Who remembers playing Exquisite Corpse as an icebreaker during arts and crafts at summer camp or on the first day of grade school? You may not remember it by name, but it’s the group sequence drawing game where you draw a portion of a body (the head, the torso, or the legs) on one section of a tri-folded piece of paper, fold it behind the following empty section, and pass it to your neighbor who completes the next part of the body without seeing what you’ve drawn while you do the same. Everyone usually erupts with laughter after unfolding their collaborative drawings at the end, embracing the incongruity of mismatched body parts that yield nonsensical characters. Exquisite Corpse was popularized in early 20th-century France when poet André Breton and the other early players in the Surrealist movement began playing the game during recreational parties.
While Exquisite Corpse remains a classroom and an art history favorite, TikTokers have virtually translated the game into video format with impressive success. It all started in 2020 when a Canadian TikToker named Fran Johnson (@johnson_fran) posted a video complaining about other users “dueting” videos without adding anything interesting to them. (A TikTok duet is a split-screen post where an original TikTok video plays on one side and the other user records themselves reacting, dancing, or doing whatever at the same time on the other side.) More often than not and to Fran’s point, TikTokers will just create duets showing themselves all glammed up with exaggerated reactions to other people’s content.
Well, multiple users decided to troll Fran in a decidedly wholesome way by means of excessive dueting. First, someone dueted Fran’s video and lined up their right arm side-by-side with Fran’s shoulder and bicep that were cut off from the frame, gesturing flamboyantly to every word she spoke. Then, another user dueted the first duet, gently rubbing a hairy beer belly that lined up with Fran’s torso. And then another person attached their left arm, and then someone added their legs, and so on.
As the original video repeated over and over, more users supplied their body parts and surroundings to create the rest of Fran’s body and her environment in the world’s most engaging group project. One would assume that every addition would be the last and there would be nothing more to add, but it kept on going and became more and more absurd. What started as a one-off rant video ended with a dog that turns into a human, legos all over the floor, and someone getting a foot massage, fully encapsulating the game’s absurdity and creativity.
Surrealists embraced the game in their search to empower the unleashed potential, or the “superior reality,” of both the subconscious and unconscious mind through the rejection of rational thought and its shortcomings. The arts and literature movement was rooted in the illogical, the impossible, and the metaphysical through uncensored experimentation, collaboration, and limitlessness in the face of post-war disillusionment and trauma.
With TikTok and other social media platforms serving as the nexus for worldwide information-sharing, this 100-year revival of a beloved Surrealist game is a breath of fresh air after hours of doom-scrolling through global atrocities presented at our fingertips. Even if it’s just a silly little joke, the notion of limitlessness is tangible in this 11-person duet video that couldn’t have been made without a collaborative effort from passersby venturing headfirst into the irrational.