High Brow, Low Times Party

by Grace Bonney

Recession times are hard. My clients want creativity without coughing up a lot of cash. I often hear “Can you talk the lighting crew down? Can you buy cheaper flowers, but not cheap flowers? I can’t afford to hire you, but can you give me some ideas for free? Where can I get a good caterer for my party in trade for inviting potential clients to sample his food?” People still want good quality, but they don’t want to pay for it. They don’t want to seem like they are having a flashy party, but they want a flashy party. My clients want creative, original, beautiful events without the over-the-top production. High brow in low times. That’s a challenge that I face daily when designing on pennies, and that’s what today’s event is all about. Eccentric, first order fun on a dime.

It’s time to get a little quirky. Have any of you ever heard of the term ‘exquisite corpse‘ or cadavre exquis in French? I had not until my arty husband mentioned it one day for a party he wanted to have. My immediate thought was, “hmmm, sounds like I should tune him out until Halloween rolls around.” But I was wrong. It actually has nothing to do with Halloween. Exquisite corpse is a composed image collectively assembled by a group of people. The technique was invented by Surrealists and is similar to an old parlour game called Consequences in which players write/draw in turn on a sheet of paper, fold it to conceal part of the drawing, and then pass it to the next player for a further contribution. Surrealism founder AndrĂ© Breton stated that it started in fun, but became playful and eventually enriching. After hearing this pitch, I was intrigued and we decided we would have an art corpse party in honor of these high brow thinkers. (Parlour games + cultural relevance + French wine + enriching assembly + arty brains = HIGH BROW). Add some stinky cheese, a recycled (but heady) art book swap, Devendra Banhart on the ipod, some drawing pencils and butcher paper (low times), and you have yourself a recession friendly recreational party (with some awesome art to take home post corpse collaboration).

Invitations: What does everyone send nowadays to save money? EVITES! I’m not opposed to the virtual postal system, (it is very environmentally friendly), but for this soiree you gotta get crafty. Since the exquisite corpse party is all about a collective image, a mish-mash of photos is visually hilarious and totally appropriate for the invite. Take a digital photo of yourself, crop your head in Photoshop, add Madonna’s torso, Super Chicken’s legs, and your dog’s feet. Ta-daaaa! You have a virtual exquisite corpse. Add some funky text about the date/time, tell your friends to bring an art book for a party favor swap and their savvy intellectual chatter, and hit ‘Send Mail’. The cheap laughs have begun. (You could also do this idea via collage with paper, photos, magazines, scissors and glue for snail mail).

Decor/Activity: Make your own inspiration board on the wall above the drawing area with images of famous exquisite corpses from the past. (Google ‘exquisite corpse’ and then hit images). Also collage patterned paper, cartoon figures, famous faces, magazine cut-outs for visual stimulus for those who may not be masters at the art of figurative drawing. (I definitely break into a sweat when asked to be creative on the spot.) Our party took place in my hubby’s art studio, but you can improvise anywhere there is a table and a wall you don’t mind taping the images to. Cover the drawing table with butcher paper to protect its surface and for doodle practice. You can buy rolls of the paper at any craft/art supply store or online here. I also covered my buffet table with butcher paper and then painted watercolor rings, doodles, and splats for a working artist feel. Instead of floral centerpieces, use paintbrushes, markers, colored pencils stuffed in jars/pots for display. You can also display the art books around for perusal and reference (they tend to be a great conversation starter as well). When your guests arrive, hand them a piece of paper that has been folded into fourths. Ask them when inspiration strikes to either draw/paint the head or the feet on one side of the paper. When done, trade with another guest and let them know where you left off. They will add the next piece of the corpse. (It’s most fun when they don’t study the other guests work, just trade blindly). Once the corpse is completed, unfold it and tack up on a display wall for viewing. What a sight it will be. My stick figure legs looked seriously profound next to my friend Merry’s voluptuous pregnant fire belly.

Menu: High brow, low times food. A vintage red wine, and a decent beer. Aged French Brie with fine gourmet crackers. Carrot sticks and hummus. Chips and dip. Bacon wrapped dates stuffed with blue cheese. Homemade cupcakes. (I went the extra mile and wrote out “high brow low times” on mine.) Anything goes here. Just like your drawings.

Warm up your drafting skills, roll on your deodorant, and let the parlour games begin. The more the merrier, the more exquisite the corpses.

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  • Love this idea, and didnt know it had an official “name” of “exquisite corpse”. Years ago I designed a quilters fabric line for Timeless Treasures named “Head, Shoulders, Knees, & Toes”(now retired) ,that featured little boxes with black and white line drawings (kids)of 8 different heads, 8 upper torso’s. 8 lower torso’s, and 8 sets of feet. (there were also a few hats). The idea was to get kids involved with coloring the fabric boxes and randomly sewing them together to compose different kids , and then sew them into a quilt. I never thought of this as a party idea….but what fun!

  • My friends and I play a game similar to this. Person 1 writes the subject of a sentence, folds the page over and passes it on to Person 2, who completes the sentence without looking at the subject (it’s usually something ridiculous like “a sock learned to ride a bicycle”). They pass it to Person 3, who draws a picture of the full sentence, folds it over so only the picture is showing, and Person 4 writes a sentence based on the picture. Person 5 draws a picture based on the new sentence, and so it goes. Sometimes you get an almost identical sentence at the end, but it’s usually morphed into something hilarious and unrecognizable to the people who wrote the original.

  • OH.MY.GOD. Never would’ve thought of this idea. Now I’m jonesing to have an exquisite corpse party NOW. So cool.

  • your visions are exquisite.
    thank you for your generosity+ abundance of sparkling ideas.
    looking forward to meeting with you again to dream + execute my end of year parties.
    ambassador of fun indeed.
    merci !

  • I love the idea of making a party out of this game. I have played it for years with little kids. I never knew it had a name and had no clue about it’s origin. Thanks for posting this idea and as always, you make it look so simple.I can’t wait to plan my own exquisite corpse party. Loving Design Sponge’s guest Blogger. Great ideas and beautifully executed!

  • what i’ve realized after reading this is that i definitely don’t throw enough parties and that i don’t have to be artsy to throw a party revolving around art. yay!

  • I LOVE exquisite corpses!

    But not the term “high-brow.” It should go out of use along with other ethnic/racial slurs.

  • These party ideas are sooo.. sweet. I can’t wait for more. I usually don’t have parties unless it’s my daughter or baby boy’s birthday. I know now that soon I will be trying these themes to get my friends together. LOTS OF FUNNN..!

  • I went on one rainy camping trip in which we occupied a whole afternoon playing exquisite corpse in a tent. It was great, a brilliant icebreaker when you have lots of people who don’t know each other too. I love this party twist on it!

  • I want to have a fancy but cheap (I mean not cheap but cheap) party!! Sounds like fun and I love the menu. Low key enough to be do-able but yummy and fancy enough to be totally gourmet-ish.

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