertinent technology will undoubtedly develop. The future is bright for AR according to the artist, who says, “Augmented Reality has just gone from strength to strength. It is absolutely booming right now. Many new companies are coming up, and you even have older companies that used to work in different spaces pivoting to provide AR solutions. With the kind of resources that Facebook, for example is putting into AR right now, it’s really inspiring to think of the possibilities. Truly, we are only scratching the surface.”

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