Themes & Motifs

Themes & Motifs

by Mrk Dvs

The world of Strangetown, U.S.A. was collectively designed as an extreme, surrealist vision of western capitalism taken to its logical conclusion. Over 100 artists collaborated to produce “the town”, which was inspired by the GREAT AGAIN album art by Pancho Morris and the Pyramid School.

The album cover features a dysfunctional portrait of power structures in modern America illustrated in the style of isotype, a visual language pioneered by Gerd Arntz, Marie Neurath, and Otto Neurath. The Pyramid portrays over 400 Americans in moments of art-making, activism, and resistance, including dozens of historical figures as well as 50+ members of the East Bay artistic community.

To bring the pyramid to life, over a dozen teams of visual and immersive artists produced 13 vignettes, capturing and deciphering some of the revolutionary messages hidden in the cover. For over a month, we occupied a warehouse in Oakland, 30 West Studios, building within it the abstraction of a town that felt more real and no less strange than the world outside its walls.

As in America, Strangetown is ruled by a tiny elite (the Gold People) that oversee a cruel, Orwellian corporate monoculture which keeps its permanent underclass (the Red People) in perpetual servitude. The Red People make, while the Gold People take. In a plot to achieve limitless freedom and total control, they privatize profits and socialize losses until the society of Strangetown stratifies to its breaking point. When a charismatic (though ultimately villainous) hero enters the arena as the Red People’s champion, they exact a strange brand of justice and revenge.

One overarching theme of Strangetown is detachment. People have become disconnected from the food they eat, the products they buy, the people they elect, the information they trust, the values they believe. Most of all, we’ve become disconnected from ourselves and our fellow human beings. With Strangetown, we wanted to create a narrative that would encourage people to break the walls around them. It serves as a cautionary tale for those who use their resources to keep their hands on the levers of power.

In each moment between Pancho’s phone call and his toast to power, we explore our own world through a twisted prism. There’s a lot to unpack here, and it can be easy to get lost without a guide, so to begin your journey, let’s step into the Red World.

The Red World

The Red World

In the first half of Strangetown, Pancho Morris navigates the dark and twisted underbelly of the capitalist system: The “Red World.” Dive into Pancho’s journey through the world and the inspiration behind each scene from the artists who created them.

The Call

In the mysterious opening to the video, Pancho receives a call from the Red World.

The telephone in the birdcage is the canary in the coal mine. The call on the phone foreshadows trouble ahead. It’s red, just like all of the working class elements of Strangetown. Red phones are also typically used for emergency lines. A crisis is waiting to happen. The phone line is purple. In this film, purple represents the agents of power, such as deep state institutions and the police. The line is being tapped by those in control, those in authority who seek to capitalize off revolution.

The Factory

by Chris Swimmer

Pancho enters the Red World by walking out of a phone booth and into a drab factory. Here, workers on a production line mechanically push gnarled, random electronic components from one side to another to make unknown widgets — all under the watchful eye of a security officer. But Pancho isn’t just taking a stroll through the factory: one of the workers hands him a key.

“The factory is a representation of thoughtless consumerist production and the dehumanizing nature of the production process,” Chris said. “All of the components being “produced” in this scene are actual pieces of e-waste collected from a local e-waste facility. In a society of high consumption, the consumers often forget the dual costs associated with materialism – the human production cost and the cost of the waste produced.”

Chris Swimmer  •

The Butcher

by Paul Savage

Pancho turns a rather dark corner onto the factory floor of a butchers plant. Here, we see perhaps the most shocking and visceral scene in the Red World, with a second mindless production line showing bloodied workers pounding and sawing away indiscriminately at whatever meat is placed in front of them – animal and human alike. The butcher, with a mad glint in his eye, takes notice of Pancho and laughs maniacally before resuming his gruesome work carving swine with a chainsaw.

The scene is arresting and alarming — a surreal representation of the sadistic and harsh practices we find in the world of the factory farms that feed the masses.

Paul Savage |

The Red Light District

Artwork by Garett Brown & Treigh Love

There’s a homeless person in the alley. Did you notice them? Neither did Pancho. Even good people can become calloused and cold. How accustomed we are to ignoring homelessness.

Having escaped the butcher with his head, Pancho is drawn in by the seedy Red Light District. The streets at the bottom of the Strangetown pyramid are full of trash and graffiti, and it’s here that we hear a woman’s voice. Sex workers beckon to him, and Pancho takes a moment to flirt with them – and with us. The Red Light District represents the commodification of the human body as a service for sale.

But he’s not taken in by the offers. Pancho has somewhere to go: shopping.


by Ad Naka & Michael Morgenstern

Now entering Consumerland: a bizarre shop marrying fast food, technology and boutique consumerism. In Consumerland, Pancho’s served smartphone sandwiches fresh from the microwave, takes a shot, and is surrounded by over-eager salespeople offering products on a loop.

“Consumerland plays with the connection between a highly derived consumerist economy and the pursuit of happiness,” says vignette lead Ad Naka. “Pancho is served smartphone sandwiches as a commentary on the consumption of technology in our search for instant gratification. The walls of Consumerland housed various gilded objects representing sex, drugs, beauty, gluttony, hedonism, and other vices that have been exploited by industries for profit.”

“Combining the commodification of food, a biological need, with technology, a recent addiction, as well as glorifying the distribution of common products, draws a subtle comparison of how easy it is for corporations to use our wants and needs to make money–and how unavoidable it is for us to play as pawns in their game.”

And in the end, the salespeople win – Pancho chooses a pristine white suit to help him along on the next leg of the journey.

Ad Naka |  •
Michael Morgenstern |  •

The Protest

Artwork by Garett Brown & Treigh Love

Dressed in his new suit, as people are flooding the scene, Pancho bursts open the back cage of a police van (last seen in the window at McBigley’s, did you catch it?), letting out a hoard of previously captured protestors. Behind them, an Uncle Sam mural, painted by Garett Brown, depicts a powerful figure dangling easy answers, vices, to a fawning populous.

This is the seed of a revolution, the Red World knocking at the guarded gates of the elites and demanding to be seen, heard, and treated as humans.

The protest presents our first clue that something is afoot. The inhabitants of the Red World are not satisfied to work as slave labor, uphold the massive consumerist machine enjoyed by the 1%. They are fighting back. Fighting for change.

Pancho joins the protesters, knocking out a police officer and using the key he smuggled out of the factory to gain entry to the Gold World.

Garret Brown
Treigh Love |  •

Find out what happens next, as we deconstruct the “Gold World.

The Gold World

The Gold World

In the second half of Strangetown, we move out of the Red World as Pancho Morris roams through the surreal hedonism of the elites in the “Gold World.” This is what it looks like when dozens of artists depict the fantastical gluttony of our global capitalist system. Can Pancho fix it?

Uncle Sam

by Garett Brown

Bursting into the Gold World with plucky confidence, Pancho first encounters a cartoonish Uncle Sam who spins a globe of gold and red. It is of course, the very same Uncle Sam previously depicted in the mural just outside.

The globe was hand-painted by artist Garett Brown, and each country on it is painted gold if it’s a world power that controls our modern economy, or red if it’s a country that doesn’t dominate our economic system.

The visual depiction reminds us just how very few of us hold the wealth in our society and what it means for millions of people who are disadvantaged by this system. The powers that be, indeed.

Garett Brown |

The Pig

by Avi Dunn

As Pancho moves through the room he encounters an elegant and grotesque scene: a golden pig eating bacon out of a piggy bank.

“This scene was meant to highlight unethical consumerism,” says artist Avi Dunn. “It can be easy to consume to the point of destroying yourself and everything around you.”

And who’s that sneaking around in the back? Can you spot them?

Avi Dunn  •

The Bubble-Wrap Bath

by Jen Johnson

Pancho weaves through the pristine and contorted world and finds next a woman bathing in a golden bathtub filled with bubble wrap, surrounded by her coveted packages. Consumerist bliss.

“This scene is a reflection on our obsession with consumerism and materials things – an addiction that’s enabled with next-day delivery,” says artist Jen Johnson. “I wanted to make a scene commenting on gluttony and waste that didn’t embody those principles – so I drew from what we already had: tons of Amazon boxes. These boxes were all sourced from members of the Strangetown crew, so there was plenty of consumerism to mull over while constructing this.”

Jen Johnson |  •


by Michelle Lessans
with Alex “Animal” Swehla, Justin Cummins, & Galen McAndrew

Pancho continues his tour, and passes by an aristocrat lounging on the back off a masked and gagged servant. The human furniture isn’t very subtle, but it is poignant.

She watches a television held by another scantily clad servant with the cord coming out of his mouth. A third servant kneels in front of her with a tray holding a bowl of diamonds and lines of golden glitter. She snorts a line of glitter and casually eats the diamonds while staring blankly at the television.

“I wanted to comment on the idea that living in luxury is often the direct result of the subjugation of others,” says artist Michelle Lessans. “We often deaden ourselves to the impact of this through excess and hedonism. We were able to make candy diamonds out of sugar. The rest of the excess was fortunately sourced from thrift stores and collections of friends.”

Michelle Lessans

The Cash Sentries

by Mrk Dvs

As our protagonist moves deeper into the realm of the rich and powerful, a close eye is kept on him by the golden guards with the all-seeing eyes. Their masks signify surveillance. Fortunately for the elites, they can afford to behave however they please, as we’ve seen. Money has it’s advantages like that.

As the scene becomes more opulent and bizarre, two guards in particular take notice of Pancho as he strides by. He takes an attack position, and fires a cannon full of money at our protagonist. Unfortunately for the guard, this is one problem you can’t solve by throwing money at it.

Mrk Dvs  •

Dogs of Whore

by Mrk Dvs

But the inhabitants of the Gold World don’t just enjoy consumption – they’re social creatures who enjoy games and entertainment.

As Pancho moves on, he walks past a poker table where the players aren’t human but dogs, betting with meat.

“Even the pets of our wealthy overlords enjoy a more comfortable existence than the red shirts from previous scenes,” says artist Mark Davis. “As Pancho passes he pulls a joker from up his sleeve, representing his role in the story, and foreshadowing the resolution of the story.”

Mrk Dvs  •

The Banquet

Production Design by Treigh Love

Pancho has arrived at his destination – a banquet table at the apex of the Gold World.

In this twisted opulent world, the banquet table is surrounded by entertainment: performers spinning fire, an acrobat defying gravity, a messianic figure being beaten.

“A messianic figure is tied to a St. Andrews cross, being crucified by two characters with massive hammers. This deranged, profane scene is the preferred dinnertime entertainment by those who keep their death grip on the highest rungs of power. They’re flogging a messiah figure for their own entertainment. The hammers are not only there to signify crucifixion but also as a reference to the hammers of Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall,’ which are used as a symbol of the fascist movement,” says Mrk Dvs, who directed the vignette.

And while the inhabitants in this opulent world have until now ignored him, Pancho is about to get their attention. He leaps onto the table and looks them each in the eye, challenging them. Do you see me? Are you watching?

Pancho rises to the stage at the head of the table, and a Red World protester passes him a gun. Pancho is the leader of this revolution, and it is a bloody one: he kills everyone in the Gold World.

Everyone, that is, except a purple-clad deer woman.

Who is really pulling the strings here?