Costco TikTok and The Surrealism of Pilotredsun, Cool3DWorld, etc

This is bit of an 'amateur art history' post! It's inspired by a TikTok of kids doing funny dances at a Costco.

If you're reading this, it's likely at some point - maybe even daily, you've been doing something rather ordinary (buying groceries, waiting at a DMV, driving), and all of a sudden, the contrast between the mundane thing you're doing, and some dark or bizarre aspect of society - those two things float to the forefront of your mind and produce a disturbing contrast. Maybe it's food waste at convenience stores. Healthcare costing money. Huge highways built through massive deserts. The needless plastic waste of package manufacturing. Paying rent, or paying for basic needs like electricity or clean water instead of all humans being guaranteed these things. Despite the kindness and joy we bring into each other's lives, there's still a lot of cold, dark systems and structures that interfere with our lives.

Maybe you're walking along a suburb and then you realize that somehow, most people in the suburb are living in a social unit that's relatively new to human history. Whether the nuclear family is bad or not (a topic I don't really want to bother writing about today), you can just be walking, seeing the nice autumn colors, and then, suddenly think about how thousands of people around you have roughly the same life goals, live in the same family structures, and then you'll get the feeling: 'Golly, what are the chances!'

That's the kind of idea that I feel like some recent (2010s - present) internet art seems to be getting at. For example, Brian's music video for "Paths We Take (The Maze)" (2015), here. In it, unsettlingly hypnotic music with old-sounding synthesized instruments play. A couple, rendered as 3D models with strange colored textures and distorted faces, sit in an empty, archetypal home. The man gazes out the window, then runs out, running through a maze. His body distorts as he escapes the maze, the music building, his face growing to an ecstatic smile as he expands into a jagged mess. Cutting back to the home, the woman looks over a picture of the two, and then leaves the house herself. Weird video, or abstract statement about the inherent strangeness of socially prescribed living arrangements?

Brian is, I believe, part of Cool3DWorld, which is part of a bunch of other 'weird 3D' videos from the 2010s up to now. Many operate with similar motifs: strange music, or no music. Strange, 3D, human-esque figures, exaggerated in some way, with absurd situations. (Of course, it's likely that this practice/ideas extend far back through the internet, but I'm no art historian!)

Likewise, Pilotredsun's video "Mr. Fujiwara's Office" (2020) is about two men, alone in a stereotypical American office in some expansive corporate park. The office is clearly made for more than two people, yet only Mr. Fujiwara and a white guy are there. The white guy asks why he's both been fired (by Mr. Fujiwara) and received an employee of the month award. Mr. Fujiwara lights a plant on fire and asks the man to get a fire extinguisher. The man then runs through a repetitive maze of office building corridors. What's interesting is the maze is shown like a faux-FPS: it's reminiscent of something like DOOM. The office scenes' illustration and animation are like the crude perspectives and character animation of early point and click adventures, although exaggerated to uncanny effect.

Fujiwara's Office makes me think a lot about the strange architecture and layout of American offices. How ugly and inhuman they can be, and every time I've had to be in an office building's hallway with no easy or quick way of escape. It reminds me of various corporate parks I pass by, with nondescript business names and boring brick exteriors. Or the faceless buildings towering over the various Tokyo business districts. A lot of Pilotredsun's music (like "Achievement") and animations give me similar thoughts.

Carter Davis's 'So Extremely Itchy' here, (cw: cartoon blood, medical stuff) features someone trying to find help online for a skin condition. It mimics the early internet, as well as medical self-help sites. The self-help site is so absurdly useless, but by doing so it points to, well, how absurdly useless a lot of the worlds' health systems are (especially in the USA's case.)

In Auto Afterlife (Pablo Leon-Luna, 2019? Can't find the download..), you play as an ordinary man who turns into a car, falls in love, has a crisis when his new love is part of a large 'free love' car sex group, and then gets arrested (all as a car). Like the previous works, by way of minimalism (you're often driving in a dark void), the game draws attention to the strange customs behind things like: dating, sex, cars...

While I don't have time to get into them in detail, there are a handful of indie games that also take ordinary settings or visual elements and exaggerate them in ways that draw our attention to the inherent strangeness in those visual elements (be they people, places, concepts..). For example, Crypt Worlds, Jerry Paper's Chameleon World, Hypnospace Outlaw (the 90s internet), Off-Peak (a train station), and many more.

Anyways, what's funny about this is that there's always been something I couldn't connect between all of these media. But what solved it place was watching a video of these teens messing around in a Costc!. Video. It's your typical TikTok antics: teens are just fucking around in a space in a way that's not what you'd expect. A boy holds a vodka bottle near his crotch and does a funny dance. He holds something else near his crotch, and does a funny dance. Repeat. ... to be honest, it's the kind of thing I'd probably be doing if I were a teen right now...

If you're older like me - beyond the TikTok generation - it's easy to just shrug it off as another funny video kids make. But doing funny things in 'normal' places - riding a child's bike in Toys 'R' Us, hiding in clothes racks - is something that has always been a little funny despite the generation, and thus it's natural we'd see videos like this appear on TikTok. So I think the kids are getting at something that was also present in mine and my parents' generations.

Now, if you've been in a Costco, you're familiar with their mile-high ceilings, blaring, droning freezers, and gigantic boxes of everything. Due to the convenience, Costco is able to do away with the marketing frills of say, a high-end boutique like Urban Outfitters. Going to a Costco - while mostly ordinary and convenient - does have a slight tinge of the occult to it. The parking lots are so huge, Costco towering over it. The shopping carts are humorously wide, and the store is literally a warehouse, so you feel a little like a robot looking for the right shipments. And then you can buy "Pizza" or "Hot Dog" on your way out. And it's really enjoyable! I want to go to a fucking Costco right now! In a way, it's kind of like a real-life equivalent to one of those strange games or videos.

So the TikTok made me wonder: what's more absurd? Kids messing around in a public space? Or the fact that you can literally walk into a Costco and buy a 100 pound teddy bear? The rows and rows of generic baked goods, many likely to go unsold? To me, the TikToks feel like this generation's way of responding to the injustice hidden under the mundanity we often find ourselves in. Creating humor - no matter how childish - in regular spaces or situations is a way of unconsciously collectively getting viewers to focus on norms of these spaces. Are funny TikToks politically useful for collective action? Well, probably not... But I think by observing them, I can still learn something new.

The media I've mentioned has some semblance of cult followings. My guess as to why is that whether we realize it or not, the spookiness/surrealness of the work is 'relatable' to our implicit views on our society. One might only understand this by being like "Hm, weird!" but it's resonant nonetheless. For me, seeing these feelings confirmed in a visual fidelity (janky 3D) that's influenced by first-time amateur projects - is thrilling. As a consumer, it's comforting to know that, yes, there are lots of others who realize the issues of the world we find ourselves in. I know, I see people talk about the world's issues every day! But it's different seeing it in a piece of media. And as a creator, well, the type of surrealism at play in these works feel like a useful set of tools I'd like to incorporate at some point...