Last September, Daniel Mertzlufft was holed up in his Manhattan apartment avoiding Covid-19 when he decided to rework someone else’s song. Specifically, Louisa Melcher’s “New York Summer,” a plaintive but funny pop ballad. TikTok users had already turned the bridge (We’re fighting in the grocery store / and I love you, but I don’t know if I like you anymore) into a meme, but to Mertzlufft’s ear, it needed more drama. The 27-year-old composer and arranger wrote some new lyrics and added some strings and guitar. He recorded himself singing the new arrangement with full theater kid gusto, using TikTok’s greenscreen tool to set the scene in a generic supermarket aisle. The entire process took about an hour. When Mertzlufft posted the video to TikTok, he included a caption as he hits the last note: “This is 100% the end of Act 1.”
The internet didn’t wait for him to compose Act 2. Within hours, his TikTok was getting duetted like mad. Someone with the handle @another.blonde added her own part, singing as though she was his pleading partner. Others piled on, making up parts for the couple’s child, a store employee, a squeaky shopping cart wheel, that watering device that “always mists you when you’re reaching for kale.” Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist star Skylar Astin did a riff portraying Mertzlufft’s forlorn lover. Was Mertzlufft hiding his sexuality from his wife? Were they in an open relationship? Astin’s addition provided a whole new subplot. Mertzlufft was stunned. “Never did I think there would be a squeaky wheel, or the kale, or the beeping of the door,” he says. “The hilarity and absurdity from the original video was taken to the max.”
Mertzlufft’s Grocery Store: A New Musical embodied the pent-up creative energy that has come to define the Covid-19 epoch. It was screen-bound and ramped up, like a Zoom horror movie; absurdly funny, like Stephen Colbert doing a monologue from his bathtub. It was, at its most basic, a form of collaborative collage, with elements of improv comedy and musical remix. It also looked a bit like an “exquisite corpse.”
Nearly a hundred years ago, a group of artists started playing a game. Someone would start drawing a body, or writing a story. Maybe they sketched a nose, or wrote down a single word. Then they would pass the paper to someone else. After each person added their bit, they’d fold the paper, so only the most recent contribution could be seen. When they were done, they’d unfold the paper to reveal a disjointed illustration of a person or a nonsensical string of prose like “Le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau” (“the exquisite corpse will drink the new wine”). The exquisite corpse was born. It’s most often associated with its Surrealist inventors, including the artist Marcel Duchamp and the poet André Breton, who saw the game as a way of connecting unconscious creativity to the exterior world. Frida Kahlo enjoyed playing, adding titillating illustrations (titillustrations?) for her friends.
The exquisite corpse utilized simple tools—paper and drawing utensils—but required multiple participants; as Breton later wrote, the works “bore the mark of something which could not be created by one brain alone.” They were, however, also not fully appreciated in their time. While the grotesque Surrealist illustrations now live in prized collections, as Breton remembered it, “ill-disposed” critics in the 1920s “reproached us for delighting in such childish distractions.”
A century later, TikTok is also, to some, seen as a childish distraction, or worse. But to others, it’s an incredible tool. “I think if André Breton were living today, he would turn on TikTok and be blown away with the mechanical aspect—the idea that there’s a system for generating these images so that it’s done automatically, which could have some kind of resonance with automatic writing and therefore tapping pure thought rather than preconceived conventional ideas,” says Susan Laxton, a professor of art history at UC Riverside and the author of Surrealism at Play.
The platform, thanks to its duetting and stitching functions, automates a lot of what the Surrealists were doing. It’s not exactly an exquisite corpse, since TikTok records the entire genealogy of any given work, and there is a want for continuity with what others have contributed before. But there is a similar spirit of spontaneous collaboration, and a kindred quest for the absurd. Grocery Store: A New Musical’s voices are automatic doors and produce misters. They may be singing in harmony, but they’re far off-script from the story Mertzlufft started.
The most bizarre, collaborative TikToks, Laxton notes, echo other creative movements. In the 1950s, the American artist Allan Kaprow brought together poetry, dance, theater, music, painting, and other disciplines into single performances he called “happenings,” which often encouraged audience participation. TikTok does the same, just digitally. Real-time, but not live performance. Public art, but on a platform. And, to Mertzlufft’s point, it’s got a bit of improv theater too. If TikTok were looking for a new catchphrase, Mertzlufft jokes, “it’d be: ‘Yes, and … for Gen Z.’”
To be clear: TikTok is not the Met. It’s a global social media company fueled by algorithms and ads. And yet, as Lizzy Hale, TikTok’s senior manager for content, notes, the app’s users are “creating this new form of entertainment and art that you’re not seeing on any other platforms.” When you’re working in a new medium, with new tools, convincing the cultural establishment of your worth takes time. Just ask André Breton.
“My general take on TikTok and art—and social media and art in general—is that it really bears a lot of resemblance to street art and street performance,” says An Xiao Mina, author of Memes to Movements: How the World’s Most Viral Media Is Changing Social Protest and Power. “Especially during the pandemic, social media is where we do public right now.” There is, Mina notes, something guerrilla about what’s being created on TikTok; it’s often made on the fly and designed to be infinitely remixable. “When I think about the history of street art and street performance, there is also this kind of contention: Is it art? In what way is it art, and what is valid about it?”
For the record, Mina rejects those questions. Not because she doesn’t find validity in the work on TikTok, but rather, she says, because “the word ‘art’ can be so loaded.” Calling something “art” leads to arguments about gatekeeping and whether art is something academic and institutional, or something local and organic, created for the community. Or both. These arguments, though, don’t really address the artistic value of TikToks, or their contents. “I often just refer to this as ‘creative expression’ or ‘media creation,’” Mina says. By doing so, it’s easier to compare it to other works and see how their merits align.
Art, creation, whatever it’s called—it’s always been shaped by the tools available at the time. Anything can become a platform for expression. In the 1960s, for example, Fluxus made and sent their works in the mail, turning the Postal Service into a platform for creation the way TikTok is now. In the ’70s, many artists with limited means churned out video art, largely working on their own. A response to the avant-garde films of the 1960s, which had full sets and actors, these pieces were edgy and made on the cheap, usually with a (newly affordable) video camera and the artist’s own body as the subject. Video art was made for galleries and art spaces, not theaters, so the length was more attuned to the 30 or so seconds people will spend looking at something on a wall, says Jon Ippolito, a new media professor at the University of Maine.
That scrappiness is also part of TikTok’s aesthetic, along with notes of remix culture, which has been around since the late 20th century. TikTok users, when it comes to memes and dance challenges, are constantly reinterpreting and building upon one another’s work. “The network approach is part of what makes it meaningful,” Ippolito says.
Networked creativity is also what makes authorship so vital. The success of Grocery Store: A New Musical last fall landed Mertzlufft on The Late Late Show doing a Thanksgiving musical with James Corden, and even inspired a sorta-sequel: Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical, which Mertzlufft co-created after teacher Emily Jacobsen’s ode to the Pixar rat went viral. Not everyone sees their creative achievements so rewarded. As has happened with so many other platforms—and, for that matter, other forms of artistic expression—memes and styles and trends get co-opted on TikTok, leaving the original creators, often people of color, without credit or compensation for their work. Just last month, Jimmy Fallon invited TikTok star Addison Rae to The Tonight Show to perform a series of viral dances, without giving on-air acknowledgment to the mostly Black choreographers who actually came up with the moves. The backlash was swift, and at least this time it was effective. Fallon invited the creators onto his program to show off their moves less than two weeks later.
“I do hope that curators, historians, culture writers, et cetera, take this moment seriously and think about the media being created as important cultural artifacts,” Mina says. “We need better methods of documenting, contextualizing, and crediting the digital output that people create during this time of tremendous social transformation.”
The art world has already embraced all kinds of digital and internet works. Scholars are still waiting to see what TikTok can do. Christiane Paul, a digital art curator at the Whitney Museum and the director of the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center at the New School, says that its tools could encourage the kind of video loop art originally made possible by technologies like QuickTime and Flash. But, she adds, it’s “a very scripted platform with considerable constraints.” TikTok has given people a new tool set, but people are also limited by what the app can do. Tell Me Without Telling Me challenges are funny, but they’re mostly using the service as intended. Perhaps the most successful TikTok artists will also be the ones able to best hack it. Or as Ippolito puts it, “I wish the creative people on TikTok would push beyond TikTok’s frame.”
But back to that exquisite corpse comparison. Grocery Store: A New Musical or collaborative sea chanteys may not technically be exquisite corpses, but they do share a spirit of collaboration. They are using the tools of their time to make something with multiple brains working at once. TikTokkers are, whether consciously or not, tapping into a similar impulse, taking scores of influences—video art, remix, meme culture, dance—and turning them into something new.
In that respect, what’s happening on TikTok is almost an exquisite corpse itself—a new series of ideas grafted onto existing works and modes. Just as digital technologies have increased people’s access to art and art-making, they’ve also shifted art forms. Surrealists turned a pen-and-paper parlor game into a whole new mode of expression. Now, TikTok’s duets and stitches give creatives a similar opportunity. In two years there could easily be a new avant-garde.
In the series finale of WandaVision (bear with me), Paul Bettany’s Vision asks a fake, white-skinned copy of himself a question: “You are familiar with the thought experiment ‘the ship of Theseus’ in the field of identity metaphysics?” The paradox asks whether something—in this case, a ship—is still itself if every broken, rotted piece of it has been replaced. Vision suggests that perhaps the most important part of Theseus’ vessel isn’t any one particular physical component but rather the wear and tear of its voyages. “The rot is the memories,” he says. The ship is an idea, not just a series of replaceable planks and sails.
WandaVision itself was a pastiche of Wanda’s memories and old sitcom tropes held together by nostalgia, comic book canon, Kathryn Hahn’s chameleon talents, and the Marvel brand. Those other pieces are more interesting, but that Marvel designation is key. We live in an age where an NFT of a piece of art has value simply because it represents a creative work. A thing gains meaning and value once people are able to label it.
By the time TikTok creators were done with Grocery Store: A New Musical, Mertzlufft’s original TikTok was almost unrecognizable underneath all the additions and modifications. Exquisite corpse is a fitting description for the process, even if the tools and methods have changed since the 1920s. The collaboration and absurdity are the same. Besides, no new movement is considered art until someone gives it a moniker.
The defining characteristics of what TikTok art is, or could be, remain nebulous. Mertzlufft’s project is a musical number—it’s just not the Broadway kind. If it’s an exquisite corpse, it’s not the Surrealist kind. Sea chantey TikToks are choral performances that will never see the inside of a concert hall, even if the folks behind them get record deals. Countless other projects from Erynn Chambers’ original song about racism in policing to Nathan Apodaca’s skateboarding to Fleetwood Mac have yet to be compared to other art movements, or called “TikTok art,” but they could be. Apodaca’s original video has already been turned into an NFT. Culturally, history has proven art is infinitely mutable, an exquisite body without a name.
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