“Method of this project: literary montage. I needn’t say anything. Merely show. I shall purloin no valuables, appropriate no ingenious formulations. But the rags, the refuse– these I will not inventory but allow, in the only way possible, to come into their own: by making use of them”
– Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project
There’s a new kind of TikTok that’s been showing up on my For You page. It usually draws you in under false pretenses: A girl doing her make-up is explaining her dating preferences to the propped-up camera, a man in sunglasses walking through New York explains why and how you should invest. You are listening to what they say, assuming they will continue for 15, 20 more seconds, or however long before you cut them off. A sudden cut shows you your error: Now a group of women on a dorm-room floor are sharing their “icks,” now a bit of Fox propaganda reveals (or endorses?) some latest late-stage horror. The transition complicates your viewing experience: You begin the TikTok presuming a direct relationship between the person talking on your screen and the account posting the video, a passing of the microphone as you scroll, from one suburban bedroom to another. The cut reveals that you are in fact interfacing with an invisible curator, someone who is stitching together the refuse of their hours of TikTok scrolling into rapid contrasts, unsettling conjunctions, montage. The videos are organized under the hashtag “corecore.”
The clips relate, or they don’t. They tell some positive story in their content or are presented in detached irony and disappointment. They are “about” anything from climate-crisis, men’s mental health, the commodification of dating and dating apps, sexism, or TikTok itself. Some curators betray genuine talent in video-editing, with overlaying audio and visuals, scraps of poetic text (written by the user?) that bleed over onto the screen in gentle pastels, creating surprise art-house pieces in miniature. Others simply stitch one clip after another, perhaps with an underlying sound selected from the app’s archives. This genre’s title, corecore, makes a totalizing claim on the thousands of balkanized subgenres and subaesthetics that fleet past the user: Only a certain set of objects and clips can be dazecore, or college dormcore, but corecore encompasses all such “cores,” all these oddly particular aesthetics. Corecore is not a new aesthetic, but rather a new form that promises to include all prior aesthetics, even if only in distorted, heavily stylized, or ironically juxtaposed form.
Corecore differs from the compilation, a form common to Youtube and TikTok, in its rejection of a title, organizing principle, or announced purpose in the bringing together of collected clips (“Premier League Winning Goals,” “cody & noel funny moments”). These TikToks are different from edits in their potential ambivalence, or hostility toward the subjects they treat. The gaze of the curator on the visual scraps is usually critical: By cutting off the speakers in these clips they take the speech out of its original coherence, making the words so much noise in the atmosphere the video is creating. It is a kind of shattered articulation, the remaining fragments of which serve a new purpose: To illustrate the invisible editor’s own cultural viewpoint, shaped by and constructed out of hours of TikTok scroll.
The purpose of corecore is in some way to create TikTok in miniature. They explore the formal and sensorial implications of an app that produces a constant, mindlessly, and soundlessly curated stream of content to the user’s screen. In the videos, human beings usurp a function that has long been consigned to the algorithm: The gathering and presentation of loosely related clips to a viewer. Corecore is a framing of this exchange of media and time between app and human, turning the apparatus of the app itself into intentional art. It is a genre that mimics its own venue, its site of presentation, stylizing and accelerating the sensation of content overload.
It’s interesting to watch the young users of this app become aware that they have introduced something entirely new into the world of media. TikTok is not a platform well suited to community-building or written introspection. Comments have a very low character limit, and videos appear one-by-one on the For You page, disrupting the possibility of long threads and the back-and-forth response that creates online communities. The self-reflection of commenters on corecore is halting, often deflated by others certain that nothing ‘that deep’ is going on here.
Even so, there is something unmistakably subversive about these videos. They disrupt the monopoly of presentation that the big apps claim over us; they trouble the messages of social and sexual inadequacy that rocket to the top of the viral lists; and they present in alluring and disorienting form the horrors of climate crisis, dead-eyed grind culture, and the commodified world of sexuality and dating that young people today stumble through.
There is one video in particular that struck me. It opens with an interview of men on the street: “You would raise a son but abandon a daughter?” “Exactly.” It’s a cheap shot in a lazy gender war; no context, no provocation, just glib misogyny and grating laughter. Then the music and logic of montage begins. The Guggenheim’s crowds, circling upwards, clouds in autumn, the moon shot on an iPhone, traffic in the night from an overpass, a train interior, fireworks. Layered over one another. A group of female friends in London, a shot of Clementine from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. A lonely bald man (he reminds me of Nabokov) in a windy field with a briefcase. Then, a shot from a movie I don’t recognize: A blonde little girl and a young woman, also blonde (her sister?), in her twenties, swaying in a whirling teacup at an amusement park. It is dark, and the lights behind them are bright. The girl is on the verge of tears, looking with some discomfort or desperation at her sister. The sister, made-up, in a black dress, looks with love, exhaustion, and humanity at the child across from her, as the background blurs around her. The camera flicks between them both, then cuts to the two girls working the steering wheel of their cup together. Daughters.
It is a video about nothing, insofar as the disparate clips, taken from TikToks, movies, and camera rolls mean nothing until we draw the constellations between them. It is a piece about women experiencing life, friendship, disappointment, celebration, mundanity, travel, love, sisterhood, daughterhood. The montage strikes the viewer in a way that a stitched response to the original clip, a point-by-point litany of offenses and grievances, could not. It is both a convincing refutation and work of aesthetic brilliance, formally inventive and visually delightful. And touching, bringing tears to my eyes as I think about my sisters, one older and one younger.
This is what corecore can do: Disrupt the darker energies of online life, and out of them create an intentionally crafted version of content overload, one which leads the viewer to thought, feeling, and experience, rather than self-loathing and exhaustion. These videos, produced by small accounts (there are no big names, nor well-known producers of this genre), are a powerful response to our particular moment of modernity.