ARTICLES INTERVIEWS PRESS
Schonmal was von Bryan Lewis Saunders gehört? Der 42-jährige Künstler, Kameramann und Poet ist bekannt für seine provokanten und aufwühlenden Vorträge und Aufführungen, die er selber als “stand up tragedy” bezeichnet.
Zudem hat er sich seit 1995 zum Ziel gesetzt, jeden Tag bis an sein Lebensende mindestens ein Portrait von sich selbst zu malen. Mitlerweile befinden sich über 8000 Bilder von sich selbst in seinem Besitz. Er selber sagt, keines dieser Bilder gleicht dem anderen, wie bei einer Schneeflocke oder der DNA. Sorgsam verstaut er seine Werke in Hardcoverbüchern und sammelt sich so kontinuierlich eine beeindruckende Chronik seiner selbst an.
Im Jahr 2001 entschied er sich zu einem außergewöhnlichen Experiment: während einer 11-tägigen Phase führte er sich 18 verschiedene Rauschmittel zu und dokumentierte mithilfe der Selbstportraits die Auswirkungen seiner veränderten Wahrnehmung. Während der Trips oder kurz darauf entstanden diverse Selbstportraits, die eindrucksvoll die Effekte der eigenommenen Drogen und Medikamente wiederspiegeln.
Erstmals 1956 formulierten der britischen Psychiater Humphry Osmond und der Schriftsteller Aldous Huxley (“Schöne neue Welt”) die Wortschöpfung “psychedelisch”, eine neue Art von Drogenwirkung auf die Seele. Daraufhin bedienten sich die Künstler der bildenden Kunst, Film, Musik und Literatur bewusstseinerweiternder Drogen in der Hippieszene der 60er Jahre, häufig in einem Zustand der Trance.
Heutzutage probieren sich Künstler wie Bryan Lewis Saunders in der psychedelischen Kunst. In einem Interview sagte er, dass er sonst eigentlich keine Drogen nimmt und auch nur wenig Medikamente. Zudem leidet er seit Kindertagen unter diversen mentalen Störungen: “I’ve been labeled with: Antisocial Personality Disorder (as a child), Borderline (in my teens), Schizotypal (as a young adult), Paranoid Schizophrenic (at present)…” In einem anderen Interview sagte er:
“Today we live in a narcissistic and obsessive culture, totally overflowing with drugs. And as an artist I am the filter.”
Man mag diesen Menschen für verrückt halten, doch die Bilder sind faszinierend und lassen dem Betrachter unglaublich viel Raum für eigene Interpretationen. Man kann nur erahnen, wie sich Bryan Lewis Saunders auf den verschiedenen Trips gefühlt haben muss, aber seine Portraits geben einen eindrucksvollen Einblick über seine psychische Situation und die veränderte Selbstwahrnehmung.
Weitere Bilder und Informationen gibt es auf Bryan Lewis Saunders’ Internetseite und die VICE führte hier ein interessantes Interview mit dem Künster.
"SPECIAL INTERESTS #5" Interview by Aaron Vilk
You are perhaps a less typical subject for inclusion in Special Interests. Most of our interviews focus on sound artists, yet you have been gaining recognition for your unique and unsettling presentation of spoken word, aptly called “stand-up tragedy.” Explain the subject matter and aesthetics that characterize “stand-up tragedy” and how it stands apart from more mainstream spoken word.
Stand-up tragedy is the exact opposite of stand-up comedy. Instead of evoking laughter from strangers I make them cry, or make them feel like they’re about to die. The subject matter is dark and involves a wide variety of subjects from the vile side of American life. It’s purification through purging. It stands apart from mainstream spoken word because it’s not positive, not rap, not slam poetry, it has nothing to do with self-indulgence. What I do is attack my own experiences using video and words and sound all at once, in order to make showing pain in public socially acceptable. Too many people are alone and hiding their suffering, and when they finally come out and the pain comes out that’s when the really “bad stuff” happens. Believe me I know. Some say what I do is demonic because of the subject matter and the intensity, but the goal is to achieve catharsis and cleansing and to try and prevent more “bad stuff” from happening.
Many of your pieces focus on your hard upbringing and subsequent mental and legal problems, including living in violent unstable neighborhoods, being sent to prison and the resulting mental fallout of situations such as these. How true to life are your spoken word presentations? Do you feel that honesty adds a dimension of intensity to your stories, or do you feel that your stories would still resonate as much without the degree of honesty that they present?
Comparatively speaking my upbringing wasn’t that hard. I mean millions of people in the world have it much worse than I ever did. In Africa, they’ve got 9 year old kids armed with AKs whose parents gave them names like “Dead Body” when they were born. I had TV, Cap’n Crunch and Atari. Like I always say, “Look on the bright side - it could always be worse.”
Most all of my stories are true. There’s only one that I can think of that I totally made up about working in an animal testing facility and yet it’s still super intense because of the honesty of the feelings. Sometimes I’ll jam several stories together into one piece for emotional effect and some of the stories are colored with images from nightmares that I’ve had about the stories, so there’s no set formula for revealing the truth. Honesty plays an enormous part in the intensity, without the traumatic experiences I’ve had, the work would come off as forced and weak.
You utilize sound and visual art in your live performances, usually through the medium of video collages and industrial sound loops. Why do you feel this adds to the presentation of stand-up tragedy?
How closely do you feel that this draws you toward industrial and experimental performance artists?
I use the videos to show people what I’m talking about, and sometimes I put myself in the videos to show them that I know “first hand” what I’m talking about. Videos are evidence and I treat them as such. This makes me more readily believable and easier to identify with and sympathize with. No one will cry or feel like they’re going to die if they don’t trust you or believe you. It’s a persuasion technique, one of several common interests I share with the early industrial musicians.
The type of music I choose is on a case by case basis, be it harsh noise or dark ambient drone or what have you. It’s all about building up the desired emotional effect for that particular story or part of the show. The choice of music can be a psychological one too. For example the audio for the live performance of “Small Town Dark Secret” (a story about a morbidly obese girl sucking dicks to be accepted) is made from field recordings of humpback whales, but because of the subtle speed, reverb, and pitch changes it plants that ugliness of the subject deeper into the audience member’s consciousness without them even knowing it. It’s sick and manipulative but it works.
Your work has led you to collaborate with notable figures in the industrial scene, such as your release Daku recorded in collaboration with Z'ev. You also recently finished a US tour with harsh noise act Hostage Pageant. This begs the question, how close do you feel stand-up tragedy is to the medium of industrial music and power electronics? Do you feel that the emotional and artistic goals of your work and industrial sound artists are the same?
I feel a pretty strong bond. That said, one thing that separates me from some of the more harsh noise stuff is that I don’t assault the audience. I assault myself in front of them. Which is something that would be extremely difficult to pull off with music alone. And when you compound both assaults together like Hostage Pageant and I did, it makes the experience totally overwhelming. I can see this being directly related to the industrial use of shock tactics and their interest in cults and psychological persuasion.
Whereas the early Industrial musicians wanted people to think for themselves and question the world around them, I too want people to feel for themselves and do something about it because it’s our feelings that are being manipulated, exploited, preyed upon and even destroyed. Time and again studies have shown that it’s our feelings that guide our lives and make our choices for us not our thoughts. I’d say our goals are pretty much the same.
You've been doing daily self-portraits, many of which have worked themselves into your video collages. Please explain the reasons why you do these self-portraits and how they figure into your art and your personal life?
I’ve done at least one self-portrait every day for almost 16 years now, and will continue to do this until I die. Drawing is my life force and at times it has kept me alive, literally. For years drawing was all that I did and I never showed them I just accumulated them. Then after about 10 years when I started performing, that acute emotional focus imploded inside me and that is perhaps the single most reason why my performances are so explosive outwardly. I mean I spent an entire decade just putting all of my feelings into little 8”x10” pictures all day, and then once I opened up the result was incendiary. When I put the self-portraits into the performance itself it’s often a personal thing. I do it to harness and magnify the power of the act as if to say to myself, “I know who I am and I know what I’ve done WHAM!” They give me great power. And to me the body of work as a whole is like one grand inanimate totem for our narcissistic culture, even though 80% of them are self-deprecating. Which is probably why David Larcher titled it “The Endlessly Reconstructing Auto-Autopsy”.
Do you feel as though your environment has compelled you to express yourself artistically? Or, alternatively, do you feel that you would be a writer and performance artist either way, though it has merely influenced what you write about?
I would say other artists and their works have compelled me much more than any environment has, with the exception of prison perhaps. Without artists like Lydia Lunch, John Duncan, Steven Jesse Bernstein, Z’EV and so on I would still be the product of various environments, and not a producer risen from up out of them. I owe a great debt to those artists that have shown me that it is ok to let it out, be brutally honest, deny self-censorship, say “fuck you” to fear etc., things that I wouldn’t have just inherently known or have been able to do without them and their work.
What the prison environment brought to the mix was the great cathartic experiences I had from being able to just go nuclear ape shit in there. Due to the omnipresent threat of death and constant sense of uncertainty and dread it was socially acceptable to go off. I mean what can the guards do, you’re already locked up. And the relief and emotional release that that brought was invaluable and can’t be overstated enough. It’s crazy to think about now, but the times when I got locked down I was rehearsing and didn’t even know it. I often wish I had some of that on tape.
What releases (either recorded or printed) have you been working on as of late? What do you have planned in terms of upcoming releases and touring performances?
I have an LP coming out in the next few months titled, “Bed Bugs” on Private Leisure Industries about blood sucking insects, a teen cutter sex partner and the nightmares resulting from both.
Z’EV and I have a new album that’s looking for a home titled, “Me and My Shadow”.
Look for my book “Prison For Dummies” this year on Blossoming Noise.
And right at this very moment I’m working on a massive series of 20 albums titled, “Stream of Unconscious (narrative mode)”, where for the last 6 years I’ve been recording my dreams, nightmares and sleep talking on cassette and now I’m putting them together. The artists involved are incredible; Z’EV, Leif Elggren, Lydia Lunch, Kommisar Hjuler und Frau, Christopher Fleeger, Yoshihiro Kikuchi, Razen, Requiem, John Moloney, Matt Reis, Adam Bohman & Adrian Northover, Hopek Quirin, Love Execution Style, Offerings, Lee Gamble, Sinus Buds, Murmurists, undRess Béton, Anton Mobin, Thomas Fernier, Ad Beentjes and more. It’s going to be totally fucking insane!
As for touring this year I plan on doing a west coast tour here in the States to promote my album “Near Death Experience” on Erratum. (If a reader is unfamiliar with what I do? that LP is a great place to start, the title says it all.) And I’m also looking into a possible Spring tour in Europe with Joachim Montessuis, Jorg Piringer, and Julien Ottavi.
Is there anything you'd like to add or anything you'd like to tell our readers?
Thanks for giving me the opportunity to share what I do! It feels good to be included here. Oh, and if you're online sometime and come across my series of self-portraits under the influence of different drugs, know that I don't "party" I just experiment, and I'm willing to trade art for drugs that I haven't drawn myself on yet. But keep the jenkem to yourselves!
"GETTING ABILIFIED WITH BRYAN SAUNDERS" by Benjamin Majoy
Recently there’s been a lot of chatter on the internet about a series of self-portraits that Bryan Lewis Saunders drew/painted/etched while he was on a whole potpourri of different drugs. My friend Kelly sent me the link because the day previous, I sent her a video of some chick on YouTube describing the experience of turkey-bastering DMT up her butthole . That her brain connected Bryan Saunders with that video should give you some idea as to what his work is like.
These portraits alone, though, are hardly interesting enough to merit Bryan any additional attention. It wasn’t until I realized that these 32 paintings comprise only 1/250th of a 16 year self-portrait project that I decided to spend a Sunday afternoon Skyping him at his home in Johnson City, Tennessee. As our conversation teetered between horrifying and hilarious, I realized that–although colossal–the self-portrait project is only a fragment of his dense portfolio of other equally involved multimedia projects. Bryan’s hermitic, Appalachian livelihood fostered an unarguable talent for embarking on extremely bizarre and elaborate artistic undertakings.
What started as a simple conversation about self-portraits spiraled into a cordial chat about crystal meth, Chinese standup comedy, blood, obese girls who suck dicks for attention, the process of getting severely overweight dead people out of an apartment building, and a few other equally engaging topics. By the end of our two-hour chat, I decided that Bryan Lewis Saunders is a living manifestation of Xenia, Ohio in Harmony Korine’s film, Gummo . And now he’s my friend.
Vice: We might as well get this out of the way early, since it’s the whole reason I found out about you in the first place. Tell me about the self-portrait series that you did on drugs.
Bryan Lewis Saunders: Well, I was just living in a big government building with a lot of disabled and sick people and stuff. There were a lot of pills and a lot of people on drugs, and I’ve had a lot of tragic things happen in my life, so…
I mean… well, I’ve had a lot of awful things happen to me personally, but at that time I was having a lot of tragic things happen to my friends. One of them died in a house fire, then another one shot himself in the head. The bullet went through one temple and out the other and he survived, but was permanently in a state of confusion. He could only respond if you whispered to him, and he would see leprechauns on your shoulder and would make strange requests about… I don’t want to get into it. Anyways, after I went hiking in the woods for a few months I came back and decided to try this project because I’ve never really been into drugs.
So you don’t usually do a lot of drugs?
No. I have a fragile brain chemistry. I don’t even like to take Aspirin and stuff. So, I thought I was just going to do a different drug everyday and draw my self-portrait since I was drawing myself everyday anyway. I did 18 drugs in 12 days, then my friends got kind of concerned because I was definitely starting to look like I had Down syndrome. First my forehead got bigger, then my face got flatter. By the time I got to the Robutussen (two bottles), you could definitely tell I was starting to get something like Down syndrome.
As awesome as it is that you went to such an extreme to make that series work, I still think it’s kind of dwarfed by the fact that you’ve done at least a self-portrait everyday for the last 16 years. Crystal meth and prescription tranquilizers just don’t compare to the magnitude of that kind of project. How did it originally come about?
Well, when I first started drawing my self-portrait I just wanted to see something different in myself everyday. The artist sees the world, represents it, then puts a part of themselves in the representation. I didn’t want to be like many artists, who seem to only have a very specific style. I felt like that’s not totally real since people change everyday.
And you’ve literally done one of these every day since? I’m sure you’ve run into some boundaries.
Yep. I can do them with my left hand, both feet, mouth, in my sleep, during drunken blackouts, and even with a sharpie sticking out of my asshole. Once I did a whole month completely blind. The only way I can’t do one is if I’m in a coma.
Even though your drug portraits aren’t necessarily my favorite part of your portfolio, I do think it’s indicative of the dedication to extreme weirdness that you seem to give all of your projects. For instance, the one with the bloody feet, Toetem/Totem . What can you tell me about that?
(Laughing ) I was walking by a dumpster on the way to a convenience store and saw all these boxes filled with pictures of messed up feet. Apparently this foot clinic hadn’t been paying their bills, so all of their stuff in storage was being thrown away. I took all the pictures with me and bought these family frames to put them in. You know, those frames with little circles for where mom and dad and the kids are supposed to be? I arranged them like the ingrown family, and the family with extra toes, and people kept coming over to my apartment where I had them all lined up over my couch. Everyone thought they were dead people because they had the person’s name below the toe, and looked like toe tags, so people kept getting really freaked out. And I thought that if it bothered people that much, then I should probably make some sort of totem of it.
OK. What about Fuck Paintings ? What’s that all about?
Oh. I did that in school. The project was called “Get your feet wet.” It was some type of project where you were supposed to just attack the canvas or something. So I had sex with it and took pictures of myself afterwards. The teacher was like “Oh, I really like the way you violated the canvas,” and I just thought it would be neat to take it to the extreme. I don’t know.
Photo by Alice Lane
In another one of your proposals, there are some pictures of what looks like you sewing your mouth shut. I take it you really did that as well?
Yeah. It was for a photography student’s project. A couple of the photography students were using me as a model, and I had to outdo the other one. Eventually a girl took pictures of me sewing my mouth shut. Then Princess Diana died with the whole paparazzi problem you know, and I thought “Man, I’m going to set my cock on fire.”
I was going to set my cock on fire since the cock can get you in just as much trouble as the mouth, and I was going to invite all my friends and all the school to come and take pictures like the paparazzi. But then when the teacher found about it, she called the ACLU.
That’s too bad. I’m sure that would have been a pretty interesting exhibit. You know, it’s interesting hearing you talk about this, because as much as there is a major shock factor to most of what you do, I wouldn’t really call you any sort of shock artist. It seems like you just think in a really extreme way.
Right. With the standup tragedy, I use shocking images or parts of the story to try and bring people to a certain state of awareness, so that I can just jam ‘em with emotions real hard. Kind of like a certain hypnosis or something. Like if you shock them to the point of being a little numb, you can jam whatever you want in there.
I guess it’s just that you use shock value for a bigger purpose than just to be shocking. Speaking of, how exactly did the standup tragedy stuff come about? It’s an interesting take on performance art, since the whole point seems to be as devastating as possible. It doesn’t really seem like something that people really feel inclined to be a part of.
Well I wanted to be a famous comedian in China. I was living in my aunt’s trailer in Virginia, and the family was having a lot of problems. One of my cousins was on meth. My great aunt had Alzheimer’s. Another one had a stroke. It was a lot of confusion and constant arguing back and forth, so I just thought to myself, “well I’ll be better in China.” I spent like six hours a day, seven days a week for like nine months straight teaching myself Mandarin. I thought that I’d go to some cities in communist China where they don’t have any tourism, and I would do standup comedy there. I figured within one year I’d have my own sitcom, then I’d be doing blockbuster features in China, and then I’d be a big international superstar. I went and did a Chinese wedding in New York City, and it went pretty well, so I went to Fujo to become a superstar. After like the third day, I met a guy who could speak English pretty well, and he told me that they didn’t have stand up comedy in China. I was pretty devastated, so when I was forced to leave I thought, “Well hell, Tennessee is pretty cheap, so I moved back here and decided that I’d just do standup tragedy and try to make all of these strangers cry instead.
How does that work? I guess there are a lot of ways to make people cry.
One of the first ones I did was about overweight girls sucking dicks to be accepted.
Yeah, that’s a pretty heavy topic. Is there a specific reason why that was the one you started with?
Well, I’m not obese myself, but uh… I don’t know. Growing up in northern Virginia, there was a girl who was overweight. She didn’t want to eat anymore because she was so upset, but the doctor’s said they wouldn’t wire her jaw shut if it wasn’t broken, so one Friday night, after everyone had just gotten out of the Rocky Horror Picture Show , we all went to Dunkin Donuts and she signed the back of a take out menu that said “I’ll give anyone 35 dollars and permission to break my jaw.” You wouldn’t believe how many people lined up out back behind that Dunkin Donuts trying to break her jaw. Then there was this one guy who called himself Psycho who went and got a baseball bat, and I just left. I don’t know what happened. I never saw that girl again. Never knew if her jaw got broken or anything.
I have a CD called Busting Open because in my building, when someone dies, if someone doesn’t find them right away their body kind of busts open. With these people that are morbidly obese, when they aren’t found the maintenance guys call it “busting open big time.” Their abdomen ruptures with a wet pop and it’s just nasty. In my building, there are people who are so obese that they can’t even leave. When they die of their obesity, the fire department has to come with an electric saw and remove an arm or a leg or something just to get them out the door. See, most people who live in big cities have no idea about this stuff that goes on in small-town America or whatever. With the standup tragedy stuff, people just need to know. There may be reality shows about obesity and whatnot, but you don’t get to really hear what’s really going on.
You sound kind of unfazed when you’re talking about people dying in your building. Does that kind of thing happen often?
Yeah. It’s a bit scary. My friends don’t like me living here, but I think it’s kind of exciting. I found a bloodbath in the stairwell one time and took some digital pictures of it. It looked just like an art installation, like someone was trying to create a bloodbath. It was like life imitating art; the most beautiful bloodbath you could ever find in your life.
Gross. So the last thing worth mentioning, because it seems to be the project that occupies most of your time these days, is the Sleepworks . I suppose on a surface level, it just looks like audio recordings of you talking in your sleep, but I’m sure there’s much more to it.
Yes. Well, I’m really tortured in my sleep. I would have terrible dreams but I would wake up and not remember them. So in the morning, I would try to write them down in a dream journal, but by the time I would start writing, I would forget like half of what happened. So one day, I had the idea that I would sleep with the tape recorder. After time, I classically conditioned myself to push the record button in my sleep.
I randomly downloaded one of them to try and make sense of the project. I think it’s called “Le Bobcat”? What exactly is going on there?
I had this dream about a bobcat that came over to our house and was interacting with us. Then it had to go to the doctor because it thought it was pregnant, and it scratched me real good on the back of the leg and I was like “I think bobcats are cute and everything, but if one attacks me I will cut it up.” Then over time, the bobcat turns into this woman, and we’re dating, and then it gets really bizarre. There’s these recordings that strangely happened the same night that say “These forward and backwards revelations are going to breath and bring the spirit world with the real world, because hierarchy’s important with them.” So what I did was take what I said, and make it forwards in one ear and backwards in the other. Then I took the sound of real bobcats in heat, then in stress, then purring, and I played them backwards. The idea was to have the listener listen to this tape on repeat with headphones while falling asleep so that the bobcat dream would enter into the dream of the listener, even though the listener is a different person with their own brain and experiences and neurons that make up whatever they’re going to dream about. Their dream would be the final work of art.
I tried to figure out if the people who bought the album listened to it when they went to sleep and if the bobcat entered their dreams, but they were all like, “Man, that was a nightmare! I’m not going to listen to that when I’m going to sleep!”
"Bryan Lewis Saunders' Strange Experiment"
“I started it in 2001 and I probably did… Well, I could count,” says Bryan. He begins vigorously flipping through a black leather-bound book, counting under his breath, his lazy, twangy Southern accent clinging to every word like thick, sticky syrup. “14, 15, 16… I did 18 of them in, well, let me see how many days. How many did I say? 18?”
“Yeah,” I answer. Bryan searches through his book again and whisper to himself.
“10, 11… 18 of them in 11 days, from the 2nd to the 13th of August.” He looks up into his webcam’s lens, grinning proudly at me. It was sort of a weird moment: there was Bryan, thick-framed glasses resting high on the bridge of his nose, black toque pulled tight over the top of his head and wearing a bunched-up, safety vest orange-coloured hoodie, looking at me, the bewildered but poker-faced interviewer, like a grinning kid hoping his father was impressed after that massive cannonball off the diving board.
I didn’t say anything in response – I just flashed an acknowledging smile and a nod into my webcam. We were about 1,300 miles apart and had only been talking for 23 minutes, but I already knew that Bryan Lewis Saunders, the 42-year old Tennessee-based artist whose work I had stumbled onto recently, was a talker – an interviewer’s simultaneous dream and nightmare. He started up again a moment later. I wasn’t shocked.
“I have a real fragile brain chemistry,” came his unsolicited follow-up. “I’m really sensitive to things. I don’t hardly take an Aspirin for headaches. I’m real paranoid about different types of medication, so I always try to be careful with my brain chemistry.”
He pauses. I could tell he had more to say, so I listened. Finally, he said, with a thoughtful smile:
“It’s interesting how a drug will change you.”
I recently found a link to a page from Bryan’s website. It was titled “DRUGS.” I proceeded to spend 20 minutes gawking as I scrolled down the long page of self-portraits.
See, the Drugs self-portraits – just one collection in Bryan’s multiple series of autobiographical drawings, is a bit of an experiment. His hypothesis: by taking a massive variety of drugs and drawing himself while under their influence, Bryan thinks he can better explore this world of experience. So, ever the diligent socio-emotional scientist, in August of 2001, Bryan tested his hypothesis by consuming a cornucopia of opiates, hallucinogens, uppers and downers, as well as some more “out-of-the-box” substances like cough syrup and lighter fluid.
Eighteen drugs in 11 days.
“I overdid it,” he says with an excited giggle. “I got too excited because the drawings were so unique and interesting.”
Bryan overdid it so badly that after his initial 11-day binge, he suffered from what he calls “temporary brain damage.”
“I did 18 drugs in 11 days,” he says, “and sometimes more than one drug in a day. Some drugs you’re not supposed to mix, so it just kind of ruined my brain for awhile there.”
I’m staring at Bryan, amazed by how casually he describes those surely scary days of lethargy and aftershocks. I ask him if he ever worried, before he began the experiment, of enduring damage with some sort of permanence.
“The pictures online, I think they’re in alphabetical order now,” Bryan says, “but if they were in the order of how they were done, you could see an evolution for sure of the damage being done to my brain.”
The self-portraits in the Drugs series range from the jubilantly coloured and peaceful (Abilify/Xanax/Ativan, marijuana) to the quirky and odd (Adderall, psilocybin mushrooms) to the disturbing (PCP, cocaine). And in that last category is a self-portrait guided by a substance that Bryan admits to have been terrifyingly uncomfortable.
“I tell you, that Seroquel, that anti-psychoactive agent,” he says, trailing off and pausing for a second. “That thing, boy, that was scary.”
Quetiapine, marketed as Seroquel, is an antipsychotic drug used typically in the treatment of schizophrenia, acute episodes of bipolar disorder and other serious mental illnesses.
The self-portrait Bryan scrawled in pencil while under Seroquel’s influence, dark, scratchy and comprised largely of sharply angled shapes, is starkly contrasted to many of his other portraits. It betrays a frightening experience.
“I’ll sit in front of [a mirror] with all my supplies laid out and then I’ll take a drug,” he explains. “Usually takes awhile to work, so I’ll start drawing my proportions, like just getting the basic framework in and while I’m doing that, I’ll start feeling it. Everything will start changing.”
“But with the Seroquel, I was looking in the mirror and all of the sudden,” he says, beginning to motion with his hands above his head, “this big, dark, black mass of weight just kind of settled down upon me and this inner voice said, ‘don’t look in the mirror.’”
“So I look at the paper and I started scratching on it, trying to avoid the mirror in front of me. And then all of a sudden, that black thing went ‘JJJUUUUGGGHHH!” – sort of like electricity, and it goes, ‘Don’t look at the paper.’ And I barely had time to look over at the bed and think, ‘whoa, I might need to lie down’ and as soon as my head turns, it goes – ‘DON’T LOOK AT YOUR BED!’”
Bryan says it took every ounce of willpower to fight against this commanding voice in his head and continue drawing. “It was like my brain was being separated,” he explains. “It cuts your brain off from your bodily actions. It was a real hard battle.”
That was nearly a decade ago – those intensely dangerous and euphoric 11 days in which Bryan consumed 18 different drugs. Today, he’s still committed to his experiment, though in greatly reduced intensity. He’ll only draw another drug-influenced self-portrait when his the timing is right or, as he says, when his “brain chemistry is perfect.” For Bryan, this experiment, among the many that he has constantly on the go, must to continue; it’s not just a hobby for him, but a way of living passionately and significantly.
“It’s not about trying to get obliterated,” he says. “It’s about trying to get this nice collection of my feelings on paper. The drugs are just one small part of the whole entire body of work… It’s not about getting completely wasted – it’s about trying to feel as many different things as possible while I’m still alive.”
At the top of the web page at bryanlewissaunders.org marked “DRUGS” is a link – “Click me for the full story.” If you follow the instructions, you’re taken to a blog post (link at the end of this article) titled “Bryan Lewis Saunders is Chasing the American Dream (By Taking a Lot of Drugs).” A catchy Hunter S. Thompson-esque line, but I think that’s too simple. It paints Bryan as this intrepid, staunchly Western explorer, but that’s not at all who he is.
I realize something about Bryan as I sit there, listening to him tell a 12-minute story about how he learned Mandarin in 9 months so he could travel to China to be a stand-up comedian. I realize that it isn’t the American dream, whatever the hell that is, that Bryan is chasing; that has something to do with capitalism, money and Willy Loman, if my memory serves me. In his pursuit of new and unique feelings at the cost of anything, even his health and sanity, Bryan Lewis Saunders is chasing a dream all too familiar to those of us still alive enough to feel the blood of life course through our veins – the human experience.
Bryan Lewis Saunders is Chasing the American Dream (By Taking a Lot of Drugs)
Jan. 17th, 2011
( Drawn under 4mg. of Dilaudid )
" ...today we live in a narcissistic and obsessive culture, totally overflowing with drugs. And as an artist I am the filter... "
Bryan Lewis Saunders is an artist without any doubt --- when he creates things, people break down and cry. In short, he is a great leader of catharsis and true emotional expression in a modern world of nervous silence.
Although Saunders is renowned mostly for his spoken word poetry, he has earned himself a fair deal of notoriety with one specific project of his - testing and artistically showing the effects of various illicit substances. Each day, through a series of self portraits, Bryan Lewis Saunders opens a new chemical doorway - and sketches his visions and experiences of the unknown pleasures that lie waiting beyond.
dinosaurcity had the chance to sit down with Bryan Lewis Saunders and discuss his personal tribulations with this project. This is the transcript:
How old are you?
BLS: Almost 42.
Where are you from?
BLS: I was born in Washington D.C. but I've lived in Tennessee off and on for so long that I tell people that I'm from there.
What led to the decision to start these self-portraits under the influence of various drugs?
BLS: Well I've drawn/painted at least one self portrait every day since March 30th of 1995 and on some days I experiment with drugs. However, the drug series itself began in 2000 when I moved into an 11 story building with the idea that I would make a documentary on all of the interesting characters there. The building, is well known in Johnson City for its creeps and loonies.
After moving in, one of my good friends Jennifer Renfro, from art school purchased an old church nearby and was turning it into a house to live in. While finishing the downstairs flooring she died in her sleep when it caught fire.
The day after her funeral my best friend Don Morgan, also from art school, shot himself in the head, in one temple and out the other with a Russian .32 and survived! Unfortunately he ended up with severe brain damage and permanent confusion. While he was still in the hospital my right lung collapsed for the third time (spontaneous pneumothorax), and I had a lobectomy in which they removed the top half of my lung to prevent it from collapsing again.
Meanwhile my other best friend, Brandon Bragg, was on the Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiking from GA to ME. experiencing great and wonderful things in nature. Once I myself got out of the hospital and Don was sent to a nursing home, Brandon was hiking in nearby Damascus, VA and convinced me to continue the journey with him. I had never been hiking before and with only 1 1/2 lungs I put my life in his hands.
It was incredible. I had 5 pounds of art supplies with me! Every day I saw tons of beautiful things in nature. I'm from the city and so every new kind of bark I saw, or toadstool, or wild animal gave me such a rich wealth of phenomenon to draw and see myself in a totally different world. That experience was truly miraculous and healing. (To this day that book is my favorite of all of the self-portrait books.)
( Huffing Lighter Fluid )
Anyway, back to the drugs.
While Brandon and I were hiking one day he asked me, "Whatever happened with that documentary you were going to make with the veterans and the loonies?"
And I told him how everything had happened so fast with the tragedies and how I thought the people would be really interesting to document, but in fact they were all on drugs, suffering in solitude, some too obese to physically leave their apartment, and for many it was all they could do to get out of their recliners 3 times a day. And I told him how when I first moved in, a paraplegic in a wheelchair showed me an encyclopedia of pills and said he could find at least one of every kind of pill in that book in the building and that book was huge!
When Brandon and I got to NY, I unknowingly became very dehydrated and started hallucinating and had a psychotic break and ditched him at a monastery because I thought he was trying to poison me. I took the greyhound straight back to Tennessee where I had an epiphany. I thought not only am I going to draw myself everyday, I'm going to do a different drug everyday, after all there was one of everything in the building...
And that was when I officially started the project.
What were your favorite substances consumed? What were the worst?
BLS: Xanax (totem poles - 4mg) would probably be one of my favorites. It made me feel real at peace with life and with the trauma, and it also made me a real social dynamo! I'm sort of a recluse but with the Xanax I could just walk up and talk to total strangers! The Butane Honey Oil was a real blast too!
The worst is a toss up between PCP and Seroquel (heavy tranquilizer/anti-psychotic agent) 100 mg. I went to a doctor to hopefully get more different drugs and told him about my project and showed him my pictures on various drugs and he only wrote one prescription for 90 Seroquels thinking I was psychotic for taking such an undertaking and it was awful!
I always saw the lion in Africa on TV with the hurt foot getting shot with a tranquilizer dart and assumed that that lion was woozy and in lala land! Boy was I wrong. In reality, that lion actually wants to tear out those people's throats with awe inspiring savagery but it just can't move. At least that is how the Seroquel did me. It's a long story but as you can see from the drawing I had to fight against its effects, and it took every ounce of strength I had!
( Ladies and gentlemen, PCP! )
The PCP was just as bad. Any drugs that detach your mind from your body I don't care for too much. The PCP day I ate a ham sandwich with tomatoes in it and people kept knocking on my door asking if they could look at my Appalachian Trail self-portraits and I'd get to telling about 20 people at a time all of my hiking stories and showing them all of my drawings and then all of sudden someone would whisper, "Bryan, these people aren't real." And I would flip the hell out! Because even the person that whispered that wasn't real. And then there would be another knock at the door and more people would come in wanting to see my pictures and they too weren't real.
What's crazy is, my friend Audra said that she really did knock on my door and could hear me talking in there but I wouldn't answer it. It was all I could do to draw myself vomiting on PCP, and each time I heaved my face shifted off in stages and red clumpy chunky stuff kept coming out of my nose. I thought my brain was hemorrhaging, but it turned out it was just tomato from my sandwich. Thankfully.
Before the self-portraits, how experienced were you with these substances? Were there any you did the first time with these experiments?
BLS: I've always experimented with drugs to some extent, and when I was much younger I had a couple of seizures on cocaine binges, but many of them were new to me. Most of the pills were new and some of the huffing.
People that don't 'really' know me often think I'm a party animal because of this body of work, but in truth I will only do a drug for the drawing/experience and if I've never done it before. Some drugs I have already done, but it was before I began drawing myself every day so I'll do it again under the influence.
( 2mg. of Xanax )
I've snorted Heroin several times, but I've never done a drawing on Heroin because I haven't had the opportunity since I started the project. I only do drugs that people donate to the project. All all that I really care about is how drugs change my perception of the self. As the scientist and the 'lab rat' I often have to wait to be in the perfect place in life and in the perfect frame of mind and in the right environment with the right people or alone which can take months sometimes to get all of that aligned. I do this to drastically limit possible outside factors that may complicate the self-perception.
From an artist's perspective, what drugs have been the most useful for you?
BLS: I would say none of them were very 'useful' outside of just sharing a one time unique experience. Adderall did seem to give me a lot of patience and focus, but I wouldn't say it was more useful than Salvia which I started drawing right before taking and finished by painting right after.
Even I, who has conditioned myself to draw while in a drunken blackout and not remember it, still can't draw when completely obliterated or on a different planet, so I try not to overdo it. The act of drawing is much more useful than any drug.
( The artist, having snorted a 10mg. Lortab )
On your website, you mention that you became "lethargic and suffered mild brain damage" because of this experiment - can you elaborate on the after effects?
BLS: Well, in the beginning I got carried away and became enamored with the uniqueness of how the different drugs made me see myself and how each one had its own special quality. And after a few days or so the excitement was really building up in me, As to were the different drugs. And as soon as the effects of one would wear off I'd just do another one without thinking about any harm I was causing myself.
And then when the word got out about the project people started really showing up at my door with all kinds of stuff, I mean really cleaning out their medicine cabinets for me. So the day after someone showed up with 2 bottles of Robotussin and a can of lighter fluid.
My friend Audra saw my pictures and the breaking down of my mental state and said, "Look! Bryan! You're giving yourself Down Syndrome!" (to put it nicely). And sure enough I had been mixing the wrong drugs with each other for days and gave my self mild-brain damage without even knowing it. Luckily not permanent and thankfully she was there to even spot it. It was quite some time before I tried a new drug again.
( The onset of two Psilocybin Mushroom caps )
Are these experiments still going?
BLS: Yep, the drawing still goes on. Never missing a day. Just finishing up my 89th book of self-portraits and quickly approaching 8,000 in all.
Not all of them on drugs of course, but from time to time when the situation presents itself and an interested party donates a new one I'll do it. But only on my own terms, like I said everything has to be just right I only do it for the drawing.
What's next? Where's the acid?
BLS: As far as acid goes, I've tried acid 3 times in NE Tennessee and all 3 times it was really crappy. Nothing like the U.V.A. acid in the mid eighties. People here say, "I did 8 of 'em. I took 4. I did 6 of 'em.". And I'm like, "If one doesn't do it for you, why take 7 more? That's ignorant!"
As for what's next, it all depends on what people give me. I don't seek them out and there are still plenty of big ones I need to draw under the influence of; Heroin, LSD, DMT, Computer Duster, Ayahuasca, Peyote and I don't want to die until I do a self-portrait on Crack. You see today we live in a narcissistic and obsessive culture, totally overflowing with drugs. And as an artist I am the filter. Picasso and Matisse got it right when one of them said, "Cézanne is the father of us all." It's not a stretch by any means to say, "On some days, my brain chemistry is my vantage point and my face is his Mont Sainte-Victoire."
( The artist, having snorted 15mg of Buspar )
For people interested in this particular body of work, my Facebook has the best and most up to date collection of drawings under the influence. And I'm a weird person, and I'm way more well known for other stuff besides the drawings and drugs...
KTRU 91.7 FM
Rice Radio Spoken Word Show
August, 2009 by Ayn Morgan
Bryan Lewis Saunders is a visual, performance and spoken word artist, living in East Tennessee. His recorded work is intimate, honest and unsettling. His recent release, N1-N4 Variations (vocal documentation from all four sleep stages) catalogs a spectrum of personal and jarring vocalizations during various stages of unrest during his sleep cycle. DAKU, a collaboration with percussionist Z'EV, is an intense and primal journey through traumatic experience and the physical manifestation of that trauma.
His spoken word performances are empathetic, raw and cathartic. He often tours Europe and the US, performing in festivals and exhibitions. He creates at least one self-portrait everyday (since 1995) and plans to do so for the rest of his life. He currently has 7000 of them in hardbound books.
Ayn - Describe the difference between the cathartic experience of your self-portraits and public performances.
Bryan - On the surface they both appear as vehicles for driving out demons. However, the self-portraits are more like praying or meditating everyday, and the performances are more like hosting an evangelical revival. The self-portraits are two-dimensional and tend to focus more on the present, and on personal daily mental health maintenance. The performances are big multi-media public purging events, more focused on the past, and the demons are much more social. When I draw or paint myself everyday the release is what keeps me alive and somewhat sane.
Ayn - Film projections on stage can distract from intense spoken word performances. With your strong background in visual arts, your videos compliment your work. When did you first incorporate video or projections into your live shows?
I started doing the videos in 2006. I don't often speak eloquently, so the videos are left rough and crudely edited too. The rawness of both increases the tension. It makes what I'm saying seem even more real, because they're like home movies as opposed to being artsy-fartsy with a lot of transitions and effects. Video is the supreme tool, in that it has the ability to convey honesty, empathy, truth and believability. The simplest way to get people to believe and identify with you, when you say outrageous or unbelievable things, is to concurrently show them home videos of it. It becomes more powerful.
Ayn - How much of your life is as visceral as your work? Where do you think this intensity comes from?
Bryan - It comes from an exciting, yet often traumatic childhood. Now that my life has become totally devoted to documenting and sharing those experiences (much to my deliverance), new trauma is much less frequent. I tend to isolate myself while working and that helps cut down on it enormously. When I'm alone, my head becomes a can. Using the stories as a starting point, I weave the feelings, thoughts and beliefs around them, like fat twisted cords, really packing them down for several months. With the lid on really tight, I finally get out and on stage again. With great suspense, I slowly unscrew the lid and all of these snakes jump out of my head, at the audience. Only it's tragic, not funny, because the serpents are real and not felt covered springs.
Ayn - When recording N1-N4 Variations, what was your process? How did it start?
Bryan - Mysterious things have always happened to me in my sleep. I would frequently wake up feeling like I had just been run over by a truck or physically assaulted. I had great difficulty remembering any details of the events. So, I started sleeping with a tape recorder to get to the bottom of it. At first, I would awake and immediately record anything I could remember. The more I did it, the more Pavlovian my "button pushing" became until I was waking up between each dream and recording all of them. Eventually I pushed the record button in my sleep and documented my dreams in real time as they occurred. The CD contains artifacts of the entire process.
What current experimental or spoken word artists do you listen to?
"Amnesia" by Lydia Lunch and Jacob Kirkegaard is pretty transcendent. The combination of Kirkegaard's science of sound aesthetic and Lydia's graphic poetic analysis, seem to make her float inside the gravity of man's inhumanity.
The work of Gregory Whitehead is functional-conceptual art and extremely fascinating. Out of all of his works, "The Thing About Bugs" and "The Hidden Language of Trees" are my absolute favorite. Headphones are a must.
Michael Esposito's EVP collaborations, "The Summer House" with Leif Elggren and the ghost of Emanuel Swedenborg is great. Michael Esposito is an audio scientist. Leif Elggren is a contemporary artist who works with sound, drawing and performance. Emanuel Swedenborg was a scientist, philosopher and spiritualist who talked to angels and dead people at the same "Summer House" throughout the 1700's.
Bryan Lewis Saunders is currently working on several projects, including a new release tentatively titled, Near Death Experience on the art/noise/spoken word label Erratum (France). For more information and current projects, visit bryanlewissaunders.org.
Interview: Bryan Lewis Saunders
April 26th, 2009 by Jon Mueller
About a year ago, I found Bryan Saunders’ work through MySpace and I wasn’t prepared for it. It was not what I expected and it struck me as I watched video after video on a Sunday morning, eventually being brought to tears. Saunders has a great talent for presenting issues that have been covered before, but making you feel like you’re confronting them for the first time. It’s highly personal. I immediately bought all his CDs and sent him a personal note.
Soon after, on a trip to NY, in a van full of people, I put in one of the discs and played it loudly. After a few minutes, someone requested (demanded) to please turn it off. They said, “I get it. I just don’t need to hear and think about this stuff.” It’s that sense of confrontation that really appeals to me about his work — self confrontation. What the work produces is a situation not between Saunders and the audience — the confrontation is between the audience and themselves.
The following are a couple questions I recently sent him via email, interspersed with video segments of some of his work:
J.M.: Your work is visceral, both in content and presentation. Talk about how it began; was it initially focused on writing, and then performance?
B.L.S.: Actually it began with the restrictions I placed on myself as a visual artist. My ideas concerning the visual arts were both liberating and yet extremely limiting. While working within the tension between total freedom and self-imposed confinement for over a decade, I managed to become a more ‘feeling’ human being. Feelings like guilt, sorrow, empathy, essential feelings that were in many ways foreign to me in the beginning and had to be nurtured, all seemed to converge and explode in a desperate new behavior for me. Performance.
I do not consider myself a writer or a poet at all, though many seem to disagree. I have always been a storyteller socially however, it is only now that I am able to inject them with powerful feelings and tell them with tears in my eyes instead of grimacing or laughing. There are other factors too of course that helped lead me in this direction; the few special people I’ve had relationships with, and of course other artists whose works have had a profound impact on my life.
J.M.: The performance element carries many facets: activism, beat poetry, confrontation, sound art, and more. What is your aim?
B.L.S.: My aim up to this point has been to simply elicit these strong feelings in others. To make men cry in public. To make it socially acceptable to show ones pain and suffering. I do this by using any method, model, medium or combination thereof, so others can feel what I feel about any given subject. I am all about experimenting with the means, and for the most part the means is ’subject specific’. All too often true suffering remains hidden in the home, trapped inside the trapped individual, where tragedy is only communed with others through the television. There is an exorbitant amount of high quality tragedy and suffering on TV, rivaling in many ways that of the ancient Greeks, but the intentions are not the same and the amphitheater has been replaced by the recliner. I would hate to think that Sophocles wrote ‘Oedipus Rex’ so they could sell more chariots and soap, but you never know. I prefer the more romanticized belief that the tragedies were for ritual social cleansing and the hope that it worked. Anyway, today many are turning away from the TV, so I often have to bring one with me. Next to the stories and without exception the TV is my most powerful tool.
J.M.: How much of the content is based on experience, and how much is based on interpretation. In either case, it’s incredibly convincing. How do you hope people react to it?
B.L.S.: Almost all of the content is based on first hand personal experiences and how I feel about them and have interpreted them. I will of course combine stories and exaggerate them and make them rhyme for the desired emotional impact. It is more convincing and effective to take a simile or metaphor, and turn that into part of the story and make it sound true, than it is to just use colorful language, big words and adjectives. So for the few pieces in which the content is based solely on interpretation, they were constructed in that way for that very purpose. For example, I have on two occasions thought of an idea about what it was to be a ‘feeling’ human, and then I completely fabricated stories from a single metaphor, and then told them as if they were true, so people could feel just as deeply as I did about what it meant to be a ‘feeling’ human being.
J.M.: Some people might not like what you have to say, and how you say it. What do you think about that?
B.L.S.: The occasional person who walks out or walks away during the show aren’t the ones I am most concerned about reaching, those people are OK in my book. It’s the few people that have the adverse reaction that concern me and scare me the most, and those are the people that I try hardest to reach out to. The vast majority might not enjoy it but they aren’t supposed to and they know this, so they are the ones that are the most supportive and many people are hurting or personally know others that are hurting and are appreciative that I have given them a voice. They understand the method, message and goal because I make it quite obvious throughout the performance. The occasional sicko / whack job on the other hand, that then challenges to “outmasturbate me” afterward, or says, “You just inspired me to cut off a monkey’s head! Wow, you just made me want to cut off a monkey’s head that was awesome!” those are the people that I try really hard to reach. It is probably too late for them but I try anyway, because I can identify with them and I myself fear that I could have become one of them had it not been for the arts.
J.M.: Tragedy is a common theme in your work, yet the presentation implies an inspiration for positive change. How much do you think people can change, and how does your message address this?
B.L.S.: I don’t think, I know people can change but they have to seriously want to. They need the right emotions and they need the will. I myself went from being a self-involved violent criminal with little or no affect, to being a sincere and thoughtful, feeling human being. But it took a lot of work and time, not to mention will, luck, fortunate friendships, art education and believe it or not even racism in sentencing, to name a few. That is why my messages can seem so varied. I’ve gotten pretty good at channeling the essential feelings, to instill the will, that is the true challenge. Brainwashing only lasts as long as the subjects are under your control. It is probably a near impossible task, but it’s important that we continue to try anyway and plant the seeds of the essential feelings. So the people who are suffering now know that others care, and so the ones that don’t care know how badly some people are suffering and perhaps can even feel it a little themselves. It is a double edged approach. We should not allow people who are suffering in pain to do so alone, eventually they won’t feel anything anymore, and that is when we run into real problems. This is why my stories revolve so much around the subjects of sex, drugs, physical and psychological pain and institutions. These subjects seem to be the most direct way to reach those that are afflicted already as well as the most interesting subjects to those that are already numb.
Saunders has a new project with percussionist Z’EV - visit the label for more info. More information on Saunders’ activity can be found at his website.
East tennessean 02/19/09
"Bryan Lewis Saunders Offers Original Material To The Area"
by Johnathan Thacker
Bryan Lewis Saunders graduated from ETSU in 1998. Since then, he has performed throughout the United States and Europe, including the Museum of Contemporary Art in Bordeaux, France. Despite the extent of his travels, he still makes his home in Johnson City.
"I like it here because there's not much to do, so you have all the time in the world to do what you're wanting to do," said Saunders. "There are no excuses."
After extensive preparations, Saunders went to China in 2004. "I decided that if I taught myself Mandarin Chinese, I could go to China and be a kick-ass stand up comedian," said Saunders. "So I taught myself six hours a day, for nine months. When I got there, they explained to me that there was no stand-up comedy in China."
Upon his return, Saunders began performing in a completely different direction, which he called "Stand-Up Tragedy."
"The goal of Stand-Up Tragedy was to make suffering in public socially acceptable," said Saunders. "All these dark shameful things happen in our society, and nobody wants to talk about them. Suffering is not publicly acceptable in the United States. People are suffering all over, but think they are alone."
Saunders incorporates accompanying video packages and songs, along with his grim tales, for a presentation that results in a visceral response from audiences.
"I judge a show by people crying," said Saunders. "I've had guys, as well as girls, cry and walk out. I even got punched once. I know I did a good show when people avoid me, and won't look me in the eye afterward."
One tale recounts an incident he observed at a Dunkin' Donuts. An obese woman was offering her last $38 to anyone who would break her jaw so that it would be wired shut.
"The first guy hit her, and it wouldn't break," said Saunders. "He hit her a few more times, then pinned her against the wall with a cinder block, but it still wouldn't break. People were coming from down the block to get in on it. The first guy was getting frustrated and went to his car to get a baseball bat. I left then."
Another performance is based on the case of Lester Eugene Siler, who was beaten and tortured by five police officers in his Jacksboro, Tenn., home in 2004. "I did a tragedy in four acts using the FBI transcript as a script. I took a pillow case and ironed Eugene's face on one side, and had the other side look like a Ku Klux Klan mask, switching back and forth playing both victim and abuser."
Saunders is constantly gaining further admiration from his peers, even if the public has been slower to come around.
Sage Francis sampled Saunders' "PCP Poetry" for his song "Going Back to Rehab" and the artists who have worked with Saunders hold him in high regard.
"Bryan Lewis Saunders is truly an inspiration for me and others in the local experimental scene," says experimental artist Mannequin Hollowcaust. "If you ever begin to think our area doesn't have anything groundbreaking or original going for it, check out Bryan Lewis Saunders to be proven absolutely wrong."
Aside from performing and recording spoken words, Saunders is also involved in other artistic endeavors.
"They say you can't do it for the money but you have to be able to survive," said Saunders. "I can make enough doing a few shows in Europe to live for a year here, but if you're only performing in the United States, you have to be selling merchandise to make anything."
Other projects have had a wide range of results, from Saunders sewing his mouth closed, to amassing thousands of self-portraits.
"I've drawn self-portraits everyday, since March 30, 1995." Saunders has implemented a wide range of drawing methods over the years. "I've done months where I did them without looking. I've done them using nothing but a pencil and my rectum. I could continue even if I lost a hand, or had both eyes ripped out and flushed down the toilet. The only way I won't be able to keep doing them is if I'm in a coma."
He keeps the self-portraits in hardbound sketchbooks, and says he has room to store an additional 10 years worth.
"Taking a lot of outside things and incorporating them into yourself is much more true to the nervous system, than portraying the outside world. You're a constantly changing human being if you chose to be. Encountering various stimuli and choosing how to let it affect you is what we do every day. If you have a migraine you might not feel like going out and painting trees, but you can incorporate it into a self-portrait."
Saunders is diligently dedicated to the process as a whole. "One time I got really super drunk," said Saunders. "I'd just broken up with my girlfriend and went out walking around during a blizzard. I woke up at a friend's the next day, and felt terrible because I missed a day. When I got home and opened the door and saw on the floor where I'd walked back in a blackout, done a self-portrait and left again."
The environment in which the drawings are constructed plays a large role. For that reason, he has attempted briefly living in various differing locations to see how they affect the process.
"I wanted to live outside for a year and figured the woods behind the police station would be the safest place, but they didn't like it," said Saunders. "They said no one should have to live outside. I told them I wanted to, but they still didn't like it. So I'm living in the John Sevier Center now, but I'll still move outside for awhile at some point."
Saunders has devised a formula for constructing three-dimensional graphs of human feelings. The Y-axis deals with energy, the X-axis would be the social evaluation, and the Z-axis interprets the stress level involved.
"I have more than 7000 self-portraits. If I can chart the emotional placement of each, and put them all on a giant graph, it would be as close as possible to a complete portrayal of myself as a whole human."
Saunders has a CD being released soon in France, and an album due in the U.S. by the end of the year. The domestic release will be dealing with his time in jail, prior to enrolling in ETSU.
"It was going to be called 'Prison for Dummies,' but the 'for dummies' people said they were going to sue."
Saunders also has upcoming performances in Ohio and Michigan.
VISION: ISSUE 4
"The Tragic Liberation of Bryan Lewis Saunders"
by Geoff Pratt and Ty Gorman
On October 25th of 2006, I shit the Venus of Willendorf," Bryan Saunders tells us as we get settled for our interview.
Then he shows a well rendered drawing of his turd, which, sure enough, resembles the 24,000 year old sculpture that ETSU students are forced to memorize in Survey 1. Shitting this masterpiece, Saunders goes on to say, solidifies his place in Art History. He probably is joking about this, but it is impossible to tell.
Saunders came to ETSU in 1993, diverting from an English major to a BFA so that he could freely express his view of the world rather than write structured remedial level essays on topics such as the construction of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The English department had placed him in remedial classes, a shaming slap in the face that he roundly rejected.
His background differs from 99 percent of the art students that you will ever meet. At first he did not believe that he knew how to draw, and found it difficult to put pencil to paper next to students who had already practiced for years. "I was either going to get mad or cry," Saunders said, "so I got pissed off." His anger allowed him to use art to express himself and what he felt, and later he did not need anger in order to see the world in a different way every day.
Saunders was born in Washington DC in 1969. "I got in with the wrong crowd," he said of his turbulent years in Northern Virginia that landed him in the Hospital and Prison before he "escaped" the area at the age of 24. His escape led to his Uncle's rustic shack in a Blountville, Tennessee ex-commune, from which he made his way to a Kingsport homeless shelter before being accepted by ETSU. Saunders' legacy since that time includes such notorious exploits as moving to China to become a stand-up comedian, sewing his mouth shut for a photo session, painting with his feces and living in a garbage can for a conceptual project.
Saunders does not brag about these reactionary projects of his earlier years. They are stereotypical, he seems to think. He said, "You would read about the Vienna Actionist movement, people would cut themselves and spread blood on the audience or have sex with dead animals. People sew their mouths shut in tattoo magazines. But because [this is] Tennessee, people will think that it is controversial... In the grand scope of things, like Art Forum, it's nothing." The fascinating part about Saunders is his obsessive nature, and that he follows through with the kind of ideas rational people only dream about being crazy enough to undertake. Saunders does not seem to over-analyze the originality or social ramifications of his projects, but makes them personal, committing to them without losing their authenticity to irony or fashion.
When in Europe during his senior year, Saunders collected the signs of the homeless, "It would say on the sign: 'please, a little change to to feed the dog,' in French or 'Hungry, need food' in German. I would give them something they wanted in exchange for the sign. My idea was to draw on top of that. Instead of a cheap piece of Strathmore you could find at any store, I'ld be drawing on top of a good deed," he said.
Another exaple of Saunders' commitment to simple and open expression is his self portraits. Since 1995 he has drawn a self portrait everyday. He has never missed a day, and he is currently working on his 72nd black hardbound sketchbook. Saunders has now drawn over 6,500 self-portraits, covering the spectrum in both technical and conceptual style. He says that his favorite portraits occur while experiencing something: drugs, daydreams, sadness, all bleeding into the many versions of himself. In recent years Saunders has expressed himself through spoken word poetry. After being a stand-up comedian failed in China, I opted for stand-up tragedy, because the world sucks and it's tragic," he said. Contrasted to the sing-songy flowery flower child poetry or the new Beat style at an Asheville cafe, Saunders' method of using a megaphone and yelling at specific people in the audience gets mixed reviews. His goal is to make his audience aware that they are experiencing something -not an actual traumatic event, but a hyperreal picture of it. He admits he wants people to cry; sadness he says, is the most difficult emotion to display publicly.
Over the past few years his connections have grown significantly. His work has been sampled and appreciated by such artists as Lydia Lunch, Sage Francis, Z'EV, Todd Burris, and John Duncantoo name a few. Saunders has developed a network by directly contacting individuals online about his own work or getting to know them by sharing and selling the work of other artists, including his own work in the package. Saunders loves Johnson City as a base of operations. It provides a low cost of living that he needs. His art lives on the web: Myspace has made up 50 percent of my career. When I was in Cologne the kids were like, 'Myspace sucks,', but if it wasn't for myspace, I wouldn't have even been there," Saunders said.
November is a busy month for Saunders. He will be performing at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York City on November 20th, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Paris on the 22nd, Marseille on the 23rd, The Burn-Out Post-Crash Festival in Bordeaux on the 24th, and Emmetrop in Bourges on the 28th. With his commitment to creation, performance and reinvention, it is a safe bet that Johnson City will keep hearing from Bryan Saunders. If you would like to hear more, there are videos, poems and other Saunders media at www.myspace.com/therealbryanlewissaunders
THE BOWL: NUERO DOS ESPECIAL 4/20
So, Bryan, explain to us what it is that you do, as far as your art goes?
"Since March of '95, I've been drawing myself at least once a day, everyday for the rest of my life. I have over 6,300 self-portraits now...
For hundreds of years, visual artists have been putting the uniqueness of themselves into representations of the world around them. I decided to be different, and put the uniqueness of the outside world into representations of myself, it seemed more honest, more true to my Central Nervous System. The video artist David Larcher has titled it, "The Endlessly Reconstructing Auto-Autopsy". I wanted to make an encyclopedia of the self - I'm not a narcissist though - THEY'RE NOT FLATTERING ! I seldom share them with people though, because it's not about each singular image - it's about all of them together, a body, an action, a process, and it's impossible to present them all at once. It's also very therapeutic. Like an exorcism of sorts, day after day expelling demons, stress, anxiety, fears etc. You know - The garbage we go through everyday in life and dumping it out like trash in one big continuous creative act.
For years it kept me intraverted, so I got into storytelling as a way to come out of my shell and share, you know - to balance it out.".
That's definately understandable, so what made you decide to do this? Was there any one situation or just something that you decided to do?
"Well, I went to the Acoustic Coffee House to hear people reading poetry, and everyone there made a big deal about the fact that it was a "Free Speech Zone" and you could say whatever you wanted in there. So I gave it a try. I started off by reading a letter by Francis E. Dec Esq., "The Frankenstein Earphone Radio Slave Communist Gangster Computer God..." and it went over really well, it gave me the confidence I needed to really take writing seriously. But all of the creepy drunks and coke heads there hated me. "It's just shock value", "All you do is say fuck!" etc... So it didn't last long."
As far as the stortelling goes, I don't know if it would be possible to give an example or not, but could you try?
"Sure. When I performed the piece "38 dollars" there -
(A true story: about an overweight girl I once saw, offer to pay 38 dollars to anyone who would break her jaw - so she could get it wired shut and not eat anymore...)
It left a lot of people wondering why on earth would someone do that? So the following week I read an explanatory piece about overweight girls and girls with low or no self esteem, sucking dicks to be accepted, and how serious a problem it is. There were some overweight girls in the audience and they understandably got upset. NOT AT ME, but at the skinny Asian college girls that were laughing and carrying on up front. And unfortunately some beer distributors had come in from out of town that night, because they had heard that it was a "COOL PLACE" to hang out and they wanted to sample the beers there... They heard one or two verses from "Small Town Dark Secret" and said, "fuck this" and left. The smarmy sleazoid owner Jim Benalisha, cancelled "Poetry Night" because it cost him a big chunk of money. And my career was born. I KNEW THEN THAT I WAS DOING SOMETHING RIGHT."
"But believe it or not, the "Free Speech Zone" sign, still hangs on the wall, a marketing tool, conversation piece, an empty gimic useless and vain."
Do you draw other things besides the self portraits?
"Nope, I only draw myself, but I mean if I'm in a car accident that day, I'll draw the car too, like slam crunching smashed up inside my left over face."
So where can people catch your storytelling?
"I'm usually at Malaprops in Asheville, the 4th Thursday of every month, The Hideaway in Johnson City whenever they have open mics, if friends of mine have bands playing I'll play with them wherever they play, I like surprising people. I have 3 cd's out now with screwed up music backing me, so that would be a good place to start. They're available at my site (shipping included). May 18th,at The Hideaway, I'll be opening up for Z'ev , Sikhara and the Growth. Come see it, it'll be great, I'll have videos and music as well... Also on May 8th, I'll be appearing on Sage Francis' new record for Epitaph, titled "Human The Death Dance", and I have a Tape coming out on Teenage Whore Tapes, with Todd Burris of Kaontrol Kontraos."
Any last words?
"Be leery of signs. Once I drove to Alabama, and the first fruit stand I came to across the State Line had a sign that said, "COLOREDS WELCOME". It struck a nerve. I didn't know if they meant it or not. With language like that - surely they didn't. It confused me. The same with the "Free Speech Zone" sign. I've performed at many places here in Johnson City using the exact same material and have never had a problem with censorship. After all it's America ? The only place that advertises FREE SPEECH here, is the only place that DOESN'T allow it. So be wary of signs, chances are - THEY ARE INSTRUCTING THE EXACT OPPOSITE !!!"
GHETTOBLASTER (UNEDITED VERSION): Issue 19 / Page 20
On your MySpace page, you say you have mental problems. How do you deal with these on a day-to-day basis?
I've been labeled with: Antisocial Personality Disorder (as a child), Borderline (in my teens), Schizotypal (as a young adult), Paranoid Schizophrenic (at present)... but I believe all that says much more about the system of classification than it does about me as an individual. Their response to that, of course, is that I’m in denial. So I self-medicate with art, obsessively and constantly, and when things in my environment get too overwhelming, I check into a hospital and get medicated, get out, wean myself off the drugs and start over. Not a cycle I recommend, but I know myself well and have the art…
I've been living with it forever. Sometimes when I get "woggy" and can't understand what people are saying, I'll go to another country and fight the (imaginary) mental language problem with a (real genuine) language problem and make art... It depends on how severe the crisis is. I'm the most rational psychotic I know, if I even am psychotic? I'm fortunate in that respect; most aren't so lucky.
When did you start doing spoken word/ stand-up tragedy?
Several years ago I wrote a piece called "White Trash Psychobabble" and read it live. That would be where it all began. I had such terrible stage fright back then that I had to play a tape recording of it simultaneously on the boom box so whenever I froze up the tape would carry on without me and I could regain my composure. It was basically just "Cut-Up" negative self-talk mixed with vivid descriptions of all the trash I saw, on the street and gutter between my apartment and the grocery store. But I didn't get into it seriously then, and it was several more years before I started writing and performing regularly - AND THAT'S WHEN I NAMED IT "STAND-UP TRAGEDY.”
Are you active in other media besides the verbal?
Sometimes I'll go all-out and paint my face and use doll babies and exacto knives and make a real spectacle out of it, like a ritual sacrifice... But the writing has gotten a lot more important to me over these last two years, and I don't want to take anything away from the stories.
Although right now I am making videos to go with my dialogue because
my stage presence is for the most part the same: kneeling on stage rocking back and forth, purging myself of all of these Post-Tragic Shocking Traumatic experiences. The new videos definitely amplify all that, and Todd Burris AKA Kaontrol Kontraos, is amping it up even more with the Underground Noise.
I draw myself at least once a day. It's been over 12 years since I started, never missing a day, and I have over 6,300 self-portraits. No two are the same. The video artist David Larcher has titled the work, "The Endlessly Reconstructing Auto-Autopsy" and I think the title is fitting.
Would you say that your material is mostly true stories with some details made up, or made-up stories with true details?
For the most part I tell true stories, with minor made up details. I change words for rhyme and rhythm. Some pieces are based solely on dreams and "what if scenarios," like "Death of a Loser" and "I Quit.” Sometimes I'll change things for emotive impact, to convey the emotions I truthfully felt at the time.
Have you had writing classes/ teachers or are you an autodidact?
I went through the developmental English classes at East Tennessee State because the staff thought I was literary-ally defective. But that decision was based more on my subject matter than anything else. The creative writing department was so structured that I changed my major to Drawing because it offered more freedom of expression
For the most part I'm self-taught but I wouldn't say naive. I know what's been done. The common qualities my influences have are that they are all people that express themselves verbally - powerfully - honestly - and uniquely. That's something I wholeheartedly strive for.
What do you do: for work? for fun? for spiritual fulfillment and shit?
For work, I clean a machine shop. For spiritual fulfillment, I do what I do on stage. Letting people know what's wrong with me, themselves and the rest of the world.
What was the journey to China like? And what do you think of the paranoid supposition that the Chinese will soon replace the US as a hegemonic superpower with economic control over most of the globe?
The journey was comfortable and cheap ($600 round trip). I stayed for several months until my visa expired. I went there with the delusion that I would become a famous Stand-Up Comedian and in one year have my own TV show. On the 3rd day, I found out there is no such thing as Stand-Up Comedy in China. They put on sitcom plays. Skit humor. So I wrote a pilot called, "The Drunken Tourist" (written with only the language from the Berlitz guide), but apparently what's funny here is not allowed to be funny there. I could tell jokes on the street about diarrhea and drunkenness and have big crowds die laughing, but it was inappropriate for the stage. It was nice being the only white person in a city of millions.
As for the soon to be economic super powerhouse? I say, "BRING IT ON! GUO LAI!" China is by far the best, safest place I've ever lived. The people there make other humans seem rude, lazy and uncivilized. Nothing like I imagined it to be. I HAVE NOTHING BUT RESPECT, DEEP ADMIRATION AND LOVE FOR THE MAJESTIC BEAUTIFUL CHINESE PEOPLE. When you see people doing Tai Chi on the streets they are armed - even the elderly - with really heavy swords. The great-grandmothers over there are practicing chopping people up for exercise, it's no joke. Watch for 10 minutes, and you can tell exactly which move CUTS THE HEAD OFF. GOD HELP THE ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE'S REPUBLIC OF CHINA.
Byran Saunders lives in Johnson City, Tennessee. He can be found on MySpace at http://www.myspace.com/therealbryanlewissaunders. A sample from his, “PCP Poetry” can be heard on the new Sage Francis track, “Going Back to Rehab.”