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True Colors

Aura aesthetics and ambient identity in the platform age

Yellow eyeliner, I was told, would help my subconscious be more analytical today. Adding some turquoise to my outfit might help me find purpose, while pink eyeshadow could smooth the fraying edges of my nervous system. This is the outward part, taking charge of the energy I project into the world with a few tweaks to my appearance. The inward part brings with it immediate costs: $444 for a ninety-minute session with Susanna Merrick-Klinkbeil of Aura Wear NYC, who deciphers her clients’ aura colors and suggests customized style choices; $107 for a ten-minute stint with “Mama Medicine,” healer and aura reader Deborah Hanekamp. Appropriate to the Zoom-age, readings are primarily done online. Those of us who have not yet succeeded in manifesting financial abundance might prefer to take a more affordable route, perhaps by purchasing a few items from Revlon’s Crystal Aura Collection, which promises to give anyone the key to “Define Your Aura, Any Way You Want.” And to ensure the DIY approach doesn’t culminate in any toxically-misguided fashion faux pas, Nylon, InStyle, and Refinery29 all have a couple of tips at hand about how to align your sartorial choices with the energy field du jour.

Over the last decade, aura has become one of the internet’s favorite ways of assessing and rendering personality, a phenomenon that has been written about in lifestyle columns from i-D Magazine to Vogue to the New York Times. With its ties to alternative medicine and New Age spirituality loosened, the social media version of aura is a mostly visual phenomenon, a way of making one’s alleged inner life visible on the surface of a face or a photograph. This is a divergence from earlier approaches to aura, which were focused on spiritual and physical well-being, such as the 1988 bestseller Hands of Light. Its author, physicist Barbara Brennan, was called to answer the question of how “allopathic drugs and homeopathic remedies work together” and advocated for the study of aura as a form of healing. But the promotion of the AuraCam, sold by California-based engineer Guy Coggins since the 1980s, focuses more on the photographic medium than on holistic treatment, placing its inventor at the end of a lineage of researchers interested in scientific visualization.

This is the ground from which aura’s social media life has sprouted: Without Coggins’s gadget, how would elusive auras have fit into the image-hungry internet? The recent popularity of aura is part of an aesthetic trend. It feeds on a wider tendency to pepper minimalist design with just a little bit of color, merging mysticism and purity: the default background for Apple’s macOS Big Sur is as auratic as Olafur Eliasson’s “Your rainbow panorama,” propped on top of the art museum in Aarhus, Denmark.

Aura is heir to the spiritual branch of 1960s counterculture and has shed the hippie image to now nest comfortably among the airbrushed faces and minimalist, cream-colored home decor of social media feeds.

Instead of concrete answers to questions of character offered by Cosmo quizzes and personality tests, aura delivers a deeper truth that is subject to change: depending on the mood of the day, your invisible halo of energy can oscillate between green, blue and red. Touch or physical proximity, crucial for the more medicinal uses of aura, are not prerequisites for their online counterparts. Social media’s embrace of aura speaks to the desire to detach selfhood from the body and replace character with a dematerialized, ambient identity; it’s a convenient mirroring of the failed—but continuously promoted—idea of the internet as a post-racial, boundlessly-connected commons, a “civilization of the Mind” where “identities have no bodies,” as John Perry Barlow polemicized in his 1996 “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” This fantasy, resolutely ignorant of meritocratic asymmetries, has bred a particular form of cyberlibertarianism, whose devotees are rallying as loudly as ever for online “freedom.”

According to Barbara Brennan, aura is “the Human Energy field [which] is the manifestation of universal energy that is intimately involved with human life,” a definition that still holds today, as the term circulates on the online market for quick metaphysical fixes. Evocations of aura are as ubiquitous as those of vibe, mood, and energy, which Mitch Therieau recently analyzed as the sensibilities of platform capitalism, expressions of a diffuse desire “to reinterpret an inhuman, algorithmic logic as a more-than-human, cosmological one.” Like this triad, aura is heir to the spiritual branch of 1960s counterculture and has shed the hippie image to now nest comfortably among the airbrushed faces and minimalist, cream-colored home decor of social media feeds. But unlike the visually elusive categories of vibe, mood, and energy, aura’s popularity rests on the colorful representation of individual identity. The spillover into current fashion and make-up trends is therefore no surprise. Aura photography, fashion, and make-up are fundamentally about image, and about the desire to overcome—even transcend—the suspicion of its superficiality. They are remedies for those reformed selfie-takers who are coming to terms with the sinking feeling that “‘myself’ never coincides with my image” and are now embarking on a quest for profundity.

Aura’s foray into internet culture emerged from an existing market for analog aura photography, monopolized by Guy Coggins’s AuraCam. Coggins based his camera on a method used to capture the energy traversing an object on a photographic plate, which was first publicized by Russian scientists Valentina and Semyon Kirlian in the 1950s. The Kirlian method gained popularity in the United States after the release of Psychic Discoveries Behind the Iron Curtain in 1970, and it was a central object of study at UCLA’s controversial parapsychology lab. Ousted from science, it has since been seized by artists like David Bowie and Jeremy Shaw. Coggins updated the photogram-like aesthetics of Kirlian photography for the psychedelic era. Crucially, his AuraCam took recognizable portraits, whereas the previous method had been a form of camera-less photography that rendered its subjects in a much more abstract way. 

Photos taken by Coggins’s AuraCam show sitters in front of a black background. Their bodies dissolve into an overlaid blur of ethereal colors that fill the frame and even seem to radiate beyond. As in conventional portrait photography, the face remains visible, vouching for the authenticity of the photograph and betraying the latent assumption that the face, despite all talk about inner worlds and astral bodies, remains the privileged site for identification. Promotional images of the AuraCam 6000, Coggins’s most advanced model, diverge from the psychedelic look of the portraits and instead resemble images of technological breakthroughs achieved in California during the 1970s and 1980s, such as Apple computers or the DataGlove, an early result of VR-research. Like these other devices, the AuraCam is presented in a simple, clean environment that focuses your attention on the gadget, making it seem like a rational data processor rather than a mystical apparatus meddling with your body. In a photo published on the website for the AuraCam 6000, Coggins himself plays the part of the scientist, posing next to his invention in a white lab coat.

Today, the AuraCam is no longer the undisputed sine qua non of aura photography, and even Coggins himself has branched out into the digital market. The polaroid version’s analog charm did, however, stand at the helm of aura’s recent internet revival: start-ups like Aura Aura, operating out of Detroit since 2017, use Coggins’s invention to take Polaroids of clients and then promote their services on social media to spread the ethereal aesthetics of their product via neatly contained Instagram-grids. Evelyn Salvarinas, founder of Toronto’s Rose Aura, helps clients to “broaden their perspective from the physical to the metaphysical” with her AuraCam 6000, while Christina Lonsdale of Radiant Human steers away from identifying as a healer, shaman, or anything too suspiciously New Age in favor of the “artist” label. She even set up shop at the Whitney Museum twice, photographing exhibition visitors in 2016 and 2019. These are only a few examples of companies and institutions that understand one’s image is a powerful currency in the age of social media. Aura photos are an ideal vehicle of self-showcasing for those who are weary of selfie culture: traces of vanity evaporate into thin air. The ostensible purpose is a revelation of your true self rather than the display of a stylized appearance.

Someone who spends weekends at the Whitney and fills their feed with, say, snapshots from their trip to Marfa, might therefore still consider aura portraits an appropriate addition to the larger impression they are creating. As an additional benefit, the nebula of the aura is undeniably flattering, smoothening the complexion, imbuing even tired faces and awkward smiles with an intriguing glow. Hopping onto the Instagram success of Coggins’s camera, apps like Aurla, on the market since 2020, have made daily aura analysis accessible for anyone with a smartphone and a couple of dollars to spare. As a nod to the analog version, subscribers place their thumbs on the touchscreen. They are then asked to breathe slowly, a brief moment of centering which will ensure the subsequently taken selfie is a product of unmediated connection between body and interface. Direct posting to Instagram is, of course, an option.

The social media success of aura rests on the fact that it is naturally photogenic. Colorful polaroids offer a whiff of 1970s nostalgia, giving just enough tint to the neat, minimalist designs of high-end wellness websites like goop or the strict algorithmic curation and toned-down interfaces of social media. Instagram, where aura photography gained popularity pre-lockdown, is designed to be simple, pure, and—despite efforts to incorporate more video content—heavily reliant on a static grid, which subsumes user content to a strict organizing principle. Its main colorful element is the camera icon, whose orange and pink color gradient is itself reminiscent of aura aesthetics. Curiously, the company introduced their new logo in 2016, shortly before the recent wave of AuraCam businesses began, signaling a move away from the old Polaroid camera icon, spontaneous snapshots, and retro-tinged filters.

Orderly emptiness is where the ethereal thrives. Think about Dan Flavin or James Turrell, two artists who flood spaces—usually white and minimalist—with diffuse, neon-colored light. The relational aesthetics of their installations are predicated on the absence of stuff. In order to feel the presence of body and light within a space, disturbances must be eliminated, further entrenching the “white cube,” which has long since spread from galleries to Calvin Klein flagship stores featuring furniture designed by Donald Judd and to dimly-lit restaurants. The result is pristine. At best, you can ease into such settings, bathe in the evanescent light and elating nothingness. At worst, the body begins to feel like an intruder, an unwelcome pile of hair, skin, and secretions (cf. any Acne Studios store around the world).

Because of the minimal design of the interface and the fact that users act as curators for their self-representation, Instagram has evolved into the online version of such neat, contained, and exclusive spaces. Skin and faces appear airbrushed, plump, and dewy, “distinctly white but ambiguously ethnic”: expensive assets to be placed in immaculately kept, highly normative surroundings. The body on display is decidedly not a thing that ages, scars, or registers lived experience within its texture—indeed, it is less a body than a latex-like sculpture; all surface, no substance. Algorithms and moderators ensure that visual content that does not conform to the homogenizing standards is pushed to the sidelines or even deleted.

This atmosphere of hostility towards the body is where the popularity of aura could flourish. Instead of the glossy surfaces of Kardashianesque faces, aura aesthetics dissolve fleshiness into the blurry color spectrum of an energetic force field. While the former favors inorganic plasticity, the latter forgoes texture altogether. Who am I? becomes a question to be answered through a colorful nimbus of possibilities that floats around and detaches from the body. Personhood transcends its material conditions, identity becomes ambient. But for whom?

Shining the spotlight on the changing constellation of color, body, and personality helps answer this question. Scientific racism turned the skin into an enclosure, its color into a physiological marker of difference and a determinant of status, granting “no easy way for the agents buried beneath to come clean,” in the words of Hortense Spillers. The fight against racial discrimination was and is predicated on the recognition that the body matters and that society is far from colorblind. Aura’s detachment of color from the body exemplifies how large parts of the internet instead postulate a “you can be anything” attitude, which is in line with the rhetoric of post-racial meritocracy that continues to dominate the tech world.

Once upon a time—Mikhail Bakhtin’s study of Renaissance literature, Rabelais and His World, tells this story very well—bodies were understood to be inseparable from the rest of the world, hardly enclosed by a permeable layer of skin. Humoral theory, which gained popularity in ancient Greece and remained in use in Europe until the eighteenth century, theorized the existence of four fluids within the body, each of which were associated with specific colors: black bile, yellow bile, colorless phlegm, red blood. Melancholic, choleric, sanguine, and phlegmatic dispositions were attributed to the excess of one fluid over the others, associating the colors of these bodily juices with the characteristics of a patient. Skin color, these pre-Enlightenment scholars believed, was but one aspect of an individual’s “complexion,” referring back then to one’s temper or disposition, and they believed that it was subject to change depending on environmental factors.

Gradually, the medieval configuration of a corporeal universe lost credibility and gave way to a vision of the body as a confined, solitary entity, a “hardened container of differences.” Physiognomists like Johann Lavater read the face like a book, assuming that it revealed an individual’s intelligence, generosity, and moral life—traits that, once recognized, were seen as indisputable determinants of future actions. With this doctrinal theater of appearances was accepted as scientific fact, a turn from bone structure to skin color was not far off. In the final decades of the eighteenth century, skin became “firmly established as the primary signifier of racial difference,” Irene Tucker notes, seen as “indelible evidence of essential differences in human capacity.” Color—curiously the same ones that humoral theory located on the inside of a body—hardened into a determinant of your status as a human and a citizen. No longer was skin tone understood to be an accidental difference between humans who were all equally tied into the world’s cosmological order. Instead, it was accepted as a fixed property of essentially different beings who “naturally” occupied different levels in the hierarchy of beings.

Long after the onset of scientific racism, Frantz Fanon articulated the ways in which the focus on external difference had wreaked havoc in the psyche of the colonized. He used the term epidermalization for the inscription of racial prejudices onto the skin. In 1952, when Black Skin, White Masks was first published, Fanon described skin as an impenetrable barrier, stared at and never not seen by the people he encountered in the army, hospitals, and lecture halls of Europe. Epidermalization speaks of his experience of the skin and its color as a thick barrier, an enameled surface, the first thing to be perceived by others. Fanon reminds us that the body, under these conditions, is an inescapable matter of fact. This is a far cry from the pop-transcendentalism postulated by aura’s disciples, who—now and then—seek to overcome the disjointedness and imperfection of the physical world in favor of a spiritual, astral body. This is a move that mirrors the Puritanical logic Fred Turner ascribes to the technologists who are “leaving behind the known world of everyday life, bodies, and all the messiness that we have with bodies of race and politics, all the troubles that we have in society.”

In 1997, MCI released “Anthem,” a fast-paced TV commercial that hailed the internet as a virtual public space where race, age, gender, and any other markers of difference would disappear, leaving “only minds.” Silicon Valley—like Coggins’s AuraCam—provided fertile ground for such techno-meritocratic ideals, built as they are on the presumption that the internet would be an equalizing connector between everything and everyone. Today, the tech world’s myth of color blindness is still going strong, veiling and perpetuating a discriminatory system that is hardly in line with MCI’s post-racial commons. Instead, epidermization now creeps in through algorithms that, for example, analyze a person’s skin color and suggest only similar-looking users to follow. The rainbow colors of aura photography are the expression of a happy rainbow utopia as much as they are a denial of the fact that the world still operates on much cruder color patterns.

Instead of the glossy surfaces of Kardashianesque faces, aura aesthetics dissolve fleshiness into the blurry color spectrum of an energetic force field.

At present, aesthetic power is transitioning from Instagram to TikTok. While the former is governed by homogenous images of perfection, the latter turns “the taupe walls of Middle America, the insides of mid-size vehicles, and the indistinguishable landscape of the common North American backyard” into an online playground for teenagers. Auras continue to fascinate, but serious spirituality is on the way out: instead of spending forty bucks on a polaroid, users now zoom in on their mirror image until their phone screen fills with a single color—their aura—or let a filter tell the truth. These video snippets suggest that aura, ostensibly a true self recognized by the photographic apparatus, is instead entirely mediated by the phone. They respond to the question of Who am I? with the bantering jest of an enlightened false consciousness: if I am whoever my phone tells me to be, let me at least play around with that.

There is cynicism contained in this answer, but also potential for a speculative recalibration of the relationship between image, identity, and technology, which many TikTok users are remarkably aware of. Besides pranks and make-up tutorials, the platform has become a space to reflect on the algorithmic mechanisms of content selection, created by those who are increasingly suspicious of the purified images they are being served. Increased discourse around shadowbanning, the removal or suppression of social media content, is an indicator that these users seek a better understanding of the biases—racial, religious, otherwise—that determine what they see online. While the myth of a technological transcendence of the body is waning, TikTok’s version of aura, merging ethereality and glitch aesthetics, opens a small window of desire for the utopia it simultaneously denies: that the mirror image could ever dissolve into a colorful, dematerialized self, that anyone can be anything.

Wouldn’t that be nice? these videos murmur, only to retort: maybe, but for now, it’s just an error in the camera.