Friends, I’m thinking of donning the Desaturated Santa costume again this year, but in a different metropolis. Most likely New York, because it’s a big SantaCon and London’s definitely out of my meagre price range.
It’s fun performance art, and I love delighting people with the costume (it is a CONSTANT parade of inciting delight, if you see it in person!) However, I’m wondering if there could be more to this idea than just me randomly walking around, and would like to open the discussion of collaborators of some sort to make further art during SantaCon. Do you have an idea that could play well with Desaturated Santa, or art that you’d like to make (interesting photography, video, performance art, something else?) that would go better with one strange and lonely desaturated Santa amongst thousands of Red Santas? (NOT looking for more desaturated people/things at this point, though.)
The idea of “Make a Kickstarter/Indie-go-go campaign!” was proposed, but honestly I don’t think it’s the right idea- Send Brody to New York to Do A Silly Thing With Body Paint doesn’t really resonate in terms of “hey let’s get out the pocketbook”. Or maybe I’m just resistant to asking people to support my performance art just for the sake of something existing in the world and cheering a different crowd of people. I welcome any thoughts or ideas on this matter, but am thinking of this in terms of self-funding at this point. Radical self-reliance and all that, pip pip cheerio.
I work at 6th and Market in downtown San Francisco. I must pass a dozen or two downtrodden people every day on my walk to and from work- some obviously mentally ill, some drunk, some high, most of them probably homeless or near-homeless, many of them panhandling. It becomes numbing after a while, the sheer numbers, and the fact that I get followed down the street or shouted at once or twice a week.
Sometimes, though, it just gets to me and I feel so incredibly sad that this is the kind of world we live in. Today, an older man stood on the street and held out his hat, pleading to passerby. “I didn’t eat yesterday,” he said gently as people brushed by him. To my eternal shame, I couldn’t even meet his eyes. I felt my heart ache as I walked past him. I didn’t want to engage, to feel his pain, to really look at him and know that even if he was lying, that he still was in a position where this was what he was doing rather than having a home and people who loved him to keep him from this situation.
Not having any cash on me, not even change, feels like a convenient excuse. If I really wanted to, I could have gotten some cash for him. I just didn’t want to think about the reality of the situation. I hoped that just by walking quickly away as I normally do, past the people every day, I could forget about it. But I can’t. I’m sitting here, hours later, still carrying the thought of him with me, and I am sad. I can’t help that guy. Handing him some cash won’t solve his problems. I don’t know what will.
I’m grateful, though, for everything I have. But for the grace of being a middle-class suburban white girl, go I. But for the grace of having friends and family who love me, who would care for me were I to falter, go I. I don’t take what I have for granted. It’s not lost on me that I ended up feeling sad for this guy on my way to the fancy fabric store to buy some goddamned Italian linen to make hand-sewn rolled-edge handkerchiefs, pretty much the most useless thing ever. I dabble in useless, archaic crafts while this guy didn’t eat yesterday.
How do people deal with this dichotomy? Do you just go numb? Do the people who need help, who you can’t help, just fade into your mental background while you try not to see them and listen to your iPod and keep your sunglasses on so they can’t meet your eyes? Do you hand out snacks and care packages like Halcyon does with http://1stsaturdays.org/ where you can, and a kind word if they’re not trying to verbally abuse you? I’m kind of new to this, so I’m sincerely asking. Does any of it really help?
The little petty part of myself wonders if I’m asking “how can I feel better about myself?” or if it’s truly “how can I help these people?” Because it all just seems like a band-aid. It doesn’t solve the larger social problem of homelessness, of resource imbalance, of…all the shit that’s wrong. I’m not the person to fix the bigger problem, no one person can. But damn, what can we do in the meanwhile for our fellow human beings?
Every year around Halloween, I get several emails asking for costume advice on a Desaturated Something-or-Other. I’m lazy and I like to share ideas, so here’s a comprehensive blog with more information.
Q: I WANT TO BE A DESATURATED (something besides Santa), DO YOU HAVE ANY ADVICE?
- You have to think in shades of gray, not black & white. And all your grays need to complement each other, which is freaking HARD. There’s blue-grays, red-grays, etc. Find neutral ones, use mainly those and accent with black & white. (Wearing all black & white is not the same as looking desaturated).
- Once you’ve matched all your grays for your outfit, you then need to match a skin-tone gray body paint. By ‘skin tone’ I mean it looks like your particular shade of skin tone, but gray. I recommend only Kryolan brand aquacolor* body paint, they have lots of shades and coverage is amazing. Match colors in person (take your outfit with you) if you’re lucky enough to have a vendor near you. I wouldn’t chance it looking at shades online, honestly.
- Line your eyes top and bottom with dark gray eyeliner BEFORE you paint your face & exposed skinparts. Then shade back in your eyebrows so you don’t look like Amanda Palmer before she breaks out the eyebrow Sharpie.
Q: I WANT TO BE A DESATURATED SANTA FOR HALLOWEEN- DO YOU HAVE ANY ADVICE?
My advice to you would be….don’t do it. Desaturated Santa costume only works when there are lots of other red Santas for contrast. Otherwise you just look sort of weird and sickly due to the gray body paint, and it’s not immediately obvious what you’re up to. It also doesn’t look as striking at night under artificial light, even with other Santas around.
Desaturated Santa is for daytime SantaCon, in my opinion. It’s way too much time, money and energy to put into without having a lot of other Santas for visual contrast.
GENERAL CONSIDERATIONS, SANTA OR OTHERWISE:
- This is hard. It’s a costume type that requires perfect color matching and 100% attention to detail, or it’ll look like shit and you’ve just wasted your time and will probably just confuse people or incite pity that you couldn’t quite pull it off. Go big or go shopping at the Halloween MegaUltraGiantStore for an off-the-rack costume.
- Yes, it’s a grey wig.
- Unless you have ABSOLUTELY JET BLACK EYES, you must wear gray contact lenses or it’ll break the illusion to have color sitting there in the middle of your face. They’re available online without a prescription if you look hard enough.
Ok, if I haven’t scared you off and you’re willing to put in the time, energy, effort and money required to do a Desaturated costume, send me a photo when you’re done! brody at brodyqat dot com is the best place to reach me. Good luck!
*Please note, I don’t get any kickbacks or free product from Kryolan. I just really like their stuff. Mike Woolson first introduced me to it, he’s an amazing body painter + photographer.
I don’t have much new in terms of meta-ponderings on the genesis/effectiveness of the Desaturated Santa thing that I didn’t say in last year’s blog.
I did get better photos this year, though, thanks to BenZero. Last year, I was so overwhelmed by the attention that I didn’t get one good shot of me with a bunch of other Santas, and that was my one request for this year.
This year everything went more smoothly- I knew what I was doing with the paint + eyebrow/lip shading, costume was already made, &c. And it wasn’t POURING RAIN like last year, which meant a huge gathering of Santas at City Hall was possible!
I was MOBBED, all day, by requests for photos and by people freaking out over the costume. It kind of got overwhelming at some point, I knew I couldn’t try and walk through a crowd without getting grabbed every few feet. If this is what it’s like being famous, I’m really glad I can take the paint + costume off and go back to being just a girl in the world. It’s fun for a day, but that’s about all I could handle.
It’s great, though, that the costume IS so effective that it inspires such attention and truly seems to freak people’s brains out (in person AND in photos). If I have to be “known” for something, at least it’s for artistic merit and cleverness rather than for scandal or something negative. It’s also getting a lot of attention around the internets after-the-fact, too (Gizmodo, LA Times tech blog, Reddit, countless other places).
The Desaturated Santa art project is well in line with my goal to create more happiness in the world in small ways. SantaCon was an entire day of people really, really happy that I existed and that they got to see it. And that’s rad.
I’m not going to do Desaturated Santa next year. Two years in a row is enough- better to leave at the height of the party than become a fixture, an “oh, you again”.
Over & out,
Desaturated Santa aka Brody
I was watching the Bourbon Street webcam on Mardi Gras night, and the screen was filled with people walking back and forth on the street, ignoring each other. They seemed to be walking around and looking- for the party, for entertainment, for SOMETHING.
This reminded me of my first year or two at Burning Man, and how I just didn’t GET IT. I’d wander around looking for I-didn’t-know-what, trying to figure out what it was that made people have such a good time there. I felt isolated, I felt silly that I wasn’t getting it. It didn’t help that I was extraordinarily shy.
I finally came to realize something that felt incredibly simple, like I was stupid for not realizing it sooner. Burning Man (and by extension, all parties or participatory events) is made of people. By people, for people, and if you’re not making an effort to interact with other people you’re probably not going to enjoy it.
Those people walking up and down Bourbon Street, looking for something to entertain themselves? They could BE that something if they’d only interact with others somehow. It’s up to us to interact. It’s the difference between wandering an event & feeling incredibly isolated in a sea of people, and having a blast. I think we’re so used to spectating, being passively entertained, that a lot of the art of engaging with strangers is being lost. Which means a loss of connection, which leads to that feeling of ‘loneliest in a crowd’.
You know why everyone is lonely? Because they’re ignoring each other. They’re seeing the crowd as one entity, rather than comprised of individual people (and therefore, individual opportunities to interact).
When I started Greeting at Burning Man (for those of you not familiar, Greeters are people stationed right inside the event entrance who provide hugs, information and an optional bell-ringing celebration for Newbies to the event…but mainly HUGS!) I finally had a purpose, an excuse to interact with people. This was super helpful to me, as a shy person. Having a role to play – and the freedom to express myself within that role – meant that I had a reason to talk to HUNDREDS of people over a 4 hour Greeter shift. (And get a LOT of hugs). It was intoxicating. I finally got it.
It feels so strange to even write about this, like it’s kindergarten-level stuff. “Events are made of people.” No shit, Sherlock, you know? But I went to Burning Man for a year or two, wondering why I wasn’t having fun and why I was feeling so isolated, before it occurred to me that I had to TALK TO PEOPLE. People made the art. People were hanging out in their camps. People were running events. People were standing around and doing stuff and playing games and making grilled cheese sandwiches. Everyone has a story. Everyone has something to learn from. Burning Man is not just a vast nebulous event, it’s ~50,000 individual people Doing Things. And they want people to come play, too.
Wandering around expecting to be entertained, to have someone come to me and engage, to have the event somehow reach out and affect me…a recipe for a lonely time. It’s up to me to dive in. It’s up to me to say hi, to wander over, to offer a hug, to play with the art, to participate in the events. No one is going to do it for me.
No one’s going to do it for you, either.
As an art project, the Desaturated Santa costume definitely exceeded my expectations.
A more full-length view is here on Flickr.
When I decided to do a black-and-white (desaturated) version of a Santa for SF SantaCon, it was something of a lark. I knew it would be amusing, and I sort of knew WHY it would work, but no idea that I could pull it off so well.
3rd party conversations with a friend of BenZero’s have solidified in my brain WHY it works.
Santa is an immediately recognizable figure, and a Classic Santa has a fixed set of signifiers. The red and white suit, the black belt, the black boots with fur on top, the hat with the pompom on the end. These things add up in our brains to a Platonic Ideal of Santa.
SantaCon attendees are encouraged to play with this ideal and bring forth variations on the theme, but there’s only so far you can stray from those signifiers and still be recognizable as a “Santa”. The particular Santa Red colour is perhaps the most important visual cue.
When I decided to make a Desaturated Santa costume, I realized that to remove the visual cue of Red but still be recognizable as a Santa, I had to maintain as many of the other signifiers as I could. The illusion of a walking black-and-white-photo of a Santa wouldn’t be as effective if I wasn’t wearing a very classic Santa outfit.
Side note: Which is also why the ‘desaturated version’ of a costume for other events wouldn’t work as well- Santa is SANTA- that ideal image in your brain is pretty much the same as everyone else’s. Other themed events have so many costume variations that you’d lose some of the immediate recognition of what you were trying to accomplish.
Back to the process: I purchased a Santa suit sewing pattern, and chose a neutral darkish gray color fabric that looked like a desaturated red. (This was the hard part). After I made the costume, I took a fabric swatch to Kryolan SF and color-matched a light skin-tone gray that also worked with the fabric. Add to that a gray wig and gray contacts (purchased online) and I was good to go.
The morning of the event, I was having second thoughts even during the makeup application. Indoors and with other color next to it, the gray body paint looked blue. It wasn’t until I finished the body paint application and put on the gray contacts, wig and suit that the illusion really tied itself together.
The entire day was filled with people reacting strongly to the costume. From double-takes, incredulous laughter, constant questions and requests for photos- it was like being famous! People applied their own filters- I was ‘robot Santa’, ‘zombie Santa’, ‘old movie Santa’, &c. It was fun blowing people’s minds, even the ones who couldn’t understand “WHY?” (the #1 most asked question. Response? “Why not?”).
I got home after the end of a long, amusing day, washed off the paint and thought that it was over.
Apparently not. What I hadn’t imagined was the response that the PHOTOS from the day would elicit. In 2009 when people are used to seeing digitally manipulated photos, the Desaturated Santa costume looked TOO good. In other words- many people thought it was Photoshopped to remove the color. And then the fun began as it was circulated around Twitter, various blogs and aggregator sites. The best photo of the day that’s surfaced so far (linked from Flickr above) has had almost 100,000 views as of this writing.
Many people find it hard to believe that someone would go to all the effort of creating a gray & white Santa suit and painting their face, when it’s “so much easier just to do it in Photoshop”. (Yes, but where’s the fun in THAT? Heck, why visit Paris when I can just Photoshop myself in front of a picture of the Eiffel Tower?)
I think this also speaks not only to the prevalence and ease of digital manipulation in daily life, but also that it’s perhaps replacing authentic experiences in some areas? It’s easier, faster and cheaper to use a green screen, to use Photoshop to desaturate or to add crazy color…but I’d rather travel, sew and paint, or get naked and bodypainted anytime.
I’m not sure if it’s a GET OFF MY LAWN response to digital manipulation vs authentic experience, or if I’m Monday morning quarterbacking-style overthinking this. All I know is, it sure was fun, and that’s what I was going for.