Course Blog

Mysterious Skin

Biopolitics: Sean Greaves, Ellie Powell, Joe Revans, Eva Auer ||

Figure 1: Google Trend results for different features of the face (opacity correlates to search frequency)

Human skin is communicative and porous with pigmentation that has cultural and social significance, extending into the political and cosmetic. Ageism, preservation and preference underpin our cultural perspectives on skin. Such narratives are challenged by a medium that is perpetually in motion, undergoing change and mutation through the intrinsic and extrinsic.




The post-digital has deeply changed the way we live within our skin and interact with that of others. Online we are overwhelming searching to customise the skin and make sense of the viruses and conditions that mutate it [Figure 1]. Whilst much of our customisation of the skin exists within the physical world, there is an emergent genre of skin customisation within the digital and online space through our avatars and profiles. ‘Skins’ within online/video games such as Minecraft open up the possibility for instant ‘modification’. Such skins can be sent to any Wi-Fi enabled computer, downloaded and instantly worn within the virtual space, although at this time they have no physical manifestation.


Skin gone viral.


Figure 2: Beauty trends via Instagram & Twitter

The manner in which our own skin trends ‘virally’ within the online space demonstrates an interesting permeability between the physical and digital. Beauty and skincare trends begin within the physical world and are uploaded online and disseminate through social media networks, gathering momentum, becoming ‘viral’. This transportation across networks through a hashtag or link returns to the physical world when people reflect, imitate the trend, and upload new content contained within the original hashtag.

A popular example of cross digital-physical contagion occurred within April-May of 2015, where #kyliejennerchallenge went viral across social media platforms. Many young people, inspired by television personality Kylie Jenner’s suggestion that she had undergone lip augmentation, attempted to acquire fuller lips using DIY suction methods to encourage vessel engorgement. The resultant ‘viral’ spread of people with temporarily bruised and swollen lips exhibited an interesting feedback loop between media.

Figure 3. Various skin conditions

#kyliejennerchallenge amongst others (Figure 2.) demonstrate how beauty trends are often at odds with how the skin lives with and reacts to intrinsic factors and bacteria (Figure 3.).


Viral to Physical.


Figure 4: Mellissa Fischer – Microbial Me (2015)

Digital and physical models for contagion offer an interesting space for altering how we perceive the transport medium of a virus. In the digital space, many things spread ‘virally’ that are perceived to be socially benificial (such as movements that promote equality and acceptance) often leading to action in the physical world. It is interesting to consider what could be the analogue phenomena within the physical world: viruses with pleasing or beneficial symptoms, such as aesthetic skin conditions, that spread and alter how we perceive ourselves (possibly through the skin) and others.

The aesthetic qualities of bacteria grown within the face have been explored within artist Mellissa Fisher’s masks (Figure 4). They show ways in which decorative form and colour can grow from the micro. Building upon this concept of designing with the bacteria on the skin, it would be interesting if we became comfortable with introducing unfamiliar bacteria and organisms to grow upon and within our skin. Taking inspiration from slime mould growth and ‘agar art’, bacteria could be grown through nutrient pathways in the pores (designed, printed and embedded through face-mask) for aesthetic/skincare/miscellaneous purposes (Figure 5). Such a process could allow for digital design to become physical and guide the bacteria. This could further establish openings between the digital/online viral content, design, and biology.

Figure 5: Digital design of nutrient selection and placement -> downloadable file -> embed nutrients/bacteria in dissolvable facemask through 3D printer -> dissolve mask within the skin to transfer nutrients/bacteria to pores
Figure 6: proposed bacterial make-up & skincare at Moto Guo SS17 menswear show

This opens up the following questions for further research:

  • Can pleasurable things (aesthetic skin conditions, warmth, information, extended senses) be spread like a virus or grown on the skin?
  • Could organisms grown upon the face be used to clean/regulate pores of toxins or bacteria that is detrimental to the skin?
  • Can bacteria release pigmentation when it reacts and consumes certain nutrients?
  • How can we construct a different relationship and narrative concerning the bacteria on our skins?