I met Bryan Lewis Saunders in 2016 at the annual music festival for the online bizarro magazine And Some Of His Sons Were Horses. I was vaguely familiar with Saunders’ Under the Influence series, featured on Vice and CNN, but the majority of his work was still foreign to me. I didn't know that he’d been drawing daily self-portraits for 24 years. I didn't know about his performance piece While Being Tortured, where Saunders was strapped into the Apollo Chair to be electrocuted by five million volts of electricity as a way to spread awareness of this modern method of torture.
Saunders’ experiments and performance pieces challenge the thresholds of human pain and suffering. He continuously confronts fears and anxieties that many wouldn't admit to. Saunders is the greatest modern example of a true artist, one who captures his emotions raw in the moment, who doesn't hide or shy away from demons or humiliation. He tackles them headfirst.
The content of his spoken word tragedy is cloudy now, nearly three years later, but I remember the feeling of my heart rate multiplying by the second, as if any moment the vital organ would leap out of my chest into self-imposed suicide. I remember chills crawling up and down my spine like tiny caterpillars. Whether he’s blind, deaf, or high on bath salts, the world can't deny Saunders as a significant artist of the 21st century.
Splice Today: For those unfamiliar with your art, how long have you been creating daily self-portraits?
Bryan Lewis Saunders: I started on March 30th, 1995. Going on 24 years now. Two weeks ago I started daily self-portrait book #130 and I’m over 11,500 now. It’s pretty wild! Unlike photographs, I don’t get nostalgic from looking back at past self-portraits. I don’t really know why but I think it might be that the drawings stay alive in some sense or maybe they engage with my brain as if they were created still in the present tense. Or maybe it’s the lack of external information that causes it. It’s like this even with the most popular ones though. If I look at an old photograph from 24 years ago I perceive the passing of a big expanse of time and changes in my physical appearance and environments. When I look at a daily self-portrait from 24 years ago, those same changes can be present in the image but it’s the emotional memories, the feelings that I’d experienced, that stand out. It’s the feelings and sensations that are the main focus and there is always the possibility that I could feel very similar today or tomorrow. Maybe that’s why there is no longing or loss. With the act of drawing there seems to be a very real ability to transcend and manipulate our sense of time.
ST: How did this ongoing daily portrait series begin? Is there a philosophy behind it or was it just something you started doing and it stuck?
BLS: A lot of different ideas merged together to form this one. At one point I wanted to make a picture book without words, like a novel, and add a picture to it each day. I also had ideas of drawing the same teddy bear every day for the rest of my life. I also had an idea to draw a piece of imaginary driftwood every day to advance my drawing skills. I had a lot of ideas, maybe seven or more, that all evolved into this one big one. The philosophy has evolved over time too. First, there was the idea of “practice makes perfect” (with variation and repetition) in order to become one of the best drawers in the world.
I quickly saw that no two feelings, no two moments, no two images were ever exactly the same because the influences would change from moment to moment. Recognizing that, I tried to use them as a way to put the world into myself instead of putting myself, my emotional self, into pictures of other things in the world. Then that changed into wanting to create an encyclopedia of the self. I wanted to create a body of work that contained every feeling, every pain, and the most important events of my entire life. But I didn’t want to illustrate them like a journal or diary. I was much more focused on the accumulation and collection of my emotions and the marks being physical documents of all that. In the beginning, the only feelings I had were boredom, anger, anxiety and depression. Then once I saw drawing as a tool for channeling feelings, I began to think of the self-portraits as a way to possibly grow them.
That coincided with the idea of manipulating my environment to push my feelings and experiences to extremes. Then that led to thinking of them as the perfect art form to exist in a symbiotic relationship with my life. Life and art totally fused together for the better feeding off of each other and allowing me to grow forward. Then within the last few years the daily self-portraits have come to be seen as a large number of different kinds of tools each serving their own unique special purpose for knowledge, improvement, health, and advancement. I still think of them like that today, but I'm now beginning to focus on using them more to discover ways in which I can manipulate the basic elements of experience in order to gain direct influence and mastery over my future experiences, perceptions and decisions.
ST: Your self-portraits vary from grotesque to paranoid to colorful to joyful to hilarious to melancholy. Would you describe your method of creation a form of therapy? In the sense that it's something you do every day and that your drawings reflect your mood? Does your artwork help you understand or define your emotions?
BLS: Totally! The act of drawing yourself every day creates the opportunity to use art as a great number of different tools with therapy just one of them. I’m not so concerned with mood. I’m more interested in what I call “affective experience” and the dimensions or components that go into creating an affective experience, i.e. my levels of arousal, valence, stress, focus and concentration, time, memory, and environments and so on. I could go through my books and discover periods of what some would label as “joy,” “depression” or “anger,” but I believe that art is for our advancement, health and the improvement of ourselves and society so I refuse to only focus my attention on what I’m feeling in the present but instead I’ll often use it to change my self-appraisals and perceptions in mid-experience, for the better.
It’s a therapy in the sense that I can steer my way through my affect by manipulating some of the basic dimensions of experience. Emotions are learned social labels of appraisal. And moods are those labels that last longer. The more I look into mood and emotion the less faith I have in our ability to perceive them accurately and reliably. That said, I think the psychological and physiological elements of what make up these judgments, that lead one to use those labels, are much more valid and interesting for study. One’s arousal and valence and attention and so on are more reliably identifiable and malleable in my opinion. At present I’m experimenting with using slide show videos of past affective moments to manipulate my affect in the present. One I call “Peaceful+” is a video composed of every single one of my most peaceful and calm daily self-portraits.
ST: What was your most difficult performance piece? Have there been any long-term effects, psychologically or physically?
BLS: Trying to be deaf for a month was the most brutal. Instead of becoming deaf I began to hear more and much louder. Almost instantly I began hearing the world through my bones and Eustachian tubes and on both sides of my eardrums. I only lasted 28 of the 30 days but the final torturous change in my hearing lasted over 100 days (long after the experiment ended). It was rough!
ST: The latest work that I'm familiar with is your blind experiment, where you were blindfolded for a month. What were the greatest challenges of this experiment? Did you gain any lasting insight or wisdom?
BLS: It wasn’t nearly as challenging as I’d imagined partly because I had such wonderful friends coming to visit me and taking me places. As far as insights go, the most profound thing I experienced was the awareness that I’m physically connected to my environment. There was no separating the two. There was not an inner me that moved around in an outer world. That outer world was shaping and shifting the most inner workings of me constantly as part of the self itself. My ears, my touch, my body temperature, my noise, my breathing even, every part of me was physically attached directly to what was around me to such an extent that there seemed to be no such thing as “the external.”
All of my concerns were reduced to a few feet away from me but when that area of concern expanded it was often alarming. It puts a great demand on your body to stay physically attached to things in the distance. Almost all distant things are moving and sound like bass and everything you hear is vibrating which meant I was vibrating too. I also encountered some of the power that expectation plays in our lives. Trying to move around and do things it became noticeable right away that my body was in a constant state of prediction like a feedback loop of expectation, and all of my behavior was relying upon whether the experience matched the prediction or not. Really weird things happened. Sometimes I would encounter things in line with my goal, say a piece of furniture between me and the door, but if there was an error of that prediction and I encountered something else instead, say the furniture was at a different angle but was still in line with heading towards the door I would continue to remake the same error over and over again bumping into the furniture like a robot vacuum cleaner bumping into the same wall.
ST: I notice many of your experiments have to do with overcoming fear, whether it’s pain, anxiety or the loss of senses. Do you feel as if your experiments, particularly the blind experiment or the performance where you are electrocuted, enrich your relationship with life? Does manipulating your senses to the extreme give you an enlightening perspective or help you appreciate being alive?
BLS: Sometimes it’s about fear, like when I use drawing to do exposure therapy. If I become aware of some irrational fear, say fear of a building collapsing on me, once I recognize that fear exists in me I’ll address it. I’ll go into the building in the place where I think it will collapse and then draw that and rid myself of that fear. But not all of the sensory experiments have to do with fear. The blind one was about me trying to see if I would come up with new ways of perceiving the world without seeing. It’s the same with hearing, the vow of silence, or with the pleasure sensations or sexual arousal, and the different color months. “While Being Tortured” might be the only one that was entirely fear-based. What the sensory drawing experiments seem to do is enhance my other senses.
Increasing sensitivity is vital and extreme experiences and extreme limitations of senses increases the sensitivity of awareness tremendously. Entire thresholds will change. Extending these limits or continuums of a sensory system or a dimension of experience will shape how we sense things in the future. By lengthening, strengthening or expanding the scales of perception we can create a better more sensitive measure. Kind of like the way shock and trauma can keep one’s nervous system on a heightened state of alert, we can also manipulate certain elements of experience to attain that same level of hypersensitivity but in ways that are not negative. It doesn’t have to be harmful or self-destructive to experience the most extreme examples. It can also be self-empowering.
ST: Are there any performance artists that have inspired you?
BLS: John Duncan. Tehching Hsieh. Chris Burden. Linda Montano. Carolee Schneemann. Wolfgang Streichle. Bas Jan Ader. Kim Jones. Gunter Brus. Those are the greatest ones that I always think of first.
ST: You have a very stream of consciousness flow to your poetry, as on your album Near Death Experience. How did the music come together on that album? Are the featured musicians friends or were the collaborations random? Was the music made first and the spoken word pieces a projection of the music or vice versa?
BLS: All of the musicians are people I know. The words came first and then the music was created to exponentially increase the intensity of the words during live performances.
ST: You live in Johnson City, Tennessee, but you were born in DC. Does your environment affect the art you produce? And is Tennessee a nurturing environment for an artist or did you just sort of randomly settle there?
BLS: The environment is part of oneself and always influences the appraisal both consciously and unconsciously, but it's more of an immediate physical influence than say a psychological or cultural one. I came to TN to put my criminal past behind me. I first lived in a chicken coop on an old hippie commune in Blountville. I went from there to a homeless shelter, then to a biker house. Then I went to college and learned how to draw. I left and came back because it was inexpensive to survive here with rent as low as $75 a month for an office. That’s changed, causing me great concern.
ST: Your artwork reminds me of Francis Bacon, not in the style exactly, but the energy. Is Bacon an influence? Who were your earliest influences? And are there any underground visual artists or musicians alive now that you believe are making original, yet under-appreciated art?
BLS: Francis Bacon inspired me while I was in school because of his thoughts concerning painting and its effect on the nervous system. It was that type of ideation that led me to the study of effects, influences and experiences. The earliest influences on me were Matisse, Monet, Van Gogh, Antonin Artaud, Bacon, Jackson Pollock, Bruce Nauman, Jonathan Borofsky, Henry Darger.
As far as artists today, John Duncan has really made indelible contributions to art and the human spirit. And it’s profoundly bothersome that he isn't the recipient of society’s greatest attention, respect, and resources. Most of the work that he does, no matter the medium, has something profound to offer. I often ask, how is it that he doesn’t get these “genius grants” and MOMA shows. He’s a pioneer.
ST: Do you have any experiments or projects planned for the future?
BLS: The next one will most likely be Baker Miller Pink month. I’ve already ordered special glasses and light gels so I can experience what it’s like to see everything in the world Baker Miller Pink for a month. I’m also starting a journal called Just Noticeable Difference. The first issue, “Sexual Arousal,” will be out in January. The Totally Blind Month will be Issue number 2 and unfortunately they’ll be very limited because of the expense. I'm trying to find a way that I can experiment and then produce something from it that will enable me to produce the next experiment.
—You can follow Saunders on Instagram or learn more about him in his movie, Art Of Darkness, available on most streaming websites.